It would be nice if that were a simple question that had a simple answer. But as with many good things in life, it isn't and it doesn't. This short article talks about the origin of this word, and some of the things that cause people to take it on themselves.
Trace the various cultures of the world back to their roots, and many of them coalesce into what we now call the Indo-European culture. This culture originated somewhere in Central Asia, probably around what is now Kazakhstan. The time associated with this origin can only be guessed at, but it is very old indeed. The people who lived this culture were farmers, herders, and warriors, and they were apparently very good at all of these pursuits. They spread from their homeland and eventually dominated a large part of the world, from India to Persia to the farthest reaches of Europe. Some of them went even farther than that.
This old culture changed with time, as did the people who lived it. Their ways of living, their languages and their stories, all of these changed and diversified, but they can still be interconnected and interrelated by careful study. The richly complex Hindu culture of India, the pre-Islamic culture of Persia, the classic high culture of the Greco-Roman world, and the pre-Christian culture of Northern Europe all branch from this common root.
Each of these cultures, and many more that you might not have heard of, had stories of gods and heroes, stories that mattered to the people who told them and heard them. To some people in the modern world, they matter still. Heathens are people who find the Northern European branch of this old culture to be particularly compelling.
Although the word is frightening to some nowadays, "heathen" had a benign beginning. It originally meant only "people who live on the heath", which is a kind of wild and open place that is common in Northern Europe. All of the negative connotations associated with the word today were put there by people of other religions. Just as the names "Comanche" and "Navajo" are not the names originally used by those peoples for themselves, "heathen" is a name that has become commonplace and accepted, even by those it supposedly castigates by meaning "those bad people over there". These days, we just smile and enjoy it.
How do you know if you're heathen? Perhaps you read a book of myths once, in which you read about the gods and goddesses of Northern Europe, and something in the back of your mind said "Hey, wait a minute... I know them!" Or perhaps you have dreams you can't forget: dreams about a one-eyed wanderer, or a one-handed warrior, or a beautiful woman with a basket of apples, and then later learned that the ones you dreamed about have names and are dreamed about by others, too. Or maybe you're just a person who really appreciates life as a human being. You think it's a good thing, and you want have a way to remember that goodness on purpose. Any of these things, and many others, too, might mean you're a heathen at heart.
Do you need to be especially "spiritual" or "metaphysical" to be a modern heathen? No, you don't. Although some heathens do approach things that way, heathenry comes from the very practical culture of some very practical people. It's hard to define a "typical heathen", and there are wide differences in modes of belief. So what do we have in common?
One thing we have in common is our mythology, and there are several ways that heathens approach this ancient lore. Some heathens believe that the gods we read about in our myths have physical bodies and can stand before us in person. Some believe the gods are spirits. Others believe the gods are a part of normal existence but hard to point at directly, and the myths tell us, not what they are, but what they're like. And some heathens don't believe in gods at all, but if they did, these would be the ones. No one will tell you in what manner or form our gods should be known by you. If you know them in your own way, and you find that knowledge compelling, that's all that matters. And if it turns out that these old stories of our gods are just old stories to you, that's OK: we don't need everyone to be like us.
Something else we have in common is an outlook: that being a person is a good thing. We find no guilt or shame inherent in what we are, nor do we grovel in apology for something we never did. This is a religion for adults, and for those who plan on becoming adults. Our relationship with our gods is as members of our extended family: not equal, but different and complimentary. They are not our angry parents or our overbearing masters. We do not kneel before them. We stand and look them in the face. We let them share in our pride at being what they made us to be: men and women of this time and this earth.
Ásatru (pronounced OW-sa-troo) is the formal modern name of the heathen religion. Ásatru has recently reappeared in the open after a sleep of nearly a thousand years. But given the way it spontaneously comes to many of us, one has to wonder how many silent heathens there were during all those centuries.
We don't need the formal structure of a church to be heathen. Many of us prefer a solitary or family practice, but today there are heathen organizations that help to bring our growing community together.
If you'd like to know more about Ásatru, keep in mind that it has little in common with other religions you're probably more familiar with. It's not like the same old car but with a different color of paint: it's a completely different kind of vehicle. To get to know Ásatru, you might have to revise your ideas about what a religion is or can be. One major difference is that, unlike some other religions, we don't proselytize. We won't ever come knocking on your doorstep. But in this day and age, neither do we hide. And if you'd like to know more, we'll be happy to tell you.