12 April 2009


People love to futz about with the words we use to describe ourselves. Partly this is an offshoot of labeling theory and our tendency as groups to create what sociologists call an "In Language" to facilitate communication. It gives us something distinctive by which to identify both ourselves and others, and people can get extremely defensive about their particular use of labels.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that people tend to go to extremes in inclusion, they seem to either:

  • Think that everything under the sun can be classified under the label, e.g., "Sure summoning Cthulhu is Wiccan!"

  • Think that nothing outside of a very narrow range of already defined practices, e.g., "What do you mean you offered chocolate to Odin?!?! There's no lore to support that! You can't be Ásatrú!"

On the flip side, this also means that some people won't accept perfectly good labels because of some nebulous association they've made and believe it to be "too restrictive," when in truth it would serve just fine. My particular example of this is the rejection of the word "Heathen" by a lot of Northern Tradition Pagans: they claim that "Heathen" only applies to reconstructionists, when in truth there is no reason in either etymology or modern usage to think that it means anything other than "Germanic Pagan" in our context.

In other cases they apply whatever label they think is vaguely interesting, even if it doesn't really apply. Someone cannot be a "Christian Wiccan": They are separate religions entirely. They can be a "Christian Witch," but as religions the practices and beliefs are functionally incompatible. Yet it is remarkable how many people go around claiming to be such.

Language is a means of communication. We need to be capable of creating informative distinctions by our use of language, and recognize that words have scope. If a word is appropriate we should be willing to fight for our inclusion under it. If a word does not describe us, we should clearly distinguish ourselves from it.

For example: As indicated above, I see nothing about the word "Heathen" that should even vaguely imply "Reconstructionist" while excluding "Reconstructionist-derived" or "Reconstructionist-inspired" paths. So yes, I define myself as Heathen and will fight for its use in this context.

I also dislike most of the alternatives I've seen proposed. "Northern Tradition Pagan" doesn't precisely roll off of the tongue and the distinction between "Reconstructionist" and "Reconstructionist-derived" is--as far as most people are concerned--very subtle. If we need that level of distinction, it is probably better encompassed by using terms such "Mesopagan vs. Neopagan" instead of "Pagan vs. Heathen." This is especially true when one considers the degree of confusion that can be caused by unqualified use of the word "Pagan," as pointed out by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance:

We recognize that many Wiccans, Neopagans, and others regularly use the terms "Pagan" and "Paganism" to describe themselves. Everyone should be free to continue whatever definitions that they wish. However, the possibility of major confusion exists -- particularly if one is talking to a general audience. When addressing non-Wiccans or non-Neopagans, it is important that the term:

  • Be carefully defined in advance, or that
  • Its meaning is clearly understandable from the text's context.

Otherwise, the speaker or writer will be referring to one group of people, while the listeners or readers will assume that other groups are being referred to.

This gets down to the very core of the issue: using the best terms to describe ourselves under the circumstances and given the audience.

On the other hand, Ásatrú means "Æsir's faith." It also refers to a fairly well-defined reconstructionist religion. Since my faith and practice extend beyond the Æsir--in ways that are fairly major departures, rather than minor ones--and my path is not reconstructionist, I will make it immediately and abundantly clear that I am not Ásatrú. I have no problem with Ásatrú, it is a good path for many and I have a great deal of respect for it, but it is simply not my path.

So, depending on company, I believe all of the following terms aptly describe me:

  • Pagan (particularly Neopagan)
  • Heathen
  • Northern Tradition Pagan/Heathen (I don't like this one, and I have some deep philosophical differences with a lot of NTPs, but at the same time the term applies to everything from Ásatrú to Theodism to any other vaguely Northern European Neopagan branch).
  • Spirit Worker
  • Occultist

Terms that do not describe me:

  • Shaman (Core or Classical)
  • Wiccan
  • Wiccatru
  • Ásatrú
  • "Kalderan" (more on this one later)
  • Reconstructionist

There are also some terms I am ambivalent on, for example:

  • Witch
  • Shamanic Practitioner
  • Odinist

These terms may or may not be descriptive, but have either some qualifiers or associations that I am uncertain or or actively dislike, so I am of two-minds about them. Odinist is probably the most widely cited example of this: The historic associations on this one irk me and the frequent racist associations are disgusting, but it is accurately descriptive at the basic level as a follower primarily of Odin.

In all of this, I accept an individual's right to self-determination within certain limits. This is all how I choose to define the terms, to help clarify so that when people read this blog or talk to me they know what I mean when I say "I am a Heathen," and I am open to discussion on any of these points. What I encourage is for people to carefully consider what words and phrases they think describe them, and why they want to use them.

As with many things, the end-determination isn't as important as the process of considering it.

Further Reading


  1. Thank you, both for an excellent post and for someone else who sees the limitations in the NTP philosophy (and yes, the phrase is a bit awkward).

    I was very reluctant to call myself Heathen starting in mid-2007 when I got some harassment. I will be the first to admit that no, I can't call myself Asatru because I am not primarily focused on the Aesir and am not an Icelandic/Norse-styled Heathen besides. However, nobody has a copyright on the word Heathen and I don't think it applies to strict reconstructionism, as I've pointed out elsewhere I feel that strict reconstructionism is impossible by virtue of living in the 21st century.

    I probably hair-split over labels more than most people because I've got 3 planets in Virgo and Myers-Briggs has me typed as an INTJ. ;P At the same time, I also have gotten flak for "misrepresentation" and as someone on a bardic path I believe choosing one's words carefully is vitally important.

    But nobody owns the word Heathen and it dismays me that some mystical types working within a Heathen framework have eschewed the term due to its baggage.

    Anyway, as always, excellent post here.


  2. Thanks for your reply. ^_^

    Strangely, I have three planets in Virgo (Jupiter retrograde on a cusp w/ Leo, Mars, and Saturn retrograde) and am an INTJ as well. o_O My rising sign is also Virgo...

  3. This post was great. I do not consider myself Heathen (I am Norse/Saxon Wiccan) but it's cool that you're taking back the word.