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The Story of the Camino de Santiago

"Santiago" is a corruption of the Castilian San Diego, or St James. Legend has it that James traveled to Roman Hispania after the resurrection of Jesus to preach the gospel, but that the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision and told him to return to Judea. After James' martyrdom in AD44, his disciples returned to Hispania with his body. In the 9th century (the legend goes on to say), a shepherd watching his flock by night saw a vision of millions of stars above the field (Latin campus stellae, or star-studded plain, although etymologists think that "Compostela" is more likely a corruption of composita tella, or burial ground) where the shepherd was to discover the tomb of St James. A grand cathedral was soon built on the spot, miracles ensued, and pilgrims flocked.

Some historians and biblical scholars doubt that James ever was in Spain, but ¿Qué va? as the Spanish might say. Ever since that vision, pilgrims have walked a variety of routes comprising the Camino de Santiago, enduring the Black Death, the Spanish Inquisition, political turmoil, and myriad other hardships. The twelfth century Codex Calixtinus, attributed to Pope Callixtus II but most likely written by someone else on his behalf, called the pilgrim route “a very good thing … the road of the righteous … a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens … [that] cleanses the spirit …, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly … [and] rewards those who live simply.” The Codex went on to warn, however, that making the pilgrimage will not “pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.”

There are dozens of routes that pilgrims might take, some less arduous and more crowded than others. But all consider the doorstep of one’s home to be the starting point. From there, one travels to one of any spots in Portugal, Spain or France, or even Belgium or Germany, to traverse the Camino on foot or by bicycle, horseback or donkey, or (ah, civilization) air conditioned motor coach, stopping along the way to visit churches, dine with the locals, and spend the night at a pilgrims’ hostel for a few euros. Pilgrims carry an official pass called in Spanish a credencial, or refugio, which is stamped by the priest in each church they visit and which serves not only as a token of admission to pilgrims’ accommodations, but also as proof that the journey was made.

Many pilgrims carry with them a scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino. Legend has it that as the disciples of St James returned to Hispania with his body, a storm hit the ship and James’ body was washed overboard. But it was miraculously borne ashore covered with scallops, which protected it from damage. For the less credulous, the grooves in the scallop shell represent the various routes one may take on the pilgrimage, and the shell is just the right size for the thirsty pilgrim to scoop up water from wells and streams along the way.

Photo: © Merlin and used under license

Whether one does the Camino de Santiago for recreational or spiritual reasons, or whether one begins it as recreation but “finds religion” along the way, there is something special to be gained by experiencing the hundreds of memorable sites along the way, from centuries-old stone cottages to sacred springs to humble churches to majestic cathedrals. Just knowing that one is traveling the same route traveled by millions of pilgrims for hundreds of years is spiritual enough.

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