She’s Coming For You – Chapter 16

Santiago de Compostela is the destination for more than 100,000 pilgrims per year who walk on the Way of St James or Camino de Santiago from most parts of Spain and other areas of mainland Europe. According to the pilgrimage museum in Santiago, there are thirty-nine pilgrim routes in Spain and Portugal, as well as routes in France, Germany, Czechia, and Poland, which connect with the traditional start of the Camino in St Jean Pied de Port.

The Camino is now becoming big business again. I had seen pilgrims in Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon already on my trip and would see them in Pontevedra a few days after leaving Santiago. How did this all start?

Santiago is the Spanish for St James, who was one of Jesus’s disciples and also his first cousin. It seems from the legend that St James never visited Galicia when he was alive, though he might have visited Zaragosa where he had a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The legend states that he returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by Herod Antipas – a verified fact – but then the legend continues with the claim two followers of St James organised a boat that took his dead body to the Atlantic coast of Spain, namely to a place called Padron, which is today famous for its peppers. Padron is roughly twelve miles from Santiago.

The body was buried and then the storyline goes cold until 813 when a hermit, attracted to a hillside due to a vision of stars, found the tomb of St James. Compostela means ‘field of stars’. At the time the Moors had occupied most of Spain, so finding the bones of a disciple acted as a rallying point and St James became a champion for the few Christians in Asturias who were resisting the Moors.

Alfonso II, King of Asturias, paid his respects and in 834 built a chapel for the bones to be housed in. St James began to be seen on the battlefields when the Christians were fighting the Moors and was credited with inspiring their victories.

St James’s burial in this area is referenced by two well-known works. In 650, St Isidore of Seville told a similar story to the one above in his De ortu et obitu patrum (Life and Death of the Saints). In 730, in Martyrologium, the Venerable Bede referred to the transport and burial of the body as ‘contra mare Britanicum’ i.e. by the Atlantic Ocean.  

The Camino de Santiago is sometimes viewed as a metaphor for the trail marked out in the sky by the Milky Way in its journey towards the end of the earth (Finis Terrae) – an earthly manifestation of a route through the heavens. This could be why some pilgrims continue to Cape Finisterre and symbolically burn their clothes there. Ancient traditions regard Charlemagne as the initiator of the Camino, as St James appeared to him in a dream and asked him to open up a way to St James’s tomb through the lands occupied by the Saracens.   

The pilgrimages really began following the journey of Godescale of Puy to Santiago in 951. Santiago de Compostela became the third most holy city of Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome, so that in the 11th and 12th centuries half-a-million people were visiting each year.

This meant that the various routes to Santiago became lined with monasteries and hostels where the pilgrims could stay and be provided with sustenance for their journey. There was even a guidebook written by a French monk called Aymery Picaud that provided pilgrims with items to look out for on the way.  An order of knights was founded to protect pilgrims from robbers.

By the 11th century, the pilgrimage routes from Europe had been consolidated. Institutions in support of pilgrims emerged, such as brotherhoods who helped organise pilgrimages and hostels en route where pilgrims could stay – the Confriere de Saint Jacques founded in Paris in 1315 is a good example.

The motivations to go on the pilgrimage were many. Some people were told that if they went on the journey, the time they spent in purgatory after they died would be halved. Others were motivated by chivalry or by humanist reasons, giving them a chance to contemplate their existence. There were also forced pilgrimages imposed by the civil authorities as punishment for crimes committed.  

Some people stopped in Santiago de Compostela because they were flying back from here. I would do my best to make sure not all of them made it.

Published by Julian Worker

Julian was born in Leicester, attended school in Yorkshire, and university in Liverpool. He has been to 94 countries and territories and intends to make the 100 when travel is easier. He writes travel books, murder / mysteries and absurd fiction. His sense of humour is distilled from The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Midsomer Murders. His latest book is about a Buddhist cat who tries to help his squirrel friend fly further from a children's slide.

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