Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Did you know?

Some things you may or may not know about the Camino

The scallop shell is the emblem of the walk and it is common for pilgrims to attach the shell to their rucksack. For a number of years after I returned from the Camino, I persisted in wearing the shell when going on treks and walks. It proved a conversation opener and quite often I would come across another who had walked the Camino and so we swapped stories. The scallop shell traces its roots right back to the death of St James. His body was placed in an unmanned boat which made its way providentially to Santiago. When it arrived it was unblemished and covered in shells. In olden times (and perhaps in modern times too) the shell was used to collect drinking water from the numerous fountains on the route or used as a makeshift plate at mealtime.

The shell is variously deemed to symbolize the various routes which lead to Santiago, or the provenance of the pilgrims who come from many countries. It is also taken to represent the setting sun at Finisterre, just beyond Santiago, which was regarded as the most westerly point of mainland Europe (that honour acutally goes to a place in Portugal). The way markers along the journey invariably bear the sign of the scallop.

The Spanish word for pilgrim is ‘Peregrino’ and the word was first used in relation to people who made their way to Santiago de Compostela. Travelers to other major Christian centers were called Romeros in the case of those travelling to Rome and Palmeros (from the word palm) for those travelling to Jerusalem.

Goethe suggests that the Camino gave rise to the first concept of Europe. ’Europe was built on the pilgrimage to Compostela’ he claimed. In a very divided and insular middle age, the Camino attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Some commentators gave out about the numbers on the roads – it was like Grafton St on Christmas Eve.

The Camino traces its origins back to 813 when a priest in remote Galicia believed he saw a star shine over what today is Santiago de Compostela. The local bishop ordered excavations and claimed to find the body of the apostle James who had been killed by Herod Agrippa in 42 AD. The tomb became a place of worship and a unifying sign for the dispersed Spanish forces who were resisting the Muslim expansion into the very north of Spain. The Spaniards gained an important victory in 844 at the battle of Clavijo when against greater numbers the Spaniards gained an important and decisive victory. Just as the Spaniards were failing, a mysterious figure on horseback entered the fray. It was believed to be none other than Saint James who was given the title ‘Matamoros’ or ‘slayer of Muslims’.

The very first tourist guide in the world was the Codex Calixtinus – ‘A guide for the medieval pilgrim’ which was written in 1139 by Aymeric Picaud a French clergyman. The Codex comprises five books which go into great detail explaining the route, the terrain, the towns, the local people and customs, the dangers, food and countryside.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the Camino grow in popularity. The Benedictines from the great monastery of Cluny lent a hand as did the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain who saw the political as well as the spiritual value in the Camino.

The Camino had another side – the thieves and robbers, tricksters and prostitutes who tried to make a living from the pilgrims. Some of the pilgrims themselves became the equivalent of hippies leading lazy lives of wandering and vagabondage.

The Camino declined over the next centuries and found its nadir in 1867 when less than 40 pilgrims arrived on the feast of St. James.

In 1982 Pope John Paul II gave the Camino a shot in the arm when he became the first Pope ever to visit the site. Still in 1985 only 3,000 pilgrims applied for the Credencial, in 1993 the number grew to 100,000, in 1999 the number was 154,000 and in 2010 another Holy Year (when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday) the figure was well in excess of 200,000.

‘Time for bed’ said Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout. How right. Goodnight!

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