A Very Short Introduction

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Ian Reader
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his book Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction, Ian Reader offersan overview of pilgrimages in all cultures and religions, from Santiago in Spain and Shikoku in Japan to the well-known secular pilgrimages to Graceland in the United States and Robben Island in South Africa. The book is part of the Very Short IntroductionOxford series that wants to reach students, scholars, and non-academics who are interested in new topics or new ideas in research. Reader, a professor of religious studies with long research experience in Japan and other pilgrimage places around the world manages to make this book a very enjoyable and varied read. He shares a lot of stories from his research in the field to show both how similar and different pilgrimages can be and that there is not only one way to do pilgrimages.

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1, “Pilgrimage as a Global Phenomenon,” describes the long history of pilgrimages, both their popularity and changes in them over time. Today when you meet people on pilgrimage routes they are complaining about how tourism and commercialism has changed the routes and pilgrimage sites in a negative way, so it is no surprise that Reader focuses on how pilgrimage is part of the history of tourism and commercialism. He continues with forms and meanings of pilgrimages and shows how pilgrimages have “travel and movement, veneration in some form, and a special place or places considered to have some deep significance” in common, and that this is what “makes them stand out from the world around them” (41). Reader shows how pilgrimage sites develop: it is not only miracles, relics, and their stories that can introduce a new pilgrimage site; these sites are also related to identities of nations or cultures. 

Some pilgrimage sites have become very popular and well known while other sites are more locally known. Reader recommends that scholars who focus on the question of “why certain places have become highly visible on the pilgrimage map” (62) have to look not only at “their foundation stories associated with miracles, apparitions, and sacred deeds, ritual re-enactments, and spiritual and worldly rewards” (62), but also at the different interest groups and organizations involved with the pilgrimage site. The overview continues with motives of pilgrims and describes how practices and experiences transform a journey into a pilgrimage, and how souvenirs and festivities have been part of pilgrimage as far back as we know. Reader ends with an overview of secular sites that can be recognized as pilgrimage sites because people visiting these sites often have similar motives as those they take to religious sites, and have similar experiences while there. This introduction also gives a refreshing answer to the question of what a real pilgrim is and how to understand what is meant by an authentic pilgrimage: “There are no specific texts that states … that pilgrims in Shikoku or Santiago must walk in order to be authentic” (68). 

Reader manages to describe all aspects of pilgrimages through time, the motives and practices associated with them, and the phenomenon of secular pilgrimage sites in a very compact and intelligible form. 

This introduction reminds researchers to broaden their thinking and not forget that pilgrimages are part of historic and contemporary tourism, that they have continuously evolved in the past and still do today. Reader’s book is not only an overview of pilgrimages but of research into them, and where that research might go in the future. Pilgrims and future pilgrims should read this Very Short Introduction and think twice when they condemn other tourists they meet on the pilgrimage routes and sites.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gisela Zimmermann is a doctoral student in European Ethnology at the Research College of "Neues Reisen -- Neue Medien" at the Universität Frieburg i. Br.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ian Reader is a Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University. He has held several previous positions at other universities, including the University of Manchester, UK; the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies, Denmark; the University of Hawaii, USA; and Kansai Gaidai University, Japan.


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