Thursday, December 25, 2014

To Take a Pilgrimage Part 1




I don’t know much about the art of the pilgrimage, or the history for that matter. Let’s sum up my knowledge of the pilgrimage, actually, I promise it won’t take long:

1) I know that a pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the pillars of Islam, and a requirement of all those who are able.
2) I know that Chaucer once wrote a series of stories about Christian pilgrims, so I assume it used to be a thing for Christians as well, though I don’t know the history of Christian pilgrimages, where one would go or why. I don’t think it’s a thing anymore, or at least not a common one – I can’t remember hearing of a Christian going on a pilgrimage in the modern day.
3) There’s a rumor that back in the day high-born families from Norse villages and towns would periodically take a trip to the temple at Uppsala for a great sacrifice. I don’t know if this technically constitutes a pilgrimage, but it feels like it counts.

There you go. That’s all I know. So it tends to be an activity of a spiritual nature and often involves some deal of traveling. But I guess it isn’t necessarily a spiritual or religious experience – one could totally take a secular pilgrimage to a place of emotional or intellectual value to them. Say a botany student takes a pilgrimage to the Linnaeus Botanical Gardens, for example, or a neo-hippie takes a pilgrimage to the site of Woodstock. I think the important thing is that one is undertaking a journey to visit a site of great personal importance.

In many ways my travel to Sweden is a pilgrimage. In other ways I’m not sure it quite constitutes that because I’m living here, now. An extended pilgrimage, perhaps? In any case, as I’ve written about before my journey here was far more spiritual than scholastic for me, and in fact the scholastic aspect of my trip is something of a means to an end (though an amazingly awesome one that I wouldn’t trade for anything, not even guaranteed fame and fortune as a New York Times best-selling author). But in a way the pilgrimage part of the journey is over, and it’s become something else.

That said, there are still many other pilgrimages I could take. I have officially started off on another “mini” pilgrimage contained within the greater journey of my time in Sweden: I am traveling to Gosforth in Cumbria (in the UK) to visit the only known/surviving image of Sigyn contemporary to the Viking era. It dates to the first half of the tenth century, quite late in the Viking era, in an area that was settled by Scandinavian folk in the ninth through tenth centuries. The cross stands in a churchyard in Gosforth, a clear mix of pagan and Christian myths and ideologies – something which is quite common to find in rune stones from this late Viking period throughout Scandinavia, as well.

It’s called the Gosforth Cross for a reason: it is quite literally a giant cross, a stone pillar topped with a stone Celtic cross (a cross within or combined with a circle). The cross is, obviously and unequivocally, a Christian symbol yet the length of the pillar is engraved with images of figures from Norse mythology – including the only known image of Sigyn from the Viking age. She is depicted there (as she is depicted in almost every image of her to be made since) holding a bowl above bound Loki’s head to capture the venom dripping from the snake above him.

There are other pagan images on the stone as well, including the gods Heimdallr and Thor as well as Fenrir and Jormungandr. It will be a pleasure to be able to stand at this cross and look upon these images as well, but mostly I am going to look upon the image of Sigyn.

What will I do once I get there? I honestly haven’t the faintest idea. Like I said, I don’t know how these pilgrimage things go. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do really. So I suppose I will find out when I get there. In the mean time I’ll be seeing other amazing places along the way: as I’m writing this I’m sitting in the guest room of a friend from high school who just so happened to find herself living in Sweden as well and several years before I did (to be very technical about this, I’m sitting on Mila The Adorable Puppy’s bed) and soon I will be seeing Copenhagen, Berlin, and Amsterdam for the first time. I will get to see the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, which is almost a pilgrimage all its own (unfortunately I couldn’t find a way to make going to the van Gogh House in Zundert a thing – that truly would have been a pilgrimage all its own) and I’ll also get to see the Anne Frank House (again, another incredibly experience – albeit it a very different kind of incredible experience). I’ll see London (though briefly) and after I leave Cumbria I’ll see Edinburgh, where I may end up spending a month taking a creative writing program this summer (big maybe, but an awesome one).

The thing about this trip is that it’s proving challenging. I’ve never taken a trip like this before, let alone planned one, and I’m having some rather intense glitches. But I’m trying to make myself believe that it will work out, trying to make myself free-fall in a way. It will be okay. I’ll find a way.

Even without the glitches, however, this trip is still just as terrifying as leaving for Sweden was. Like I said, I’ve never done anything like this before. I could simply have flown into Glasgow or Edinburgh and taken a train to Cumbria – it would have been simpler, less frightening, and cheaper. But I also wouldn’t have seen as much and I honestly feel like it would have been less rewarding. I suspect pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be as easy as simply buying a plane ticket, anyway – you are supposed to be challenged, I think. You are supposed to come away from the experience having learned something new about yourself, having grown and strengthened yourself. The best way to do that? Sometimes it’s just to let yourself free-fall and make yourself trust that you’ll know what to do.

That is my suspicion anyway. Like I said, I know nothing about this pilgrimage thing.

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