Twenty years later: legends of the road

Travelling along the road to Saint James of Compostela in 2006, twenty years after my first (and only) pilgrimage on foot, I remember some of the stories we hear as we walk along. Each of the following themes has many versions, but I have picked those that I feel to be most interesting.

Birth of the city

One of the many legends tells how the apostle James goes to the roman province of Hispania to spread the Gospel. When he returns to Jerusalem, he is decapitated.

Two of his disciples, Athanasius and Theodore, lay his mortal remains in a boat without a rudder and sail off into the stormy sea, guided only by the current. They end up in the same place where James had been preaching the word of Jesus. There the disciples buried his body.

Time passes until one day the shepherd called Pelayo witnesses a shower of stars pouring over a field for many days. Guided by this rain, he comes upon the ruins of three tombs – those of James and his two disciples. King Alfonso II had a chapel built on the spot – “Campus Stellae” (Field of the Star) – and the pilgrimage began. Little by little the Latin name changed until it became Compostella.

The shell symbol

On the day that the boat carrying James’ mortal remains reached Galicia, a wild storm threatened to smash it against the rocky shoreline.

A man who was passing by saw the scene and rode into the sea on his horse to try to help the sailors; but he too falls victim to the fury of the elements and begins to drown. Believing that all is lost, he begs the heavens to have mercy on his soul.

At that very moment the storms abates and both the boat and the horseman are washed gently onto a beach. There the disciples Athanasius and Theodore notice that the horse is covered in a kind of shell, also known as “scallop”.

In homage to the heroic gesture, this shell becomes the symbol of the road, and can be found in buildings all along the way, on bridges, monuments, and specially on the pilgrims backpacks.

Trying to cheat destiny

On his way to Galicia during the Reconquista (the religious wars that ended with the Spanish expelling the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula), Emperor Charlesmagne faced a traitor’s troops near Monjardin. Before the battle, he prays to Saint James, who reveals the names of 140 soldiers who would die in the fight. Charlesmagne leaves these men behind in camp and sets off to the combat.

Late that afternoon, victorious and without a single casualty in his army, he returned to discover that the camp had been set on fire and the 140 men were dead.

The gates of glory

On reaching Saint James of Compostela, the traveler has to obey a series of rituals, including placing his or her hand on a very beautiful portico at the front door of the church. Legend has it that this work of art was commissioned by King Ferdinand II in the year 1187 to an artisan called Matthew.

For years he worked the marble, even sculpting his own figure kneeling behind the centre column.

When Matthew ended his work, the inhabitants of the city decided to pierce his eyes so that he would never be able to repeat such a marvel anywhere else in the world.

Next text will be posted on the 3rd of May 2006