A little history on the Camino de Santiago

So how and where did the Camino de Santiago de Compostella begin?

Most of what I’ve learned about the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) is from friends, books and Wikipedia. I’ll make a list of the ones I’ve read and post them soon.

This route across Spain has existed for thousands of years. It is understood that the Celts who occupied this area made a pilgrimage to the open ocean — to what they believed to be the very end of the earth. The final town on the path is even called Finisterra (end of the earth). Some believe that this Celtic pilgrimage was connected to the sun, since it sets in the west. The scallop shell, the symbol of the Saint James pilgrim, is a reminder of both the ocean and the rays of the setting sun. Others link the path to the Milky Way since, on a dark night, you can see this swath of stars heading east-west, the same direction as the pilgrimage.

Regardless, all of this ritual was covered over when Christianity came to the Iberian Peninsula. Mostly. Rumor has it that the many churches along the route were built on ancient Celtic sacred sites. There were some Celtic beehive huts along the route (the town Triacastela gets its name from these).

I say “mostly covered over” because the modern pilgrimage route that began in the 1100s ended in Santiago, a 2-3 day walk from the ocean. The Catholic Church would like you to believe that Santiago is The End, but many people continue on after receiving their Compostela and enjoy the full journey.

The name, Camino de Santiago de Compostella, came from a mystical star appeared over a field, seen only by a single shepherd in the 900s. This place was named Campo Estella (field of the star) and is where the remains of Saint James (Sant Iago) supposedly landed after he was martyred in Jerusalem. He was (and still is) cherished by Christians because he was one of Jesus’ closest apostles and possibly his cousin. The idea that people in the Middle Ages could be close to Saint James’ remains, which were believed to have healing properties, was irresistible. People went.

It seems to most historians to be a convenient coincidence that at this time, the Church sought to eradicate the Moors from Spain. As people traveled on foot to the far west of Spain, bandits arrived, and then knights rode in on white horses to protect these holy pilgrims. Eventually, hospitals were built to serve the sick travelers and whole fraternities of knights dedicated their lives to the service of their safe passage and protecting their goods (creating the world’s first banks!). Additionally, the Church awarded a plenary indulgence to Santiago pilgrims — straight to heaven, no purgatory needed — so this motivated more pilgrims to travel. These combined efforts, in addition to shameful bloodshed, regained Spain for the Church.

In the 1980’s, the paths of the Camino de Santiago were poorly marked and only a few hundred people completed it each year. Around that time, it was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site and the Pope visited nearby. This visibility in addition to books by authors like Paul Coelho and Shirley McLaine and a movie by Martin Sheen have given it much visibility.

Today, the numbers are close to 200,000 per year. This includes the much larger percentage of pilgrims who walk only the last 100km to receive their Compostella. Many fewer people attempt the whole 500 miles in one go. Of course, there is an environmental impact of so many people on a narrow slice of terrain. However, in some cases, the mere existence of remote villages along the Camino is due primarily to the pilgrims and their euro.

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