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Pilgrimage … and human behaviour

7 March 2012

The Ohio Archaeology Blog, another excellent site – see http://ohio-archaeology.blogspot.com/2012/03/ancient-american-pilgrimage… comments on a paper in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology that claims that 'religiously motivated co-operation in the form of pilgrimage is a neglected element in discussions of co-operative behaviour among humans' and goes on to propose how to evaluate it in the future (but I won't bore you with details). Beginning with the assumption that religious afiliation leads to a number of social benefits and the fact that some people merely pay lip service to them in order to source said benefits, the authors argue that pilgrimage is a way of making people, including the lukewarmers, fulfil a religious obligation and prove their solidarity to the group viewpoint, or practise. The new theory is outlined and the blog author then suggests that Hopewell culture earthworks such as Fort Ancient, were actually pilgrimage centres attracting devotees from across eastern North America. What the new theory lacks is a rreason why eastern sites became a focus of pilgrimage. Croag Patrick, in Ireland, is not just a Christian centre of pilgrimage but the practise goes way back beyond the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, and therefore it must symbolise something important. The hill is conical in shape, but is that alone the foci of interest, suggesting something important occurred at the site. This might have been a meteorite fall, an electro-magnetic effect, or something unusual such as ball lightning – but in the case of Croag Patrick it was a high refuge from an inrunning tsunami wave. Those people that made it up the hill survived and those that did not were drowned. How does that leave the arguments in the paper?

Pilgrimage is a central plank of most religions – Islam has its Mecca, for example. They are further bound to group bonding by the frequency of their prayers. In contrast, Christianity in recent centuries developed largely into a Sundary morning group bonding event which may partly explain the ease with which it has fallen away from group psyche. In the medieval period pilgrimage was an important part of the Christian life cycle – with expeditions on foot to Rome, and even the Holy Land shrines, quite common events. The Canterbury Tales is based on pilgrimage to the centre of Christianity in England and shrines such as Our Lady of Walsingham drew large numbers of people, it is thought, but how many of them were peasants as opposed to the ruling class is perhaps not something dwelt on too much by historians. We may assume it did draw peasants as group bonding involved not only the Lord of the Manor but his underlings were required to toe the same line.

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