The Camino de Santiago.
Google Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) and you’ll see that there are millions of entries, a daunting 160,000,000 when recently checked (July 2021)!!! And those entries don’t include the numerous guide books, personal diaries and chronicles, newspaper and magazine articles etc. that the Camino has generated!
But what is the Camino de Santiago all about? Briefly, it refers to a pilgrimage route for Christians whose history goes back to medieval times and whose destination was the town of Santiago de Compostela, now capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia in North West Spain. There, pilgrims prayed at the tomb of Sant Yago/ Iago (in English, Saint James), one of the twelve disciples called upon by Jesus to spread the Christian message. It is from Sant Yago that we get “Santiago.”
The Saint’s remains, we are told, rest in a silver chest in a crypt below the high altar of the imposing Cathedral together with the bones of two of his followers, Sts. Atanasio (Athanasius) and Teodoro (Theodore).
But how did the remains of one of Christ’s disciples who was martyred in Jerusalem in 44 AD end up in what was then an obscure village in the isolated and primitive North West of Spain, so far removed from the Holy Land? And why did St. James become so revered that his resting place grew to be one of principal pilgrimage routes for Christians during the Medieval times, surpassed in importance only by Jerusalem and Rome?
But first, who was St. James or Sant Yago?
According to the New Testament Gospels, James (aka James the Greater) and his brother John were fishermen mending their nets by the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:21, Mark 1:19-20) when called upon by Jesus to become two of his twelve apostles. Christ also nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) possibly because of their evangelical fervour and fiery temper.
However, there is no biblical evidence that James ever visited Spain, but medieval sources from the late 8th century asserted that James had answered Jesus’s call that His apostles should spread the word of God as widely as possible. James chose or was assigned to travel to the Iberian Peninsula. He apparently reached as far as Galicia via Mérida but seems not to have had much success at evangelisation, attracting only seven followers.
On his way back to the Holy Land, James stopped at Caesar Augusta (modern Zaragoza). There, he built a church on the banks of the River Ebro following instructions from the Virgin Mary who had miraculously appeared before him while she was still alive. The location of the church was identified by the pillar to which Jesus had been tied and whipped (on Pontius Pilate’s orders) and which was transported to Zaragoza by the Virgin’s angels; it is the spot where the Cathedral of Nuestra Señora del Pilar now stands (this is the origin of the very popular woman’s name in Hispanic culture, Pilar).
After arriving back in the Holy Land, James incurred the wrath of the Jews with his proselytising and according to tradition was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD on the orders of Herod Agrippa and his body thrown to dogs.
So how then did James’s remains end up in north west Spain? We don’t really know, but tradition has it that the remains and detached head were recovered by two of James’s disciples who took them in a boat which, although having no rudder, oars, sails or even sailors, miraculously carried its precious cargo along the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and up along the coast of modern Portugal to Galicia.
After seven days travelling, the boat landed at Iria Flavia, a hamlet now simply a parish in the town of Padrón, a name said to be derived from the pedrón (i. e. “big stone” in Galician), to which the boat was moored upon arrival.
Here, according to one legend, St. James’s body suddenly soared into the air and flew east, pursued by his disciples, until it landed in the kingdom of Queen Lupa, a pagan ruler. Another version has it that the disciples placed the apostle’s body on a large stone which immediately molded itself around him to protect him. During their search for a place to properly bury the Saint, his disciples entered the kingdom of Queen Lupa.
Both versions concur that Lupa set tests for the disciples if they were to bury the apostle in her territory. For example, they had to vanquish a ferocious dragon and pacify two wild bulls. They were so successful that Lupa converted to Christianity and bequeathed her palace as a burial place for James’s body.
So much for the tale, which is notable for its lack of historical confirmation and its dependence on miracles and tradition. Even the Catholic Church is cautious when it comes to the “authenticity of the sacred relic of Compostela” which, it acknowledges “has been questioned and is still doubted” (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08279b.htm).
The first mention of St. James in Spain surfaces in the 8th century when the monk Beatus (c. 738-c.800) of Liébana (in Cantabria) confirmed in his widely disseminated Commentary on the Book of Revelation (c. 776) that Santiago had converted Spain to Christianity. But Beatus has nothing to say about the Apostle’s miraculous arrival.
The legend was picked up around 813 when a certain Bishop Teodomiro (Theodomir) of Iria Flavia was led by shining lights to a site some 17 kilometres north of Iria Flavia. There Theodomir claimed to have found the tomb containing St. James’s relics and also those of his two disciples. (Another version has a Christian hermit, Pelayo, who having seen lights shining over a cave, served as guide for Theodomir.)
Soon news of the discovery began to attract attention. Among the early visitors –and considered by many to be the first pilgrim to Santiago– was Alfonso II of Asturias (ruled 791-842), who had a small church built there, thus providing secular or state legitimacy to Theodomir’s religious claims. The settlement that followed came to be known as Compostela, alluding ostensibly to the field of stars (campus stellae) that had guided the way to the Apostle’s tomb (However, following the discovery of an ancient burial site –compostum– beneath Santiago’s cathedral, the descriptive “Compostela” might actually derive from the same source as the unpoetic English “compost heap,” as suggested by Michael Jacobs, Jacobs 2). The first steps towards the cult of St. James/ Santiago were under way.
Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 2009
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson, Linda K The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2000
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela London: Penguin 1992
Lomax, Derek W. La Reconquista Barcelona: Editorial Crítica Grijalbo 1984
Tate, Brian and Marcus The Pilgrim Route to Santiago Oxford: Phaidon 1987
Image of Santiago Cathedral. Façade. By stephenD – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79229932
Image of St. James by Rembrandt: St. James By Rembrandt 1661 – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1600548