What is this ‘free time’ of which you speak?

I had forgotten just how exhausting academic writing could be, in the few years since I’ve had to do it. It’s fun and kind of rewarding, in a way, synthesizing the information from maybe 20,000 pages of books, encyclopedia entries and primary sources down into a 30-page paper. But that also means you can spend days working on one paragraph, checking and re-checking your sources, making sure literally every word is doing the job you need it to do. Writing ancient history this often comes down to hedging your bets with just the right weasel word – ‘could have,’ ‘seems to suggest,’ and so forth. This paper needs a lot of work in the next three days, but it’s close enough. I do remember this much from being an undergrad – at some point you’re just relieved to be done and whatever you’re working on is good enough.

Nice to have nothing left this term but a bit of editing. Take it away George:

Pilgrim of a Thousand Faces: A Mythological Interpretation of the Itinerarium Burdigalense

As one of only a handful of such documents surviving from antiquity, the Itinerarium Burdigalense has been the subject of a great deal of study and research. Charting the route of an anonymous pilgrim from Roman Burdigala (modern day Bordeaux) to Jerusalem and then the return journey as far as Mediolanum (modern day Milan), the Bordeaux Itinerary is the earliest surviving non-scriptural Christian travel record, heightening its importance to the study of early pilgrimage. Dating to the years 333-334, the ItBurg allows the reader an opportunity to move through ancient space but also provides a valuable glimpse into a particular moment in time, scant years after Constantine’s conversion, in the midst of the Christianization of Roman Europe. The Bordeaux pilgrim belonged to a society situated between two chief cultural influences (i.e. Paganism and Christianity) and the ItBurg likewise belongs to two different traditions: the spare list form of the itinerarium, and the more expansive and descriptive periegesis. The combination of these two literary traditions brings an element of mythology to the document, locating its anonymous author – and by extension its reader – in the protagonist’s role. The Itinerarium Burdigalense is as literary as it is geographic, its geographic elements serving to further a literary function.

This paper seeks to demonstrate that the ItBurg’s proper placement in the Roman travel writing tradition lies between mythological cultural expression and the existing, longstanding practice of itinerary composition. Locating the Itinerarium Burdigalense in that proper place requires both an illustration of that which separates it from other contemporary Roman travel documents, and an illustration of its commonalities with more purely mythological accounts. Before proceeding to that analysis, it is worthwhile to examine the existing scholarly exploration of the document, and to identify the gap in that body of work which this paper intends to bridge. A theory for how its mythological elements relate to proselytization, and an examination of the argument’s most immediate objections will follow below.

The existing textual analysis of the Bordeaux Itinerary has contributed much to the general understanding of its purpose and construction. Elsner, for instance, has studied the document’s re-envisioning of Rome and its provinces as a Christian Empire.[1] Irshai notes that the Bordeaux author selectively represents the Holy Land so as to appropriate Jerusalem for Christianity, part of an ongoing replacement of Jewish and Pagan milieu with the trappings of a new Christian society.[2] Similarly though somewhat more abstract, Bowman analyzes the ItBurg in terms of a “spiritual itinerary,” walking the reader consciously from a secular mentality into the terrain in which Biblical events occurred.[3] There is an ongoing discussion of the literary elements in the context of the author’s identity. Douglass, for one example, argues that the content of the document’s more descriptive section suggests that the author may have been a woman.[4] Weingarten has countered that the evidence Douglass cites – specifically the Bordeaux author’s focus on women in scriptural events and fertility imagery – is also present in the work of contemporary male writers, notably Josephus and the pagan author Theophanes.[5] Salway summarizes an authorial debate based around the itinerary’s unusual structure, noting that some have argued that this represents the interpolation of a second author into a basic itinerary, or the work of an “armchair traveler” (that is, one who never left their home) armed with a book of Jewish folk tales and somebody else’s travel account.[6] By Salway’s reckoning the ItBurg is the work of a single author, but one with multiple destinations, and the itinerary was composed over a lengthy timespan.

This paper concurs with the single-author theory, but disputes the concept of multiple destinations. Thus far missing from the scholarship is an interpretation of the document as a pure cultural exercise, the mythologizing of an event which occurred in actuality. Viewed in terms of its mythological aspects, the Bordeaux Itinerary appears to be a carefully constructed work of Christian propaganda, centered around the singular destination of the Holy Land. While it may have been a road map for Christians hoping to make the journey, and it may also have been the personal journal of a returned pilgrim, the Bordeaux Itinerary could also have been an effective tool for Christian proselytization via its adoption of the mythic structure. It is the inclusion of Christian imagery that brings to the Bordeaux Itinerary a mythological aspect lacking from other contemporary Roman travel documents.

Apart from its unusual structure of bookending two spare itinerary lists around a descriptive central section, the Itinerarium Burdigalense is remarkable primarily for its Christian perspective.[7] It survives in four different manuscripts written between the eighth and tenth centuries, two of which contain only the descriptive Judean section.[8] A roughly contemporary non-Christian itinerary provides a useful point of comparison, highlighting the distinctiveness of the Bordeaux document. A much lengthier itinerary dating to between A.D. 286-310,[9] the Itinerarium Antonini is generally agreed to be a synthesis of multiple itineraries (Graham puts the number at ten separate documents[10]) disparate in time and place of origin, the result of which is repetitive and confusing to decipher even among experts.[11] Despite surviving in fifty identified manuscripts,[12] Talbert has argued convincingly that the Antonine Itinerary is far from a scholar-assembled master travel reference, as one might presume based on an uncritical reading. Rather, the document’s errors, confusing presentation and loose organization suggest that it was likely the private collection of an unsophisticated hobbyist, becoming an object of intense and wide interest only following the Empire’s collapse.[13]

While this is a convincing case, the Antonine Itinerary does possess a degree of internal logic, such that it is possible to plot journeys crossing through its various sections. For instance, one could plot the Bordeaux Pilgrim’s entire 5000-mile journey[14] through the parts of the Cursus Publicus described accurately enough in the Antonine. Its errors harm its prospective functionality, but it does not necessarily follow that the document was not intended for practical use. In that respect, the Antonine Itinerary has much in common with the Tabula Peutingeriana, another ancient document the purpose of which has seen debate in recent years.[15] The terrain covered within the Bordeaux Itinerary fits within the Antonine; at least partially they cover the same territory. Geographically, their similarities are self-evident.

For Elsner the commonalities between the ItAnt and the ItBurg are great enough to allow a worthwhile comparison,[16] though one need not even read Latin to immediately recognize their differences. Unlike the Peutinger Map or the Antonine, the Bordeaux Itinerary is at once travel record and crafted narrative, displaying both an accurate travel account and a confident clarity of authorial purpose. While that account likely records the actual events of a fourth-century pilgrimage (and there is no compelling reason to believe that it does not), the literary embellishments elevate the journey from non-fictional travel record to mythological cultural expression. The backbone of mythology creates the major and relevant difference between the two documents.

It is no great leap to presume a link between mythology and the recording of factual events in the writings of early Christians. For the Greeks myth was a tool for universalizing an experience, rendering it applicable to each member of a society. Events recorded in mythology were “removed from the everyday trivialities, raised to the sphere of what is generally accepted,” as Dorrie writes.[17] While there were attempts to consciously separate scripture from the literary structure of pagan myth (as a means of dominating and replacing pagan ideologies), those attempts were largely unsuccessful until the Romantic Period. Religion and myth could intermingle well into the early modern era,[18] such that the mythologist Joseph Campbell commented, “My favorite definition of religion is a misinterpretation of mythology.”[19] Early Christians famously put this natural intermingling to great use, co-opting pagan rites and rituals into Christianity as a means of furthering conversion efforts.[20]

Further, attempts to prove a myth’s reality via empirical, scientific evidence occur frequently in world mythologies – not a secondary study by modern scholars, but skepticism within the text of the myth itself. Within the world of the myth this can often take the form of persuasion, one character arguing to another: Medon convincing the suitors’ families that a goddess is standing beside Odysseus, for example.[21] If the ItBurg is intended to be persuasive, then the Bordeaux author is playing the role of Medon, standing astride the physical and metaphysical, one foot in each. If the purpose is proselytization, then by definition the reader is the skeptic in need of convincing. Sanskrit texts occasionally include common sense advice on how to avoid contacting a deity.[22] It might be said that the Bordeaux author is providing the opposite.

The ItAnt demonstrates that not every travel document naturally exhibits a mythic element, but the concept of a lengthy journey does lend itself well to cultural allegory. Travel is a recurring motif in both mythology and literature, such that Campbell structures his exploration of the monomyth around what he calls The Hero’s Journey.[23] The journey typically involves the crossing-of a threshold into new foreign territory, unknown to the narrative’s protagonist. The Bordeaux Itinerary invokes this idea in the early lines of the document in several ways, some subtle, some more obvious. The author lays out the entire journey in the very first line, and initiates the departure immediately after: “The city of Burdigala, where is the River Garonne, in which the ocean ebbs and flows for one hundred leagues.”

Salway argues that this line referencing the River Garonne in fact emphasizes the exotic from the outset, due to the fact that the ocean ebbing and flowing was worthy of remarking upon.[24] But this is a leap on Salway’s part. Given the later focus on supernatural events occurring in scriptural history, the remarking upon ocean currents is positively mundane in comparison. Further, Campbell notes that rivers were frequently used as simple geographic locators, and information regarding pace of flow and turbulence is a common enough occurrence when they are described.[25] That fact combined with the supernatural events described later in the text seems to argue against Salway’s opinion that the ItBurg opens with striking detail. If the itinerary did open with something exotic and supernatural – say, a description of a pool in Bordeaux which can cause pregnancy in women – then there would be no later mythological threshold to cross. But those details do not appear until well into the document.

The use of leagues persists for the first fourteen itinerary stops until Tolosa, shifting to Roman miles in the line Mutatio Ad Nonum, “change at the ninth milestone.” It is not entirely clear why the author chose to switch from the Gallic league to the Roman mile in precisely this location, for the travelling party is still in Gaul when the shift occurs. It is the first milestone which the text mentions, so the answer may be as simple as that it was the first milestone the author had come across. But whatever the reason for choosing that particular location to begin using the mile, the usage of mutatio[26] combined with the alteration in distance scale subtly implies the crossing of a boundary. The Gallic league is associated with the author’s point of departure[27] (and likely also his homeland, although there is of course no way to know this), and the change to the Roman mile subtly shifts the reader to a different land. The remainder of the narrative continues the use of miles until its conclusion, but the return journey stops at Milan, never retracing the terrain previously described in terms of leagues. The return journey, so common in mythological narratives, is left off the Bordeaux Itinerary. It seems safe to assume that the author would have reverted to the usage of leagues, once back on the familiar territory around the River Garonne. Elsner notes that surpassing Mediolanum in the return narrative would be textually redundant and unnecessary, since it is simply the reverse of the departure from Bordeaux.[28]

The author is careful to distinguish each time his traveling party crosses a cultural and political boundary, providing evidence of a mythological threshold-crossing that is less subtle than the distance marker change. The first time this occurs is in the sixty-sixth line, with the simple statement inde incipit Italia, “here begins Italy.” If Italy begins there, even if the author does not state as such outright, logic dictates that something else ends there and a boundary has been crossed. The effect becomes more pronounced as the document progresses – the hundred-seventeenth line reads fines italiae et norci, or “frontier of Italy.” Shortly after in the hundred-twenty-fourth line, the author gives us Transis pontem, intras pannoniam inferiorem – “You cross the bridge and enter lower Pannonia.” Certainly he did not need to point out the bridge crossing; the Antonine Itinerary makes no such distinctions in its treatment of the region. Transis combined with the entrance into a new territory reinforces the threshold-crossing model.

The strongest and clearest strategy the pilgrim uses to suggest a threshold crossing is the textual change which occurs when he reaches the Holy Land. The motive of choice as to where to shift tones is clear; it is not as if the pilgrim passed nothing interesting on the way to the holy land.[29] Based on the sudden profusion of description, it certainly appears that the area around Jerusalem was the focal point of his interest. In line 361 the author abandons the mutatio, mansio, civitas template in favor of lengthy descriptions of Biblical events associated with various sacred locales as he passes them. As Bowman notes, the Bordeaux Itinerary falters here as a linear reflection of the holy land’s actual geography, suggesting that it functions instead as a spiritual exploration: “Real places seem to serve as doorways into a literary domain – that of the Bible.”[30] The section covering the holy land consists of 1,084 words out of a total 3,571 for the entire Itinerary, approximately 30.3 percent of the total document. The author uses that 30 percent of the text to describe roughly four percent of the total terrain which he traverses.[31] If one accepts the interpretation that a travel document charts a path through space and time,[32] then time slows down as the Bordeaux Itinerary shifts to its treatment of sacred space. It is worth noting that the document abandons the recording of horse changes throughout the central descriptive section, and begins using mutatio again afterward when it returns to itinerary form, setting apart the holy land even more emphatically.

A number of interesting aspects set this section off structurally from the rest of the document. Salway points out that the distinction between the parts is not quite as clear-cut as has been presented; the Bordeaux author includes sporadic cultural and historical details throughout the spare itinerary sections.[33] “Here was born the Apostle Paul,” for instance, occurs in the two-hundred-ninety-eighth line, well before the beginning of the descriptive language surrounding Jerusalem. “Here Helias went to the widow and begged food for himself” constitutes the three-hundred-thirty-eighth line. These two incidents are both described in scripture, and serve to initiate and prepare the reader for the great breadth of Biblical history to come. But the truly distinctive and separating event comes at line 354: “mons syna, ubi fons est, in quem mulier est lauerit grauida fit.” This is the first mention of the supernatural within the Bordeaux Itinerary,[34] and its function is to subtly bisect what follows from what preceded. The other Biblical events mentioned until that point belong to the mundane – a man’s birthplace, a beggar asking for food. Line 354’s description of the fountain at Mount Syna which can cause pregnancy effectively forms the final threshold across which both author and reader move into a world of magic.

It is worth noting at least briefly that the pilgrim’s journey narrative matches up rather neatly with Campbell’s monomyth. The Hero’s Journey involves a threshold-crossing into magical terrain where the supernatural is possible, and a later return. It includes what Campbell refers to as atonement with the father,[35] certainly a principal component of the Christian faith, in which Jesus is purported to have died to atone for humanity’s sins in the eyes of God the father. The hero of the journey returns in possession of the ultimate boon to share with his fellows,[36] that ultimate boon in the ItBurg being knowledge of the Holy Land. Reading Campbell’s description of the hero becoming the “Master of the Two Worlds,” one is reminded of Christ’s many comments to the faithful to be in the world, but not of the world: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own … I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”[37] While the monomyth template is of limited use to scholars, it is worthwhile to note its presence (crossing the threshold, encountering supernatural phenomena, atonement, returning with a reward) in an early Christian document with a mythological slant.

Once the traveler has left behind the mundane and crossed the threshold into the realm of the magical, what can he expect to find there? According to myths the world over, the answer is one or many deities. Theophany, the meeting of gods and mortals, appears almost universally in world mythologies, transcending time and distance. The phenomenon is so common and constant that representative examples are unnecessary – choose any myth at random, and the odds are overwhelming that it will include mortal-divine contact on some level. That a document citing scriptural events would include examples of theophany is hardly surprising, and tells us little without further analysis. More compelling is the author’s strategy of putting geography and local contemporary activity to the service of reinforcing the credibility of supernatural events. Of the many examples of scriptural theophany the ItBurg author mentions, three serve to illustrate this concept well: Jacob wrestling the angel, Abraham’s well, and the description of the tomb of Jesus.

The pilgrim locates each incident geographically, such that it would be theoretically possible for a new pilgrim to find the locale described. “Twenty-eight miles from thence on the left hand … A mile from thence is the place where Jacob slept when he was journeying into Mesopotamia … here is the almond tree, here Jacob saw the angel…” So the reader has three coordinates if she is hoping to find where Jacob wrestled the angel – twenty-eight miles from the village Sechar, a mile from Bethar, and a particular almond tree. The description of the location of Abraham’s well is less elaborate, but it need not be as elaborate, because the pilgrim simply tells us the town where it resides: “Thence to Terebinthus … Here Abraham dwelt, and dug a well under a terebinth tree, and spoke with angels, and ate food with them.” Even more valuable to the reader’s prospects of locating the well site, though, is the very next line, pointing out that Emperor Constantine has built a “wondrous basilica” nearby. This statement is just as locational as the three-coordinate statement regarding Jacob’s wrestling site – go to the basilica in Terebinthus, and you can see where Abraham broke bread with angels.

This line regarding the basilica also has the secondary effect, though, of bringing immediacy and currency to the scriptural events described. The text implicitly conflates the actions of Biblical figures with those of Emperor Constantine, a contemporary ruler in the pilgrim’s lifetime. Irshai and Elsner are correct; these lines have everything to do with psychologically Christianizing the terrain of the Roman Empire and its provinces. For the believer it affirms the Christian nature of the Holy Land, but the document appears to have a second target. In providing both geographic location and ties to what were then current events, for the non-believer it offers a confident argument in favor of the truth of Christian mythology. If the pilgrim can convince his reader that he has seen where something happened, he is that much closer to having her believe that it happened. In a way, if his intention is to proselytize, it does not matter if his itinerary is never used for travel. For a reader too busy, or too infirm, or too young or old to make the pilgrimage themselves, simply reading the Bordeaux Itinerary (or having it read to them, if they are too poor to have become literate) might have provided an acceptable substitute. The Holy Land might have been a garbage dump for all they knew, but the Itinerarium Burdigalense could have been enough to overcome the skeptic’s resistance to theophany.[38]

This geography/immediacy strategy of describing theophany persists in the pilgrim’s description of the tomb of Jesus. Arguably this is the most carefully described geographic location in the holy land section: “On the left hand is the little hill of Golgotha where the Lord was crucified. About a stone’s throw from thence is a vault wherein His body was laid and rose again on the third day.” This is preceded by a precise description of how to reach the area – which gate to depart, which gate to approach, which direction to look – and is followed by another reference to then-current Imperial construction. “There, at present, by the command of Emperor Constantine, has been built a basilica, that is to say a church of wondrous beauty.” The Emperor’s basilicas are mentioned twice, once regarding a site connected to Abraham, and again regarding a site connected with Jesus. This draws a chronological mental line for the reader, from Abraham to Jesus to Constantine. The use of the Latin words ibidem modo also supports the argument regarding the Holy Land’s ongoing Christianization. Modo can mean “now,” the definition reflected in Stewart’s translation, but it can also mean “only.” In the modern holy land in other words, there is only the true faith of Christianity, Judaism’s potential fully realized. The author alludes to the somewhat complex relationship between Christianity and Judaism a few lines previously, when he points out that where there were once seven synagogues within the walls of Sion, now there is only one, the others “plowed over and sown upon.” There is still a minor place in the Christian Holy Land for Judaism, but the coming of the savior has rendered it mostly obsolete.[39]

Theophany is a recurring motif in religion and mythology throughout most major cultures in every period of history, and skepticism of that theophany occurs often enough within the stories themselves. One need not even reach across cultures to find a Christian example of a skeptic, for the incredulity of the Apostle Thomas comes immediately to mind.[40] Combined with references to what were then current events, the Bordeaux Itinerary uses geographic description to enhance the believability of incidents of Biblical theophany. That believability would be a concern of the author is not a wild assumption – as previously mentioned he lived in a society still in the midst of a conversion from the older paganism, a time in which Christianity was by no means a universal and accepted description of reality. Even his spiritual cousins, the Jews, rejected the divinity of the author’s messiah. Thus the Bordeaux pilgrim’s use of geography is just as propagandistic as the Roman government’s, in a sense. He has simply replaced the political with the religious.

An as-yet uncovered example of theophanic imagery points naturally to another category of mythic material present throughout the descriptive text: et columna adhuc ibi est, in qua christum flagellis ceciderunt.” The reference to a column against which Christ was beaten with rods is suggestive of a common theme in the ancient world, that of turning a location important to one’s culture into an axis mundi, conceptualizing a social center as geographically central. The concept is visible frequently throughout many different societies in both religious/mythological and political traditions – the Greeks placed their center at the sacred Oracle at Delphi, the Romans at Rome, and the Muslims at Mecca. At the top of their sacred mountain Yar-lha-sham-po Tibetans conceived of a “sky cord,” through which gods could not only communicate but move between the earthly and celestial realms.[41] The axis mundi might be centered on a tree, as in the Norse Yggdrasill or a shaman’s tree in Central Asia, or a mountain as in the Tibetan example. Frequently the true center is occupied by a pillar or a column,[42] such as the axle of the Germanic Cosmic Mill grinding out stars, or the shaft of the churn stirring the great Milk Ocean (a frequent depiction in Asian art and architecture).[43]

In early Christianity there was a clear and concerted effort to centralize Jerusalem,[44] reflected in scripture and the writings of Christian intellectuals in the period immediately following. Drawing upon biblical description,[45] the seventh-century archbishop and scholar Isidore of Seville seems to have been voicing the mainstream opinion when he wrote of Jerusalem, “quasi umbilicus regionis totius,” “as if it were the navel of the whole region.” The ninth-century theologian and author Hrabanus Maurus centralizes Jerusalem even further, locating the city “quasi umbilicus regionis et totius terrae.”[46] Even the virulent anti-Semite John Chrysostom (writing later in the same century as the Bordeaux pilgrim) refers to Jerusalem as a place where the Jewish people could communicate with the almighty: “This is what God did, too. He let the Jews offer sacrifice but permitted this to be done in Jerusalem and nowhere else in the world.”[47] Eliade notes that for Christians, the hill at Golgotha is a commonly accepted world center. The presence of umbilical, centralizing imagery around a cultural focus, centered on a tree, pillar or mountain, is a consistent and pervasive phenomenon in Eurasian mythology,[48] and early Christian thought closely follows this tradition.

Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that the Bordeaux pilgrim would embrace axis mundi tropes in his description of the Holy Land. Trees, mountains and pillars are common centralizing devices in mythology of the period, and the author uses them repeatedly as landmarks throughout the descriptive section – the hill of Golgotha, the pillar against which Christ was whipped, and the tree Zacchaeus climbed so he could see Christ, for instance. One might dispute the usage of a tree as a practical, functional geographic locator – trees are common enough that it seems easy to mistake one for another – so it seems possible that there was an alternative motive for their frequent inclusion in the text, more literary than functional. Even more importantly than the questionable utility of trees as landmarks, almost every time an axis mundi landmark (tree, mount or pillar) is mentioned in the Holy Land portion of the text, it is in connection with some theophanic event. Many of these sound as if they could have come from pre-Christian axis mundi mythology: Mount Gerizim where God stopped Abraham just short of sacrificing Isaac, or the hill where Jesus prayed and saw a vision of Moses. Even less obvious and direct examples are theophanic due to the nature of the Christian events described. When Zacchaeus climbs into a tree to better see Jesus – God made flesh, according to Christian scripture – he contacts an axis mundi landmark to come closer to divinity. Sky cords abound across the Bordeaux pilgrim’s Holy Land.

That there are so many centralizing landmarks described in the ItBurg would seem to argue against their importance, for it is somewhat counterintuitive to think of a single locale as having multiple centers. But the pilgrim crosses thousands of miles, mentioning no trees of significance,[49] and only a single mountain,[50] preferring to use rivers and cities (logically, more useful landmarks than trees) as itinerary checkpoints outside the Holy Land. None of the trivial remarks regarding trees or mountains outside the Jerusalem section include any theophanic detail. Once he reaches the area around Jerusalem, within the geographic space of a few hundred miles, the pilgrim mentions biblically significant trees, mounts, hills and a pillar collectively 21 times. The effect of this disparity is cumulative, centralizing the Holy Land region as an axis mundi of the world entire.

The focus on femininity and fertility in the Itinerarium Burdigalense forms the crux of Douglass’ argument that the Bordeaux pilgrim was a woman. Weingarten’s response points out that while the pilgrim certainly might have been female, feminine imagery is a consistent pattern in period writing in the region, especially in conjunction with fresh water sources.[51] Weingarten is correct; the focus on fertility imagery tells us less about authorial gender identity than it does about authorial purpose. Her paper does not mention it, but the fertility motif, so frequently expressed in the Bordeaux Itinerary, is common in axis mundi mythology. Philologically the connection if immediately discernible from the language the Christian writers use to describe the axis mundi of Jerusalem, the Latin word umbilicus being the obvious root for “umbilical.” The act of creation by the archetypal couple is centered upon a world tree in the Mayan Popol Vuh.[52] Eliade quotes a rabbinical text: “The Holy One created the world like an embryo. As an embryo proceeds from the navel onward, and from thence it spread in different directions.”[53] Milk certainly implies a connection to infancy and fertility, so the Hindu and Buddhist myth of gods and demons stirring the great Milk Ocean with a shaft at the center of the world stands as a powerful expression of centrality and femininity.[54] Milk shows up again in Norse myth, in which the heroes in Wotan’s hall wash down their meals with the milk of the she-goat Heidrun, who feeds on Yggdrasil’s leaves.[55] The sacred feminine is one of the oldest known religious and mythological themes, pervasive throughout much of human history,[56] and as the preceding examples have shown, crosses paths often with the axis mundi. Regardless of the pilgrim’s identity, the focus on femininity and fertility reinforces the document’s centralizing of the Holy Land.

In a consideration of the ItBurg in mythological terms, the author’s anonymity itself becomes a literary element, a principal component of the document’s ability to proselytize. Authorial signature serves to assign an identity to the central figure of a first- or second-person narrative. The third-person voice naturally includes protagonist identity, but the first two voices (owing to their usage of “I,” “we,” and “you”) lend themselves to anonymity, if the identity of the author/speaker and listener/reader are unknown. The Bordeaux author addresses the reader directly, using the second-person Latin verb on eleven separate occasions. Ten of the eleven place the reader in motion, i.e. “you enter upper Pannonia,” or “from thence you ascend to the Mount of Olives.” Assigning the second-person narrative mode to a physical action encourages a transference of viewpoint: the reader is thus consciously invited to imagine herself moving into Pannonia, or ascending the Mount of Olives.

Interestingly, the document never uses the singular first-person. This stands in contrast to the work of Egeria, a female pilgrim writing later in the same century as the Bordeaux author.[57] Egeria writes autobiographically, rendering the experience her own and not the reader’s: “I kept asking to see the different places mentioned in the Bible…”[58] As Bowman notes, “Egeria’s narrative is densely charged by enthusiastic first person narration.”[59] Though each written from a Christian perspective, the difference in narrative mode reflects a difference in narrative purpose. Even when the Bordeaux author shifts once to using “we,” that is not as exclusionary of the reader as it initially seems. For the plurality of “we” allows for psychological inclusiveness – even if the reader was not there in body, the narrative invites her to place herself there in spirit, by virtue of the travelling party’s lack of definition. Were the members of the journey group named, that would render the event separated, concluded, cut off from its reader. But the use of “we,” especially combined with the studious avoidance of the singular first-person and preference for the second-person, suggests that the author wants the reader to imagine herself there at the Pilgrim’s side. It may be the Pilgrim who made the journey in actuality, who actually laid eyes on the sacred land and all its wonders, but the choice of narrative mode contributes to the author’s persuasive strategy.[60] The itinerary’s anonymity, mythological elements and travel narrative combine to make it effectively a hero’s journey without the hero. The second-person narrative voice places the reader in that role.

If one assumes that the pilgrim’s intent is to persuade his reader of the truth of the Biblical events described, how does the inclusion of mythological elements serve that purpose? The answer to that question is twofold: the first is likely a desire to present the material in a manner with which a contemporary fourth-century reader (or listener) would have been familiar. Christian appropriation of non-Christian locales, rites and symbology is well-documented and accepted by scholars,[61] and the introduction of universalist mythic tropes is a textual example of the same phenomenon. The second half of the answer, having to do with how the mind retains information, is more complex and requires more explanation.

Elizabeth and Paul Barber quote the 1971 Bransford-Franks memory experiment, in which the researchers would construct lists of brief, declarative sentences, which when combined together would form a single complex idea. Test subjects were given no time to consider the material, and they were never exposed to more than one facet of the full complex picture in any given sentence.[62] Subjects were then read each of the brief sentences and an extra sentence which combined all the information from the others. When asked which sentence was the most familiar to them, subjects almost invariably chose the complex sentence, in spite of the fact that they had never heard it before.[63] “Out of disconnected elements, a complete meaning is constructed, and that is what a person remembers,” anthropologist Jeremy Campbell wrote of the study.[64] The Bransford-Franks experiment would seem to suggest that the mind will naturally organize information that seems to be related into a cohesive pattern. Further, once it is part of the memory, data of questionable veracity will naturally mingle with more established fact to support a cohesive (yet possibly factually false) picture. The Barbers quote the anthropologist Campbell again: “When Information is recollected, the elaborations added by the brain may behave like a memory … once placed in the memory, the two kinds of information are not easily disentangled.”[65]

The subjects in the Bransford-Franks experiment were certain they had already heard the complex sentence when in fact they had only heard fragments. In this light, the Bordeaux pilgrim’s geographically precise descriptions of the locations of Biblical events (events for which he likely would not know the precise location, writing three centuries later) make more sense. If he can even get his reader to debate whether he knows the precise location of where Jacob wrestled an angel, then he has already accomplished his task. He has already gotten her to implicitly accept that it happened. Even if she does not accept the location he suggests, the fact of its occurrence – delivered in a mythological frame which would be familiar to her from other stories – is on its way to becoming part of her memory bank. In this case, the “complete picture” to which Campbell refers is the truth of the Christian faith. The acceptance of disparate facets of Christianity begins to lean a person towards a Christian worldview, and thus towards becoming a practicing Christian.

Some scholars have argued that recurring mythological themes (a world covering flood, for instance) persist and repeat across cultures partially because myth provided a method for non-literate, early agricultural peoples a means for encoding information to their descendants.[66] Stories like the Egyptian god Osiris (conflated in mythology with the constellation Orion) dying for 70 days in the summer functioned as a kind of cultural mnemonic, an analogy to help Egyptian farmers to remember a key moment in the agricultural cycle and thus maximize their food production.[67] The Bordeaux pilgrim lived in a society in which literacy was a reality, though nowhere close to widespread.[68] A mythological presentation of the Holy Land would be appealing to a broad range of readers or listeners, literate and illiterate alike, the mythic cultural mnemonic in service of the document’s Christian message. The usage of familiar mythic elements bridges the distance between the previous pagan status quo and the new Christian cultural regime. “Within theology there is a conservation of concepts, appropriate to earlier stages of a society’s development,” McCall writes. “Both the older and the newer beliefs are explicable as reflections of social organization.”[69] In other words, similar mythic elements will tend to repeat within the same culture, even as the society evolves. As mentioned earlier, early Christians put this “conservation of concepts” phenomenon to great use, blending the new Palestinian religion with existing pagan symbols and ideology. Examples abound, notably including the replacement of various mother goddesses with the Virgin Mary.[70] The usage of familiar mythological tropes reflects the well-documented Christian habit of embracing syncretism, using existing symbolism as a vehicle for Christianity.

Certainly any analysis of a document in terms of its mythological content ought to be careful about overstating its case. The topic is literary, and thus difficult to measure and open to multiple interpretations, so such a study ought to address the immediate objections to the argument. Comparative Mythology has been justly criticized as an oversimplification of the breadth and scope of worldwide cultural thought. In particular, Campbell’s monomyth, from which the concepts of a hero’s journey and mythological threshold-crossing are derived, is accused of encouraging an overemphasis on cross-cultural similarities at the expense of regional uniqueness.[71] However dismissing entirely the framework of comparative mythology (more particularly the monomyth) would be an inappropriately sweeping generalization equal to the uncritical assumption of its universality. It would be difficult to argue credibly that the heroic journey motif does not permeate at least the western literary tradition, from antiquity through the present day. The basic steps of the journey – the hero’s departure from home, the crossing over into unknown territory, the conquering of trials, atonement, reward and return – occur repeatedly in mythology developed at disparate places and times in the ancient world.

If the monomyth template fails as a universal descriptor of worldwide mythology, it does not follow necessarily that it fails entirely. The fact of its non-universality makes it more useful, because that logically suggests it is not so general that it applies to any narrative, as its critics might suggest. It is present in stories with which the Roman Bordeaux author might have been familiar, including Jason and the Argonauts, Homer’s Odyssey, and according to Campbell’s analysis, the story of Christ himself. Even if the pilgrim were not familiar with the same stories in which we identify these familiar tropes, the frequency of the tropes’ usage in the stories we do know seems to suggest he would have seen them used in other stories unfamiliar to us. And if the common forms are not quite as universal as the proponents would suggest, again, that would seem to make the Bordeaux Itinerary’s use of them all the more remarkable. For if the hero’s journey is not present in every story but only in a particular type of story, that tells us something about the kind of story the author of the Itinerarium Burdigalense was hoping to tell.

Within the body of scholarly criticism directed at the monomyth framework, there are several immediate objections to the “itinerary-as-myth” argument which are worth addressing. Any inherently theoretical comparison by its nature creates a danger of cherry-picking evidence ideal to supporting the case. In theory it would not be difficult to make almost any narrative fit a generalized mythological template, if one were to selectively represent those parts of the narrative which suggest the comparison. However, this objection is blunted by the simple fact that these elements are, in fact, in the text. This paper has sought to demonstrate only that the Bordeaux Itinerary exhibits a mythological aspect, not that the entire document is mythological in nature. A selective representation of the evidence – what might appear to be cherry-picking, in defense of a different thesis – is sufficient and proper to demonstrate that the document is only partially mythological in nature.

A related complaint states that almost any narrative involving a journey could be fitted without much effort into the mythological template, especially the monomyth. But a moment’s thought reveals any number of ways a lengthy travel narrative might not follow the monomyth – the journey need not focus on the crossing of a border or threshold, or it may not involve some form of the supernatural. The hero may return empty-handed, without any reward to share with her fellows. Thus the charge that any journey narrative naturally invokes the monomyth is too facile and hasty a generalization. That the Bordeaux author need not have mythologized the account – but apparently chose to do so – is an important clue to authorial intent.

To conclude, the text of the Itinerarium Burdigalense has previously been studied as either a literal travel account, or in terms of its methods of Christianizing the region surrounding Palestine. While these avenues of inquiry are unquestionably valuable and worthy of pursuit, a neglected aspect of the document has been its universalist elements which occur in mythology across disparate cultures and time periods. Whether consciously or not, the Bordeaux author included certain mythological aspects in the text which ensured that the account of his journey to the Christian Holy Land would be appreciable and relatable to peoples of varying cultural and religious backgrounds. The usage of common mythological elements like the journey, the threshold crossing, descriptions of theophany, and the subtle definition of the Holy Land as Axis Mundi all serve to universalize the text of the Itinerarium Burdigalense, increasing the likelihood that non-Christians would have found the document persuasive. The Itinerary might have been intended to be used, but it also seems it was intended to be read. Its descriptions are convincing whether a reader ever laid eyes on the Holy Land themselves or not, and its usage of mythological concepts common and familiar in ancient literature reflects the Christian habit of proselytization via the co-opting of pagan milieu.

Relatively precise geographic description and the documenting of contemporary geographic alterations (i.e. Constantine’s construction program) combine to give the narrative a confident literary voice, reminiscent of Roman usage of geographic data for the purposes of political propaganda. Employment of the second-person narrative mode places the reader mentally and spiritually in Christianity’s cradle, whether or not they ever possessed the means to go there physically themselves. Admittedly much of the document’s mythological side is inherent, given the dual subjects of a travel record and Christian scripture, so it certainly need not have been a conscious choice on the part of the pilgrim. It is rather more likely that the author emphasized certain mythological tropes with which he was subconsciously familiar as a means of serving his literary purpose – proselytizing to the unconverted. Thus the Itinerarium Burdigalense’s proper placement in the Roman literary tradition lies somewhere between the travel writing tradition and mythological cultural expression.


[1] Elsner 2000, 181-195.

[2] Irshai 2009, 465-486.

[3] Bowman 1999, 163-184. Bowman admits in the conclusion to his paper that his analysis reads much into the Bordeaux Itinerary’s subtext, which is not readily apparent in the actual text. Bowman takes the position that this subtext would have been apparent to the Bordeaux author’s contemporaries, which is also an implication of the argument that the itinerary’s text is fundamentally mythological in character.

[4] Douglass 1996, 313-333. This paper takes no position on the author’s identity of gender, and where appropriate uses “he” for the sake of simplicity. As a means of distinction, the prospective reader is referred to as “she.”

[5] Weingarten 1999, 291-297.

[6] Salway 2012, 294.

[7] Elsner 2000, 183-184. Elsner breaks the Itinerary down into three sections as well – twenty-six pages, twelve opening itinerary pages, six closing itinerary pages, and everything in between comprising the descriptive section.

[8] Elsner 2000, 190.

[9] Reed 1978, 229-230.

[10] Graham 2006, 46.

[11] Talbert 2008, 19-21.

[12] Talbert 2007, 256, n5. Talbert notes that the earliest manuscript dates to the seventh century. The widespread copying of the Itinerarium Antonini would seem to argue against Talbert’s theory that the document was civically unimportant, but he does not address this objection in his paper.

[13] Talbert 2007, 257-270.

[14] Salway 2012, 293.

[15] For instance see Talbert 2010, 142-157.

[16] Elsner 2000, 186.

[17] Dorrie 1996, 107.

[18] Dorrie 1996, 108-109. The author uses Jacob Grimm’s 1835 work on German mythology, in which Grimm consciously places the old German gods and heroes in the definition of myth, as an example of the shift in thinking which occurred in the Romantic Period. It ought to be noted that there is an ongoing debate regarding the definitions of myth and religion. However the fact a debate exists over those terms would seem to bolster the case of the Bordeaux author’s usage of a mythological structure. For a summary see: Segal 1992, 39-51.

[19] Segal 1992, 39.

[20] See for instance Cathasaigh 1982, 75-93; for a study of Christian syncretism with Irish paganism.

[21] O’Flaherty 1996, 292.

[22] O’Flaherty 1996, 293.

[23] See Campbell 1949.

[24] Salway 2012, 294-295.

[25] Campbell 2012, 46.

[26] Mutatio refers literally to a postal station on the Roman Cursus Publicus, but its usage represents the text’s first introduction of the idea of crossing boundaries. It is absent in, for instance, the Antonine Itinerary.

[27] While the exact distance conveyed by the word “league” could vary regionally, see Grundy for an explanation of the evidence suggesting that a Gallic league was a fairly standard measurement, approximately one and a half Roman miles. See Grundy 1938, 253.

[28] Elsner 2000, 183.

[29] Salway notes the scholarly puzzlement on the document’s lack of description for Constantinople and Rome (in Salway 2012, 300-301).

[30] Bowman 1999, 171.

[31] That is, the approximately 210 kilometers between Tyre and Jerusalem. The distance numbers are from Stanford University’s ORBIS system.

[32] See for instance Elsner 2000, 187, for a discussion of how the Bordeaux Itinerary’s careful record of overnight stoppages gives a sense of time to the piece.

[33] Salway 2012, 294-295.

[34] The pilgrim does reference the birthplace of Apollonius magus in line 290. Stewart translates this as “Apollonius the magician,” so by such a translation this might be taken as the document’s first mention of the supernatural. But magus has been interpreted different ways, such that its usage does not necessarily convey magician or sorcerer. In any case, it is not nearly as clear a reference as a fountain which will cause a woman to become pregnant. For a brief discussion on these different interpretations of magus, see Molnar 1999, 3 and 33.

[35] Campbell 1949, 126-148.

[36] Campbell 1949, 172-192.

[37] The Book of John, 15:19.

[38] Again, described in O’Flaherty 1996, 292-293.

[39] There is no hint in the Itinerarium Burdigalense of the Constantinian Archbishop John Chrysostom’s anti-Semitism from later in the century (in Chrysostom’s “Eight Homilies against the Jews”). The Bordeaux Pilgrim refers to the Jews as a simple fact of existence in the Holy Land, as another part of the local color, so it seems fair to assume that anti-Semitism had not yet developed so fully as an ideology, or if it had, it was not a part of the Bordeaux author’s worldview.

[40] The Book of John, 24-29.

[41] Knapp 1998, 6-7. Knapp here is quoting Shen and Liu 1953. It ought to be noted also that while the axis mundi terminology does not appear in every study of the practice of geographically centralizing a culturally-centric locale, Knapp refers to it explicitly as such.

[42] Eliade 1969, 42-43.

[43] Barber 2004, 193. The Barbers drew this summary partially from Krupp 1983, 88-89.

[44] This is not really a distant leap from the theses of Elsner and Irshai’s papers, in which they argue that the Bordeaux Itinerary was part of an effort to appropriate Palestine for Christianity.

[45] Specifically Psalm 73:12, and Ezekiel 5:5

[46] Akbari 2009, 51. The examples of Rome, Delphi and Mecca were drawn from Akbari, as were the quotes from Isidore and Hrabanus. The quotes were checked and verified.

[47] Chrysostom, IV:VI:7.

[48] Eliade 1969, 42. Eliade summarizes and provides many examples of axis mundi imagery throughout Mesopotamia, Ancient India and the pre-Christian northern Europeans,

[49] He changes horses at a place called “Three Trees,” but no description is given, and in any case three trees does not follow the single significant tree present in Axis Mundi models.

[50] That being the Gaura Mountain, in the fifty-first line (“Inde ascenditur gaura mons”). The pilgrim does mention the Alps, but a mountain range – as opposed to a single mountain – is not explicitly a reference to axis mundi imagery, so the inclusion of the Alps seems to be purely geographic in nature.

[51] Weingarten 1999, 296-297.

[52] Knapp 1998, 130-131.

[53] Eliade 1969, 43.

[54] Barber 2004, 193.

[55] Campbell 1949, 176-177.

[56][56] Campbell 1982, 18-20.

[57] For a discussion of the debate surrounding the identity of the author of the Itinerarium Egeriae, see Sivan 1988, 59-72. Sivan writes that while the document itself is unsigned, there is little doubt in her view that the author was the woman mentioned in the letters of the Spanish monk Valerius.

[58] The quote is in Bowman 1999, 168; but the translation is from Wilkinson 1971, 101. The reference was checked.

[59] Bowman 1999, 168.

[60] Salway argues that the use of the dative present participle is the more relevant case, indicating that the Itinerary was intended to be of practical use to the traveler. (Salway 2012, 301-302) Salway may well be correct that it was intended as a practical guide for future pilgrims, but the use of the second-person indicates a possibility that it was intended to convince people to become pilgrims.

[61] A relevant example is the re-founding and appropriation of the Roman Aelia Capitolina as a newly Christianized Jerusalem, discussed in Irshai 2009, 470.

[62] For instance, “The rock rolled down the mountain,” “The rock crushed the hut,” and “The hut was tiny” would be combined into “The rock rolled down the mountain and crushed the tiny hut.” The Barbers quote other studies depicting similar results, such as the 1932 work of Sir Frederic Bartlett.

[63] Barber 2004, 30-31.

[64] Quoted in Barber 2004, 30.

[65] Barber 2004, 33.

[66] The Barbers make this argument explicitly, in Barber 2004, 179-180.

[67] Barber 2004, 183.

[68] For a useful summary of the literature regarding the development of literacy, see O’Toole 1995, 86-99.

[69] McCall 1982, 306.

[70] Tentori 1982, 106-107.

[71] Summarized in Salyer 1992, 55-56.

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~ by kroveechernila on June 6, 2013.

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