Each of us is on a journey. This is something we know if we pursue any kind of spiritual practice. This knowing is inescapable when we follow a shamanic path. After all, journeying is what we do.
Many journeys await us. We are on a journey from birth to death; we move through school, careers, and relationships; we journey with our allies to other realms. What, specifically, makes us pilgrims? How is pilgrimage different from movement through time and space?
Peace Pilgrim, who spent 28 years walking over 25,000 miles across North America in support of peace, said, “A pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose.”
This is a great place to begin, but not enough. What kinds of purposes change wandering into pilgrimage? How do we know whether we are pilgrims, or merely travelers?
This month, the Journal of Shamanic Practice offers a series of articles exploring the links between shamanism and pilgrimage.
Leslie Conton introduces pilgrimage, and especially shamanic pilgrimage, in an anthropological context. Shamanic pilgrimages are initiatory, she argues, and reflect the stages of rites of passage first described by Van Gennep, the early twentieth century ethnographer and folklorist..
These stages–separation from the familiar, immersion in a liminal space, and return to the community with a changed role or status–mark many shamanic experiences and certainly apply to pilgrimage. When we think of pilgrimages, we imagine leaving our familiar lives to embark on a journey into something unknown. We expect to be changed and are disappointed if we are not.
The word pilgrim comes from roots that mean stranger, foreigner, and crusader: Someone who left the familiar to travel to distant places where he or she was unknown and possibly unwelcome. While we do not today think of pilgrimage as conquest, seeing crusader among these roots introduces the idea of a mission, and possibly that of a vow.
Jim Wood, sharing his reflections on his own pilgrimages, emphasizes the importance of that first stage: Separation. We know from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” as well as modern-day trips to Lourdes, Mecca, or Jerusalem, that many pilgrimages are made in groups. We travel with our own, or at least expect to meet others along the road.
Companions become part of the journey and agents of change, but Wood highlights the value of more complete separation when he says, “My most profound experiences have usually occurred when I have been guided and accompanied only by my Spirit Helpers.”
One powerful experience like this happened for me during an extended visit on the Isle of Iona, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. While the occasion of my visit was a writing retreat, my personal intentions included visiting many spots around the island associated with gods, goddesses, and spirits of the ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples who had lived and visited there.
On a walk when I had the entire afternoon to myself, I took my drum to the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. Walking past rocky pools, across strands of sand and stone, climbing over granite outcrops, I found a perch high on the rocks with waves crashing at their base. Gannets, oystercatchers, gulls, and smaller songbirds were everywhere, hunting and calling. The wind was fierce, taking the sounds from my ears almost before they landed.
I sat there, drinking in the Celtic trinity of sea, sky, and land. I picked up my drum and thought, why would I drum here? This is exactly the kind of place I often journey to. Why would I be here and attempt to journey elsewhere? I decided to experience the place itself and revel in what was present in a very extraordinary reality.
As soon as I had that thought, before I could set the drum down, a clamor of voices rang in my ears.
“No!” I heard from every side. “We want you to drum!”
Astounded, I said, “You do? You want me to drum?”
“Yes,” the replies came. “Do you know how long it’s been since anyone has drummed here for us?”
Feeling honored in a way I can hardly describe, of course I drummed. I drummed not to take myself away, but to enter more fully into what was before me, to celebrate this place, celebrate my ability to hear the voices and answer them, and experience the joy of this time.
It was initiatory. I learned in a visceral way what it meant to connect with Spirits of the Land. I understood more deeply why some traditions describe one role of the shaman as keeping the gods alive. That afternoon is still fresh for me, although it happened some years ago. As I write about it now, I feel (almost) as if I am there on those rocks, the wind in my teeth, the birds looping and diving into the waves, and voices telling me to drum. The impact still unfolds.
It was the kind of experience I do not believe would have been possible if anyone else had been with me. I could be mistaken, because I have certainly had profound experiences on the land in the company of others. But I think I would not have heard those voices in the same way, and perhaps they would not have spoken.
This experience, which I see as a pilgrimage, was part of a longer exploring that had intentions without known destinations. As Jim Wood describes, I was looking for places of power without knowing precisely where I would find them. Leslie Conton shares similar experiences of her own in which (for example) she explored ancestral lands in Greece while leaving exact destinations open to the promptings of Spirit.
Another classic kind of pilgrimage has a definite ending, a place that is our goal, where the intention of our journey will be fulfilled. Often, such places hold deep history and sacred traditions, as well as numinous power.
This kind of pilgrimage is described by Tony Allicino in his essay about walking the Camino de Santiago. His decision to embark on this journey as he retired from his university career became an explicit way to deepen a rite of passage he already knew he was entering. When he returned from the Camino, he would enter a new phase of his life. His journey created the crucible within which he explored what that change might mean for him.
Reflecting back on his walk on the Camino, as well as other significant spiritual experiences, Allicino could see invitations from Spirit hidden in more mundane ways of getting him the information, and the nudges, he needed to step more deeply into his spiritual journey. This is a good reminder for all of us to listen with shamanic ears to what shows up in our lives.
Not all pilgrimages need to involve distant travel and arduous physical challenge. Conton encourages us to bring the practice of contemplative walking into our daily lives by inviting Spirit to join us. While this can prepare us to remain mindful in the midst of a challenging journey, it also has the potential to transform the routine of our lives into pilgrimage.
At a time in history when we are all reminded to check our privilege, Conton reminds us to consider “the differences between a pilgrim, a traveler, and a tourist.” It is easy to get caught up in frustration at delays, missed connections, and the difficulties of being away from home. When we do, we fail to realize this is exactly what propels us into separation. This is how we realize we’re not in Kansas anymore. This is where deep change starts.
Even technology can let us down. Wood describes how he found an ancient site not with the highly accurate GPS he carried, but through the prompting of Spirit. Allicino reflects on some of his fellow travelers, the wide variety of reasons they had for walking the Camino, and how their goals affected their responses to challenge. His own intentions, woven as they were into a major life transition, created for him the experience of pilgrimage.
There is another kind of journey that bears all the hallmarks of pilgrimage, but is done in a round, repeatedly. Wood alludes to this when he says there are sacred places he visits every year.
The most powerful examples of this kind of pilgrimage are the songlines of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In this tradition, the world was created by magical creatures like the Rainbow Serpent, who left their marks on the land. These creatures, though no longer living above the ground in ordinary reality, are still alive, present, and vital to the well being of all living things. The people maintain their connection to the magical creatures responsible for the land on which their tribe lives by traveling across the tracks, singing the songs that recount the deeds, great and small, that led to the land being the way it is.
The first Western understandings of the songlines were that they were memory devices to help nomadic tribes find their way. Deeper appreciation of these rich spiritual traditions showed that the songs, sung at the right time, by designated singers, who traveled in a preordained pattern, kept the bond strong between the people and their magical allies, thereby keeping the land alive.
This is a deeply shamanic way of connecting to the land. This is what we do when we map out our shamanic worlds, how we are taught to begin. “These are the entrances.” “Look for markers like these.” “What do you notice about how the land looks?” We are taught by human and non-ordinary mentors alike to pay attention to where we are. We are given rituals to be done regularly to keep our connections and relationships vital.
There is a strong resemblance between Van Gennep’s three-part model of a rite of passage and the more elaborated Hero’s Journey offered by Joseph Campbell as a template he saw reflected in many cultures. In fact, Van Gennep’s work was an acknowledged, explicit influence on Campbell.
The hero’s journey is one that, for many, happens only once. In the great stories, a seemingly ordinary person is called by, or pulled into, unexpected adventure. He or she leaves the known world behind, crossing the threshold into a world of danger. Monsters are met and faced, conquered, or turned into allies. A great crisis occurs. A boon is gained. The hero returns to the community with new gifts to share and picks up the threads of his or her life, while seeing the world with new eyes. The story ends.
For some, though, the journey into the unknown is repeated. Some kinds of heroes fight monster after monster, face challenge after challenge. It becomes their role. While we may not think of shamans as heroes, this pattern of repeated journeys is characteristic of the shamanic path. In a way, we might see a shaman as a failed hero, someone who does not manage to reintegrate into the community but continues to live on the margins, managing its boundaries. Yet communities need such heroes, the ones who stay close to the edge, who can see what might be coming, who are on a first name basis with monsters.
This is not to say that everyone who follows a shamanic path is a hero, or even heroic. We know too well how little we do is done by us, and how much we are vessels for something much larger, wilder, and more powerful than we could ever be. But looking at how the role of the shaman fits into the big stories of our cultures is worthwhile. We do have a role to play.
Embarking on shamanic pilgrimages of the kinds you will read about this month, we are making parallel journeys, one in ordinary reality, and one in other realms. Those pilgrimages initiate us into powerful mysteries and deeper relationships. Some we may indeed make only once, while some may become a kind of songline, a pattern of touchstones we visit again and again.
As shamanic practitioners, we will make pilgrimages of various kinds during our lives. I’d like to suggest, also, that we are putting on a pilgrim cloak each time we journey.