Inspirational Question of the Week: Pilgrimage

On the suggestion of a friend of mine (Hello V.M.!), I’m going to post a question, once a week, to this blog for people to discuss with me and with each other. For I am committed to the idea that our most significant philosophical ideas emerge from our conversations, dialogues, and relationships – when such dialogue is carried forth with good heart and enquiring mind.

For a first question, it befits the theme of The North West Passage to talk about something to do with travel and adventure. So let us speak of Pilgrimage, and of all things Pilgrimage can mean.

I am generally in favour of pilgrimage as a spiritual undertaking, and I think that the contemporary pagan movement may be much enriched if we encourage each other to visit a few “original” (you know what I mean) pagan sacred places at least once in our lives. It would probably be unhelpful, and perhaps also contrary to the individualistic character of much pagan discourse, to phrase the encouragement in the form of a law-like demand. It might be preferable to voice this encouragement in the form of a purpose-specific option: if you have a particular spiritual reason, such as a need for some kind of healing or empowerment or knowledge, or passage into a new stage of life, then you may be benefited by a pilgrimage to such-and-such a place.

About a dozen years ago, I argued that those who have committed themselves to a Druidic path should visit a Celtic holy place, at least once in their lives, and spend time there, to better understand the ideas and experiences that the path is supposed to embody. Some who read that argument inferred that I was claiming that those who have not visited a Celtic holy place cannot call themselves Druids. And thus they got rather cross. I think it’s safe to assume those critics didn’t understand the point I was trying to make.

Let us entertain the possibility that a culture of pilgrimage, with all that it can entail: a folklore and literature of traveler’s tales, the construction of shrines at pilgrimage destinations, etc., may well benefit pagan culture generally. Other religions have such ideas in their cultures. Everyone knows about the Hajj by now, but it is not the only sacred pilgrimage that people have done. For instance among Hindus there is great merit to be gained by one who visits four special temples in India at least once in their lives – I don’t recall which exactly, but that they are positioned in the four geographic quarters of the country.

I wonder what places do you, good readers of my blog, recommend for pilgrimage? Are some places to be sought out for particular purposes? Which matters most: the destination, or the work of getting there?

I was recently inspired by my re-discovery of “The Pilgrim”, an orchestral suite composed by Shawn Davies. Here’s the only sample I was able to find on YouTube: entitled “A Ghrian”, it is an old Scottish prayer in honour of the sun. I’m also inspired by Heather Dale’s The Road to Santiago – my copy of which seems to have gone missing.

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13 Responses to Inspirational Question of the Week: Pilgrimage

  1. erynn999 says:

    Even though it was part of a commercial tour (well, as commercial as traveling with Emerald Rose can be…), I did view my trip to Ireland as a pilgrimage of sorts. We visited stone circles, Pol na Bron, holy wells, and Inis Mรณr. While the rest of the tour went to Dun Aengus on the island, I rented a bicycle with my roommate and went to visit a family there that I was referred to by an Irishwoman living in Seattle. We were welcomed in and taken down the hill to walk the labyrinth they’d built in a field below their home. While I’m sure I would have enjoyed the tour at Dun Aengus, to be able to spend time with local folks and participate in their personal Paganism was of immense value to me.

    I posted photos and some discussion on the trip back when I was in Ireland and after I returned. My next goal for a spiritual pilgrimage is to visit the Isle of Skye if I’m able, not because of any particular sacred site there, but just to be there in a place where Gaidhlig is spoken, as Irish was in the pub at Inis Mรณr.

    For me, pilgrimage can mean a lot of things, not just visiting a particular sacred site. Pilgrimage can be the process of undertaking a journey for the sake of a journey. Let us remember that one of the “martyrdoms” of Irish Christianity was “exile for the sake of God” — and that such a peregrination can be focused as a devotional activity for Paganism as well. This “exile” has no specific goal, any more than the “rowing about” of immrama had a particular goal. One casts oneself adrift on the waves, upon the tides of life, and lets the Gods take one where they will. Fixed goals may not be necessary, only the marking of one’s passage.

    Lay a stone on a pile and walk along.

  2. alfrecht says:

    I’m in fundamental agreement with you on this idea…

    , back at PantheaCon ’07, gave a really excellent presentation on “Spiritual Tourism,” which is essentially what pilgrimage amounts to (no matter how much some may feel the term is derisive…it’s always been that, right down to souvenirs being vended at the sites, etc.).

    I did a pilgrimage to several of the sites along Hadrian’s Wall back in July of ’03, and it was one of the most intense and wonderful experiences of my life thus far. I was there for about three days, and probably did more walking an exercise on a daily basis (including visits each morning and night to the swimming pool) during those few days than I would normally do in a month. I had so much energy each night that I was awake until 2 or 3 writing and thinking about what I’d seen, and was up again ready for more at 6:30 AM, feeling totally refreshed and energetic. I had a small ritual in the temple of Antenociticus (the remains of whose statue is my icon here) on the last day, cleaned up the temple of litter…and it turned out a symbolically significant constellation for this particular spiritual path also had a number of novae over those days I was there, including three on the day of my ritual. Excellent stuff!

    I’m wondering what your definition of a “Celtic sacred site” is, though. I’ve been to many of these (at least in the popular perception), and yet very few of them are actually “Celtic.” Newgrange, for example–its importance remained and persisted in Irish lore, most certainly, long after it was no longer accessible and its exact working and significance weren’t known, and yet it is most certainly not Celtic. Many sites of significance are gone, and others are so regulated as far as access, etc. goes, it’s very difficult to tap into the sense of the original…Emain Macha, for example; Tara, to a lesser extent (and, by chance, I went to both on the same day back in ’05 with an excursion from the Ulster Cycle Conference in Maynooth)…

  3. “The Pilgrim” is one of my favorite pieces, too, and if “Broichan and Columba” doesn’t raise power for you and the hackles on your neck, you’re mindblind. I assume you also know “The Brendan Voyage”, one of my favorite orchestral pieces ever . . .

    As for pilgrimage sites: Callanish, on the Isle of Lewis; the Rollright Stones; Karnak, in Brittany; Santiago de Compostela; Rosslyn Chapel; the Giants Causeway; Tara Hill; Newgrange; Tintagel.

    How’s that for a start?

  4. >I wonder what places do you, good readers of my blog, recommend for pilgrimage? Are some places to be sought out for particular purposes?

    I’d say yes, it makes the most sense in pagan terms to view different places as having different particular purposes. Even if the particular purpose is as general as “visit something Celtic.” In relation to these particular purposes, a list of recommended place could emerge. I’d like to see a list of ones for the purpose of connecting to the local sacredness of North America.

    When I visited Japan’s Mt Osore (Mt “Fear”), a volcano crater like known as a place to commune with the spirits of ancestors, and also being a place where earth, sky, water, and fire all come together, it certainly had the personal feel of “pilgrimage” for the specific purpose of taking my dedicant’s oath.

    >Which matters most: the destination, or the work of getting there?

    Personally I would say the work of getting there is most important, but the destination must also have some power of attraction.

  5. alvita_felis says:

    About a dozen years ago, I argued that those who have committed themselves to a Druidic path should visit a Celtic holy place, at least once in their lives, and spend time there, to better understand the ideas and experiences that the path is supposed to embody.

    What about Hellenic druids? ๐Ÿ™‚ Ok, ADF is a rather specific case because even though the most spread hearth culture we have is Celtic we are basically pan Indoeuropean, liberal recontructionists.

    Ethnical questions aside, I have always considered visiting ancient places and meditating there to be an integral part of my spirituality. I have learned there more about Nature Spirits, Outdwellers and the Ancestors than from anything else. My country has been colonized by the Celts, the Germanic tribes and the Slavs in waves. There is a rich history embodied in the landscape.

    OH!! My stupid cultural prejudice… I didn’t realize that you are talking from an American point of view where you obviously *don’t have* Celtic oppida in your backyard. Well, then visiting Native places would be an option.

    • admin says:

      Well actually I’m speaking from a Canadian point of view ๐Ÿ™‚ But also from the view of one who lived and worked in Ireland for many years.

      When I presented the idea that everyone should visit a Celtic holy place once in their lives, I was still living in Galway at the time. All my Irish friends understood me perfectly and thought the idea natural and uncontroversial. Many of my American friends, however, thought I was being judgmental.

      However, having said that, since I live in Ontario now I obviously don’t have Celtic or pre-Celtic monuments nearby. Visiting Aboriginal sites is one possibility, although that can create additional complications: if I were to use a Native site for my own purposes, I might justifyably be accused of cultural appropriation. I believe a book was published recently, entitled “Talking about the Elephant”, which addresses such problems, although I haven’t read it yet.

  6. ninthraven says:

    I work with a group that is focusing on local community — the spirits that inhabit the land we live in now, since we come from a variety of traditions. We have an annual group pilgrimage to the source of the river that runs through our city. It is about a four hour car drive into another state and terrain much different than the coastal plain we live in.

    The first year we loaded up in a mini-van and drove there and back in one day with a ritual and lunch at the site. Since then, we have made the journey a weekend retreat staying at a cabin about 1 hour away from the site — there isn’t much at the actual site.

    We take the pilgrimage at the Spring Equinox, and the intent is two-fold — to bless the source of the waters as they begin to flow down with the winter thaw, and to renew ourselves spiritually as we begin to move into the seasons of growth.

    At the spring that is the river’s source, we have a blessing ritual with praise offerings, an offering of a charged stone or crystal, and we take small vials to fill with water to use in rituals for the rest of the year. One year when we had little snow and the source was dry, we poured water over our cold hands and into the pool to give instead of take.

    Yes, there is a lot of “folklore and traveler’s tails” that we have built up over the years going on this pilgrimage. And each year I feel a stronger bond with the source and the other pilgrims.

  7. I would like to visit the island my grandmother (may she be singing with the angels) came from:

    Other than that? Hmmmmmmmmm…

    The GPO in Dublin. (differently holy)

    Remarkable Trees

    Nothing else springs to mind, although if I had unlimited funds I could come up with others I’m sure.

    • samgillogly says:

      “I would like to visit the island my grandmother (may she be singing with the angels) came from”

      Same here, though in my case, it’s my great-great-grandmother’s village on the coastal edge of Kerry. I have cousins who still live in her old cottage, and apparently own a pub in town as well. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I would also love to visit the isle of Bardsey in Cardigan Bay. After reading “Merlin and Wales” by Michael Dames, I’ve felt strongly compelled to go there. The island’s got a lot going for it: the apple groves, tales of Merlin’s glass observatory, the 20,000 saints supposedly buried there… Places with multiple layers of lore from different eras always fascinate me. Peeling back the stories feels like a kind of spiritual archaeology.

  8. marytek says:

    I believe it important to visit the “source” from which my spirituality comes from. As you know I have dabbled with OBOD, but have turned fully to my Baltic roots. Though raised with the cultural customs and practices of my ancestors, the landscape here is very much not Baltic. Once I visited LT I understood from where these cultural practices which I follow come from.. it’s more than just going to a sacred site and meditating, it’s also very much understanding the current extant culture and what its antecedents were. My most moving experience was at Sventoji, 12km south of the LV border – on a sanddune overlooking the Baltic Sea were totems with runic symbols etched into each of them for the various deities, and at the foot of the dune was a recently used altar site.. it was moving because of the utter stillness, and that it was still being used to this day as a place of worship.

    To say one is a Celt/Druid, Norse adherent, Shinto, Heathen etc without visiting the source country is to be very limited. To fully understand one’s spirituality one needs to fully embrace and understand where they come from. One needs to understand and experience the “sacred landscape” so to speak.

    • Anonymous says:

      That source-country argument seems somewhat flawed, though. It assumes that any given pagan path has an identifiable heartland, and I’m not convinced there always is, or should be, one. Those without the resources to visit said “heartland” (and I don’t even know how I would localize that for heathenism) should not be relegated to some construed “second-class drawer” behind those who do have such resources.

      Playing the culture card thusly (for that’s what it is) is tantamount to an appeal to limit one’s ability to experience the divine via certain assumptions: 1) That you have to be in a particular geographical location to really feel divine; 2) that because you have to be in a certain location, your experience of the divine will reflect (and be limited by) the local culture; and 3) that if you somehow have inherent access (such as family heritage) to the “heartland” culture of a pagan path, you are more entitled to participating in it than those who don’t.

      Do you really think that such limitations should be intended? It seems to me that pagans – if we’re really serious about that divinity-within concept – should aspire to the idea that where you are is sacred, not that you’re sacred depending on where you’ve been or come from.


  9. Anonymous says:


    One of my favorite books is “Pilgrimage in Ireland: The Monuments and the People” by Peter Harbison. I have never had the privilege and blessing of going to Ireland, but I love the mountains of Colorado where I live.

    As an experiment I took some of the practices of “turas” from the book (mostly Christian in sentiment) and applied it to two of the most inspiring places in nature here in Colorado.

    (I should not here that these places are not considered “powerful” to the Ute tribe, the people indigenous to Colorado. I once attended a lecture by a Ute elder and got from him first hand how tired they were of white folk going in and putting up stone circles and ‘medicine wheels’ in sacred places. I took this to heart and leave their places alone now.)

    Most specifically I emulated the pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick to Horn Peak in the Sangre De Christos. Amazing experience, really damn hard in bare feet, but the sunrise was one I will never forget. Ever. One of those occasions where I really felt I touched the gods.

  10. Anonymous says:


    Great Idea. My intention was to go and visit the places that inspired my path. My hold back was no passport, and no money to go that far. But, after your slide show at the Gaia Gathering in 2006 in Halifax, I became really inspired to go and walk the grounds there. I want to go, and would love to do the walking/hiking/backpacker version, but I cannot convince my hubby camping is the way to go (gosh knows that I am used to cold.)

    Travelling really is the only way to get to know how other cultures think and organize themselves. In fact, it is truly the only way that one gets the regionalism that is going on in Canada.

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