Introduction to the Camino

Santiago (Saint James)

“Santiago” is Spanish for Saint James; referring to James the Elder, the fourth apostle, brother of John The Evangelist. According to the bible, Acts 12:2, he was beheaded in Jerusalem by order of Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44.

The Myths and Legends of Santiago

The Return and Burial in Iberia

According to many accounts, Saint James had been sent to proselytize in the west, specifically, Iberia, and had returned to Jerusalem after marginal success, where he was martyred by being beheaded. Saint James' remains were then collected by two disciples and were miraculously returned to the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsular in a “stone boat that had neither sail nor oars.” This boat made land on the banks of the river Ulla, near Padrón. As the stone ship neared Padrón, a horseman riding on the beach was carried by his horse, who had bolted, into the sea. Instead of drowning, both emerged safely, covered with scallop shells. It is from this event that the scallop shell has become the symbol of Santiago. Saint James body was carried to Iria Flavia and buried, after obtaining permission from Queen Lupa, a pagan who was subsequently converted.

The Rediscovery of Santiago

The location of the grave and identity of the body was then forgotten over the following centuries until in 813 AD, a religious hermit, Pelayo, reported seeing a glowing light or star illuminating a spot. When this was investigated, the body was found and identified as Saint James. There are several explanations as to the origin of the name Santiago de Compostela. One attributes it to the latin compostium, burial ground. Another to campus stellae, starry field.

King Alfonso II, ruler of the kingdom of Asturias, had a church built over the sepulcher, and soon tales of miracles and visions started to multiply, and shortly thereafter the first pilgrims began making their way to Santiago.

Why Travel the Camino to Santiago?


Before undertaking a journey such as traveling the Camino de Santiago, a person should understand why they are doing it. When filling out the application for the credentials of a pilgrim, there are blocks to check, indicating why the applicant is going to Santiago. The choices are: Spiritual, Cultural and Sporting. One can check more than one.

Medieval Pilgrims

Medieval pilgrims made the trip primarily for spiritual reasons, but there were others. Some went to fulfill a promise made in a prayer of supplication. Many went to seek a favor from God, often a cure, through the power of St. James. In some cases, persons were sentenced to undergo the hardships of the pilgrimage as penance for a crime or a wrong that a person had done. Implicit in such a sentence was the hope that the person would repent and become a better person. Some went on voluntary penances, seeking forgiveness from God for a wrong they had done by demonstrating faith and their willingness to undergo the hardships involved in making the pilgrimage.

Modern Pilgrims

There are many reasons for a modern person to undertake the Camino de Santiago. Many will benefit from the journey even if they are reluctant to consider themselves as a pilgrim because they do not feel their reasons are sufficiently spiritual to fit into their concept of a pilgrim.

Spiritual: A contemporary person can undertake the journey for many of the same reasons that a medieval pilgrim did. In addition, there are reasons that some people would not consider spiritual in the sense of religion but in terms of their inner selves, their inner search for answers, for a meaning to their life. More than a few people make the trip during or following a crisis in their life, seeking answers.

For a Protestant raised in the United States, it provides an opportunity to gain a better understanding of their own beliefs by looking at aspects of religion over the centuries. The pilgrimage to Santiago was an important part of medieval religious life and its history is part of the history of Christianity. The churches along the Camino are centuries old, some over a thousand, and have been in use for most of that time, although some are no longer in use. They have been altered over the years but what is there provides a glimpse into changing beliefs, values and the role of the church in daily life. US churches are predominately Protestant, and with few exceptions were built after the 17th Century. Most of the churches seen on the Camino were built prior to Columbus’s discovery of the New World.

Cultural: Many people think of Culture in terms of the fine arts but the broader meaning of the word includes history, literature, and aspects of everyday life of a group of people who are different from yourself. The camino traverses many parts of Spain, as well as other countries, France and Portugal predominately. The culture in all of these is different. Even within Spain there are vast differences between regions such as the Basque country, Castile-León, and Galicia. A traveler on the Camino sees the towns, villages and countryside at close hand and a slow pace. They will note the mixing of cultural influences, both from the Moors and from other European countries. The Iberian Peninsular now consisting of Spain and Portugal, was at one time under one king and was once many small kingdoms. The Camino passes through many of the former seats of government and one can visit the tombs of kings. There is constant evidence of the Religious and Military Orders that helped to throw out the Moors and to protect and provide succor to the pilgrims and others. And last but certainly not least, there is the opportunity to sample the gastronomy of the various regions through which you will pass.

Sportive:  Traveling the camino is a physical challenge, whether by horse, bicycle or on foot. It is a lot of exercise in fresh air and will provide a healthy change of pace to anyone.

Other:  One important reason other than the three listed on the credentials application is touristic; those things for which people travel to other locations. All pilgrims are also tourists. Tales of pilgrims to various sites over the centuries indicate much behavior in common with other tourists. The travel will broaden your horizons considerably. You will meet people from very different backgrounds, try new foods and see new things. There are sights and sounds of the cities, towns, villages and also the farms, countryside and forests.

Implicit in the spiritual reasons to go on the camino but worthy of mentioning separately is the psychological benefit of the opportunity to spend time in an atmosphere free from mental stress, where one can reflect on life and meditate.

Traveling on the Camino involves all of the above. They are intertwined and unavoidable. A person who starts out for sportive reasons cannot avoid the cultural and spiritual aspects. Those who go for cultural reasons will complete the journey in better physical condition having grown spiritually. Do not fear that you may change your religion but expect that your faith will grow stronger. Those who do not set forth thinking of themselves as one arrive in Santiago feeling like a pilgrim.

What is a Pilgrimage?

pil•grim•age , 1. a journey, esp. a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of devotion: a pilgrimage to Lourdes. 2. any long journey, esp. one undertakes in quest of something for a particular purpose, as to pay homage: a pilgrimage to the grave of Shakespeare.

By the above definition, if you start out for Santiago for any of the reasons mentioned earlier and wish to gain your Compostela at the end of the trip, you are undertaking a pilgrimage. In Reference Information there are several books that deal with pilgrimage in general terms and are recommended reading.

A pilgrimage involves a physical journey that takes place in space and time and an inner journey that takes place inside the person. Both are unique to the individual, but more so is the inner journey, which will have a lasting effect. In her book, “Pilgrim Stories,” Nancy Frey examines the ways in which undertaking the pilgrimage to Santiago affects the lives of those who take it. Several books have been written that provide a personal account of someone’s trip along the Camino. They range from Jack Hitt’s amusing and irreverent account, “Off the Road,” to the more religious account of the former Dominican priest, Lee Hoinacki, “El Camino.” In each account, it was an experience that has reshaped their lives.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2016 Richard W. Tripp, Jr.