Pilgrimages in odd places

This summer (2016) I observed two (or actually three) very different pilgrimages in two very different locations and surroundings. Of those the first one was on a holiday, the second was a planned research fieldwork. I have long known that I can’t detach the anthropologist curiosity from me after I finish “working”. Since my work includes thinking, and learning more about cultures and human life, the work follows me wherever I go and whatever I do. Luckily it is also something I like doing, whatever I do for “work”.

For my summer holiday destination, I chose Rome, a city where I feel at home. Furthermore, it allows me to occupy my mind with other things than what I usually work with. A week of vacationing, eating, visiting interesting places, sitting on piazzas and narrow streets, and experiencing the history and culture. However, an anthropologist is never fully on holiday, since observing people and learning new things is rooted in the backbone of the human type that is a researcher. You always learn new things just by watching, and your mind does the rest as it is programmed to do.

Last year (2015) pope Francis (Francesco/Franciscus/Frank….) declared a special year of mercy. The epicenter of this jubileum was, and still at the moment of writing is, Rome in Italy and Vatican City State. The event is expected to bring millions of people in the city, where special audiences, religious services, and pilgrim routes were organized. All over the city, in the streets, signs guided pilgrims with different paths, to churches, catacombs, and other religious places. You couldn’t help but to notice the pilgrimage that was happening all around you. These traditions are centuries-old, thus incorporating people in a long story and devotion to get closer to the god they believe in.

The main attraction, or attractions, were the holy doors in papal basilicas. A pilgrim could register him/herself at desk or internet-website as a pilgrim, get a special audience in a group, and walk through the holy door, and thus having his/her sins forgiven. The doors, sealed after every jubileum, were opened and welcomed all, pilgrims and tourists alike, to the Catholic Church. I walked through the holy door at the St. Peter’s basilica also – twice, to be sure. However, I was not registered pilgrim, nor am I Catholic, so it probably won’t count. Sensitive to religious pilgrims’ feelings I didn’t want to be a distraction, and I visited the church early in the morning, when there were only a handful of people, and took only a quick photo from far behind. Some might consider even this as inconsiderate thing to do, but I think that I did much better job than most of the tourists. Hopefully I will be spared from a papal bull.

The stage for this grandeous pilgrimage is huge. The stone walls, marble floors, tall columns and pillars that stretch to painted ceilings with images of heavenly visions, together give an enormous and spectacular space for pilgrims to enter and experience the pilgrimage. At the same time, at least in the Vatican, huge masses of people are guided and guarded like human hoards, mechanically and effectively. However, there are places for personal moments, even though you have to make an effort to get them. In a big city there are plenty of people already, and the traffic can be overwhelming. This is mass pilgrimage, and it shows. The church is in the centre of it all, controlling and providing, as well as uniting all the pilgrims that want to experience the mercy.

Six weeks later I travelled with my colleague to do research and document another types of pilgrimage, in totally different surroundings. There is basically no traffic and usually no people in sight in “Vaara-Karjala”, next to the Russian border in Finnish North Karelia. The stone and brick columns and pillars are replaced with trees, stone walls with logs, and marble floor with wooden floor. The ceilings have no paintings, but the sky is bright with stars – if it doesn’t rain. Gobbled stone roads give way to asphalt and dirt roads, and waterways. Birds’ singing sound better than car horns’ sound, that’s for sure.


For the last 35 years, “ristisaatto”, an Orthodox procession, pilgrimage and a walking religious service, has been organized from Saarivaara to Hoilola. These two small villages were left Finnish side of the border after the Second World War. The municipality of Korpiselkä, its centre and most of its villages, were incorporated into Soviet Union. The orthodox chapel (“tsasouna”) in Saarivaara was built in 1976, commemorating an already destroyed chapel, that was left on the other side of the border. Five years after the chapel was inaugurated, the pilgrimage was founded. These feasts and processions are very much a local thing of the village communities, although they draw visitors from elsewhere also. The atmosphere is relaxed, with minimal bureaucracy, although the liturgies and prayer songs are well orchestrated with a plan.

Orthodox pilgrimage has roots in the byzantine world, when people begun to commemorate saints and visit their resting places. Later Icons, Christian imagery, were introduced and brought in to centre of pilgrimages. They are carried behind the cross, which is the leading figure in ristisaatto (literally translated as “cross procession”) In Karelia before the Second World War, pilgrimage processions were common, together with chapel feasts (“praasniekka”). These traditions had partly to be reinvent, or to relocate, after the war. However, at the current state they are integral part of local communities and Orthodox church in Finland, inviting lay people to participate in religious services in action.

The ristisaatto from Saarivaara to Hoilola is a 10km long walk, and is combined with a ristisaatto with a boat to an old Orthodox cemetery, “kalmisto”, 6km away in Öllölä village’s Pörtsämö. Walking and rowing, working for your faith, is a common theme in many pilgrimages all over the world and religions. They combine physical effort with mind and meditation.

These feasts and pilgrimages are followed by a special pilgrimage and ristisaatto to old Korpiselkä centre and its cemetery, on the Russian side of the border, the next day. It is an unique annual tradition, which started in 1994. After the Soviet Union collapsed and borders to Russia became more open, Orthodox pilgrimages over the border were introduced. These pilgrimages combine religious service with nostalgia of returning to “home”. As the old Korpiselkä centre locates on border zone, permits for secular trips would be hard, or impossible, to get. Permission for religious procession and Orthodox commemoration of the dead is another thing.

Crucial part of these pilgrimages are “panihidas”, prayer services to the deceased, officiated at the burial grounds. In Finnish side the kalmisto of Pörtsämö is well preserved, almost too well for an old Orthodox cemetery. The old idea was that the grave mound and wooden cross would fade away as generations pass, and memories are forgotten or minimalized in the natural course of life. There are grave stones and otherwise modernized graves to be found in Pörtsämö kalmisto. This tells that the burial ground and rituals live and change in their surroundings, as cultures and the society changes. In the Russian side the Korpiselkä cemetery is barely noticeable. Main reason for this is Soviet policy to destroy all relics, take wooden and iron crosses and small grave stones for another usage. Only the biggest old grave stones are left, as well as few remains of cut iron crosses.

Even though among the attending crowd of Saarivaara-Hoilola ristisaatto there are visiting pilgrims, who don’t have any family connection to the sites, the majority of attendees are tied to the location by their families and histories. In Korpiselkä ristisaatto basically all have family ties to the landscape. Therefore the religion and religious devotion is not the only one unifying aspect or trait in the pilgrimage. It is closely followed, and sometimes passed, by pilgrimage to imagined home of ancestors. Both traits join attendees to the shared memory and purpose, commemorating life and history, in which religion and imagined otherness are central.

These two different pilgrimage landscapes, urban and rural, with different traditions, present two very different events to experience. In Rome and Vatican City, institutionalized Church, organization and order, grandeous urban landscape and busy life surrounding the pilgrims are highlighted. In former Korpiselkä area, lay(wo)mens religion, relaxed familiar tradition, rugged vaulting forest landscape, and quiet easy life and nature around the pilgrims are highlighted. Both are there to experience for pilgrims, and both offer unique ways of sensing the otherness for them. In both locations pilgrims are able to join to the centuries-old memory and traditions, be they religiously or otherwise motivated. In a way, they offer different paths to experience the spectacle of life and shared community of people, who are joined together in, around and by these services and the churches that provide them.