About the Camino de Santiago

More information about the Camino de Santiago 

The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. Other major pilgrimage routes include the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, where he was buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. (The name Santiago is the local Galician evolution of the Latin “Sancti Iacobi,” or Saint James.)

During the Middle Ages, the route was very popular. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Today, the route attracts a great and growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. In October 1987, the route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe; it was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 9th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias and Galicia. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. The scallop shell has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. The most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 AD. According to Spanish legends, he had spent time preaching the Gospel in Spain, but returned to Judaea upon seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on the bank of the Ebro River. After James’s death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, it washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops. The grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims travelled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is seen on posts and signs along the Camino in order to guide pilgrims along the way.

The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to and from Compostela were met by a series of hospitals. The hospitals were often staffed by Catholic orders and under royal protection. Many poorer pilgrims had little clothes and poor health often barely managed to get from one hospital to the next.

Today, hundreds of thousands (over 200,000 in 2014) of pilgrims make their way to Santiago de Compostela via one of the pilgrims’ routes. On arrival, many attend a Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at 12:00 and 19:30. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. The compostela is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. The Pilgrim’s Office gives more than 100,000 compostelas each year to pilgrims from more than 100 different countries. The Botafumeiro, one of the largest censers in the world, is operated on every Friday, except Good Friday, at 19:30. Priests administer the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in many languages. Whenever St. James’s Day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Depending on leap years, Holy Years occur in 5, 6, and 11-year intervals. The most recent were 1982, 1993, 1999, 2004, and 2010. The next will be 2021, 2027, and 2032.

The popular Spanish name for the Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. According to a common medieval legend, the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims. Compostela itself means “field of stars.”