Pilgrimages and journeys

I’ve always thought the idea of pilgrimage fascinating, as have many many others, since pilgrimage happens in a lot of religions and cultures. There’s even a two volume encyclopedia called Pilgrimage: from the Ganges to Graceland andmany books. If you do a search in GVRL, you can find articles on pilgrimage in Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, spanning most of the globe, even in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. And it’s been going on for a long time, back to the ancient world. In literature, think of Canterbury Tales andPilgrim’s Progress. Contemporary pilgrimage destinations that have ancient origins include JerusalemMeccaMount Shan (China), and the Ganges.

What I always associate with pilgrimage, sort of a romantic notion perhaps, is a spiritual / psychological transformation that takes place when you leave everything behind. It’s easier to change when your personal geography is changing every day. The physical and psychological sort of merge. It has quite an allure. Of course there’s always that reaching your destination and getting back part that can be problematic. (But I’m probably confusing a pilgrimage with an escape.) Here’s a nice overview article from the Encyclopedia of Religion on pilgrimage. Here’s an article on Sacred Places from the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Catholic Church defines pilgrimage as “generally a journey to a holy place undertaken from motives of devotion in order to obtain supernatural help or as an act of penance or thanksgiving.” I’ll bet that definition works for many religious traditions. But I don’t think pilgrimage needs to be thought of as strictly a religious phenomenon. Think of Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus was set upon by fate and the gods on his homeward journey to Ithaca. Or think of Aeneas, fleeing from the carnage of Odysseus and the Greeks to found the city of Rome. Why did the ancients find journeys so fascinating? Or think of the pilgrims of England journeying from the “civilized” to the raw, innocent, and “primitive”. Richard Slotkin has written some interesting stuff about this. Or think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Sheen in Apocalypse Now(or Brando, who could forget that?), or 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal, Dave, and Frank.

Finally, I recently heard about two fascinating books by Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who has worked with a lot of Vietnam veterans. The first is calledAchilles in Vietnam, the second Odysseus in America. He uses the Iliad and the Odyssey to explain the journey of the soldier, first in the horror of combat and then on the long road home. It’s not easy.

—Fred Rowland

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