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Ascending the pilgrim's way up Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland

To make a pilgrimage means to undertake a journey—typically in the context of religious practice—of personal or ritual significance. The journey can be external and physical (as in the case of the pilgrims journeying to Thomas Becket's tomb in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales), internal and spiritual (as in the case of Christian, who narrates his own allegorical vision in The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan), or both. The tradition is ancient: Scholars have found relics and records of various forms of it that date back into preclassical times. Most major world religions have sanctioned, or still sanction, some form of sacred travel in their practices and rituals, but pilgrimage is not purely a formal religious phenomenon. Many "pilgrimages" in modern times—arguably including such secular activities as tourism, symbolic political action, and journeys of personal self-discovery—testify to the lasting power of ritual travel as a manifestation of human yearning and the search for meaning, even in an era ostensibly dominated by a culture of scientific rationalism. Pilgrimage would seem to be as compelling a human phenomenon as ever—both as ritual and as metaphor.

Ritual and place

The divine is often located in particular places—the river, the sun, the volcano, the forest, and so forth. Practically speaking, if you want to talk to a god, goddess, or spirit, you have to go for a visit. The practice of pilgrimage, including those pilgrimages associated with modern monotheistic religions whose basic tenets assert that God is everywhere, harks back to the religious impulse to identify particular places as sacred.

Even faiths such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, whose doctrines center on the idea of a universal God, manage to square that universality with particular sacred places. The Israelites of the book of Exodus, for example, spurned the polytheism of Egypt and fled into the wilderness; eventually, though, despite believing that their God was "everywhere," they came to carry with them a portable temple, in the form of the Ark of the Covenant and its tabernacle, which ultimately became a permanent "place" of worship and pilgrimage when the first Temple of Jerusalem was built around it. In Islam, the holy city of Mecca and the black stone of the Kaa'ba serve to give focus to the worship of Allah, and are places of mandatory pilgrimage for those able to do so. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian pilgrims often venerate the tombs of saints and martyrs, as well as images and icons of such personages, as places of special holiness.

The pilgrimage itself often becomes as important as the sacred place sought, and in that sense its ritual aspect serves to broaden the definition. Psychologists have identified repetitive ritual as one of the ways in which children give structure to a vast, frightening world (a tendency that goes out of control, for example, in some children with autism); as adults, people justify rituals for many reasons, but they remain ways of structuring a human experience that might otherwise seem impossibly complex. Just as the rituals of worship provide structure to the sometimes frightening business of talking to God, pilgrimage offers a way to surrender to a sense of continuity and connection—it becomes a ritual journey that symbolizes both the search for connection and the progression of life itself.

Precursors to historical pilgrimage

The contemporary western notion of pilgrimage stems from traditions that arose during the middle ages. But it is clearly informed by the ancient traditions of various cultures and religions.

Classical and preclassical precursors—Perhaps the earliest recorded destination of what we would now call pilgrimage is the Egyptian necropolis at Abydos, north of ancient Thebes along the Nile. Originally a burial center for early Egyptian dynasties, by the time of the middle dynasties its tombs had become associated with that of the river fertility god, Osiris. As dynastic history was forgotten and the cult of Osiris grew in the era two millennia BCE, prosperous Egyptians traveled there to pay respect and to arrange for their own burials in the vicinity. The archaeological record of Abydos is full of their tributes, graffiti, and burial material.

Many pilgrimage sites show similar "layers" of culture that have accreted as religious practices change while traditions of travel and devotion linger. For example, archaeological evidence suggests that wells and springs were often a sacred destination for Bronze Age Europeans. Such ancient wells dot the British and Irish landscapes (much to the delight of modern New Age neopaganists), and the wells seem to have been the focus of prehistoric religious ceremonies, perhaps even preceding the arrival of the Celts. The pagan Romans subsequently incorporated the British wells into their own ritual culture, as at the Roman city of Bath. Sacred wells in Ireland became associated with folk traditions about the faerie realm even as Celtic Christianity overspread the island in the first millennium CE. Some pagan pilgrimage sites, such as the Irish mountain of Croagh Patrick, became sites of Christian pilgrimage too. Similarly, in Sardinia, certain wells of the non-Celtic Nuragic people seem to have been constructed with ceremonial functions in mind many centuries before the rise of Rome, and ultimately became places of Christian devotion and pilgrimage, their pagan origins conveniently overlooked. The Arabian city of Mecca was a pilgrimage site long before the prophet Mohammed received divine revelation there; its zamzam springs and the black stone of the Kaa'ba both had ancient traditions as sacred destinations that were incorporated into the rituals of the Islamic hajj.

Some scholars have pointed to parallel practices in other ancient cultures that were handed down and recorded in classical literature. Hinduism, which retains a strong tradition of spiritual travel, links back to the ancient custom of darsán, as recorded in the 6th century BCE Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata. In ancient Greece, the word that offered the closest classical equivalent to what we now call a pilgrim was θεωρός (theoros), which denoted a person journeying abroad to an oracle, holy place, sacred rite, or as an official representative of a city-state. The concept later became what Plato and Aristotle taught us to think of as "theory," but it had a very different meaning in the centuries before.[1] What's more, the theoros—whether sight-seeing like a tourist or participating in sacred Mysteries—was expected to contemplate and reflect on the sights he saw, then return home to his city-state and recount the experience.

Early Judeo-Christian traditions—Although sacrifice had been integral to Jewish worship from the time of Abraham, the tradition of pilgrimage, or aliyah ("going up") to perform it in Jerusalem, dates from the period of the Second Temple (516 BCE–70 CE), when many rituals derived from the laws of the Torah were formalized as mandatory practices for faithful Jews.[2] During the period of the First Temple (c. 1000 BCE–586 BCE), ritual sacrifice had been performed at altars in many parts of Israel, Judah, and the Jewish Diaspora; after the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Babylonians, exiled Jewish prophets and teachers condemned the promiscuity of such local sacrificial cults (among other practices) as being responsible for the loss of God's favor, and the consequent destruction of Israel as an independent nation. Jewish law, and the stories of the Torah, became glue that bound the exiles together as a people. Consequently, after the Jerusalem Temple was rebuilt, for observant Jews it became the only sanctioned destination for ritual sacrifice during the three annual pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Several of the Psalms (notably Psalm 122) celebrate the pilgrim experience, and probably were sung by caravans of the faithful "going up" to Jerusalem. Christian theologians speculate that Jesus of Nazareth was on the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, preaching reform and warning of the coming destruction of the Temple, when he was captured and crucified c. 30 CE. After the Temple was in fact destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the formal ritual of pilgrimage as an integral part of Jewish religious observance underwent profound change. Jewish pilgrimage to the site of the Temple itself was no longer fully possible; indeed many Rabbis feel that it would be a sin to attempt to do so, as to accidentally cross the site of the inner sanctum without the complex, prescribed purifications would desecrate both shrine and pilgrim. In the absence of a Temple pilgrimage, a journey to the Kotel, or Western Wall of the ruined temple, into whose cracks and recesses written prayers may be placed, has become a sanctioned alternative.

An inescapable irony about Christian pilgrimage traditions is that they seem to fly in the face of the reforms to Jewish religious practice preached by Jesus, and later proselytized by Paul in the first years of the Church. The Christianity preached by the early apostles was one that stressed moral and spiritual teaching, and revolved around the Eucharistic ritual, wherever it happened to be performed. In the Gospels, Jesus's death and crucifixion come shortly after he has objected violently to the way in which the Herodian Temple has become a grand institution of sacrificial spectacle and commerce little different from Roman and pagan religious shrines; Jesus's preaching offered a vision of faithful observance that relied on prayer, almsgiving, and fasting[3] rather than ritual slaughter in a sacred place.

Pilgrimage to Palestine—In the first century after the Temple was razed, Rome did its best to wipe out all traces of the landmarks and cultural touchstones of rebellious Jewish Palestine, including sites of significance to early Christians, and Jews were banned from Jerusalem. Partly as a consequence of this, during the first centuries of Christianity—after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE but before Emperor Constantine ended official persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313 CE—few accounts survive that suggest organized veneration of Christian holy sites on the part of believers; the earliest such journey was possibly that of Melito of Sardis, in 160 CE[4]. Only after the Church's institutional acceptance by Rome do Christian holy sites become the object of sanctioned sacred travel and the numbers of pilgrims increase dramatically.

About 325 or 326 CE, Helena Augusta (later St. Helena), the elderly mother of Emperor Constantine, toured Palestine and the eastern provinces, and made a point of visiting places in Jerusalem referred to in the Gospels. Her tour resulted in construction of Christian churches there, and hers is often referred to as the first important Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Christian legends later credited her with discovering the relic of the "True Cross"). In a later era, pilgrimage to Palestine would became a flashpoint in conflicts between Christianity and Islam.

Mesoamerica and the Andes—In pre-Columbian America, pilgrimage was a common element among the religions of the Maya and Aztec in Mesoamerica, as well as the Inca peoples of South America. Aztec myth told how the Mexica people journeyed from Chicomostoc to the valley of Mexico. Similarly, the Popul Vuh of the Maya relates their progenitors' journey from Tulan. These journeys were reenacted ceremonially as sacred travel to ceremonial centers that were symbolically connected to more ancient civilizations and often boasted extensive natural or man-made cave systems. In a very similar way, Andean pilgrims evoked myths of origin by undertaking sacred journeys to natural and built sites that were imbued with special power.[5]

Pilgrimage in the historical era

Although the journeys of St. Helena and others to Palestine in the early days of the Catholic church are often thought of as the first historical pilgrimages, in fact, no one at the time used the term "pilgrim" to describe such visits. The modern sense of the word comes from the influential writings of Augustine of Hippo, a century later, who used the term peregrinatio to describe Christian spiritual journey as a kind of estrangement and exile. This concept, coming at the end of the Roman era and the beginning of the Middle Ages, led to the image of the wandering stranger we are familiar with today. The English word pilgrim, in fact, derives from the Latin peregrine ("foreigner," "noncitizen"), by way of the French pélerin.

Eastern traditions—Modern eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism share with their western counterparts a long tradition of pilgrimage, but it is not typically tied to the historical record in the same way. Where an early Christian pilgrim might have traveled to Jerusalem in part to "verify" the truth of sacred stories about the Crucifixion, and perhaps bring back relics to worship at home, the tradition of eastern religions is more often one that stresses rituals of purification and meditation, and sees it as a kind of individual spiritual practice. Although some forms of Buddhism stress the historical story of Buddhism's founder, Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Guatama), and inspire pilgrimages to the places traditionally associated with his life, many others are tied to sites from older traditions such as the Dao in China and Shinto in Japan that have no clear historical basis.

  • Japan—In Japan, pilgrimage (known as henro no tabi, okagemairi, mōdei, and junrei) was an ancient practice of religious ascetics, but flowered as a popular practice with the rise of Japanese nationalism in the 1800s; many sacred sites became destinations as ancient Shinto traditions were revived. Pilgrimage traditions that continue in present-day Japan include journeys to sacred mountains such as Mt. Fuji, and to cycles of temples such as those in the Saikoku and Shikoku traditions.
  • China—In China, pre-Buddhist sacred mountains such as Dai and Wutai were home to important Daoist rituals. Many Chinese emperors made the ceremonial pilgrimage to Dai Shan upon ascension to the imperial throne. Later, the mountains became associated with Buddhist deities as well. Pilgrimage was mostly forbidden in modern China, though restrictions on tourism to ancient sacred sites have recently been eased.
  • Tibet— Mt. Kailash in Tibet is sacred to several religions, although its remote location makes it one of the least-visited holy sites. In the Hindu tradition, Mt.Kailash is believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva. In Jainism, the mountain is known as Astapada, as esteemed as the place where Rishaba, the eldest of the twenty-four Tirthankaras, attained liberation. It is also sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, who regard it as the dwelling of Demchok, the embodiment of supreme bliss. Despite their diverse beliefs, adherents of these faiths seem to agree that the proper way to venerate the mountain is to travel around it, an arduous undertaking which can take days or even weeks to complete; see also under "circular pilgrimages" below.
  • India
    • Temples -- Bodh Gaya, the place where by tradition the Buddha attained Bodhi or enlightenment, is a city in Gaya district in the Indian state of Bihar. The city grew on the site after followers of the Buddha's followers began to make pilgrimages to the place where, sitting under the Bodhi or Bo Tree, he had gained enlightenment. The resulting city became known as Bodh Gaya, the day of enlightenment.
    • Rivers--Ganges. Within the Hindu religion, the River Ganges has been a scared destination since Vedic times. The nature of this pilgrimage is complex; while the entire river is in a sense a literal embodiment of godhead, the specific places and times at which a pilgrim might seek ablution are highly variable. Some feel that bathing in the Ganges on certain holy dates has special efficacy, while others believe bathing at any time has nearly equal value. In addition to bathing, Hindus travel great distances to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in the waters of the Ganges; such immersion is believed to send their spirits to heaven. There are hundreds of temples along the river's banks, with several of particular sacredness, such as Haridwar and Kashi. Several of the most important Hindu festivals and religious congregations are celebrated on the banks of the river, such as the Kumbh Mela and the Chhat Puja.
  • Circular pilgrimage-- A central element of many pilgrimages is the making of a circular journey. Sometimes, as in Islam, the pilgrims walk about a single sacred shrine, the Kaaba, while in other lands, as on the Japanese island of Shikoku, pilgrims make an enormous circle by visiting 88 different temples (a journey undertaken by most modern pilgrims by bus rather than on foot). There are also sacred mountains, such as Kailash (see above under Tibet), about which pilgrims must journey in a specific direction.

Islamic traditions

Western traditions—After the collapse of the western Roman Empire and the rise of the Islamic caliphate in the east, peregrination to the Holy Land became far more difficult.

The Crusades

Pilgrimage as metaphor

Pilgrimage in literature

Chaucer's pilgrims

Perhaps among the best-known literary pilgrimages is that which gave Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1390) its frame narrative. The route along Watling Street and the Old Kent Road, eventually connecting with the ancient "Pilgrim's way" from Rochester, New York to Canterbury was well-known and well-traveled, and its proximity to London attracted a diverse crowd of pilgrims, giving Chaucer an ideal setting for bringing together people of widely varying classes and professions. Chaucer never completed his cycle, though this did not prevent others, such as the anonymous scribe of the Northumberland MS. of the Tales, from completing the story for him via "Tale of Beryn" which included a scene of the arrival in Canterbury at the shrine of Becket[6]. As would actual pilgrims of the day, the pilgrims in this scribe's tale purchased tin hat-badges and vials of "holy water," which were for sale just outside the cathedral close, and enjoyed a pint of ale at a local pub.

Some of Chaucer's readers may indeed have regarded his satirical portraits of pilgrims as apt epitomes of the sort of irreligious attitudes and characters that pilgrimages drew; among early proto-Protestants such as the Wycliffites the value of pilgrimage was frequently denounced. King Henry VIII, working with his minister Thomas Cromwell, had the shrine destroyed in 1538 as he severed ties to the Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation brought the custom of pilgrimage in England to a close.

The Plymouth "Pilgrims"

The politics of pilgrimage

Constantine's Jerusalem

The Way of St. James


Modern political pilgrimage

A structure for pilgrimage


A modern metaphor


  1. See Nightengale, A.W. Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Also, Rutherford, Ian. "Theoria and Darsán: Pilgrimage and Vision in Greece and India." The Classical Quarterly,' N.S. 50.1 (2000): 133-146.
  2. Hyman, Semah Cecil. "Pilgrimage." Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd ed. New York: Macmillian, 2007. Vol. 16: 154-158.
  3. Betz, Hans Dieter. "Jesus and the Purity of the Temple (Mark 11:15-18) : A Comparative Approach." Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (Fall 1997):455-472.
  4. Hunt, E.D. Holy Land Pilgrimages in the Later Roman Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.
  5. Silverman, Helaine. "The Archaeological Identification of an Ancient Peruvian Pilgrimage Center." World Archaeology 26.1 (1994): 1-18.
  6. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/berynint.htm