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Heathen: Linguistic Origins and Early Context

ÓðrœrirHeathen: Linguistic Origins and Early Context

By Josh Rood

Óðrœrir, Vol.2 (2012)

Introduction: The modern English word heathen has long been the favorite label used in academic circles to identify the nonchristian peoples of western and northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Among Medieval historians it is used more precisely to identify those “Germanic1 ” 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, 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 heathenism existed in Europe. 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 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. 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 a haiþnô, a Syrophenician by nation; and she besought him that he would cast forth the devil out of her daughter.

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