Pilgrimage is one of the oldest and most widespread forms of human activity there is. Not along is pilgrimage practised in all major world religions - Buddhism, Christianity (particularly Catholicism), Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism (although, it is a disputed practice) – but it has also been a feature of all known major religions and cults in the past.
Furthermore, pilgrimage is now seen as having moved beyond religious definitions with the emergence of different types of pilgrimage, such as those centred on the cultural sphere (e.g. Graceland or Disneyland), on nationalism (e.g. monuments, graves, battlefields) or on personal motivations (visiting or returning an important place, or a migrant coming home).
Pilgrimage, despite its prominence and changing-nature, can be seen to have a number of key characteristics that define it and differentiate from other forms of human behaviour. While these elements maybe found in other activities, it is their combination that make pilgrimage so unique.
Movement: Pilgrimage is a performed activity that is traditionally associated with a long-distance journey and different rituals. As a phenomenon, it is basically about physical movement. Pilgrims travel to a certain place. In this setting, the journey is considered to be an important part, if not the most important part. For example, thousands of pilgrims annually trek across the Camino of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, with the journey being seen as the defining element.
Place: The sites and routes of pilgrimage are all located somewhere. Pilgrimage is inherently spatial. There is a particular place that is the destination; frequently, there are particular routes one must follow; and, there are stations of prayer and ritual. Specific places are considered to be holy, that is, they are different from normal places and are worthy of being visited. The sacred nature of the location is usually due to some supernatural event, such as a the presence of a deity or a divine/holy figure, or an apparition or a miracle. Mecca or Guadalupe, Mexico, for example, are treated differently to other places, they are distinct and special.
Meaning: There is a deep motivation and understanding at the core of pilgrim. It involves the belief in something and the search for an authentic, meaningful experience. Traditionally, religious or spiritual pilgrims were motivated by desires to encounter the divine, to do penance for transgressions or to gain some spiritual or corporal favour. Hindus bath in the waters of the Ganges river in Northern India to wash away their sins. Motivation or meaning also define secular pilgrimage. Those journeying to the war graves or battlefields of WWI or to Graceland are equally inspired by a belief in something.
Transformation: A transformative or otherwise significant experience is part of pilgrimage. People travel to encounter something outside of their ordinary lives. The journey and the challenges associated with it are designed to prepare you for the main site. On returning from pilgrimage, the pilgrim is supposed to be spiritual renewed, essentially returning as a new person who has been transformed through their experience.
Embodiment: Pilgrimages are very physical and corporeal things. They centre on bodies. They involve long journeys and complex rituals. Pilgrims walk long-distances, they pray in certain ways, they fast or eat prescribed foods, they wear certain clothing, they bath. When pilgrims cannot engage in the general activities, frequently due to illness or age, an extra significance is attached, as pilgrimage sites are often visited by people who are unwell and they are given a special place in proceedings – for example, in Lourdes, France
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Nolan, M.L., Nolan, S., 1992. Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe. University of North Carolina Press.
Reader & T. Walter, eds. Pilgrimage in Popular Culture. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, pp. 29–62.
Coleman, S. & Elsner, J., 1995. Pilgrimage : past and present in the world religions, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.