Reflections on Pilgrimage and Hikoi

Rev. Dr Allan Davidson and Dr Adrienne Puckey


Pilgrimage – Medieval and Modern:

the interaction of the spiritual and the secular.

Allan Davidson


Pilgrimage is a phenomenon found in many of the world’s great religions. Jews journey to Jerusalem to pray at the Wailing Wall, the foundation of Solomon’s Temple. Muslims are enjoined to make the Haj to Mecca, at least once in their life time. For Hindus there are many holy sites to which the pilgrim travels. For Buddhists there are holy mountains and holy places to which they journey. For Christians there are many greater and lesser pilgrimage sites. Jerusalem and the name “Holy Land” conjure up a special place, connected by history and events to the foundational story that shaped the emergence of Christianity.

Over the centuries, pilgrimage has been understood and practiced by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth in many different ways. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage became one of the great pathways by which ordinary people tried to improve their chances of salvation. Going on a pilgrimage became a way of gaining merit, a kind of deposit in your spiritual bank account. By visiting places where the physical remains of holy people, or material relics associated with them, were found, the pilgrim was able to gain vicariously from their sanctity.

The overarching theology supporting medieval pilgrimage was one of rewards and punishments. Gaining merit through physical action became part of the medieval approach to salvation. Vows were made to undertake a pilgrimage if healing was given - a form of bargaining with God in an age without health insurance policies. “I’ll undertake a journey if you will bless my enterprise”, was another approach. Penances, as a means of gaining forgiveness, involved physical actions in which the repentant person prayed, fasted, gave alms or went on a pilgrimage as a way of expressing their contrition. Penitential pilgrimages could be voluntary, an act of personal piety, but they could also be compulsory, something imposed by a confessor or a magistrate on an individual for sins and crimes committed. It was also possible to pay for a surrogate to undertake a pilgrimage on your behalf.

Along the pilgrim ways, shrines, churches and cathedrals were built. Many of these contained relics (the physical remains or things associated with saintly people), which imbued the buildings that housed them with their own special sanctity. Cathedrals were testimonies in stone to the Christian’s life journey. They were monuments to medieval piety and superb achievements of small communities who believed they were building to the glory of God (as well sometimes entering into competition with rival communities). Cathedrals and church buildings were edifices intended to inspire awe and faith and to lift people’s eyes heavenwards. While medieval pilgrimage could be a form of religious tourism as the pilgrims went from place to place, the penitential, salvation purpose was reinforced for them by the reality that they would one day face judgement. Pilgrimage was one of the ways in which medieval lay people could be fully engaged in their own journey towards salvation.

The person coming into a cathedral or church was reminded of their spiritual journey. Entering in through the western door, often under a scene of judgement like that at Bourges, the pilgrim came into a sacred space. At the west end, or even outside the cathedral, as for example in Florence, a baptistery represented the first baptism by which a person was cleansed of original sin. Pilgrimage offered the medieval pilgrim an opportunity for a “second baptism” in a spiritual sense, the cleansing from accumulated sins. Cathedrals and churches became places of confession. Through close association with the relics of the holy person enshrined in the cathedral, usually close to the high altar, the pilgrim could offer prayers asking for forgiveness. The cathedral building itself spoke of transcendence, with its towering pillars, high arches and distance ceiling. This was an architectural representation of the hierarchical church and society, a separation from the material world and a preparation for heaven to come.

A complex network of pilgrimage routes, both local and international, sprang up in medieval Europe to satisfy the great urge to go on pilgrimage. The Holy Land and Jerusalem, where the pilgrim could visit places associated with Jesus and the Bible, were the number one attraction. The capture of the holy places and the surrounding land by Muslims made it difficult for pilgrims to journey freely to Jerusalem. The preaching of the first Crusade in 1095 opened up what one historian referred to as “Bloody Pilgrimage”. European kings, knights and others, encouraged by the Pope, took up the sign of the cross and went into battle against Muslims (killing also Jews and Palestinian Christians) resulting in an enterprise over the next centuries that has left deep and painful scars.

The second favourite destination for pilgrimage was Rome, the seat of the bishop of Rome, the Pope. El Camino de Santiago de Compostela became the third most important pilgrimage in medieval Europe, particularly as it became more difficult to travel to the holy land. People made their way along various routes through France, and from even further afield, to cross the Pyrenees and follow in the way of St James. The inspiration for Compostela as a destination for pilgrims is enshrined in myth and legend. St James became an ambiguous figure – depicted as the humble pilgrim wearing sandals in simple garb with a calabash and a stout staff – but also the patron saint of Spain, represented as a soldier in armour on a horse with a lance in his hand and a Muslim on the ground under the feet of his charger about to be slain.

Many other pilgrim ways were developed. In England the journey to Canterbury Cathedral and the tomb of Thomas Becket was immortalised in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The pilgrims tell stories to each other as they walk to Canterbury. There’s a mixture of the bawdy, pious, and worldly. The tellers of tales are very human, with corruption and greed standing alongside the search for salvation and striving for heaven. The expectation of miracles and healing in an age when the causes of illness were poorly understood were reinforced by stories which grew up around places of pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage in the medieval church provided lay people with a pathway to salvation that was only partly within the control of the church. There were critics who raised questions about the veneration of images, the unruly behaviour of pilgrims on their journey, and the exploitation of pilgrims in order to build grand edifices. The tension between the outer and the inner journey – the physical walking to a holy place and all that entailed, alongside the internal cultivation of the spiritual life increasingly came to the fore as the centuries progressed.

Critics of the church, like John Wycliff and John Huss, at the end of the fourteenth and beginning of the fifteenth centuries raised critical questions about relics, selling indulgences and pilgrimages. Desiderius Erasmus, the Catholic humanist scholar, at the beginning of the sixteenth century contrasted “the outward physical activity of travelling to shrines with the internal spiritual cultivation of the Christian character”.

The Protestant critique of the theology of salvation associated with pilgrimage, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin, resulted in their followers discontinuing and even becoming quite hostile towards the practice. This hostility was translated into the destruction of relics and the desecration of pilgrim shrines such as Thomas Becket’s at Canterbury, the destruction of the Priory at Walsingham, and the dispersal of the supposed relics of Mary Magdalene at Vezelay. In the seventeenth century, English Protestants interiorized the spiritual journey. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress encapsulated the allegorical journey of faith undertaken by the individual through the temptations and byways of earthly life towards the rewards of heaven. Many Protestant hymns also emphasised the journey of life through a world of struggle and temptation with a concluding verse pointing to a heavenly future.

Catholics in the sixteenth century, in response to the criticism of Protestants, through the Council of Trent, carefully defined the veneration of relics and reformed the abuses associated with selling indulgences. Pilgrimage, however, remained as a penitential possibility for people. The combination of sacred place and building, physical journey and holy relics have continued to offer possibilities for people to engage in their own spiritual journey, while sharing the companionship of others and visiting holy places, however these are understood. Aspects of medieval pilgrimage are still alive in well in twenty-first-century Europe. Thousands every year travel the routes to the “Holy Land”, Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago, and to modern pilgrimage sites like Lourdes, Fatima and San Giovanni Rotondo. The search for healing, the hope for a modern miracle, the sharing of companionship in the pilgrimage, these combine in the journey to the “holy place”.

While the salvation, penitential dynamic, which undergirded medieval pilgrimage, makes little sense to many today, the search for personal identity is still significant. Even in the Middle Ages people struggled with the inner spiritual and the outer physical journey. The great labyrinth at Chartres, laid into the floor of the cathedral in the thirteenth century, represented an alternative to physical pilgrimage with its emphasis on the inner journey. The popularity of labyrinths in our age points to the unending quest of the human spirit for meaning and salvation, whatever form that might take. Pilgrimage is a journey of self-discovery – something that has public and private, inner and outer, physical and spiritual dimensions.

In one study of pilgrimage, two anthropologists write about the way in which the pilgrim is half a tourist, and the tourist is half a pilgrim. This is a reminder of the multi-layered dimensions that go with the pilgrimage. While for religious pilgrims the spiritual intention has been central, this is accompanied by many other competing and overlapping aspects, which contribute to a more holistic understanding. Walking the Camino in Spain, for example, brings together spiritual dimensions, along with engagement with history, art, architecture, people, and the physicality of travel, particularly by foot.

For Māori, there are many tapu places of significance in Aotearoa. Traditionally, the last part of the journey of spirits to rejoin their ancestors is located at the leaping off point, Te Rerenga Wairua near Cape Reinga. While for Pākehā in New Zealand there are no holy places sanctified by centuries of pilgrimage, there are many sites of spiritual significance which both Māori and Pākehā can share. The Treaty Grounds at Waitangi, Marsden’s Cross at Hohi and the Rangihoua Heritage Park, Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington, and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, are places of national significance that are worthy sites for pilgrimage. The renewed interest in the New Zealand Wars draws attention to places of memory where battles took place, where we can revisit the past in ways that give us greater understanding of who we are, where we have come from, and what might become as a nation today. Understanding pilgrimage as both a religious and sociological phenomenon enables us to appreciate the ways in which special intentional journeys can be enriched by entering into them as pilgrimages.

There are greater and lesser places of meaning for us all in this country with hallowed associations, sanctified by important events, significant people, and outstanding memories. Perhaps the greatest forms of both secular and spiritual pilgrimage for many of us as New Zealanders are our journeys into the bush and the mountains, where, in the physical journey, we encounter ourselves and others in the natural environment. Journeys with intent bring together the inner and the outer, the spiritual and the physical. Journeys with intent can and do enrich our lives.

Life is a journey between the immensities – birth and death. The planned pilgrimages we undertake as part of our life’s journey give us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God and creation, our relationships with others, the historical context in which we journey, and how we should live. While the endpoint of a journey has its own special significance, the steps along the way are an integral part of the pilgrimage.


The Tradition of Hīkoi

Adrienne Puckey


We have named this series of walks Hīkoi Rangihoua. When words are translated from one language to another unrelated language, it is important to remember that the translated word will not be identical culturally. Hīkoi can be used in a similar way to pilgrimage, and it can be different. These similarities and differences enhance the experience.

Hīkoi can be used as a noun or verb to mean: step, march, hike, trek, tramp, trip, journey. It can be a journey of intent like a pilgrimage. Used in this sense, it usually implies a long journey taking days or weeks.

For instance, Ngāti Porou descendants of chief Umuariki undertook a 10-day trek from Tuparoa, near Ruatoria, to Otuwhare marae on the other side of the the Raukumara Range mountain range. Umuariki used the trail to visit his grand-daughter who had married into the family of Rutaia, a chief of the Whānau-a Apanui people. The purpose of the Hīkoi was to re-establish the family links forged centuries ago. A year before, Rutaia’s descendants made the journey in the opposite direction, bringing with them the message of putahitanga – the drawing together of families and tribes.[1]

The Hīkoi was about relationships, and it was also a learning opportunity for the participants. A much shorter local project was a guided walk, traversing Tokiwhatinui (Auckland Domain) and Waiorea (Western Springs Park), through Maori history and the continuum of connections between past and present.[2]

Hīkoi can mark an historic event. A stretch of Te Araroa in Northland is called Te Hīkoi o Te Kiri. This track goes over Mt Tamahunga, the highest accessible summit between Auckland and Whangarei. It is named for Te Kiri, a Ngāti Wai chief who rescued 180 Waikato prisoners from Governor George Grey’s nearby Kawau Island estate, in 1864, and brought them to this point, beyond the reach of the British military. The Government demanded that the escaped warriors, many captured at the battle of Rangiriri, give themselves up. Govt negotiators were met with the reply: “How many birds, having escaped from the snare, return to it?”[3]

Interestingly, Hīkoi, as a journey of intent, can take a different dimension. In recent times Hīkoi has been associated with political causes, either as protest or to draw attention to political issues. We are probably most familiar with Hīkoi as protest, through those associated with 40 years of land marches, from the first in 1975 to the Foreshore and Seabed March of 2004, protesting over the alienation and loss of Māori-owned land, by national and local government actions.[4]

Amidst these, in 1998 the Anglican Church led more than 30,000 marchers on the month-long Hīkoi of Hope, from Cape Rēinga to Parliament, to draw attention to widespread concerns about unwelcome and growing inequalities between rich and poor, and issues of rising poverty.[5]

Hīkoi can have a similar meaning to pilgrimage when it is treading in the footsteps of those who have gone before, whether ancestors, or people of historic significance, about whom the tangata hīkoi (trekkers) learn. There is a sense of connecting with these meaningful places, events and people of the past – engaging with history.

You could say also there is a ‘sense of presence’. The trekker is physically, mentally and spiritually present to the presence of place and presence of the past.

Some of these encounters can also have a political dimension, which is more evident in Hīkoi than in Pilgrimage. On this Hīkoi, we will experience both the similarities and the differences, which will enrich this uniquely Kiwi Camino.


[1] Raewyn Mackenzie and Geoff Mason, NZ Geographic, Issue 018, Apr-Jun 1993.

[3] NZ Geographic, Issue 119, Jun 2013.

[4] Aroha Harris, Hīkoi : Forty years of Māori protest, Huia Publishers, 2004.

[5] Tangata Whenua, p.459.