Pilgrimage: An Overview

views updated


A religious believer in any culture may sometimes look beyond the local temple, church, or shrine, feel the call of some distant holy place renowned for miracles and the revivification of faith, and resolve to journey there. The goal of the journey, the sacred site, may be Banaras, India (Hindu); Jerusalem, Israel (Jewish, Christian, Muslim); Mecca, Saudi Arabia (Muslim); Meiron, Israel (Jewish); Ise, Japan (Shintō); Saikoku, Japan (Buddhist); or one of a hundred thousand others. Whatever the site, whatever the culture, the general features of a pilgrim's journey are remarkably similar. A generalized account of one woman's pilgrimage may thus serve to illustrate the process.

Once, in a place apart, there appeared a very holy person; miracles occurred at that place and drew multitudes of pilgrims. Later, a shrine was built by devotees. Now, in the present, those who are afflicted make a promise to the holy person in their hearts: "If you help me, I will make the journey to your shrine and perform devotions there." The journey will be arduous and inconvenient, but the goal beckons, the source out there that heals both body and soul, and worldly considerations fall away. The pilgrim sets out lightheartedly. As she travels, she joins with many others who are bound in the same direction, and bonds of friendship develop between them. During her journey the pilgrim calls at sacred way stations, each of which strengthens her faith further. When she nears her goal, and can make out the shrine from afar, she weeps for joy. When she enters the sacred domain she is conscious of actually seeing with her own eyes the place of those holy events, while her feet touch the very ground the holy one trod. At last she is in the presence of the sacredand is in awe. She touches the shrine with her hand, then remains there a long time in bliss and prayer. Afterward, she gives offerings and makes the rounds of the lesser shrines that cluster about the main one. Before leaving she eats holy food and calls at the market for pious presents to take home. Her return journey is cheerful, for her affliction is lifted. When she arrives home, her family and neighbors feel and share in the blessings that have come to her.

The Experience of Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage has the classic three-stage form of a rite of passage: (1) separation (the start of the journey), (2) the liminal stage (the journey itself, the sojourn at the shrine, and the encounter with the sacred), and (3) reaggregation (the homecoming). It differs from initiation in that the journey is to a center "out there," not through a threshold that marks a change in the individual's social status (except in the case of the pilgrimage to Mecca). The middle stage of a pilgrimage is marked by an awareness of temporary release from social ties and by a strong sense of communitas ("community, fellowship"), as well as by a preference for simplicity of dress and behavior, by a sense of ordeal, and by reflection on the basic meaning of one's religion. Movement is the pilgrim's element, into which she or he is drawn by the spiritual magnetism of a pilgrimage center.

Freedom from social structure

The temporary release from social ties that characterizes a pilgrim's journey is shared by other travelers who have an affinity with pilgrims, especially tourists and mystics. Tourists may, at heart, be pilgrims, for many serious-minded ones, perhaps alienated from their own society, find an elective center in the periphery of society, in a place of power that affects them in a personal way. Like pilgrims, they switch worlds, and they may even experience transcendence in the situation of liminality, in the special state of being freed from social structure. Their outward journey, like pilgrimage, may thus be a form of exteriorized mysticism. Mystics, on the other hand, make an inward sacred journey, an interior pilgrimage. Pilgrims, tourists, and mystics are, all three, freed for a time from the nets of social structure.


Pilgrims typically experience the sentiment of communitas, a special sense of bonding and of humankindness. Many pilgrims claim of their own company that "here is the only possible classless society." Yet, in each case, this communitas is channeled by the beliefs, values, and norms of a specific historical religion. The rules and norms that develop in pilgrimage are essential to the sense of flow that pilgrims feel when they act with total involvement. They need the frame to focus action. So pilgrimage, in its specificity, can foster exclusiveness between the religions, the sense that "ours is the only one."

Here one encounters the fact that pilgrims are usually social conservatives, while their critics are often liberals. More often than not, pilgrimage is a phenomenon of popular religion. The populations from which pilgrims are drawn tend to cling jealously to their traditional rights and customs. Thus there occurs the paradox that they have often rallied for national independence under pilgrimage banners such as Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Virgin of Częstochowa in Poland.

Pilgrimage has been of concern to the orthodox hierarchies of many religions, for pilgrimage draws the faithful away from the center of organization. A devotion may arise spontaneously, not in a consecrated place, and may not keep the strictest rules of the structured religion. Once started, it is democratic, rich in symbolism of its own and in communitas. From the point of view of social structure such manifestations of communitas are potentially subversive.

Spiritual Magnetism of Pilgrimage Centers

A number of factors may be involved in the spiritual magnetism of a pilgrimage center. A sacred image of great age or divine origin may be the magnet. Such images show great variety, from a painted picture such as that of the Virgin of Częstochowa, to a lovingly clothed doll as at Tlaxcala, Mexico, to a colossal statue of the Buddha in Sri Lanka. They induce awe and devotion, for they have the power to touch the religious instinct. There is an ambivalence in such objects. Are they themselves divine or not? The ambivalence only intensifies the wonder.

Miracles of healing also endow pilgrimage centers with a powerful spiritual magnetism. Such miracles seem to occur when there are both a heightened sense of the supernatural and a profound sense of human fellowship, of shared experience. Although the study of neurological effects of religious experience is in its infancy, there appears to be a healing factor in the unitary experience that is central to religion. The repeated stories of miracles at pilgrimage centers may thus constitute more important material than has been hitherto recognized.

Many pilgrimage centers are sites of apparitions, places where supernatural beings have appeared to humans. The appearance of a supernatural being imparts magnetic power to a site whether or not it has independent beauty or significance. Pilgrims endeavor to touch objects as close as possible to the site of apparition. Through the concreteness of touch, they experience connection with the original event.

The birthplace, location of life events, or tomb of a holy person may be a pilgrimage magnet in the same way, and the land itself in certain places has power to move the spirit, so that rivers, mountains, caves, islands, and strange features of the landscape may radiate spiritual magnetism. A cave at Amarnath, India, is an example. The magically beautiful ice formation within it is worshiped as an incarnation of Śiva. Nature, at the margins of the mundane, may represent a threshold into the spiritual.

Generally, the numinosity of a pilgrimage center is palpable. After the inception of the center it takes on a longterm character, gradually unfolding throughout history.

Historical Classification of Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages have arisen in different periods of history and have taken different paths. According to one typology, based largely in a Western view of history, pilgrimages can be classified as archaic, prototypical, high-period, and modern. Although this typology is most fruitful in examining Christian pilgrimage, it can be extended to other religious traditions as well.

Archaic pilgrimage

Certain pilgrimage traditions have come down from very ancient times, and little or nothing is known of their foundation. Some of these archaic traditions, like that of the Huichol Indians of Mexico, retain a complex symbolic code. Others have been overlaid by the trappings of a later religion, although archaic customs can still be discerned; the communitas of past ages also carries on, providing energy for the new establishment. Such syncretism occurred at Mecca and Jerusalem in the Middle East, at Izamal and Chalma in Mexico, and at Canterbury in England. At Canterbury it was officially sanctioned; Augustine of Canterbury received a message from Pope Gregory the Great that he should "baptize" the Anglo-Saxon customs, bringing them into the fold and harnessing them for the new religion.

Prototypical pilgrimage

Pilgrimages established by the founder of a religion, by his or her first disciples, or by important evangelists of the faith may be called "prototypical." As in all new pilgrimage traditions, the foundation is marked by visions and miracles and by the advent of a swarm of fervent pilgrims. They make spontaneous acts of devotion, praying, touching objects at the site, leaving tags on trees, and so on. As the impulse for communitas grows, a strong feedback system develops, further increasing the popularity of the pilgrimage center. A prototypical pilgrimage tradition soon manifests charter narratives and holy books about the founder. A shrine is built and an ecclesiastical structure develops. The Jerusalem and Rome pilgrimages are prototypical for Christianity, Jerusalem for Judaism, Mecca for Islam, Banaras and Mount Kailash for Hinduism, Bodh Gayā and Sārnāth, India, for Buddhism, and Ise for Shintō. Pilgrims at these sites often reenact events of the founding times.

High-period pilgrimage

In the heyday of a pilgrimage tradition an elaborate shrine, crowded with symbols, is created; side shrines, a market, a fairground, and hostels spring up near the center, and professional pilgrims make their appearance. In the Middle Ages, when the growth of Muslim power in the Mediterranean hampered Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the loss was compensated by the creation of shrines all over Europe. A holy relic was commonly the focus of devotion, as, for example, at Chartres, France, where the Virgin's veil is enshrined. New World pilgrimages resembled their medieval forerunners, although New World shrines lacked relicsone of the reasons for the prevalence of images as a substitute in this region.

Meanwhile, at many European centers routinization and decline had set in. The shrines became so choked with symbolic objects that meaning was being forgotten. Thus, during the Reformation and the era of Puritanism many of them became targets of iconoclasts and were suppressed. Walsingham in England is a prime example.

Desiderius Erasmus, William Langland, John Wyclif, Hugh Latimer, and John Calvin were reformers who opposed pilgrimage and the excessive veneration of images. In recent years opposition has come from the Vatican, which denied approval to pilgrimages to Joazeiro, Bahia, in Brazil and to Necedah, Wisconsin, in the United States; miraculous or apparitional events may be ratified only after exhaustive examination by clerical officials. In Israel the rabbinate keeps watch for irregularities at the many popular pilgrimages to the tombs of tsaddiqim ("holy persons").

Modern pilgrimage

All over the world in the last two centuries a new type of pilgrimage, with a high devotional tone and bands of ardent adherents, has developed. Modern pilgrimage is frankly technological; pilgrims travel by automobile and airplane, and pilgrimage centers publish newspapers and pamphlets. The catchment areas of modern pilgrimage are the great industrial cities. However, the message of the shrine is still traditional, at variance with the values of today. Many Roman Catholic pilgrimages have been triggered by an apparition of the Virgin Mary to some humble visionary with a message of penance and a gift of healing, as at Lourdes, France.

Other centers have arisen from the ashes of some dead pilgrimage shrine. A devotee has a vision of the founder, which heralds new miracles and a virtually new pilgrimage, as at Aylesford, England. Both apparitional and saint-centered pilgrimages in other parts of the modern world abound, as in Japan and at the tomb of the holy rabbi Huri of Beersheva, Israel.

Concluding Remarks

Pilgrimage is a process, a fluid and changing phenomenon, spontaneous, initially unstructured and outside the bounds of religious orthodoxy. It is primarily a popular rite of passage, a venture into religious experience rather than into a transition to higher status. A particular pilgrimage has considerable resilience over time and the power of revival. Pilgrims all over the world attest to the profundity of their experience, which often surpasses the power of words.

See Also



Aradi, Zsolt. Shrines to Our Lady around the World. New York, 1954. A remarkably full listing of world Marian pilgrimages, illustrated, and with short descriptions.

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan. Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography. Berkeley, 1973. A much-discussed analysis of levels or rank-order among pilgrimages in India.

Janin, Hunt. Four Paths to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Secular Pilgrimages, 1000 bce to 2001 ce. Jefferson, N.C., 2002.

Kamal, Ahmad. The Sacred Journey, Being Pilgrimage to Makkah; the Traditions, Dogma, and Islamic Ritual That Govern the Lives and the Destiny of More Than Five Hundred Million who Call Themselves Muslim: One Seventh of Mankind. London, 1964. This volume, which is a primary source, was written in response to the request of eminent Shiʿites in Baghdad.

Kitagawa, Joseph M. "Three Types of Pilgrimage in Japan." In Studies in Mysticism and Religion Presented to Gershom G. Scholem, edited by E. E. Urbach, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and Chaim Wirszubski, pp. 155164. Jerusalem, 1967. Analyzes pilgrimages to sacred mountains, to temples and shrines, and to places hallowed by holy men. A pioneer article.

Morinis, E. Alan, ed. Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. New York, 1992. An essential reference covering many types and aspects of pilgrimage throughout the world, using an advanced theoretical framework.

Palestine Pilgrims Text Society (London). Volumes 1, 3, and 10 (18911897) are classic primary sources, constituting the texts of the earliest pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Preston, James J. "Spiritual Magnetism: An Organizing Principle for the Study of Pilgrimage." In Sacred Journeys, edited by E. Alan Morinis, pp.4761. New York, 1992. A careful and enlightened essay introducing pilgrimage in all its aspects.

Turner, Victor. "Pilgrimage as Social Process." In his Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, pp. 167230. Ithaca, N.Y., 1974. The first modern anthropological essay on pilgrimage, introducing the role of pilgrimage in the generation of communitas and the sentiment of humankindness. Turner views religious pilgrimage as a moving process, not an arrangement of structures.

Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York, 1978. An anthropological study of the cultural, symbolic, and theological aspects of pilgrimage, using Mexican, Irish, medieval, and Marian examples.

Edith Turner (1987 and 2005)

About this article

Pilgrimage: An Overview

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article