The pilgrimage symbolizes the difficult path of life upwards to a Christian heaven or, perhaps, a Buddhist nirvana. Those Costa Ricans who were on the trail Sunday or who will be on the trail today are involved in an activity that may well be at least 22,000 years old.
Such journeys, mostly by foot, are a phenomenon found in almost all societies, past and present, according to one expert.
Pilgrimages can be religious, political or secular, as in the case of travels to Disneyland. Those that get the most attention are religious, and these date back before history.
The megalithic site Göbekli Tepe in Turkey might well have been the destination of pilgrims as much as 13,000 years ago. The later Stonehenge most certainly was.
Perhaps even older than Göbekli Tepe are some pilgrimage sites in India.
Anthropologist Martin Gray said “In India we find the oldest continually operating pilgrimage tradition in the entire world. The practice of pilgrimage in India is so deeply embedded in the cultural psyche and the number of pilgrimage sites is so large that the entire subcontinent may actually be regarded as one grand and continuous sacred space.” He wrote an authoritative book on sacred sites worldwide.
The ancient Greeks had many pilgrimage sites and for various reasons.
Says pilgrimage expert Matthew Dillon:
“The pious need for initiations, cures and oracles drew Greeks to panhellenic sanctuaries where they invoked the gods to meet their particular needs. The wide range of questions asked at oracles, the cures sought at healing sanctuaries, and the need for reassurance about the life after death, indicate the very great degree to which the Greeks viewed the gods as intervening in the lives of individuals and in the affairs of the state. ”
The Canadian Museum of History points out that among the ancient Greeks, a pilgrimage to Olympia to see the athletic events and to participate in the sacrifices to Zeus and other festivities was something of great importance and many people attended several times. Because it was a pagan festival it conflicted with the growth and spread of Christianity and Roman emperors, who were Christian, banned the Olympics around 400 AD.
Less well documented is the economic impact of pilgrimages. One NBC news report quoting Manchester University scholar Ian Reader said that religious travel generates at least $8 billion a year for shrine-centered economies and provides employment for thousands.
There probably was an economic factor when Muhammad ordered that every Muslim visit at least once the prophet’s hometown. Some sources say that the Mecca pilgrimage is thousands of years older than the Seventh century founder of Islam.
A curious fact is that pilgrimage and economics figured in one of the major advances of the Western world.
Johannes Gutenberg formed an investment group to produce religious relics for pilgrims to Aachen, Germany, but the event featuring homage to the Emperor Charlemagne was postponed by a flood. Gutenberg, instead, created moveable type and the printing press to satisfy his investors in 1439.
The best-known pilgrimage in the English-speaking world is that to Canterbury and the tomb of the 11th century archbishop there Thomas Becket. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the lengthy collection of stories that were attributed to pilgrims and now called the “Canterbury Tales.”
The 14th century Middle English text has caused anguish for modern students.
In the Spanish-speaking world the Camino de Santiago probably is the best recognized. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and the presumed resting place of St. James, the apostle, was one of the major destinations in the Middle Ages along with Rome and Jerusalem.
In Latin America, European priests tried to use the native religions to promote Christianity. Churches frequently were built on sites that had been sacred before the arrival of Colombus.
Then there were the reports of visits by the Virgin Mary that left some tangible evidence. Every country in the Americas has at least one such site.
That includes the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago where thousands of pilgrims or romeros are headed today.
The tangible evidence there is a small stone carving of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. It is said to be of divine origin or at least of divine intervention.