77 Days to El Camino: Time for a History Lesson

So I thought I should share a little more info on El Camino, it’s history, why it attracts over 100,000 “pilgrims” each year to trod it’s beaten path. I should first clarify that there are multiple paths of the El Camino and that I am embarking on the ‘Real Camino Frances,’ starting in St. Jean de Pied, France, crossing south-west over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona, Spain before heading due west at the city of Logrono to its final stopping point in Santiago de Compostela near the northwestern coast of Spain.

How I chose this particular route is, well…. a blog for another day.

Before I get into some of the background of this historic pilgrimage, I have to give credit to John Bierley, who has dedicated a better portion to his life documenting and updating current information on the Camino through his various travel guides which he refers to as “practical and mystical’ manuals for the “modern day pilgrim.” John has walked El Camino countless times, taking various if not all routes to the city of Santiago de Compostela where all Camino pilgrimages end regardless of their starting points. I’ll be referring to John’s guidebook here and there and if it so happens you are considering making the trek yourself, more likely than not, you will encounter one of his books. I’ll be following the 9th edition of Mr. Bierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, St. Jean – Roncevalles – Santiago.

So now for some history, and since this is meant to be a ‘mystical journey,‘ let’s get to the ‘legend has it’ part of story. I’ll keep it brief, but if you find yourself needing more detail, please check out The American Pilgrim’s page http://www.americanpilgrims.org/history from which I’ll be gratefully referencing now.

As legend has it, St. James the elder, apostle to Jesus, was sent as a missionary to the Iberian region we now recognize as northwestern Spain. James would spend a few years in the region before returning to Jerusalem where he would be put to death by Herod Agrippa I. Now that part does have historical documentation to back it up. The ‘mystical’ part claims that followers of St. James the elder:

“carried his body to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was guided by angels and carried by the wind beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) to land near Finisterre, at Padrón, in northern Spain. The local Queen, Lupa, provided the team of oxen used to draw the body from Padrón to the site of a marble tomb which she had also provided. Saint James was believed to have been buried there with two of his disciples. And there the body lay, forgotten until the 9th century.”


Centuries after St. James the elder’s beheading in Jerusalem, a hermit by the name of Pelagius”


“had a vision in which he saw a star or a field of stars that led him to what proved to be an ancient tomb containing three bodies. He immediately reported this to the local bishop, Theodomir, who declared the remains to be those of Santiago (St. James) and two of his followers and who in turn reported the find to the King of Asturias, Alphonso II, who forthwith declared Santiago to be the patron saint of Spain, or of what would eventually be Spain. That would come later. A small village named Campus de Ia Stella (Field of Stars) and a monastery were established on the site. (Or possibly the Roman word for cemetery, “componere”: to bury, is the source.) In any event, news of the discovery spread like wildfire and a trickle of pilgrims began to arrive. Miracles came to be attributed to the site, and the miracles encouraged pilgrimage and pilgrimage elicited more miracles.”


Skeptics might claim that the whole story was just a publicity stunt to promote a sort of religious tourism to the area and the fact remains that towns and cities on the way benefited from faithful followers making their way to pay their respects. The interesting thing that the American Pilgrims website references briefly, is that, as impressive as it is that people have been making this pilgrimage for over a thousand years, there is even evidence of a pre-Christian route as well (a subject worthy of its own blog, I’m sure).

I should mention that I am not a Christian, although, just like the song goes, “Jesus is alright with me.” And yes, while even today, the majority of “pilgrims” are primarily Catholic, the route has caught on with non-believers who, much like those that set out to walk the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail here in the States, have an overwhelming desire to escape from their day-to-day lives to take a deep look within. I hear a nice long walk is good for that but I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

I think that does it for tonight but please if you have and questions or ideas for further blog posts on Camino de Santiago and or my upcoming trip, don’t hesitate to leave your comments and I’ll do my best to come up with something worthwhile.


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