Places of Pilgrimage

Examination Thesis, 2002

58 Pages, Grade: 2,5 (B)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Definition of the Term “Pilgrimage” Etymology and General Definitions of Pilgrimage

3. Different Functions of Pilgrimage and Turner’s Theory of Pilgrimage

4. The Phenomenon of Religious Pilgrimage
4.1 Traditional Religious Pilgrimage Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism
4.1.1 Case Study: Canterbury, England
4.2 Sacred Sites in Indigenous Religions and Pagan Traditions
4.2.1 Case Study: Stonehenge and its Significance through the Millennia—Spirituality vs. Mass Tourism
4.3 Pilgrimage in Pop Culture: Contemporary Versions of Pilgrimage
4.3.1 Case Study: The Phenomenon of Pilgrimage to Graceland
4.4 Civil Religions and Sacred Places of National Significance
4.4.1 Case study: The World Trade Center—Spontaneous and Traditional Spirituality

5. The Differences between Tourists and Pilgrims in Western Societies

6. The Way Pilgrimage and Spirituality Have Changed in the 20th Century

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

1. Introduction

So-called pilgrims go to a multitude of sacred places for a variety of religious reasons. The particular place has an important meaning to the individual, often inspired within a community of faith. Pilgrimage, usually seen within a strictly religious context, can be more usefully viewed as a voyage motivated by emotion, a search for meaning and a craving to express one’s community of belief at a special place. Therefore, the particular place is a location of spiritual union where pilgrims share transcendental experience and/or proximity to a divinity, human being or sacred event. Naturally, pilgrimage performed for religious reasons has a traditional character, but one should not assume mistakenly that sacred journeys will disappear because science and technology are expanding. Actually, our “computer age” might increase spiritual actions and initiate an even greater longing for religious devotion. One of the main questions I will work on deals with this issue. A commonly prevalent perception still associates pilgrimage with traditional cultures and people in the “Old World” of Europe. This shallow view does not account for the complexity of this devout act, which includes not only pilgrimage to conventional sites but also that stemming from various individual motivations.

The traditionally religious appearance and practice of pilgrimage seems uncalled for and even antiquated given the advanced technology and scientific sophistication of contemporary Europe and North America. Furthermore, conventional pilgrimage alone does not fit into our present technological age; people seem more inclined to enjoy popular entertainment than perform a journey in search of spiritual growth. That would explain why so many churches have been empty in recent years. However, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, a mass movement and collective craving towards belief, harmony and faithfulness has arisen and largely transformed spiritual apathy into religious concern; many have claimed that social values and God are the only constants they can count on.

That which differentiates the character of a pilgrim from the common tourist is a central concern of this paper. Actually, this question did not become clear before I started thinking about the case studies I developed. While preparing these sections, one topic occurred over and over again: When is a traveler a pilgrim and when is he or she a tourist? Can one person be both, or do pilgrimage and tourism exclude each other? Or is Jeffrey F. Meyer’s statement simply true that "a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist" (HTTP: Meyer, 2001)?

Especially throughout the last century, with growing mass tourism and better mobility, the terms pilgrim and tourist have often been confused with one another although the differences between them become quite clear when explained in detail. My original question, which will remain a focal point throughout this paper, is in fact connected to the main issue—pilgrim vs. tourist—and asks how the natures of pilgrimage and spirituality have changed in recent history in Christianity. In conclusion, I will discuss what these changes indicate about contemporary religious beliefs.

In order to provide a background to the meaning of pilgrimage, I will begin with a brief outline of the etymological roots and general definition of the term. Then, to provide a prominent scholarly perspective on pilgrimage, I will introduce anthropologist Victor Turner’s theoretical model. I chose to focus on Turner’s work because he was the first scientist to write about the phenomenon of pilgrimage in the 1970s, whereas other social scholars before him did not care much about it. Right after Turner’s initiation of pilgrimage study, various books and articles have been written and pilgrimage conventions taken place about the topic in a global sense as well as its individual emergence in different cultures. With Turner’s theory as a foundation, I seek to answer the above questions by exploring four noteworthy sites within Anglo-specific cultures. In order to better understand the ways in which pilgrimage has evolved in recent history, an overview of such practices within world traditions beyond Anglo-derived society will also be provided.

The four sites I have chosen to research represent four distinctive forms of pilgrimage in Western Anglophone societies. These four types of pilgrimage are: pilgrimages within indigenous or “pagan” tradition, conventional religious journeys, pilgrimages in pop culture, and travels which reinforce national identity through civil religion.

Couched within pagan tradition, Stonehenge shows that a non-traditional pilgrimage destination can retain mystery and spiritual meaning over thousands of years. Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas Beckett serve as an example of a traditional Christian journey which has both historical and contemporary significance. Elvis Presley’s Graceland demonstrates that a location from a pop cultural milieu, without any traditionally spiritual roots, can become a sacred site. Finally, the World Trade Center site is the most contemporary shrine of civil religion in the United States given the fact that thousands of people became martyrs who purportedly died for American ideals. Moreover, Ground Zero is also remarkable as many people create spontaneous “makeshift memorials”, another important part of contemporary pilgrimage, at the site.

After all, I chose the topic “Places of Pilgrimage” because I like to explore all the myths, stories, powers and beliefs behind the sites. While I come to this project from a white European Evangelical Lutheran male perspective, I seek to be unbiased in my writing to provide the reader with an objective overview of the different kinds and functions of pilgrimage, especially in contemporary Anglo society. Perhaps most significantly, every pilgrimage means a journey to a place of religious or personal importance which involves spiritual growth. Even though the actual meaning of pilgrimage has changed over the course of history, today it is still a crucial part of religious beliefs. All in all, the act of pilgrimage helps to maintain individual values and is thus a fascinating individual expression of faith and devotion.

2. Definition of the Term “Pilgrimage” Etymology and General Definitions of Pilgrimage

Simply put, pilgrimage is a pilgrim’s journey. In part, the world “pilgrimage” is formed from the English pilgrim and – age, and is in part borrowed from the Old French pelerinage, from pelerine or peligrin which is now pilgrim. The term was pelrimage around 1275; sometime before 1300 it was transformed into pilgrimage.

A pilgrim is a person who journeys to a holy place as an act of religious devotion. Probably before 1200 the word was pilegrim or pelegrim. Later, around 1280, it became pilgrim. It is also borrowed from the Latin peregrinus, which means foreigner or from foreign parts, and the word peregri, which means abroad or from abroad. The supposed origin, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, is in per and ager , stemming from the idea of wandering over a distance (1911).

According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, the name “pilgrim” applies in American history

to the English puritans who founded the colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Their governor, William Bradford, wrote in 1630 of the first settlers as pilgrims in the spiritual sense of early sojourners, referring to Hebrews 11:13 (“…they were strangers and pilgrims on earth”). The phrase Pilgrim Fathers founders is first recorded in 1799 in American English (1988).

The Longman dictionary of Contemporary English provides the following interpretation of the term:

Pilgrimage is a) a journey to a holy place for religious reasons, e. g. a pilgrimage to Mecca , or b) a journey to a place connected with someone or something famous, -- e. g. Elvis Presley's home Graceland has become a place of pilgrimage (Longman Dictionary 2001).

Additionally, the Catholic Encyclopedia from 1911 defines pilgrimages as journeys made to a place in order to venerate it, seek supernatural aid, or discharge a religious obligation (Catholic Encyclopedia 1911).

A private interpretation on the internet, at a website where several different pilgrimage sites are described, asserts that

sacred places are what you or the religious worlds understand or feel to be sacred. Pilgrimage is the active process of going there, experiencing the sites. Pilgrimage makes sacred sites living (HTTP:

In my opinion, this rather emotional understanding is more suitable to this topic, since pilgrimage has always been deeply connected with emotions and personal world views.

All religions have their own sacred sites (which also often serve as tourist “sights”). They are vital symbols of that which is felt to be central and significant to the particular belief or religion. Places where founders of religions lived or died or even performed miracles became essential places of pilgrimage and worship. This is why, to name a few, Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad all have their different places of worship on pilgrimage routes. Also, sacred sites can be places where religious entities appeared or “happenings” occurred; the manifestation of gods, the descent of angles, the creation of the world. Myths and dogmas all have their stories of such events, but the places do not come alive until they are used in religious practice. Pilgrimage is a very important aspect of religions in practice, of living religions. Pilgrimage does not have to be part of an institutional religion. It does not even have to belong to what is traditionally called religion. So-called secular pilgrimage is as real and important for those participating as for those engaging in conventional religious pilgrimage. Consequently, visiting Elvis Presley’s home in Graceland, making a “political pilgrimage” to demonstrations, an excited excursion to a soccer game, or even the stereotypical trip to the Germans’ “favorite” island , Mallorca , going for what those involved think is the “real thing” makes deep sense.

A pilgrimage can also be metaphorical - or existential - travel through life. Many people find their own lives to be following a line of spiritual growth, where pilgrimage sites are stations on the road, giving experiences with lifelong effects. Traditionally, pilgrimage involved hardship and endurance, sometimes even the threat of death. Suffering seemed mandatory to gain maximum reward from the sacred journey. Mountains had to be climbed and religious asceticism endured. Today, many such hardships have been transformed into symbolic actions in much more comfortable forms.

Nowadays, traveling is a rather enjoyable endeavor. Despite its changing forms, pilgrimage is as important as ever because it is still an essential part of religious beliefs, persisting as a kind of spiritual expression (HTTP: All in all, pilgrimage is a sacred voyage to a place of spiritual, religious or personal importance. For many pilgrims, those who voluntarily travel a long and often painful way to visit a pilgrimage site, the experience of the journey and the lessons it imparts are as important to their spiritual growth as their arrival at the final destination.

3. Different Functions of Pilgrimage and Turner’s Theory of Pilgrimage

Victor Turner (1920-83) presented a theoretical model of pilgrimage in the 1970s which has been frequently revisited by scholars of religious studies and social anthropology. Although many critics have disapproved of Turner’s reasoning, none of them has ever really been able to identify any fundamental mistakes within it. Despite field-tested, widely recognized proof of its incompatibility, his theory remained listed under “pilgrimage” in the Catholic Encyclopedia until 1987 (Gothóni 134).

Turner’s interest in pilgrimage was theoretical rather than ethnographical. His main focus was on the comparative study of ritual symbols and social processes, and how they existed and changed over time. Furthermore, he stated that he was interested in the “comparative study of pilgrimage processes, not only as they exist at a given time but also as they have changed over time, and of the relations into which different pilgrimage processes have entered in the course of massive stretches of time” (Turner 1996, 166).

Turner’s theory basically consists of the following assumptions: Pilgrimage is a process of moving from the familiar or structural to the anti-structural “other” and back. Pilgrimage is defined as having an elliptical form. Pilgrims may come back the same way they arrived, but an ellipse is the metaphor for the whole voyage since “the return road is, psychologically, different from the approach road” (Turner and Turner 1978, 22-23).

Turner started focusing on the phenomenon of pilgrimage after studying African tribal societies and transition rites, discovering a similarity in the sequence structure between pilgrimages and tribal transition rites. Van Gennep’s theory of transition rites, or the rites de passage theory (The Rites of Passage. Gennep 1960), contains three differing phases where a person is transferred from one social status to another during his or her life. He tried to illustrate the boundary line between the phases with “limen”, the Latin word for threshold. Consequently, he states that the rites performed when one is detached from his or her previous position could be called preliminal, those performed during the intermediate phase could be called liminal, and those where the person is taken up into a new circle could be called postliminal (Gothóni, 96).

Thus Turner states that the peripheral nature of pilgrimage sites relates to van Gennep’s theory of transition rites because it reveals the difference between pilgrims’ marginality and the centrality of state, capitals, and any other ecclesiastical centers (Turner 1996; 195-96). Turner elaborated van Gennep’s theory and defined the liminal phase as “a period betwixt and between the categories of ordinary social life” (Turner 1996, 273). He emphasized that sacred journeys have several elements of liminality (the state of being away from the familiar) in their transition rites. There is the short-term release from the constrictive everyday routine; release from stress, worry, and guilt; movement from the ordinary center to a sacred periphery; equality of status; simplicity of clothing and behavior; reflection on the sense of religious and cultural values; the ritualized performance of communication between religious models and shared human experience; and experience of sister- and brotherhood (Turner and Turner 1978; 34).

Although there are similarities in sequence structure between pilgrimage and a transition rite, they are not the same, as Turner incorrectly concluded. There is a huge difference in function and purpose. The function of the transition rite for the individual is to make it easier for him or her to reach the new social status and serves the integration of this person into society. Pilgrimage, on the other hand, is to help the person to get rid of worry and fear and/or bring him or her closer to a higher power such as the Christian God or nirvana as in Buddhism. The differences are obvious: pilgrimage has a return, whereas a transition rite is a predestined step, unalterable as it is unavoidable and obligatory. In addition, it is the free choice of an individual to go on a pilgrimage whenever or wherever the person wants to do so (Gothóni 136).

The period of being away from structure (‘the liminal period’) is characterized by the existence of a so-called “communitas” (from the Latin word for fellowship and social bond) relationship among participants. Turner differentiates between three types of communitas because he considered the social bond on a pilgrimage to be of considerable import. These types are, according to Turner:

1) existential or spontaneous communitas, in which those involved think of humankind as an homogeneous, unstructured, and free community;
2) normative communitas, which describes the original spontaneous communitas organized into an enduring social system; this system develops from the need to organize resources and the necessity of “social control” for the group members. It is not a mere utilitarian group, for its collective aims contain religious and ethical codes as well as political regulations.
3) ideological communitas, the utopian model of society created by their architects to illustrate the optimal circumstances for existential communitas (Turner 1996, 169).

In my opinion, the moment of communitas is the crucial point within a pilgrimage because it equalizes all pilgrims as their worldly social status evaporates. The journey is an experience of strong fellowship, sometimes friendship , with all of one mind. Complete solidarity, togetherness and kinship represent the underpinnings of communitas. Given its tendency toward cross-cultural generalization, many scholars understandably reacted with discontent to this theory. The most common critique states that Turner’s model of communitas is not likely to be universal. Further critiques maintain that understanding the procedure of pilgrimage as a transfer from structure to anti-structure and back stands for a condensed view because pilgrimage is reduced to the phenomenon of solidarity and communitas, whereas the importance should lie far beyond the actual travels of the pilgrims. Unquestionably, pilgrims sometimes feel strong affinity for their fellows and build new friendships, but these occurrences are rather side-effects than the main features. However, pilgrims maintain an individual social structure. In fact, the nature of these social ties is predictable since all the participants share similar religious values, which often build the background of pilgrimage in the first place. Moreover, many experts such as Gothóni have claimed that the term communitas seems awkward, unfortunate and not very academic (Gothóni 139).

Turner was in search of the specific quality which differentiates and characterizes pilgrimages. He argues that the pilgrim or “the believing actor” wishes to experience the sacred itself in the physical sense of healing or in the immaterial aspect of the transformation of personality or spirit. In Turner’s opinion the

actor-pilgrim is confronted by sequences of sacred objects and participates in symbolic activities which he believes are efficacious in changing his inner and, sometimes, hopefully, outer condition from sin to grace, or sickness to health. He hopes for miracles and transformations, either of soul or body… No longer is the pilgrim’s sense of the sacred private; it is a matter of objectified, collective representations which become virtually his whole environment and give him powerful motives of credence. Not only that, but the pilgrim’s journey becomes a paradigm for other kinds of behavior—ethical, political, and other (Turner 1996, 197-198).

Turner saw pilgrimage not as a social process but as the transformation from one level of spirituality to another. Conclusively, this transformation must be the one specific quality which characterizes pilgrimages, just as transition typifies the transition rites. Unsurprisingly, Turner was impressed by the obvious similarity in sequence structure. His remark that the return road of a pilgrimage is psychologically different from the approach road is a noteworthy observation. It underlines binary opposites such as departure – return, deficit – deficits gone, old person – new person, death – rebirth, impure – pure, illness – cure and lost – found (Gothóni 140-141). All in all, the impulse for going away seems to be some kind of lack, failing or weakness within the “old structure”, which the pilgrim wants to improve or dispose of by participating in the sacred journey.

Certainly, the intensity of transformation, ranging from ecstatic to moderate, is different from pilgrim to pilgrim since everybody is an individual with individualized needs and perspectives. Consequently, persons judging themselves as “heavy sinners” may feel an overly joyous release, whereas the “normal sinners” go through a more sober experience. A good example to illustrate this contrast is the picture of a person taking a bath. The dirtier the person was, the cleaner he or she feels afterwards. For example, ritual bathing is a significant part of pilgrimage, especially in Hindu tradition. It is the same there: the bigger the contrast, the more miraculous the feeling afterwards.

The feeling of cleanliness in this context is not just a spiritual or mental one , but a physical one as well. Therefore, the act of ritual bathing may also symbolize the process of death and rebirth. Miracles really are expected to occur at a pilgrimage site; whenever someone is cured, pilgrims are sure that a miracle has happened (Turner and Turner 1978, 6). An everyday example illustrates the transformation from suffering to bliss: everybody identifies with toothaches and the wonderful feeling that occurs when they suddenly stop. It is like the inevitable sign for the shift from the old persona to the new persona (Gothóni 142). Hence the person who starts the return road is a new person, symbolically reborn. Sometimes rebirth might even have happened in a physical way, when the person was cured of an illness. The return stands for the ultimate transformation and completion of the pilgrimage.

4. The Phenomenon of Religious Pilgrimage

This section is about religion as a motivation for pilgrimage. I will elaborate on the phenomenon of religious pilgrimage and talk about facts dealing with the topic in world religious beliefs on a smaller scale. The most common kind of pilgrimage is the religiously-inspired journey to a sacred site. Usually, it is already incorporated into an old tradition and plays an important part in the particular religion.

Even though pilgrimage sites have become tourist destinations in the 20th century, a religious motivation is also considered the most respected, since a pop concert visitor is not widely considered to be a classic pilgrim. Faith and belief in a religion or, more commonly, in a god or a monotheistic God, or in a place connected to a transcendental power, is also the source, if not the root, of pilgrimage. Something might have happened at the site; a religion’s founder might have performed miracles or died there. It does not really matter because it is the power and the magic pilgrims want to experience, to feel and see. There may or may not be fanatics on pilgrimage routes; in my opinion, it does not count who is going or how many participate. It is an individual matter for each person, an act and life decision which a human being makes. The question is, what constitutes religious pilgrimage? Is it only the journey to Mecca, to Lourdes, to Canterbury? Or could we even say that the ritual walk to a hometown church is a little pilgrimage? Do the people involved have to suffer somehow so that it can be called a pilgrimage at all?

The answer is difficult and unlikely to be fully determined in this paper since every believer or pilgrim would have different opinions about such questions. Furthermore, interesting conflicts would arise between Catholics and Protestants , as well as between varied Protestant denominations, for they might have contradictory views about the whole subject. Generally, I believe that there are indeed differences in the individual reasoning behind each spiritual journey. Some people expect real curative effects. They believe they will be healed by a transcendental power when they visit a pilgrimage site. Others simply go and see. They are believers, but they go because others within their “peer group” do the same, possibly for traditional reasons, since their ancestors had done so before. Some people believe that they obtain something else out of pilgrimage - not a healing power to cure physical problems, but something that will change their lives. They do not expect to obtain concrete help, but are convinced that they might actually encounter God. Then there are locals who experience more intense emotions and religious sentiments because of their close proximity to the pilgrimage site.

4.1 Traditional Religious Pilgrimage

Sacred pilgrimages have taken place since the early days of human history. They gained much significance with the emergence and development of world religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism). They can be perceived as the oldest form of non-economically-motivated travel, although they were also enhanced by contemporaneous trade routes. Pilgrimage activity has gone through a varied development over the course of history. Many things have transpired, including calm periods as well as confusion and turmoil due to wars, which influenced the flow of pilgrims (Bhardwaj, Rinschede 11). Today pilgrimages are surprisingly still very popular, either despite or due to secularization, syncretism, and religious changes. One must keep in mind here that new religions are born all the time and that Islam, for example, spreads rapidly.

Ostensibly, effort and pain have always been important aspects of pilgrimage. The more the difficulties experienced on the journey, the better the blessing obtained through the pilgrimage. Even today the huge distances covered to visit a sacred place represent an essential element of pilgrimage. In the early days, pilgrims traveled primarily on foot. Traveling to remote destinations caused particularly great pain and effort. Rich people reached famous pilgrimage centers like Rome or Palestine on horseback. To achieve even better spiritual satisfaction, strict pilgrims of all major faiths tried to increase the strain of their journey and worsen their circumstances. Today many pilgrims in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal still cover the last part of the journey on their knees as in medieval times. Some even measured the distance of the pilgrimage with their body length and managed to move great distances in this demanding and painful manner. In Western societies (namely, within Europe and North America) the strains of pilgrimage have decreased enormously or even disappeared (Bhardwaj, Rinschede 14-15). Due to modern means of mass transportation and increased mobility (e.g. by the growing amount of cars), it has become convenient, easier and more affordable for many people to visit pilgrimage destinations within a few days or hours, whereas weeks, months or even years of uncomfortable traveling were needed in the past (Bhardwaj, Rinschede 11).

Various late 20th-century estimations assert that between 130 and 200 million people took part in pilgrimages every year. Of these , approximately 75 percent are Christians and the rest are Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and others. Roughly 25 percent of Christian pilgrims converge on the twenty most famous sites within their faith. Similarly, fifteen prominent Islamic sacred sites attract many Moslems. Mecca alone, the most eminent holy place, accounts for roughly 30 percent of these pilgrims (Bhardwaj, Rinschede 11).


Great Christian places of pilgrimage within the Roman Catholic Church can be found in Europe as well as in the Americas. Rome, Jerusalem, Lourdes, and Fátima are internationally significant locations. Washington , D.C. in the USA, Guadalupe and San Juan in Mexico, Copacabana in Bolivia and Czestochowa in Poland are some typical national pilgrimage centers. Salt Lake City in the Western United States is of national and international importance within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) (Bhardwaj, Rinschede 11).


Excerpt out of 58 pages


Places of Pilgrimage
University of Osnabrück  (FB Anglistics)
2,5 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Pilgrimage, usually seen within a strictly religious context, can be more usefully viewed as a voyage motivated by emotion, a search for meaning and a craving to express one's community of belief at a special place. Therefore, the particular place is a location of spiritual union where pilgrims share transcendental experience and/or proximity to a divinity, human being or sacred event. Naturally, pilgrimage performed for religious reasons has a traditional character, but one should not assume mistakenly that sacred journeys will disappear because science and technology are expanding. Actually, our ?computer age? might increase spiritual actions and initiate an even greater longing for religious devotion. One of the main questions I will work on deals with this issue. A commonly prevalent perception still associates pilgrimage with traditional cultures and people in the ?Old World? of Europe. This shallow view does not account for the complexity of this devout act, which includes not only pilgrimage to conventional sites but also that stemming from various individual motivations.... and so on!
Stonehenge, World Trade Center, Traditional Religions, Canterbury, Indigenous, Pop Culture, Graceland, Civil Religions and Sacred Places of National Significance, Elvis Presley, Pilgerstätten, USA, Ground Zero, Twin Towers, 11. September 2001, 9/11, Machu Picchu
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H.-A. Theilen (Author), 2002, Places of Pilgrimage, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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