Evolving Paradigms of Pilgrimage: Human Communities and Varied Forms of Deities

  May 27, 2021   Read time 3 min
Evolving Paradigms of Pilgrimage: Human Communities and Varied Forms of Deities
Pilgrimage is one of the oldest and most basic forms of population mobility known to human society. It is not surprising that a human activity as complex and varied as a pilgrimage has no universally accepted definition.

Converting the concept of pilgrimage into an operational definition that will apply equally well to all cultural settings is difficult, particularly if we consider the diverse types of pilgrimage that can be identified throughout the world. Stoddard proposes 27 potential types of pilgrimages, which he used to establish a classification of pilgrimages based on three key elements: (1) length of journey; (2) frequency of pilgrimage event; and (3) the pilgrimage route. Pilgrimages involve the movement of people away from their normal environment; the primary motive is religious, pilgrims journeying to a place of worship or sacred site, seeking spiritual or material benefit and internal understanding on a route followed by a large number of pilgrims. Regarding the routes of pilgrimages, the final destination appears to be of secondary importance to the route itself, and every trek to one’s local sanctuary is a pilgrimage in miniature, insofar as it acts out, on a small scale, some transition to the sacred and new community that pilgrimage seeks. Pilgrimage routes are classified as either ‘converging’, which is merely the connection of all paths taken by pilgrims from their homes to a sacred site, converging on a nodal centre, and are associated with least-effort connections and perceptions and knowledge of route choices; or those prescribed by religious texts, teachings and/or practice, and which extend the religious domain far beyond a single holy site because the entire pilgrimage way is usually regarded as a sacred path, which can be either circular or linear.

Routes vary considerably in length and scale and attract different kinds and numbers of pilgrims. The length of the journey is divided into regional, national and international components; the frequency of pilgrimage events ranges from ‘frequent’ (for those occurring more often than every ten months), to ‘annual’ (once every 10–14 months), to ‘rare’ (more than 14 months between pilgrimages); and the pilgrimage route is categorized as ‘convergence’, ‘prescribed circular’ or ‘prescribed processional’. Only certain modes of transport are recognized as proper along pilgrimage routes. For example, at the St James Way, walking, cycling or horse riding are the three most popular modes, and people who drive are not considered pilgrims by other pilgrims. Neither would vehicles, generally, have access to most of the route itself. Bicycles are quite popular and cycling is growing rapidly as a major means of pilgrimage, although among pedestrians, cyclists were found to be not generally regarded as ‘real’ pilgrims. Walking is seen as the predominant mode of transport as it allows pilgrims to engage in a meditative practice that Thoreau calls a ‘return to the senses’, and Secall argues that walking has always been one of the ways that mankind chose to be in ‘balance’. Frey, in the first published anthropological monograph of the St James pilgrimages, gathers emic discourses to define the traditional, ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ pilgrim as one who walks for at least a month, with an austere attitude, an absence of comfort, discipline, selfsufficiency, staying in relevant places and exhibiting certain symbols to distinguish them. For this pilgrim, the pilgrimage of the heart must be a spirit-guided journey. ‘He needs the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit who will provide the inner security without which he dare not venture into the unknown’. On the other hand, the secular pilgrim is pragmatic, views the world as a functional culture, wastes little time on ‘ultimate’ or ‘religious’ questions and does not impose the necessary conditions for the spiritual experience of the journey.

Some 330 million people become pilgrims each year, whether for hours, days, weeks or months, and numbers are increasing. Ancient routes are popular as never before and new routes are being rediscovered and developed. Pilgrimage has stimulated much interest and writing throughout history, parallel to the practice itself. The ‘old’ paradigm was predicated on the assumption that religious elements were at the core of the journey, but in recent years there has been a growth in the number of researchers dealing with various aspects of pilgrimage. Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, and can be considered as a traditional religious or modern secular journey. The phenomenon of pilgrimage is currently experiencing resurgence throughout the world with longstanding shrines still attracting those in search of spiritual fulfilment.

Write your comment