The Camino

A little bit more detail about what the Camino is, it’s history and Location:

The Camino de Santiago (translates to the Way of St James) is an old pilgrimage ending at Santiago de Compostela in the Galician region of Spain.  There are a few different routes depending on your starting place.  The one I will be attempting is the Camino Frances, so called because it runs for 800km from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  There are also trails from portugal and England and alternate trails like the Northern route that runs along the Spanish coast and the Silver route that starts in Seville.   The best description of the different Camino routes I have read comes from ‘The Year we Seized the Day’* – “The most important route extant from the middle ages is the ‘French way’, the Camino Frances, through the Pyrenees.  But there was also the Portuguese way (coming from the south, the Greek way (coming from behind) and the English way (getting drunk on the ferry over, complaining about the food and then starting a fight with the locals when you get there)”.

The reason pilgrims were so keen toget to Santiago de Compostela is that the cathedral is believed to be the final resting place of the bones of St James (one of the apostles and father of John) who was buried in a shrine in Spain when his body was brought back by his disciples after being beheaded by king Herod Agrippa, making him the first apostle martyred for his faith.  As the story goes, St James was sent to Spain by Jesus to recruit his own disciples to the word of God.  He was not very successful, only recruiting 7 or 9 depending on whose version you’re reading, but those disciples worked hard at bringing Christianity to the area supposedly converting .  Sometime after his death he became the patron saint of Spain after miraculously appearing to fight alongside the Christian army in the battle of Clavijo earning himself the title ‘Moor-slayer’ and a part in the Spanish battle cry – for St James and Spain (or versions thereof).

The first recorded pilgrimages from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela are from around the middle of the 10th century.  Early on, christian Pilgrims were not looked upon well by members of other faiths and were often robbed or beaten on the road.  Fast forward a few centuries and the Spanish inquisition used the Camino as punishment for those seen to be lax in their commitment to God and the Catholic church.  In modern times the Camino is often viewed as more of a personal challenge than a religious experience.  But the Camino is older than Christianity.  The Romans were walking the Way long before St James set foot on Spanish soil.  Roman pilgrims had been following the Milky Way across the Spanish countryside to Finisterre (so named because it was believed to be the end of the earth) the westernmost point of Spain (reputedly affording it some spectacular sunsets), situated 3-4 days walk beyond Santiago de Compstela, giving the Camino it’s other name; ‘The Way of the Stars/Milky way.

The traditional emblem of the Camino de Santiago is the Scallop shell.  There are many stories as to why this came to be.  Story one is practical – the Pilgrims needed something to eat and drink out of and Scallop shells are found in abundance on the shores of Galicia.  Story two, a little more fantastical – After his beheading, St James’ disciples brought him back to Spain for burial.  The boat they were travelling in was torn apart by a severe storm off the coast of Spain and his body washed up a little later, covered in Scallops.   Story three, a bit more far fetched – St James’ body was being transported back to Spain in a mysterious boat with no crew (some sources say the boat was made of stone, some say his relics were encased in stone).  On the shore a man, about to get married, was riding a horse.  The horse got spooked and galloped into the water taking the groom with him.  Both were saved my miraculous intervention and emerged from the sea covered in scallop shells.  Another explanation for the scallop shell is that it is a metaphor for the many different Camino routes travelled and the many people that travel them – coming together at the point of Santiago de Compostela.  The last story (less well known and less religious) is the one I like the best.  That the Roman pilgrimage was not only a pilgrimage to the end of the world and the atlantic ocean but also a pilgrimage for the favour of Venus, the Roman Goddess of love, fertility and beauty who is famously depicted in the Botticelli painting ‘The Birth of Venus” (below) standing in a scallop shell which also happens to be one of her symbols.  Well it wouldn’t be the first time christianity had adopted the images and traditions of another religion to ease the transition for its new followers.  It is an appealing and romantic notion to be walking ‘The Way of Venus’ and there was supposedly once a temple in Finisterre dedicated to her, but I am unsure about the accuracy of that information not having been able to find references to it in more than one text.

More information can be found at Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage – a website I have found to be most useful.

From the research I’ve done – books websites etc – the following pages should give a reasonable idea about walking the Camino.  When I’ve actually done it myself I will be able to confirm the usefulness and accuracy (or otherwise) of this information but for now this is what I’m working with:

What it costs (roughly)
What to pack (supposedly)

*Best, E, & Bowles C.  (2007).  The Year we Seized the Day, Crows Nest NSW, Allen & Unwin.

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