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Santiago el Mayor’ Saint James the Great (Public Domain), and sign on the Camino de Santiago (Manuel/ CC BY 2.0);Deriv.

Pilgrims Flock on an Ancient Road to the Ends of the Earth: Mysteries of the Camino de Santiago – Part I

The Spanish poet, Antonio Machado wrote, “Caminante, no hay camino; se hace el camino por andar.”

(Walker/Seeker, there is no path; the path is made by walking.)

Rarely has this been truer than with the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile-long (800 km) medieval pilgrimage road that stretches across northern Spain from the Pyrenees in the east to Santiago de Compostela, in the province of Galicia, in the northwest. More precisely known as “the French Way,” the Camino ends at Santiago de Compostela—supposed burial place of St James the Greater, the first martyred apostle. He was beheaded in the Holy Land in 44 CE and his body, head, and several disciples were said to have been miraculously transported in a stone boat to northwestern Spain, where, after more miracles, St James (Santiago in Spanish) was buried and eventually forgotten.

Saint James the Elder by Rembrandt He is depicted clothed as a pilgrim; note the scallop shell on his shoulder and his staff and pilgrim's hat beside him.

Saint James the Elder by Rembrandt He is depicted clothed as a pilgrim; note the scallop shell on his shoulder and his staff and pilgrim's hat beside him. ( Public Domain )

Strange Lights Point the Way to a Surprising Discovery

In the early 800s, it is said a hermit (or shepherd) saw lights falling on a distant hillside and rediscovered a long-lost burial. A document, which almost immediately turned to dust, proclaimed the bodies buried there were those of St James the Greater and two disciples. Soon a small chapel was built, and then a cathedral, to house the skeletal relics of the saint.

Cathedral at night.

Cathedral at night. (Yearofthedragon/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By the 11th century, a number of routes had been developed that brought pilgrims from all over Europe and Britain to this distant outpost of Christianity. The most important route, Camino de Santiago was also known as “the French Way” because so many French pilgrims traveled on it. Because of wars, politics, and changing religiosity, by the late 19th century the pilgrimage to Santiago was moribund. Few remembered it and fewer still walked it.

Map of the Camino de Santiago/The French Way (Courtesy author ©Elyn Aviva)

Map of the Camino de Santiago/The French Way (Courtesy author ©Elyn Aviva)

During the last 30 years, however, following the Camino de Santiago/the French Way has become increasingly popular. In 1987, the European Union named it the First European Cultural Itinerary, with funding to help develop pilgrimage infrastructure, including refuges, hostels, and signposts. In 1993, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site.

Going the Ancient Way

Hundreds of thousands of people (including pilgrims, hikers, long-distance athletes, and spiritual seekers) walk or bicycle the waymarked route over forested mountains, through verdant valleys, across the flat, barren, Spanish meseta, and back up into another range of mountains and down again. They pass through tiny hamlets, towns, and a dozen cities, stopping to visit Romanesque churches, wayside chapels, and Gothic cathedrals, or to drink from holy wells along the way.

The Camino/French Way seems like a straight-forward pilgrimage, but questions swirl like mist around it. For example: Does the pilgrimage end in Santiago de Compostela, or does it continue to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast?

Did it really begin as a Christian pilgrimage, or is the Camino a medieval overlay onto an ancient, pre-Christian pilgrimage route?

Is Santiago (St James the Greater) buried in the impressive cathedral, or are the relics in the ornate silver casket in the crypt those of the martyred fourth-century heretic, Priscillian?

And—what does the scallop-shell symbol of the Camino have to do with all of this?

Let’s take these questions one by one.

Pilgrims Flock to Worship at the Shrine

Does the pilgrimage end in Santiago de Compostela, or does it continue to the coast at Finisterre?

According to the Church officials and to the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus (a five-part compilation of miracles, guidebook, legends of Charlemagne, and sermons about the pilgrimage), the Camino ends at Santiago de Compostela.

Codex Calixtinus showing Saint James the Great

Codex Calixtinus showing Saint James the Great ( Public Domain )

Beginning in the 10th century, shortly after the discovery of the purported tomb of St James, pilgrims began arriving in droves to worship at the shrine…

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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 Way now 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 PilgrimsProcess.com and PowerfulPlaces.com

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Top Image: ‘ Santiago el Mayor’ Saint James the Great ( Public Domain ), and sign on the Camino de Santiago (Manuel/ CC BY 2.0 );Deriv.

By Elyn Aviva

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