A variety of bestselling authors, including Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho (The Pilgrimage, 1987), American actress Shirley MacLaine (The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit, 2001), German comedian Hape Kerkeling (I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago, 2006/2009) and South Korean writer Kim Nam-hee (A Woman Walking Alone, 2006), have narrated their experiences as modern-day pilgrims on the traditionally Catholic Camino de Santiago as journeys of self-discovery and personal enlightenment. They captivate their readers with mystical experiences and fateful encounters and raise deep existential questions that align with notions of spirituality – rather than classic religiosity.
Whether as a consequence of or simply in parallel to these narratives, pilgrimage on the Camino has seen a great increase in popularity over the past decades, leading to the establishment of a whole network of Caminos in Europe that goes way beyond the scope of the original medieval ‘Camino’ as a route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southern France to the holy Catholic site of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. At the same time, much like those of their famous best-selling companions, pilgrims’ motives have arguably shifted towards more secular notions, such as a reconnection with nature or one’s body, living an adventure and finding one’s purpose in life.
This has led to a strong focus on the topic of commercialisation in the context of the Camino. Academic research, as well as media coverage, seems to orbit around perpetual (re)evaluations of the so-called ‘tourist/pilgrim’ binary. That is, a stark contrast is drawn between ‘authentic’ and ‘lay’ performers of the pilgrimage. These debates around the commercialisation of the Camino have set up particular notions of authenticity that guide people’s bodily practices, as well as in-group/out-group categorisations. Due to the popularisation of the Camino, pilgrims have started looking towards ‘authentic movement’ as a form of carving out their (ostensibly) authentic identity.
All photos were taken by the author on the Camino Francés and the Via Podiensis (2018).
Let us thus explore how the discourse around the Camino reproduces and perpetuates a certain way of practising ‘pilgrimness’ – of movement and displacement – and how these notions have conceptually been set up.
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The ancient pilgrimage route to the relics of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was re-established in the 1960s, starting with the Camino Francés. The demarcated path, the way it exists today, was distinctly carved out over the course of the preceding centuries. Although it was set up in a way that would allow for pilgrims to pass historically relevant locations and religious sites, the selection of particular routes over others can be seen both as a political project and a somewhat arbitrary choice guided by local and environmental circumstances. The historical accuracy of the re-established path is thus limited.
A larger structure of ‘sub-Caminos’ stretching all throughout Europe was then outlined around the so-called original ‘Camino‘. Although they align with the original goal of reaching Santiago and segue into the Camino Francés, sections of those sub-Caminos are now completed distinctly and are perceived as pilgrimages on their own terms. For example, many of my informants and co-pilgrims on the Via Podiensis in southern France chose this route with no clear intention to later continue towards Santiago and instead classified Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port as their final destination. Many scholars have pointed out that it is about performing the Camino as a path rather than walking to Santiago. The cohesion between the different subsections framed under the same umbrella term of ‘Camino’ lies in the road between the sites.
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Authenticity, as a key component to distinguishing pilgrimage from touristic endeavour, is commonly associated with religious affiliation (notably in the context of the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca). However, with regard to the Camino, the abstraction from the inherently Catholic destination of Santiago de Compostela comes with a turn toward different signifiers that go beyond the classic religious categories.
With the notion of ‘being on the path’ as the connector between routes, there is a strong emphasis on the particularities of the performance of movement. Many pilgrims, particularly those who commit to a more long-term journey, are in fact atheists, agnostics or do not necessarily identify with a religious category. Yet these people’s authenticity is denoted by the means and the overall (as well as daily) distance of their displacement. The more kilometres one walks, the simpler their accommodation, the lighter their material load (their backpack) – the higher their perceived level of ‘pilgrimness’.
Accommodation options, particularly on the last kilometres of the most popular Camino de Santiago in Spain, range from mass accommodation in the original donativos to spa retreats specialising in foot reflexology. This is a result of the commercialisation of the pilgrimage and enables people to get to Santiago without being forced to leave behind their material comforts. Yet this rejection of worldly possessions and affiliations is precisely what delineates authentic pilgrimness. People who only walk the last section to Santiago and invest in expensive and luxurious accommodation options, although often strongly Catholic in conviction, are commonly considered tourists (so-called tourigrinos).
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The commercialisation and commoditisation of the Camino pilgrimage have thus pathed the way for a turn towards the particularities of movement, strongly linked to popular narratives of the Camino that revolve around ideas of liminal existence and renunciation. Certain ways of bodily performance, at times bordering on notions of self-sacrifice, are idealised and pre-defined according to particular guidelines. What can be perceived as freedom from the material and worldly realm (alongside its categories and identifications) involves, arguably, the creation of new categorical distinctions and connectors. The question remains as to whether we need to be asking for a definition of who gets to be called a pilgrim and who does not – and who gets to decide. If a pilgrimage is supposed to strip us of our identity and egoistic affiliations, then why the need to conform to a code of authenticity in the first place?
Alina S. Berg
Alina S. Berg holds an MSc in Social Anthropology from Oxford University and is currently completing her MA in Religion & Culture at Humboldt University, Berlin. She started her own journey on the Camino in May 2014 from Luxembourg and completed the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 2018 as part of her dissertation fieldwork. As an aspiring researcher at the interface of anthropology, religion and psychology, she is particularly interested in reframing notions of social cohesion, social categorisation and integration. You can get in touch here.