Pilgrimage, Wolves and Bandits: Camino de Santiago

It’s true, the idea of a pilgrimage is usually associated with a religious ritual or rite of passage: the pilgrimage to Mecca in Islam, the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem in Judaism and The Vatican in Catholicism.


But I am going to help myself to a little creative license here and suggest that any journey or travel can be considered a pilgrimage: and a non-religious one at that.


Vatican, Rome

The Vatican, Rome.



Don’t get too excited. This is not exactly groundbreaking.


It has been discussed before. Most recently at the dinner table in my house amongst a few close friends: an atheist, a Christian and…well, me…who falls somewhere in between.


We very quickly came to the realisation that our ideas of pilgrimage varied significantly. It was even suggested that our entire life journey could be considered a pilgrimage, or series thereof.



Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Camino de Santiago, Spain.



So what is a pilgrim?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pilgrim as such:


–  a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons.

–  a person travelling to a place of particular personal interest: ‘thousands of pilgrims converged in Memphis for the 16th anniversary of Presley’s death’

–  (chiefly literary) a person regarded as journeying through life: ‘we should recognize our status as mere pilgrims in this world’

I recently wrote about walking an alternate route, a road less travelled, along the Camino de Santiago and received quite a few interesting comments about the motivation behind embarking on such a journey: in particular, religious motivation.



Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Camino de Santiago, Spain.



One of the friends from the dinner table discussion will be my travel companion on my next Camino pilgrimage along the Norte route.


Our motivations and expectations are vastly different.


Mine are simply that I would like to go for a nice long walk, eat some good tapas, hopefully have a few creative epiphanies and preferably cross the finish line with mind, body and spirit intact.


Hers are slightly more complex. And while quite spiritual in nature, they are not at all religious.



Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.



Interestingly, even the non-religious who attempt this walk (of whom there are many) openly refer to themselves as pilgrims. And why shouldn’t they?


There are embarking on a journey; they are moving towards something; they have a purpose in mind; they hope to find fulfillment, spiritual or otherwise; and to them, the journey they are making is sacred.


Sounds like a pilgrimage to me.



The Pyrenees. Camino de Santiago, Spain.

The Pyrenees. Camino de Santiago, Spain.



I have made the pilgrimage to Santiago twice and I don’t feel that my journey was any less sacred because of what I do or don’t believe. And despite the lack of religious motivation, it was still a pilgrimage.


Having said that, the impious can learn great deal about travel and pilgrimage from religion: it is, after all, where the idea of making a journey, or pilgrimage, originated.


Philosopher, Alain de Botton talks on this idea in more depth in this incredibly fascinating TED talk about what modern secular society can learn from religion. I love this guy!





Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago since the 10th century but the pilgrimage has become significantly more accessible since then.


Modern day pilgrims don’t have the same concerns as medieval pilgrims:  encountering wolves and bandits and witches is not something most of us need to worry about these days. Blisters, yes. Wild boar, possibly. Wolves, no.



Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Camino de Santiago, Spain.



It is said that the more difficult the journey, the more sacred it becomes. I’m not sure I agree with that, but overcoming obstacles certainly contributes to a sense of fulfillment. Regardless, any journey can become sacred if you choose it to be.


So go forth pilgrims: Wave your staff in any direction and start moving towards it.



Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Camino de Santiago, Spain.



What do you think of the idea of pilgrimage?

Do think a journey can still be considered ‘sacred’ and a pilgrimage even when there is no religious motivation?


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Comments (10)
  • Avatar

    Kim Mar 13 2012 - 2:49 am Reply

    I love the idea of a pilgrimage and I hope to do the Santiago some day. I definitely think that a journey can be sacred even if it isn’t religious- there are many things that make a thing spiritual and religion is only a piece of it (a very small piece of it for some of us- if it is a piece at all!). I’m intrigued by religious pilgrims, though, and that is definitely a part of the appeal of the Santiago for me. What do they feel that I don’t feel? What can I learn from them?
    Kim recently posted..No Nerves In SightMy Profile

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      Quiet Wanderings Mar 18 2012 - 8:55 am Reply

      I am intrigued by religious pilgrims also, Kim. I spoke in depth with a lovely Catholic woman on my last walk along the Camino de Santiago and her motivations and expectations were fascinating to me. Thanks for the comment :)

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    Brie Mar 15 2012 - 12:05 am Reply

    Great article. I will explore the idea of making my next trip a pilgrimage – a fascinating concept. Thank you.

    • Avatar

      Quiet Wanderings Mar 18 2012 - 8:56 am Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Brie. You can make any journey spiritual and a pilgrimage in its own right. Good luck with your next adventure!

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    Natasha @ Wandering Kiwi Mar 18 2012 - 8:25 am Reply

    I love your idea of life’s journeys being a pilgrimage and the more I read your writing and see your photos about the Camino de Santiago the more intrigued I am to do it (suprisingly as it’s never been on my list. James Elroy Flecker always inspires me when I think of travel as pilgrimage:

    “We are the pilgrims master, we shall go
    Always a little further; it may be
    Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
    Across that angry or that glimmering sea

    There lives a man who can tell us why men were born.”
    Natasha @ Wandering Kiwi recently posted..Wandering Kiwi’s ABCs of TravelMy Profile

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      Quiet Wanderings Mar 18 2012 - 9:00 am Reply

      Oh I just know you would love the Camino, Natasha! I love that excerpt about pilgrimage…I’ve not read that before. It’s beautiful and really reminds me of days on the Camino.

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    my. Mar 21 2012 - 4:08 am Reply

    A nice and thoughtful post. I agree that a pilgrimage can be travel or even life’s journey. Its meaning should be special to each individual person. I have yet to do the Camino and am so looking forward to it someday. — Michelle
    my. recently posted..Slow Cooking Food Class at Charlie Palmer, Costa MesaMy Profile

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    Wanderplex Mar 21 2012 - 5:22 pm Reply

    Hmmm, yes I think any journey can be a pilgrimage since the real idea behind a pilgrimage is some sort of realization, awareness, learning or “enlightenment”. These are all things that happen on any journey, religious or otherwise, and you often aren’t even aware of how you’ve been “changed” until sometime *after* your travels.
    Wanderplex recently posted..Traveling for a special event? Here’s how avoid a wrinkle in your plans.My Profile

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    Stephanie - The Travel Chica Mar 25 2012 - 3:38 am Reply

    Glad you shared that clip form Alain de Botton. One of my favorites!
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..Foto of the Week from … Valparaíso – Silhouette in a PrisonMy Profile

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    cheyrl Apr 18 2012 - 6:07 am Reply

    I made the hike to Machu Picchu it felt like a pilgrimage to me … it was a struggle and I wanted to see if I could do it … it was tough and I’m glad I did.

    And such lovely photos!
    cheyrl recently posted..Street Art and Graffiti in Gdansk, Poland.My Profile

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