Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela was the third most important Medieval route after Jerusalem and Rome. It is believed to hold the shrine or tomb of St James the Apostle and thus a very holy site. That importance has grown, again, since Pilgrimage has become back in vogue and is one of the most visited Pilgrim sites of the 21 Century. There are several reasons for me saying this is bizarre all to do with the fact that as to why and how St James (Santiago) is believed to be buried in Galicia, Northern Spain, after dying in Judea in c. 33A.D. after being beheaded by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12.2) and then the cult that grew up surrounding him 800 years after his death.
The Legend has it that upon being executed two of James’ followers collected his body and put it on a rudderless boat at the port of Jaffa on the coast of Palestine. They then put out to sea and the boat was taken the length of the Mediterranean Sea, through the Strait of Gibraltar up to the area now known as Galicia in Northern Spain, just North of Portugal. On landing the followers were first not allowed to bury his body by the Queen of the region called Lupa (She-wolf) but eventually she relented and allowed him to be buried in the centre of her Palace which she turned into a church having become a Christian herself.
If that isn’t strange enough what happened next is even more Bizarre. His tomb and shrine seem to have become forgotten but 800 years later King Alfonso II was in a fix. Much of Spain had fallen to Muslim rule and was in danger of being over run. A Christian Hermit was “guided by celestial light” to a field where he found a tomb, the local Bishop came and identified the remains as those of St James and told Alfonso who then visited the site. The King immediately adopted St James as the Patron Saint of Spain and had a Church built on the Site. This became Compostela, which derives from the Latin for Site and Star. The Christian reconquering of Spain was struggling but what put St James centrally into the hearts of the Spanish people was that at their darkest hour, when their army was facing annihilation by a large Muslim army at the battle of Clavijo in 844 A.D. Alfonso had a vision of St James who appeared as a Knight on a white charger and promised to lead the Spanish to victory. The vision was told to the troops who were so inspired they routed the enemy. This story led to St James being known as Santiago Matamoros, that is “The Moor Killer” and statues of him on a Horse became established. The fact that St James was a fisherman and not a soldier seemed to be of little concern, and perhaps because in the Gospels he and his brother John are called “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder” gave strength to the belief that James was “fiery” and volatile and war-like.
These two legends combined to make Santiago De Compostela a centre of Pilgrimage and the Pilgrim route became known as “the Camino” and the main route is 500 miles from southern France to Santiago (there are 2 other routes). The Pilgrims ultimately entered the city at the at the Porto Do Campo De Sant Domingos De Bonaval
and then, in the middle ages at least, go on their knees up the Rua De Casa Reus, to the Cathedral.
This route has become famous again by virtue of the film “The Way” directed by Emilio Estevez and by the book by Paul Coelho called “The Pilgrimage”. Both allude to how walking the Camino might enable you to find solace, relief or enlightenment. As a result many who travel on the way don’t do so for Christian reasons, or as “true Pilgrims” in the traditional sense but as a journey of discovery about themselves. Over the next couple of blogs I will speak of my own experiences and feelings about Santiago, about those who travel there and about how the Church has responded to them and strived to keep some idea of the sacred (or not!).