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Heathen, The Linguistic Origins And Early Context
Heathen, The Linguistic Origins And Early Context
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Date:August 5, 2014
The modern English word heathen has long been the favorite label used in academic circles to identify the unchristian peoples of western and northern Europe during the Middle Ages.  Among medieval historians it is used more precisely to identify those “Germanic”[1] peoples who still practiced their indigenous religion.  It has also been the title most favored by modern people who are engaged in the reconstruction of pre-Christian Germanic traditions, not only to describe those religious practices they are reviving, but also as a self moniker.  Because the word heathen pertains to a particular demography,[2] this article focuses on the context and implications that it would have had while that demography coexisted with the scribes who recorded it.  I will identify the source of the word heathen and I will trace it throughout the time period which the “heathen” Europeans existed.  It is my hope that this endeavor will allow the reader to have a serious understanding of the origins, early history, and more importantly the context of the word heathen, and what this might have meant for the people implied by it.

The word first appears in the Gothic language as a translation of several New Testament books by the Bishop, Ulfilas (ca 310-383). These books are still preserved in multiple manuscripts, but most notably the Codex Argentius[3] where it is recorded on thin purple velum of high quality and written in gold and silver ink.  The following passage is taken from his translation of chapter 7 of the Book of Mark, and it contains the first recorded mention of the term as we know it:

Wasuþ þan so qino haiþnô, Saurini fwnikiska gabaurþai, jah baþ ina ei þo unhulþon uswaurpi us dauhtr izos.

The woman was ahaiþnô, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.[4]

In the context of the story, the woman in reference was a Greek who had been born in Syrian Phoenicia.  She was not one of the Jews to whom Christ had been ministering prior to her arrival.  She was an outsider to the group.  She was a foreigner, and a stranger.  The Book of Mark goes on to explain that Jesus met her when he had gone up the Mediterranean coast to the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon.  While he was there, this woman who is referred to as a haiþnô asked Christ to drive out a demon that had taken up residence in her daughter.  Christ hesitated to heal anyone other than his own people and responded rather harshly, “let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  The foreign woman responded, “yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.”  With this response, Christ claimed that her daughter was healed.

There have been two conflicting theories pertaining to the origins and etymology of the term.  The traditional, widely accepted explanation is that the term heathen is a derivative of the abstract noun heath.  The Indo European origin of the word heath is the root kait, used to signify an uncultivated forest.  The definition has changed little and appears in Gothic haiþi (feminine) and genitive haiþjôs as “field, open untilled land, pasture, open country”.  This corresponds precisely with Old English hǽð, Middle Low German hêde, Middle Dutch hêde, heide, Dutch heide, hei, Old High German, Middle High German, German heide, and Old Norse heiðr.  The prevalence of heath and its linguistic variationsthroughout all Germanic languages demonstrates that the word is not only very old, but that it reflects innate Germanic concepts. The word haiþnô stems from the formative suffix haiþi-, and translates as “being of the haiþi/of


[1] – For the sake of simplicity, this paper will use the term “Germanic” to refer to the people who have conventionally, been labeled “Germanic,” despite the issues that rise from pigeonholing vastly different groups of people under one moniker.
 [2] – At least, within the circles I have described.
 [3] – Codex Argenteus, 2004.
 [4] – Ibid.