Myth reading group: walking and pilgrimage

I introduced the myth reading group at the University of Essex on 1st November, talking about walking as pilgrimage – and pilgrimage as walking.

The use of ‘pilgrimage’ as a metaphor or allegory for the journey through life goes back centuries, and is not confined to Catholic culture.  Walter Ralegh is reputed to have written this poem the night before his execution:

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation ,
My growth of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll make my pilgrimage.

(Colin Morris quotes it in the introduction to Pilgrimage: The English Experience, CUP 2002)

This suggests that the pilgrimage of life is about attaining the final destination, the heavenly kingdom.  But the word pilgrimage comes from the same Latin word as peregrination: it suggests a wanderer or stranger.  The final destination is home: in this life we are strangers in a strange land.

This interpretation of the allegorical or mythic signification of pilgrimage has two drawbacks: pilgrimages did not necessarily involve long and perilous journeys.  In the Middle Ages those visiting local shrines to pray at the relics of a saint or holy statue for healing were also ‘pilgrims’ (indeed, the successful winners of the Dunmow flitch of bacon were known as ‘pilgrims’ as they were paraded round the village).  Being a pilgrim was not necessarily a special, once-in-a-lifetime event, a liminal experience (to use the terminology of the anthropologist Victor Turner) but part of everyday life in a time when not just religion but the supernatural, and faith itself, were woven into the understanding of life.

The other drawback or challenge to what I’m calling the ‘mythic signification’ of pilgrimage is that the journey itself, not just the destination, was often important.  Obviously, this was particularly so when it was a long pilgrimage to a distant shrine undertaken for penitential reasons and the difficulty of the journey formed part of the penance.

If pilgrimage is about the destination, drawing close to the divine or entering into a sacred space, but also about the penitential nature of the journey as the pilgrim encounters dangers and adventures, if it can be a once-in-a-lifetime, liminal experience, but also a part of the experience every day life, in which the spiritual is incorporated, can similar things be said about walking long distance paths – and are these experiences in some sense mythic?

Is it that, like pilgrimage, walkers are seeking a meaningful destination?  (A Wainwright says in the introduction to his guide to the Coast to Coast Walk that ‘One should always have a definitive objective, in a walk as in life’ and continues, ‘An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is . . . well, aimless wandering.’)

But what if it is not only the final destination – Robin Hood’s Bay or wherever – but the walking itself that is the objective?  Not as penance, but as a way of being.  The placing of one foot in front of the other.  Maybe walking is not an allegory or myth for something else – some deeper truth about humanity and the significance of life – maybe it is that something else.  It is life:  to walk in the open air, to battle against the elements, to move forwards simply through your own agency, to climb hills and wade streams, is to be alive.

Thank you to the myth readers of Essex University for helping me work out some ideas on Thursday, All Saints’ Day.  (For more on the myth reading group see here:  http://essexmyth.wordpress.com/ )

Like pilgrimage, walking with an objective can be understood as a metaphor for life.  I have mentioned Wainwright’s Introduction to his Coast to Coast Walk book in which he insisted on the importance of having an objective; Robin Hood’s Bay makes a good objective because it is very ‘definitive: here land ends and sea begins’

– and you can’t walk on water.

The walk had started 192 miles to the west (though I think we walked farther than that).  A lot of people talked of following the ‘right way’ or the ‘correct path’, but the point about the Coast to Coast is that there is not right way – it is a matter of getting from one place to another by yourself, using your own energy, your own volition.

On Offa’s Dyke there are signposts – another metaphor for life? – but always the choice of way is up to you.

Though even when there are signs, the way isn’t always clear.

You follow ancient ways


and come across signs of past ages


and a continuing spirituality in old sacred places

Statue of Madonna and child among ruins of Mount Grace Priory

Is it possible for the sacramental nature of pilgrimage to be transferred to walking itself? The attention paid to the landscape, the views and the details of natural things around you can itself be meditative, prayerful even.   Wordsworth recognised the numinous in the landscape of the Wye Valley when he wrote his ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.


But it is the view of the Abbey itself that is associated with those lines:

It is when we are walking – feeling the earth beneath our feet, the wind in our hair and the sun (or the rain!) on our face that we also feel ‘A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man’.