According to Wikipedia, the definition of "Pilgrimage":

"Is a journey often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about their self, others, nature or a higher good, through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life."

Wikipedia's definition is rather encompassing, however, I have understood a "pilgrimage" to be almost exclusively religious in meaning. In Islam, there is the Hajj or annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. For Christians, there is a "pilgrimage" to the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which ends with a visit to The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and for Roman Catholics, in particular, there is a "pilgrimage" to the Vatican, as well as a "pilgrimage" to the Cathedral of Santiago/(Saint James) in Northwest Spain. And of course there many other "pilgrimage" sites around the world representing different religious faiths.

But, what about non-religious "pilgrimages"....do they really exist? In our contemporary age, we use coarse sounding words, such as, "travel" or "vacation"-(in part, because Americans are only allowed, on average, about 2 weeks of "vacation" time). How often do you hear Americans-(or Westerners, in general) say, "I am on a quest" or "I am undertaking a pilgrimage to a sacred destination"....probably not too often. And rarely will you hear, " I am on a pilgrimage to a secular shrine".

Can one undertake a genuine "pilgrimage" to a non-religious shrine or significant secular site?-(i.e. a historic battlefield site, a National Cemetery, the birthplace of an Independence movement, the Laboratory of a famous Scientist, the classroom of a famous Lecturer; for example, if you are a Physics Enthusiast, a "pilgrimage" to Galileo's lecture hall at The University of Padua where he taught for 20 years....and his podium is still standing!). Would any of these examples qualify as a "pilgrimage" or as a type of secular destination designed to transform the way you view Historical Time and Reality, as well helping you become more mature about the world at large?

  • 5
    This is not a philosophy question. You want a literary group or possibly a group that discusses dictionary definitions. Jun 20 '21 at 9:39
  • 1
    I respectfully disagree with the above comment. This is very much a philosophy based question and it is not solely based on definitional language.
    – Alex
    Jun 20 '21 at 11:52

The English word "theory" comes from the greek word "theoria". The greek word has different senses. Pilgrimage is one of them.

It may help to take as starting point Ian Rutherford's Theoria and Darshan: Pilgrimage and Vision in Greece and India. Rutherford explores the rich constellation of meanings around these two words from two ancient cultures.

[I happen to be from one of these cultures; I hope I can do equal justice to both; please correct me if not]

The Indian word 'darshan' can mean simply to see, or slightly more spiritually to see a god in a temple or holy spot (at end of a pilgrimage). Even further to have a God-experience. And ultimately to reach oneness with God. Realization or sakshatkar.

Theoria in Christianity (as I understand see wikipedia )

Christianity took up the use of both the Greek (theoria) and Latin (contemplatio, contemplation) terminology to describe various forms of prayer and the process of coming to know God.... Some Neoplatonic ideas were adopted by Christianity, among them the idea of theoria or contemplation, taken over by Gregory of Nyssa for example... Contemplation in Gregory is described as a "loving contemplation", and, according to Thomas Keating, the Greek Fathers of the Church, in taking over from the Neoplatonists the word theoria, attached to it the idea expressed by the Hebrew word da'ath, which, though usually translated as "knowledge", is a much stronger term, since it indicates the experiential knowledge that comes with love and that involves the whole person, not merely the mind. Among the Greek Fathers, Christian theoria was not contemplation of Platonic Ideas nor of the astronomical heavens of Pontic Heraclitus, but "studying the Scriptures", with an emphasis on the spiritual sense.

[Rutherford gives a number of different senses in thich theoria is used — sorry Greek is greek to me! Wont try to type it!!]

From wikipedia

Latin contemplatioo or Greek theoria refers to several Christian practices which aim at "looking at", "gazing at", "being aware of" God

Theoria is expressed as "Beauty shall save the world" and is a mystical rather than philosophical or scientific perspective

This same theoria is shown by Rutherford to range in meanings from festival to going for the festival to a sacred delegation and more specialized references to the oracles.

It is from the "going to the sacred festival" sense that the link between theoria and pilgrimage arises.

So if go back from "pilgrimage" to "theoria" we get a constellation of meanings going from: Vision of God to prayer and meditation to gazing upon (for ones edification) and there seems the association that the uncertainties and hardships of a travel for this purpose ie pilgrimage are included in the sense of theoria


The essence of a pilgrimage is to seek out subtle, sublime, or transcendent knowledge or experience. One goes on a pilgrimage with the specific intent of being raised up. As such it falls largely under the purview of faith.

While I wouldn't exclude the concept of a secular pilgrimage, the concept is a bit oxymoronic. Under what contexts would seeing Galileo's lecture hall or the Large Hadron Collider fill one with a sense of supernal awe? A national cemetery might come closer, to the extent that opens one to the broader scope and flow of historical forces, binding the emotion of patriotism to something far greater than oneself. A national park might be closer still, since it allows one to connect with the glory of nature as a whole. But still... The secular world is by definition 'worldly': focused on practical knowledge, important information, technical accomplishments; fun and profit. The scalar world doesn't lend itself to the experience of awe, and often leaves us too preoccupied and distracted to grasp that experience.

  • Interesting answer. I tend to agree with you, however, I believe the Galileo example does have some legitimacy. What I was trying to say with regard to Galileo and the University of Padua lecture hall was in relation to one's intellectual or professional identity-(this being the key word). In other words, can one undertake a "pilgrimage" to a place, such as Padua, whereby his or identity-(let's say as a Physicist or perhaps as an Italian with great historical pride) is "raised up."? Perhaps a Physicist, "Physics Enthusiast" or an Italian with great historical pride when visiting.......
    – Alex
    Jun 26 '21 at 18:42
  • visiting Galileo's lecture hall at The University of Padua, can have a unique exploratory experience that can transcend the actual presence of Galileo's lecture hall. Maybe in seeing Galileo's lecture hall, the Physicist, "Physics Enthusiast" or an Italian with great historical pride, can tour this famous lecture hall and have a deeply personal sojourning-like experience that goes beyond mere travel. Again, I tend to agree with your analysis of the word, "pilgrimage", though I would not necessarily dismiss the possibility of expanding its meaning to include important secular destinations.
    – Alex
    Jun 26 '21 at 18:50
  • Thanks for your comments; it is greatly appreciated.
    – Alex
    Jun 26 '21 at 18:51

As well as the Hajj, Magh Melas are a particularly interesting example of a pilgrimage. These are social experiences, and I would look to Durkheim to understand their role in building social cohesion, through the enactment of shared attitudes to sacred things. So you might describe 'being a citizen of Black Rock City', making the commitment to regular pilgrimage to Burning Man festival, in this light.

Visiting the birthplace or place of death of someone significant, is probably a cultural universal. Whether a family member or a holy person. Perhaps you have even done it yourself. This might be the oldest kind of pilgrimage - homo naledi seem to have created a burial chamber that would have been an extraordinary ordeal to reach, surely a kind of pilgrimage.

Atonement is part of melas, hajj, and many other pilgrimages, like circling Mount Kailash. Taking up a burden, a kind of penance, and showing fortitude - the entire journey to a Hindu yatra was meant to be done barefoot, to experience the full benefit. Perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to link the sponsored activities people do to this, climbing mountains, doing an Iron Man, or a 99 year old doing 100 laps of his garden before turning 100. There is a demonstration, a manifestation, of commitment to a cause, to take up a burden for it. These sponsored activities are often done by people that lost someone to a disease to raise money to cure it, so there is even a kind of absolution being won, if not for themselves then for future others to maybe suffer less.

In Notra Dame De La Garde in Marseilles, there are hundreds of paintings on the walls, of boats. These are boats where sailors in storms prayed to the holy mother for salvation, and made a donation to the church and commissioned a painting to show thanks. John Newton who wrote Amazing Grace experienced a very severe storm at sea, and felt his prayer for mercy was recieved, so converted from slave trader to abolitionist. Experiencing very extreme situations, being near to death say, can lead people to put things into perspective, and evoke a commitment to do something that expresses that, which I would say shares at least kinship with pilgramage, and goes beyond specific religions.

Holy mountains are a big thing in China, with a set holy to Daoists, and a slightly different but overlapping set for Buddhists. Hindu temples usually have a structure representing mount Meru, the centre of the cosmos. Stupas and pagodas are said to represent mountains and ascent to higher states. In Chinese Buddhism the word for mountain is so associated with monasteries that it is always appended to them, partly because during periods of persecution of Buddhism mountains were places to hide, and also because they had always been places for hermits and wuist sorcerors to retreat from society so contention for followers to make pilgrimage to happened there (synchretism). Mount Olympus, and Uluru, are other examples of liminal spaces between cosmic beings and the ordinary world. So maybe a pilgrimage to the Galapagos islands, or safari in Africa, might have something in common. Depending how it is approached, also visiting coral reefs, or mountain climbing:

The Sublime, painting

Which links to the philosophy of experiencing 'the sublime' more widely - like illustrated in The Wrath Of The Sea. I think of surfers making the pilgramage to Pipeline Beach in Hawaii. Visiting Angel Falls, Victoria Falls, or Niagara, or Gul Foss.

"That sleepen all the night with open eye,

So priketh them Nature in their courages,

Then longing are folk to go on on pilgrimages,

And palmers for to seek strange shores,

To foreign shrines, known in sundry lands;

And specially, from every shires ende

Of England, to Canterbury they wende,

The holy blessed martyr for to seek,

That him hath helped when that they were sick."

-opening of The Canturbury Tales

The Canturbury Tales subversively undermines the reasons people gave for going on pilgrimages. I can't help but think they have always been used as an excuse for going on holiday, a motivation we are still in sympathy with.

  • Out of curiosity, would you view New Age Spiritual Groups who tour English historic sites, such as Stonehenge or Glastonbury, as their version of undertaking a "pilgrimage"?
    – Alex
    Jul 5 '21 at 0:01
  • @Alex: I'd put visiting Stone Henge in the first category as a festival or social activity - you can only go to the stones themselves on summer solstice, a right won in the courts on the basis of religious freedom (by the modern group of pagans that call themselves druids). Glastonbury festival, like Burning Man. Glastonbury Tor, Chalice Well, and other sites like the Ring Of Brodgar, it depends how people approach them, certainly it can be a pilgrimage. I was named while being held up in a thunderstorm on Glastonbury Tor as a baby, made a special journey to go back aged 21 which was for me.
    – CriglCragl
    Jul 5 '21 at 0:09
  • Very interesting story you have with regard to Glastonbury. We have a few historical destinations/pilgrimages in the States, though they don't date as far back as Glastonbury and certainly not as far back as Stonehenge.
    – Alex
    Jul 5 '21 at 1:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.