When the Reformation came to Norway in 1537, the cult of the ancient relic was abolished and pilgrimage to Nidaros ceased. Almost 500 years later, Norwegians and foreignes alike have once again picked up the pilgrim' staff. It is nothing short of sensational that a national pilgrimage has been established in a protestant country such as Norway. Few catholic countries can boast the same.
The Nidaros Cathedral with its holy shrine was one of the fundamental pillars of religion in the Nordic region during the Middle Ages.
For centuries pilgrims came from the south of Norway, from Sweden and Finland, from Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland to pay homage to St. Olaf.
In many ways, the routes taken by the pilgrims acted as arteries for spreading the cult of St. Olaf. They went from church to church, from village to village, from town to town and from region to region. The cultural elements of the Church, in art, architecture and literature were distributed by the travellers along the way. The trails were alive with ballads, legends and sagas associated with the pilgrimage.
The medieval pilgrimage also had a religious significance in providing a clear picture of life's difficult journey to eternity. The steep hills, the lonely mountain tracks and the vast forests not only taught our forefathers about travelling in the physical sense, they also helped them understand something about the spiritual journey through life.
The Pilgrim Way Project started in 1992 when the Ministry of Enviroment gave the Directorate for Nature Mangement and the Central Office of Historic Monuments the task of reviving the ancient pilgrimages to Trondheim. The routes, consisting mainly of tracks, gravelled roads, and the like, was officially opened on 28 July in 1997 and marked from Oslo to Nidaros and from the Swedish border in Verdal to St. Olaf's city (Trondheim). In addition several municipalities have applied to extend the link, inter alia from Oslo to Hamar via Eidsvoll (to be open in 2002). The project has also aroused considerable interest in Sweden where there is talk about opening up more pilgrimages to Trondheim.
The idea of encouraging people to walk along the pilgrim routes today is primarily to stimulate outdoor activity and cultural awareness. At the same time, however, it is important to understand that ideologically speaking the pilgrimage represent more than a cultural excursion through the countryside. In the Middle Ages, the pilgrimage was often a departure. The aim was to unite with God, not a terrestrial attraction.
To be pilgrim today means trying to restore this spiritual sense of direction; the ancient routes still provide an existenial impression of time and space. This makes the journey significant in itself and generates a strong feeling that you are pilgriming on a spiritual plane to another place.
Norway' intrinsic history
Today's pilgrimages offer a history in which tangible relics are few and far between. Gran in Hadeland, however, can at least boast Nikolauskirken (the church of St. Nicolaus). St. Nicolaus is not only synonymous with Santa Claus, he is also the pilgrim's patron saint of travelling. In front of the church is Aasmund Vinje's grave, whose journey to Trondheim in the last century had several elements associated with a pilgrimage. In the local museum there is a replica of Dynnasteinen (The Dynna Stone) from around 1050, showing among other things a motif of the Three Wise Men on their journey to Bethlehem. Perhaps we may interpret the stone as our oldest relic from the pilgrimages?
If we cast a glance towards the Domkirkeodden (the Catedral promotory) in Hamar, the herb garden will point us in the direction of the pilgrims. The garden is inspired by a botanical description in the Hamar chronicle from 1560, which relates how the herbs had been brought back to Norway by pilgrims who had travelled abroad. Ringsaker church from 1150 has a triptych motiv of St. Rochus, one of the finest medieval images of a pilgrim existing in Norway.
A modern pilgrimsculptore inspired by the medieval St. James of Santa Maria de Tera in Spain has recently been donated to the Ringsaker-church.
Tjodveien in Øyer has retained some of the atmosphere that medieval pilgrims would have experienced centuries ago. From Skåden, where the district's first church once stood, the pilgrimage offer a fabulous view. Simple traditional courtyards and farm buildings still punctuate the hillsides. In the summer, the rugged terrain is a colourful array of wild field flowers, and the dark, dense forest enevelops the lone traveller. Anoymous burial mounds; a shaky wooden bridge; the shadows of curious roe-deer.
A fully restored 14th century loft at Sygard-Grytting in Sør-Fron is once again used by pilgrims as an overnight stop. Eventually, it may also be possible to overnight at Jørundgard, a reconstructed medieval farm in Sel. There is also a statue of Kristin Lavransdatter here, the famous pilgrim in Norwegian literature. Veslehjerkinn on Dovrefjell has a partly restored medieval alms house, the equivalent of a modern day-self-service cabin.
The mountain trails have hardly changed since the time the pilgrims first set foot on them. Here, modern day travellers can wander along overgrown trails, navigate from cairn to cairn, wade across marshes with cordwood bridge-ways and discover fantastic vistas over tranquil plains.
The early pilgrims usually erected crosses for praying at bridges, cross-roads and resting places. The crosses have long since disappeared but many places names still echo their existence, e.g. Korsstuen near Ringebu church and Krossvegen in Oppdal.
Perhaps these are relics from the pilgrim age?
Nidaros Catedral at last!
The apostel Jacob, the principal patron saint of pilgrims, offers the travellers an eternal welcome from his position on the west wall, the building's main facade.
The pilgrim as a symptom of our time.
For the modern pilgrim, however, the path is often a goal in itself.
There is no definitive answer as to why there is such an enormous interest in pilgriming. Can its revitalisation be interpreted as an expression of that which many believe characterises Norwegian piety, i.e. the love of nature? It is said that out of nature Norwegians think about God, while in church they think about nature.
The pilgrim has re-emerged in an age which there is strong division between the body and the soul, mind and spirit, and extrinsic and intrinsic values. Rationalism has forced a wedge between spiritualism and materialism. The ability to see things as a whole may have disappeared, but not the desire.
The pilgrim has re-emerged at a time when there is a desire to express belief in other ways. Religion today has become a personal issue which for many has no place in the public domain. Thus, the physical forms of expression for concern, desire, belief and a common hope for mankind and the future have disappeared too.
The pilgrims'renaissance is also perhaps a expression of the medieval revival that is a feature of today. We see here parallels to the romantic sagas of the last century.
Are we again returning to the age of greatness in order to compete against the rest of the word? There are many questions and answers, and none are clear-cut.
In our post-modern society society with its focus on technology and materialsm, people have started to realise a need to discover their roots and true identity. Singer/songwriter Ola Paus writes "We have everything, but that's all we have".
Many of today's pilgrims regard their journeys as an opportunity to liberate themselves from many things; the journey begins when they start to pack. The less luggage, the more pilgrim we become. It is this train of thought that results in a greater brotherhood of man. It shows that all pilgrims are brothers. This is what distinguishes a pilgrim's destination from a tourist destination; this solidarity between people who on the outside appear as strangers to one another; people who profess to different faiths, but who express it so differently that perhaps they would have difficulty accepting it on home ground. On a pilgrimage they discover that they are are brothers and sisters after all. Such a journey provides the individual with an opportunity to see himself/herself in a greater context.
To be a pilgrim is to opt out of one society and join another. To be a pilgrim is to tear away from the standard way of thinking, standard attitudes and self-assertiveness. As a pilgrim you aim towards the unknown. The surprises are many and you encounter people you otherwise would not meet; a challenge for anyone who has become dependent on the Filofax and cellular phone.
In an age stamped by individualism and self-assertion, the pilgrim dares towards humility: there is no class distinction on the way. People will take you for what you are, not what you represent.
The pilgrim's way is the way of democracy. It is well-defined and there are no shortcuts, no easy solutions and no privileges.
Perhaps the Pilgrim Way to Trondheim can bring people together. We may disagree over most things, but one thing we can do is walk the same path.