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Monument of the pilgrims, Burgos

Following Symbols and the Bones of a Dead Sorcerer: Mysteries of the Camino de Santiago – Part II


The popular 500-mile-long pilgrimage road, the Camino de Santiago (specifically the French Way that leads from the French Pyrenees across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela) seems like a straight-forward Christian pilgrimage, but mysteries abound. The Catholic Church insists it is a medieval pilgrimage route that ends at the tomb of the first martyred apostle, Saint James the Greater (Santiago, in Spanish). However, many people believe that hidden beneath this apparently Christian trail is something else—a pilgrimage route that is much older, longer, and pagan.

Modern pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago

Modern pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago (Staffan Andersson/Public Domain)

In Part One we began exploring the history of the ancient route:

Where does the pilgrimage end (at Santiago or at Finisterre on the Atlantic coast)?

Is it actually a pre-Christian pilgrimage route?

But questions remain, such as:

Who is really buried in the crypt in the cathedral (St. James or the fourth-century martyred heretic Priscillian)?

And—what is the significance of the scallop-shell symbol of the pilgrimage?

Megalithic Stones, Solar Altars and Pagan Sites

First, where does the pilgrimage end? Although medieval pilgrims may well have continued from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre, reaching Finisterre was not the goal of the Camino de Santiago. Contemporary guidebooks and tourism campaigns encourage modern pilgrims to continue to the Atlantic coast and the setting sun, which is a worthwhile activity—but historically, the pilgrimage objective was to reach the burial place of Saint James the Greater, supposedly found in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Finisterre (its megalithic stones, its Roman solar altar) may well have been an important pre-Christian site, and a local saint’s hermitage is documented as a place of medieval Christian pilgrimage—but these are different from the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Second, although many Christian churches—including the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela—are built upon older pagan sacred sites (including burial grounds, holy springs, shrines, and standing stones), that doesn’t mean that the Camino is a pre-Christian pilgrimage route. We can draw a line between points on a map of northern Spain, many of them connected by Roman roads, but that doesn’t mean that ancient people walked this route on a pagan pilgrimage across Spain.

[Read Part I Here]

A Case of Mistaken Identity? Are Relics the Bones of a Sorcerer?

Whose relics are in the Cathedral in Santiago—St James’s or Priscillian’s?

There is no early documentation that St James the Greater ever preached in Spain and no solid evidence his dead body was transported there. The legend of St James evangelizing in Spain was discredited numerous times, but it eventually achieved wider acceptance in the seventh century. It was an attractive story, and it gave importance to this far-off corner of Europe. The Moors invaded Spain in 711 and the Christian Reconquest of the land took many centuries, finally reaching completion in 1492. Meantime, having the bodily remains of an apostle in a shrine at the far northwestern edge of the country was a great incentive to repopulate northern Spain.

Saint James the Elder with Pilgrim Hat and Staff

Saint James the Elder with Pilgrim Hat and Staff (CC BY-SA 2.0 de)

Priscillian was born in 340 CE in the northwest Spanish region now known as Galicia. He became Bishop of Ávila and was a charismatic ascetic gnostic with some unusual and perhaps heretical ideas (vegetarianism, equality of the sexes, celibacy, worshipping in nature, reading apocryphal texts). He was tried as a sorcerer and beheaded by order of Emperor Maximus in Trier (Germany) in 385 CE. His body was then transported back to Galicia and buried somewhere near what was to become Santiago de Compostela. Probably, his disciples and later followers were buried near him—perhaps in the paleo-Christian cemetery discovered beneath the cathedral? Over time, this burial place was forgotten.

St James was also beheaded, though 300 years earlier, in the Holy Land where he was buried. What happened to his body afterwards is open to debate…


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Elyn Aviva, Ph.D., M.Div., is an independent researcher specializing in sacred sites, powerful places, comparative religion, and pilgrimage. She is author of numerous articles and over a dozen books, including Following the Milky Waynow in its second edition, which explores the meaning of pilgrimage in detail, and delves deeply into the esoteric symbols and pre-Christian shrines that lie hidden within the Way. | See more at and


Top Image: Monument of the pilgrims, Burgos (CC BY-SA 3.0); Deriv.

By Elyn Aviva

Elyn and Gary's picture

Elyn Aviva and

Elyn Aviva (neé Ellen Feinberg), Ph.D., M.Div., is an independent researcher specializing in sacred sites, powerful places, comparative religion, and pilgrimage. Her Ph.D. (Princeton University 1985) was the first dissertation in cultural anthropology documenting the contemporary pilgrimage on the Spanish... Read More

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