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An instinctive longing to move with the seasons has been with us since before we were human. The call to pilgrimage can be as profound as such an instinct. When we are called to go on pilgrimage we enter into a special relationship with landscape, time and place that hallows both Way and Wayfarer in a way that can only be understood through personal experience. A pilgrimage can deepen our relationship with place, and is also profoundly balancing and grounding, no doubt that is why so many are called to it after experiencing a life change, loss of a loved one or a spiritual experience. The calling can take many forms. A longing, a desire to learn about a deity associated with a particular place, synchronicities that all point at the same destination, or just a slow growing idea that takes shape over months or even years. The important thing is our response. In a sense, preparing for a long pilgrimage involves letting go of a previous self (often in a very real way, leaving jobs, homes, family and security behind) and making room for a new self to emerge.
The Archetypal Pilgrim
Walking a pilgrimage route is a powerful way to connect with the archetypal wanderer.
In theory, anywhere could be a pilgrimage destination, but there seems to be something within us that wants to travel to places that have been significant to many people for a long time. Glastonbury, Stonehenge and Avebury are the obvious places for Pagan Pilgrims in the UK, but any book on Sacred Sites will turn up more possibilities. The existing network of long-distance footpaths can be helpful in designing pilgrimage routes, especially as many (e.g. the Ridgeway) pass close to ancient monuments. Further afield the sacred places of the Classical World also offer opportunities for pilgrimage.
Sharing with Christians
Many of Europe's ancient routes which our ancestors would have walked are currently held in the custody of the Christian Church. Most of these routes have a supporting infrastructure including low cost or free hostels for Pilgrims. We found the majority of people walking these routes are not Christian (and besides, it didn't matter if they were), but all seem to share a common calling to make the journey, often without even knowing why, so don't worry about feeling out of place as a Pagan. You find that you fall in with others who move at the same pace and this companionship and support can become a central aspect of the journey. Of course, solitude can be a teacher too, and the less frequented 'official' routes (e.g. Olav's Way, Via de la Plata etc) offer both supporting infrastructure and solitude. We met just one other Pilgrim in the 450 miles on St Olav's Way in the height of summer.
Most of these 'Christian' routes have a Pre-Christian history for those who wish to find it. The route of the Camino was originally a Greco-Roman route to 'Finistera' (End-of-the-World), which to the Ancients was the most westerly point of the world. From there one could watch the sun set from the Temple of Apollo. Parts of this route were used by our palaeolithic ancestors who migrated to and from the Iberian Peninsula between Ice Ages and who leave traces to this day. The Via Francigena (the path taken by newly consecrated Bishops of Canterbury to Rome) was also the route used by all those travelling from Ancient Britain to Rome and is a satisfying route to walk now, although the Pagan might prefer to end their journey at the Pantheon, rather than Vatican City! Olav's Way to Trondheim in Norway is lined with ancient barrows and stone circles. Although King Olav himself converted to Christianity, Trondheim was the seat of Norse kings even before the Christianisation of Norway, and the Pagan history of the Norse is very much in evidence along the way.
Wherever you choose to go, the most important thing is that the destination is important and meaningful for you; the primal experience of pilgrimage is a personal contact with landscape which lies beyond the definition of any one faith.
How to get there
It's worth remembering that in the past, all pilgrimage started at your own front door, and if you were lucky, ended there! There was no cheap flight to the beginning of an 'Offical' route and no bus home at the end... When we walked to Santiago, we started from our home in Dorset, and the track from the back of the farm is now special to us forever. When we see someone passing that way, we are always reminded of the journey we once made. Up the track, turn right, you'll be in the Pyrenees in a couple of months. On the Camino those we met who had walked from home had a different 'something' about them – perhaps they just knew exactly how far from home they were. Even more so, those who we passed on their return journey. They described the sense of their home first fading from the mind, and now as it came closer again, gaining a deeper understanding of the symbolic importance of home and their journey.
Travelling on foot or by bicycle, being forced to accept the elements, the geography and our relationship to them on a human scale is both humbling and empowering. If the next pub is 20 miles away, you can only get there at the speed you can walk, and that will teach you a lot! Slow travel strangely changes our perspective. The world simultaneously becomes very big, and yet we reclaim the ability that our ancestors took for granted, that, given enough time, we can travel vast distances under our own steam.
We would certainly advise travelling by foot if you possibly can, and crossing large expanses of water by ship rather than plane. Travelling this way allows you to see the seasons and vegetation alter as you change latitude or altitude, to hear and smell everything around you, and there is plenty of time to commune with both ants and eagles. After two or three weeks on the road the journey becomes all encompassing. Everything else becomes strangely unreal and distant. This process is important and cannot be rushed. The emotional and physical ups and downs are accentuated; a blister or running out of food becomes a catastrophe whilst the kindness of a stranger feels like a gift from the Gods! The acceleration and intensification of experience is at the heart of what makes pilgrimage so transformative. There is always an element of sacrifice in pilgrimage, and part of this is the time required to go slowly.
It's not the route taken, but how we travel that transforms a journey from tourism into pilgrimage. The pace of the journey and the process that takes place on the way are what turn us from sightseers into Pilgrims.
Your route will determine to a great degree what you need to take. It is possible to walk many of the more popular routes without taking camping equipment as there are low cost hostels along the way. On other routes it can be expensive to pay for accommodation, besides camping can intensify the experience of immersion in nature. Walkers in Scandinavia can take advantage of Every-Man's Law which grants the right to camp on most uncultivated land. There is one factor however that will affect your physical experience more than perhaps any other and that is the weight that you carry. Too heavy a load is not just tiring but increases the risk of an injury that could force you to abandon your journey.
It's not within the scope of this article to discuss equipment in depth, but suffice to say you need a lot less stuff than you think! When choosing equipment take time to research the alternatives; High Street camping shops will most likely not supply you with the lightest available kit. For example, most 50 litre rucksacks available on the High Street will weigh around 2 kilos, but you can get one for the same price which weighs 600 grams if you shop around (e.g. Golite Pinnacle). Likewise it’s possible to get a two skinned tent which weighs less than 1.5 kilos. Polyamide clothes are much, much lighter and faster drying than cotton and although it sounds nerdy this can make a big difference on the fourth consecutive day of rain! If you want to research this further there are (too?) many websites devoted to the topic of Ultralight Trekking...including a page on ours...
Pilgrim confraternities exist in most countries to advise and assist Pilgrims planning to walk established routes. We found the Confraternity of St James very helpful. They run practical Pilgrim days, social events and publish guidebooks to some routes. Most of these bodies are concerned with Christian Pilgrim routes, especially the Camino (although some also have resources for other routes), but their remit is to help all Pilgrims of whatever faith (or none). Some destinations e.g. Canterbury and St David's have their own Pilgrim offices and staff. There are numerous websites, forums and email lists for various routes. We hope that perhaps in time, as pilgrimage sees a resurgence, sites sacred only to Pagans might come to offer similar facilities and that groups might be set up to support Pagan Pilgrims.
Bibliography and Links
Kate Fletcher and Corwen ap Broch are musicians, instrument makers and craftspeople based in Dorset. They also offer a variety of talks and workshops on music, voice-work, English Traditions and Pilgrimage. See their website for more information: www.ancientmusic.co.uk
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