Stories, symbols and legends of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

Stories, symbols and legends of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela date back to the year 813, when the rumour spread that a star indicates the location of the lost tomb of the Apostle James, whose body had been buried in Spain in an unknown location.

Excavations were carried out at the site of the star and remains attributed to the Apostle came to light: hence the name 'Field of the Star' and later Compostela. Hence the centuries-old tradition of the pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle James, which has become so famous and important that it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cult of the Apostle James the Greater

There is no certain historical information about the life of James, called the 'Major'. Fragments of his life are derived from the New Testament and some writings and legends. Originally from Judea, he was one of the first and most trusted of the 12 apostles. Tradition has it that, after Jesus' death, he went to Spain to spread the Gospel. After returning to Palestine, he perished around '44 at the hands of King Herod Agrippa, when he

"began to persecute some members of the Church, and had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword" Acts 12:1-2

Ritratto dell'Apostolo Giacomo

The Golden Legend then recounts that, after his death by beheading, his disciples stole his body and managed to carry it, guided by an angel, to the Spanish coast of Galicia. They landed at Iria Flavia, today Padron, a famous town along the Portuguese route and which owes its name to 'Pedron': the stone with which the ship carrying the Apostle's body was moored.

Manoscritto della Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Firenze

Traces of his remains were lost until the year 830, when on Mount Liberon, following a luminous vision in the sky and an apparition to the anchorite Pelagius, Bishop Theodomier discovered a tomb, which contained three bodies, one of which had a severed head and an inscription: "Here lies Jacobus, son of Zebedee and Salome".

Today's Santiago de Compostela stands on the same site, which is why the word Compostela is thought to derive from Campus Stellae (Field of the Star) or Campos Tellum (burial ground).

The History of the Camino de Santiago

King Alfonso II of Asturias decided to elevate the Apostle James to the rank of Patron Saint of the kingdom and built the first Sanctuary dedicated to him. Thus began the first pilgrimages to the Apostle's tomb (Peregrinatio ad limina Sancti Jacobi). Later, the present Cathedral was erected and enriched with various relics. Santiago became a place of worship and pilgrimage, famous throughout Europe. Also adding to its fame was the fifth book of the Codex Calixtinus.

Catterdale di Santiago de Compostela

The Codex Calixtinus: the pilgrim's first guidebook

The Liber Sancti Jacobi ('Book of Saint James'), known as the Codex Calixtinus, is a 12th century work attributed to Pope Calixtus II. The fifth book, 'Liber Peregrinationis', describes the itineraries and experiences of pilgrims who travelled to the tomb of the Apostle James. It provides abundant and detailed information on the four main routes from France to Santiago, describing the shrines, towns, people and dangers encountered along the way. In addition to being a veritable 'Pilgrim's Guide', with all the details and practical advice for walking the route, it also recounts the joys and sufferings encountered on the stages leading to Santiago. From its pages the reader can sense the significance of the Way, understood as a spiritual itinerary: a path of purification that culminates with the arrival at the Saint's relics.

Codex Calixtinus, particolare

The Camino de Santiago: Cultural itinerary and UNESCO World Heritage Site

The most important person responsible for the recovery and promotion of the route today is Don Elías Valiña Sampedro, parish priest of O'Cebreiro. A profound connoisseur of the Compostela route, thanks to his tireless work and passion for the Way, he rediscovered and enhanced the ancient paths and most of the reception facilities, drawing the attention of institutions and the general public to the ancient pilgrimage tradition. In 1971 he published a first Guidebook entitled 'Caminos a Compostela'. This was followed by others that were more up-to-date and more detailed, continually trying to meet the needs of the modern pilgrim. He was also the coordinator of today's pilgrimage tools such as the Credential, Signposting and the reception in the pilgrim's hostels and refuges.

Thanks also to his work in the revaluation of the routes, in 1987 they were declared a 'European Cultural Route' by the Council of Europe. Subsequently, in 1993, the French Route to Santiago was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, until today, more than 350,000 people a year walk to Santiago and the number of pilgrims, according to official statistics provided by the Pilgrim's Bureau of Santiago, is set to grow.

Don Elías Valiña Sampedro

The signposts of the Camino de Santiago: the 'Flechas Amarilla' and the 'Mojones

The yellow arrows and the stone markers depicting the shell ("los mojones"), symbols universally recognised by any pilgrim on the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago, were always an idea of Don Elías Valiña. The yellow arrows made of waterproof paint were a cheap and effective way to orient pilgrims along the route. With the yellow paint, received as a gift from a public works official, Don Elias personally walked and marked every metre of the route from the Pyrenees to Santiago. He also managed to convince Galician politicians to place stone milestones (Mojón) along the route, to mark the Way every half kilometre.

Segnaletica sul Cammino di Santiago

The 'Concha': the Pilgrim's Shell of the Camino de Santiago

The 'concha' or 'vieira' or even the scallop shell is one of the main and best known symbols linked to the iconography of the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago. There are many legends about its origins.

In the Middle Ages, once they reached Santiago, pilgrims sewed a scallop shell on their hat or dress as a testimony to their journey.

Some, making use of a famous popular saying, 'Quien va a Santiago e non a Padrón, o faz romería o non' (Those who go to Santiago and not to Padrón either make the pilgrimage or they don't), claim that pilgrims continued their journey to Padron, on the coast of Galicia, where the Saint's boat had landed and here they collected the shell.

For certain, we know that the shell preceded the Compostela in the certification of the pilgrimage. And it remains, until modern times, a universal symbol of the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago.

Viera o Concha o conchiglia del Cammino de Santiago

The Camino Finisterre and Muxia

Many pilgrims, once they have arrived at Santiago de Compostela, continue their journey by making a further journey of around one hundred kilometres to reach the sea on the Galician coast, in the towns of Finisterre (Fisterra in Galician) or Muxia.

Already in Roman times, Finisterre was considered a mythical and symbolic place, as it was thought to be the westernmost limit of the then known world. As its Latin name 'finis terrae' also suggests. That is, 'end of the earth' and source of inspiration for myths and legends linked to the ocean and the sun god.

The tradition of the Way of Finisterre and Muxia has its roots in the evangelisation work of St James in Spain, narrated in the 'Codex Calixtinus'.

To consecrate this pilgrimage to Christianity, the Sanctuary of 'The Holy Christ' was erected in Finisterre. This Sanctuary immediately attracted many pilgrims who, after visiting the tomb of the Apostle, would go there as a sign of devotion to the Son of God.

They would then bathe in the ocean as a sign of purification and finally pick up one of the shells on the beach as proof of their pilgrimage.

Scultura della scarpa del pellegrino a Finisterre

In the nearby town of Muxia, on the other hand, the Sanctuary of the Virxe da Barca is erected in honour of Our Lady of the Boat (Nosa Señora da Barca), who, according to an ancient legend, came in apparition to St James on a 'stone boat' to encourage him in his work of evangelisation. In front of the Sanctuary is 'La pedra de abalar' (dancing stone): a swinging stone, which, due to its shape and size, is said to have been the hull of Our Lady's boat.

Santuario della Madonna della barca a Muxia

Fisterrana and Muxiana

If the pilgrimage is made starting from Santiago and ending in Finisterre or Muxia, it does not give the right to the Compostela, but two other certificates are issued for these routes: the Fisterrana and the Muxiana (Ika Muxia). In both cases you will have to prove that you have walked them by putting stamps (sellos) in the credential. In particular, to obtain the Muxiana starting from Finisterre, it is necessary to stamp the credential in the town of Lires. You can use the credential of the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago or request a new one at the Pilgrim's Office, a few steps from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.