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Page author: Luke Burns

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Last modified: 01/01/2020


Pilgrimage is a practice of journeying to a significant location, but the location, method of travel, and meaning attached can vary widely. There is often a close relationship, or even overlap, with tourism.


Pilgrimage is generally understood to mean a journey to a significant location, typically of a religious nature; the person undertaking this endeavour is referred to as a pilgrim, a term that ‘…derives from the Latin peregrinnus, which has been associated with wandering or being a stranger…’ (Bowman, 2017, p.156).

Marion Bowman provides two types of pilgrimage: where the focus is on the journey, and where the focus is on the destination (2017, p.168). In some cases, there may be limited emphasis on the journey, for example the British town of Glastonbury, which has no established pilgrimage routes to it but is nonetheless an important place to visit for many (Bowman, 2017, p.179). Some pilgrims do not travel at all: the destination is brought to them in a form of a ‘virtual’ pilgrimage, for instance the Japanese Saikoku exhibition of 1987, where soil and statues from 33 different shrines were displayed in department stores (Bowman, 2017, p.195). For others, the journey is essential; Minke Walda writes that ‘…the journey to reach the religious site in question is in itself a ‘spiritual odyssey’ … a chance to … strengthen one’s faith during the sequence of religiously significant stops’ (2014, in Bowman, 2017, p.170).

Although the term ‘pilgrim’ is typically used to describe religious travellers, it has also entered secular language as a way to describe a trip to a meaningful or personally important destination, and has developed a range of meanings in contemporary culture – we will review these in the sections below, and then consider why pilgrimage might be attractive to people.

Given the similarity to tourism, there is often considerable overlap between the two categories, and individuals may find themselves alternating between leisure and spirituality within a single journey. In the case of the Camino of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, the tracks that crisscross the landscape have been designated a Cultural Route by the Council of Europe, and a Cultural Itinerary by UNESCO (Bowman, 2017, p.169), and many people walk for non-religious reasons. Bowman notes that ‘…tourist and pilgrim are not watertight categories…’ and individuals can shift and ‘…recalibrate according to what they are experiencing at any given moment’ (2017, p.172). The researcher Tiina Sepp encountered the difficulty of using simple categories to separate tourism from pilgrimage when speaking with a Dutch pilgrim, who argued the divide was a product of the way the researcher looked at people, rather than a real distinction (Sepp, 2012, in Bowman, 2017, p.176).

This points to one of the key facets of contemporary pilgrimage (and religion in general): its fluidity. Religious behaviour emerges from personal experience, and does not always resolve into discrete categories. Without understanding the underlying motive, it may be difficult to distinguish between actors who are motivated by a religious impulse, and those motivated by a secular experience, if their actions are similar or identical. Undoubtedly this has contributed to the increased use of religious terms in secular settings, and pilgrimage is no exception.

Bowman provides several examples of secular pilgrimage; journeys to significant (yet non-religious) sites that people feel drawn to and transformed by, including the homes and places associated with celebrities, funerals of public figures, and commemorative memorials (2017, p.191-2).

Many people make visits to the war graves and battlefields of Europe, and use the language of pilgrimage to describe their activities; both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (2018) and the Royal British Legion (2018) use the term pilgrimage in their online materials. Jean Newman Glock provides an insider’s perspective on pilgrimage to Normandy: ‘This is what travel is about, a pilgrimage with with [sic] “feet on the ground” and meeting the people, past and present, who shape our lives today’ (2014).

In some cases, it is not just language that is borrowed from religion, but behaviours, rituals, and experiences. At the 2010 ‘annual pilgrimage’ to Graceland (former home to Elvis Presley), people took part in a candle-lit procession and left gifts at the singer’s grave. Some of the attendees described their experiences in powerful terms: ‘To be part of the Elvis experience and the aura of the whole thing, just means everything in the world to me.’ Others reported more explicitly religious perspectives on Elvis, stating ‘…there’s something spiritual about him … a calming feeling…’ (The Telegraph, 2010).

This sense of being part of something different and special is a recurring theme in the study of pilgrimages, and was noted by Turner and Turner, who argued that during pilgrimage people come together as part of a community (communitas) facilitated by their shared experience (Bowman, 2017, p.160,162).

Secular pilgrimage, just like religious pilgrimage, facilitates a connection with the lived history embedded in a particular site, however there is arguably less emphasis on the journey and more emphasis on being present at the location. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to make the journey at all, and in these cases individuals may take part in a virtual pilgrimage.

Virtual pilgrimages can take many different forms, for instance some Christians engage in a devotional practice known as the Stations of the Cross, where they contemplate 12 events that occurred during the last day of Jesus’s life. Although individuals do this privately and do not need to travel to any physical destination, those who take part within Franciscan churches are granted the same Catholic indulgences as those who make a full pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Bowman, 2017, pp.194-5), and it is also described as a ‘mini pilgrimage’ (Catholic Online, 2018).

Our Lady of Lourdes Hospitality North American Volunteers provides a service that it describes as the Lourdes Virtual Pilgrimage Experience. The experience utilises a rock and some water both taken from the Lourdes grotto in France, along with images and music designed to simulate the experience of visiting the real-world location (2015a). Attendees at services provided by this organisation report that the experience was moving and powerful, ‘I did feel like was actually at Lourdes walking in the procession…’, ‘I feel that the real presence of Our Lady was evident to all’. One attendee suggested that their finances had prevented them from making a physical pilgrimage to Lourdes, but the virtual pilgrimage allowed them to be there, ‘…fully in heart and soul and by the grace of God’ (2015b).

In some cases, the destination is no longer extant; in 2017 the British Museum offered a virtual pilgrimage to the Great Shrine of Amaravati, an ancient Buddhist structure, involving performances projected onto walls and audience participation: ‘Using new mobile phone technology you will be able to use your smartphone to interact with the pilgrims, explore the Shrine in detail and learn more about the power of patronage in ancient India’ (The British Museum, 2017). Here we can see the language of pilgrimage being used to describe ritual actions that will be performed, but also encouraging attendance and participation in an educational context.

The use of technology in pilgrimage is becoming increasingly prevalent, not just conventional transportation that facilitates expedited pilgrimage, but also in the form of digital communications that allow for near-instantaneous ‘travel’ to a pilgrimage site. In the multi-user virtual environment known as Second Life, people can visit recreations of sacred sites from various traditions, including a reproduction of Mecca. Like the Great Shrine of Amaravati at the British Museum, the simulated Mecca is presented for educational purposes, however it is also interacted with respectfully by digital pilgrims, who wear appropriate attire and remove their avatar’s shoes when entering. Krystina Derrickson (2008) writes that ‘…there is a blurring of the two Meccas … the space in Second Life … is treated as sacred and though purporting only to be an educational tool, is shown by user testimony to be a site of emotional experience of the sacred.’

So, we can see that pilgrimage (in all its varied forms) is a meaningful journey towards a significant destination, but in order to better understand why this activity might be attractive to a range of people, we will need to discuss the key aspects that underpin it. According to Mircea Eliade, the divine or sacred is a separate reality that can break through into non-sacred space and imbue it with divinity (Bowman, 2017, pp.158-9). In pursuit of the sacred for the sake of salvation, redemption, healing, or knowledge, individuals are drawn to the locations it is believed to have touched, and drawn out of their everyday lives. This social twilight is the liminal space described by Turner and Turner, where conventional patterns of behaviour are no longer expected (Bowman, 2017, p.162).

Pilgrims in liminal space are granted the social and psychological freedom to engage creatively with the perceived religious landscape and create ‘…diverse processes of sacralization of movement, persons and/or places’ (Coleman and Eade, 2004, in Bowman, 2017, p.165). We can see an example of this in the transition from regular dress and custom for Muslims on the Hajj pilgrimage, into a state of ihram, or ritual purity (Bowman, 2017, p.163).

Meanwhile, the destination towards which the pilgrim moves is, according to Kim Knott, empty of the sacrality that Eliade posited (Bowman, 2017, p.159). Instead the charisma, power, and meaning of the site is socially constructed and preserved by those same pilgrims who choose to visit it; we have seen how people adapt their behaviour in relation to the digital representation of Mecca in Second Life, even though the virtual site is an artificial simulacrum. Knott’s perspective suggests that there would be conflicts of interpretation and meaning between competing social groups, and this is confirmed by Eade and Sallnow, who write that the sacred site is ‘…a vessel into which pilgrims devoutly pour their hopes, prayers and aspirations’ (2000, in Bowman, 2017, p.164).

Therefore, those pilgrimage sites that are most convincingly preserved by a single tradition, or most open to many traditions simultaneously, will tend to survive and thrive. We have seen that the Camino of Santiago de Compostela demonstrates how different groups (both secular and religious) can come together to provide alternative meanings in a constructive way; Eade and Sallnow describe it as having the ‘…capacity to absorb and reflect a multiplicity of religious discourses … to offer a variety of clients what each of them desires…’ (2000, in Bowman, 2017, p.177).

However their reputation and power is gained, pilgrimage sites invariably bring visitors with money to spend, and so fixed communities will tend to grow that thrive on the commerce of arriving travellers, reinforcing the importance of the location and offering meaningful objects for sale that the pilgrim carries with them back home, ‘…taking back some part of the charisma of a holy place…’ (Coleman & Elsner, 1995, in Bowman, 2017, p.166). Returning pilgrims will likely tell others of their experiences and feed into the same social narratives that built the pilgrimage site to begin with, such as the Confraternity of St James (Bowman, 2017, p.177).

In reviewing the process of pilgrimage, we are faced with many complex factors, but if we look broadly we can see that at root, they hinge upon the distinction between meaning and self: over there is something meaningful, it has arrived or taken birth or burst forth into existence, and I am over here, I am not that, so I must go to it in order to become meaningful. The popularity of pilgrimage seems to emerge from a very human desire for meaning, and a sense that meaning is not yet present, accessible, or understood.

It also provides a focal point to which all other desires, thoughts, and experiences are related; while on pilgrimage, everything is part of the journey, and therefore everything can be seen in relationship to the destination. This sense of orientation also supports the desire for meaning, while the pilgrim also benefits from a sense of freedom from ordinary concerns (the liminal state).

The sense of community that is often reported by people who come together due to a shared destination, who are experiencing a similar sense of freedom, is another reason that pilgrimage is popular. Pilgrims can more easily find sympathetic understanding in the hearts of people who are living through the same experiences, and on their return home they are transformed and may be given new social status.

Comparisons between pilgrimage and the religious life are not without merit, and there are many similarities – a journey towards divinity, a lifestyle with its own rules, a community with a shared purpose, redemption or reward at the final point of arrival. Turner and Turner (1978, in Bowman, 2017, p.292) claim that ‘…pilgrimage is exteriorized mysticism’; however, we cannot easily accept this if we also allow for the secular expressions of pilgrimage. These secular experiences do not easily map onto the mystical journey into self, soul, or divinity, but nevertheless they provide opportunities for meaning, community, and freedom, and clearly demonstrate the enduring popularity of pilgrimage, whatever the tradition or social structure from which it springs, as a method of finding meaning and direction in a complex world.


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