What Does "Heathen" Mean?
What does it mean to be a heathen? The word "heathen" originally meant a dweller on the heath, an Anglo-Saxon term meaning, "open, unplowed country" or a "tract of wasteland" or "uncultivated land". A heathen, therefore, is someone who loves the open country. The word "dwell" originally meant a kind of dreamy trance, and so a heathen, as a dweller on the heath, is someone entranced by the countryside, a lover of wilderness. This suits the Teutonic folk well, for they loved to make their settlements like islands in the midst of a vast sea of forest, swamp, and wasteland.
Caesar says that Publice maximam putant esse laudem quam latissime a suis finibus vacare agros: hac re significari magnum numerum civitatum suam vim sustinere non posse. Itaque una ex parte a Suebis circiter milia passuum C agri vacare dicuntur (De Bello Gallico, Book IV.III), "For them, a tribe's greatest praise is to be surrounded by broad swathes of unoccupied countryside around their boundaries, as this shows that all the other tribes cannot withstand their might. Consequently, it is said that one region of Suebian territory is surrounded by a hundred miles of unoccupied land.”
Tacitus says Terra etsi aliquanto specie differt, in universum tamen aut silvis horrida aut paludibus foeda (Germania 5), "Their lands, with some minor differences, are nevertheless on the whole wild and rough woodlands and unkempt forests, as well as barbarous, muddy swamps." He goes on to say that Nullas Germanorum populis urbes habitari satis notum est, ne pati quidem inter se iunctas sedes. Colunt discreti ac diversi, ut fons, ut campus, ut nemus placuit. Vicos locant non in nostrum morem conexis et cohaerentibus aedificiis: suam quisque domum spatio circumdat, sive adversus casus ignis remedium sive inscitia aedificandi (
Caesar and Tacitus are describing the land tenure of the Teutonic village-communities or theods (tribes), where the hamlets are laid out in the center of the croplands and pastures, with each house surrounded by a yard, and the commons, or pasturelands, surrounded by vast tracts of woodland and heath, the greatest part of the land laying uncultivated and wild. Caesar says Neque multum frumento, sed maximam partem lacte atque pecore vivunt multum sunt in venationibus (De Bello Gallico, IV.I), "Nor do they live much on grain, but to a much larger extent on milk and herds of cattle, while many engage in hunting..." These are a mainly pastoral people who supplement the milk and meat of their herds with a little grain and a little hunting. In other words, rural country folk who prefer to be surrounded by wild-lands.
The wilderness calls out to the heathen. The scrublands, the areas considered "waste" by others because they are vacant and uncultivated, are the places the heart of the heathen yearn for. Tacitus says that lucos ac nemora consecrant deorumque nominibus appellant secretum illud, quod sola reverentia vident (
There is a kind of pantheist element here : divinity lives in the land, and the gods are found and beheld in the wild forests. We know that amongst our ancestors, every meadow and woodland had an aelf or fairy in it, a landvættr, or land-wight, and Tacitus specifically tells us that woods were set aside to worship the Gods themselves.
These are a wild folk, rough and ready, wild and wooly, Gerunt et ferarum pelles (Germania 17), “wearing the skins of wild beasts” and In omni domo nudi ac sordidi... excrescunt ... inter eadem pecora, in eadem humo degunt (Germania 20), “in every house growing up naked and dirty, living amongst the cattle and on the dirty floor”. They are lawless, living outside the codes and statutes of legislatures, yet good custom prevails amongst them. …Ibi boni mores valent quam alibi bonae leges (
They are farmers, herders, and hunters, living off the land and finding not only their strength, but their worship there. …In commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis arbitrantur (Germania 40), “They worship in common Nerthus, who is Mother Earth, and believe that she intervenes in the affairs of people, and rides through the districts.”
As heathens, we keep a healthy part of ourselves uncultivated, and find strength in the holiness that pulsates in the midst of the untouched wastes of the hinterlands. Mother Earth is sacred to us, and we would rather live by wells, meadows, and sacred groves where the presence of the Gods may be felt. We don’t like to be told what to do, because our customs constitute our own rough form of courtesy, which is good enough for us. We’re heathens ; we’re wild folk of the wild lands.
All translations copyright 2008 by Siegfried Goodfellow