A few weeks ago, in an aside, I used both terms pagan and heathen in the same sentence, prompting my father to ask me what the difference is. Truth be told, when I was writing, I simply used both words because I liked the rhythm, while being dimly aware that I was probably using two terms that essentially were synonyms.
So what is the difference between a pagan and a heathen? It turns out that the answer is not simple at all.
Historically, both terms were used by people who believed in the Bible God to describe people who didn’t subscribe to the Judeo-Christian belief – but with subtle differences. Both were derogatory terms. Pagan was used to identify an idol worshipper of Hellenistic origin (Zeus, Jupiter, Athene, etc.). The term Heathen, on the other hand, referred to the untamed wild northern people – living on the Heath – who worshipped Asgardian gods (Odin, Thor, etc.).
Later (around 1000 AD, after Christianity had become more entrenched in Europe and belief in Hellenistic and Asgardian gods became rare), these terms became less distinct. From inside Christianity, everyone who wasn’t a Christian was referred to as a heathen, including Muslims (who are a subset of the Abrahamic faith), and Atheists (rare as they were), but excluding Jews. So after the crusades, the words heathen and pagan became true synonyms.
Of course, it is important to note that both terms require a frame of reference: the word heathen or pagan loses meaning outside the Christian sphere. Islam, for example, does not make the distinction: for both words, the Arabic translation is الوثني, i.e. a primitive unbeliever (yet Islam itself makes the distinction between Unbelievers and People of the Book (أهل الكتاب): Jews, Sabians and Christians).
Today, of course, it’s even more complex. New Age Bimbos have rediscovered belief in supernatural BS, and have honestly started to refer to themselves as Pagan or Heathen. The fact that they refer to themselves as a non-christian rather than what they actually believe in tells us everything we need to know about the level of intelligence involved in these believers.
And then of course there is my favorite meaning: nowadays, when someone jokingly refers to herself as a heathen or pagan, she usually means to say that she has some residual belief, but not as much as her family would like her to have. This believer usually sees the inside of a church either as a tourist attraction, or on Christmas and Easter.
Which reminds me: Happy Easter, to all you heathens and idol worshipers! And to all the Christians who went on a hunt for quintessential pagan idol: the Easter Egg.