History of Pilgrimage

To go on a pilgrimage is a tradition in all religions. Human beings have through all times been searching for their origin, closeness to eternity, something that is holy for them. A place where the border between the earthly and the heavenly reality is thinner than any other place, a location that tells about the divine presence in the existence or a place that has a unique meaning in the life of individuals. Thus the goal is the most important on a pilgrimage; the path is only a means for arriving at the place.

  • His Eminence Metropolitan Athenagoras of Belgium, Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Rev. Berit Lånke, National Pilgrim Center, Norway and Prioress Sister Gilchrist Lavigne, Monastery of Tautra, Norway. Opening of the Olav festival.

  • Photo: Sven.Erik Knoff

The Christian Pilgrim tradition has its origin in the early years of the Church. The Christians were keen to be at the places where Jesus had been; like Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was, however, not the only holy places for the first Christians. The early Church had a lot of martyrs who were regarded as saints. These people had been part of the congregations and among those who celebrated the Liturgy and worshiped God. It was a clear perception that the martyrs had gone directly to heaven and there they were able to pray in front of God’s throne. Thus it was important for the Christians to come to the tombs of the saints. This gave them proximity to the holy and a better possibility to ask for the intercession of the saints. As time went by, the Church had martyrs and saints at many places and pilgrimages were common in the whole Christian world. People were searching for comfort, healing and forgiveness for their sins. Eventually it was also common that the Church instructed people to go on pilgrimage to do penance for their sins. It was then possible to pay others to do the pilgrimage in their place.

These arrangements were sometimes abused both by the Church itself and by individuals. The Lutheran reformation was mainly a reaction to various kinds of misuse, and Luther banned therefor any form of pilgrimage. The idea of pilgrimage, however, did not disappear within the protestant movement. On the contrary, it kept a central position in preaching and piety in that the goal was the heaven and that life was a pilgrimage. John Bunyan’s book “A Pilgrims Progress” is a typical example of devotional literature in this genre.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches have an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage since the first time of the Church. In our time the Protestant Churches are about to rediscover this tradition. Exactly because the idea of pilgrimage never disappeared from the preaching of the Protestant Churches, it is not so difficult again to become familiar with this tradition.   

In Nidaros, Trondheim, the pilgrimages to St. Olav’s shrine started right after his death at Stiklestad in 1030. It quickly became known that he was a holy man and in 1031 he was declared a saint. The first witness about this is a poem by Torarin Lovtunge from 1031-35. He was the bard of king Olav’s enemy, the Danish king Svein. He encouraged the king to pray for St. Olav’s intercessions and described the holy king in this way: “Thus Olav sinlessly saved his soul before his death.” Within a few years the pilgrimage to St. Olav’s shrine was so strongly consolidated that it became known far out in Europa.  During these first years the Church in Nidaros, Trondheim, belonged to the Archbishopric of Hamburg/Bremen. In the year 1070 the Archbishop’s secretary, the German history-writer Adam von Bremen, describes the Archbishop’s visitation to the Church in the North, including Nidaros and he describes the pilgrimage to Trondheim like this:  


“The Norwegians most important city is Trondheim. It is now decorated with churches and visited by many people. There is the very blessed king and martyr Olav’s relics. At his tomb the Lord also today works the greatest healing miracles. And people, who believe that they can be helped through this holy man’s meritorious deeds, are coming from far away. If you are sailing from Aalborg or Vendesyssel in Denmark, you will arrive in Viken (the Bay), which is a city in Norway. From there you turn left and sail along the Norwegian coast, and at the fifth day you reach the city of Trondheim. You could also go another way, coming from the Dane’s Skaane, across land to Trondheim. But this route across the mountains takes more time, and as it is dangerous, it is avoided by the travellers.”

We know, however, that many pilgrims crossed the Dovre Mountain on their way to Nidaros even if the route was so exhausting and dangerous. For that reason the then king Oistein Magnussen, in the 1120ties built shelters for pilgrims several places on the mountain’s plateau. The care for the pilgrims was so important that there was a detailed regulation for the stay in these pilgrim shelters in the Norwegian legislation, the “Gulatingsloven”. During the 13th century the first church was built in the Dovre Mountain.   

When the Lutheran reformation reached Norway in 1537, pilgrimages were banned. Only in the 20th century people started again to come to Trondheim as pilgrims. Especially after 1970 – 80 more and more pilgrims appeared and even more after the signposting of the path between Oslo and Trondheim from 1993 until 1997 when the path officially was opened by HRH Crown prince Haakon July 29th 1997.

Today the pilgrim path both in Norway, Denmark and Sweden is signposted with the St. Olav logo and has received the status as European Cultural Route under the Council of Europe’s Cultural Route program.