The year is 1211 and the pilgrim has been walking for months, enduring all weather and three painful pairs of thin leather sandals. He’s on his final pair now and the last piece of dried meat and stale bread in his pouch is going to be a celebratory meal tomorrow when, at long last, he reaches his destination. The thick impenetrable forests, the mountains full of wolves and bears, the thieves and bandits, and the numerous fellow pilgrims wasting away in hospices will soon be forgotten as he beholds a glorious sight, a magnificent symbol of the miracles of God and His apostle St James – the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela - about to be consecrated by King Alfonso IX himself!
Millions of pilgrims are still making this journey 800 years later and though it’s a decidedly less torturous experience than it was in the Middle Ages, it continues to be an adventurous endeavour for people all around the world. It’s difficult for us to imagine now, with our comfortable boots (sometimes), warm clean beds (mostly), easy to find signposting (usually) and mountains and forests free of wild beasts (almost certainly), how scary the undertaking must have been for the early pilgrims. They only had their faith in the divine mission and their God in whom they trusted, to guide and protect them along the uncertain and dangerous path.
Stories, legends, and rituals against harmful spirits and evil forces became a comforting certainty; they explained and safeguarded against unfamiliar phenomena and in those days they needed all the luck they could get. Many of these legends persist today and are what make the experience all that more fascinating. And a good place to start is the legend of St James himself and how he became associated with the Camino.
Saint Ya akov and the Field of Stars.
According to the New Testament, James and his brother John were in a boat mending fishing nets with their father when Jesus asked them to become “fishers of men” instead and follow him, which they did. Along with 10 other men, James and John became Jesus’ disciples. The name James (Ya akov in Hebrew) comes from the Latin ‘Iacobus’ which is where we also get ‘Jacob’. In Spanish the word becomes Iago, Yago, or Tiago – add a little ‘saint’ to the mix and we get Saint Iago…Santiago. The word ‘Compostela’ also comes from the Latin “campus stellae” meaning “field of stars” and thus the legend of the sacred city lies in its very name. This legend begins around the time the Moors made their way up the peninsula, so while the historical element to the story is suspect at best, it doesn’t make it any less marvellous.
Tradition has it that James made his way over to Spain to preach the Gospel until one day, feeling discouraged by the locals’ lack of commitment, Mary appeared to him atop a marble pilar and instructed him to return to Jerusalem. He did but was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa in 44AD. For some reason, this prompted his followers to send his body back to Spain in an unmanned stone boat to be buried in what is today Santiago. When nearing Galicia, a storm (unsurprisingly) sank the boat and James’ body disappeared beneath the waves. Some time later it washed ashore covered in scallop shells. Another version has it that his disciples sailed the boat up the river Ulla to Iria Flavia (present day Padrón) where Queen Lupa lived. The disciples asked her for help in burying his body but instead she had them imprisoned. Miraculously they escaped so Lupa converted to Christianity and gave them oxen to carry the body to wherever the divinely inspired cattle decided to stop.
Centuries passed and his burial place was forgotten – that is until 814 when the hermit Pelayo saw a shower of stars over a field in Libredón. The stars led him to three tombs, one of which contained a corpse with its head under its arm. The news of the saint’s discovered remains soon spread to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia who began the construction of a chapel on the site that was to eventually become the glorious Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. St James’ feast day is celebrated on the 25th July and he is the patron saint of pilgrims, fishermen and labourers, and of Spain itself, which just goes to show how powerful and inspiring a legend can be.
The figure of Saint James was particularly powerful and inspiring for the reconquest when the Christians were unifying themselves in their effort to push the Muslims further back south during the Middle Ages. James took on the image of a warrior knight brandishing a sword from the back of a white horse, and the Order of Santiago with its Cross of Saint James was created in the 12th century as an incentive to join the fight. This particular icon, that became known as matamoros (moorkiller), was supposed to have appeared to Ramiro I in the year 844 during a dream, telling him to attack the Muslims in the Battle of Clavijo, promising to ride with them and lead them to victory. When the conquistadors conquered the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, they took this warrior saint with them as their protector and founded many places in his name.
Once the identity of the apostle’s remains had been confirmed by King Alfonso II, the matter was largely forgotten again. The king, who by travelling the 300km from Oviedo to Santiago, had become the first pilgrim of the Camino. A couple of hundred years later with the increasing threat of Islam in their lands, pilgrims from all over Christendom started to make their way to Santiago de Compostela as a form of penance or veneration and as a result, legends and stories began to appear - one of which curiously involves poultry.
The Legend of the Rooster and Hen of Santo Domingo de la Calzada
Domingo Garcia was born in Burgos in 1019 into a peasant family. He became a hermit living in the forests near present day Santo Domingo de la Calzada yet had a desire for the ecclesiastical life. He was made a priest by the Bishop of Ostia, Gregory IV, after helping him fight locusts plaguing nearby kingdoms and together they continued the good deeds by building a bridge to help travelling pilgrims cross the river Oja. When the bishop died, Domingo carried on with several more engineering jobs such as clearing forests and laying a road to make the way easier and safer for the travellers. He is also credited for having built a hospice and a church, where he was later buried. The church is now the Cathedral of Santo Domingo de la Calzada and if you go inside, you will probably wonder what chickens are doing in there. This is their story.
One day in the 14th century, a young man is travelling with his parents to Santiago de Compostela all the way from Germany. They stop one night in Santo Domingo de la Calzada at an inn for a drink and some food where a young Spanish woman serves them. She takes a fancy to the German and flirts with him, but he rejects her advances and ignores her. This does not go down well with the girl and she decides to get revenge by placing a silver goblet in his bag and accusing him of theft. The boy is sentenced to the gallows and the parents continue on to Santiago to pray for their son. On their way back, they find their son still alive on the gallows, who tells them Saint Domingo saved him from dying. Amazed, the parents rush off to see the local mayor to tell him the good news. The mayor is eating dinner and says, annoyed, “Your son is as alive as this rooster and hen I was feasting on before you interrupted me!” At that moment the chickens grew feathers and beaks, rose up off the table, squawked and flew away.
Today you can see the “descendants” of the rooster and hen behind glass in the cathedral in memory of the miracle. They are switched monthly with other chickens kept in a coop at the Gallinero de Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Pilgrims carried white chicken feathers as protection on their journey; blessings and objects collected associated with a saint or miracle ensured safe passage to Santiago, which was a major concern back in the day. The best way to honour the saint today is to buy a chicken-shaped pastry at the local bakery.
The Mystery of Obanos
This is the legend of Saints Guillén and Felicia. It is also set in the 14th century and is an example of the power of belief and faith in the Camino as a way of obtaining salvation. It goes like this…
Young Princess Felicia of Aquitaine grows up in world of wealth and privilege and like millions of women before her, is forced to fulfil her duty as wife in an organised marriage. As a way of delaying the wedding, she uses her pious inclinations as an excuse to travel to Santiago de Compostela in company of an entourage. On her way back, no doubt emboldened by her new experiences, Felicia decides not to return home, abandons her entourage and, hiding her true identity, finds work as a servant in a rich manor in the Egués Valley, near Pamplona.
Meanwhile, back in Aquitaine, Felicia’s father is becoming increasingly worried the wedding will not go ahead and so sends his son Guillén to go find her and bring her back. Guillén spends months travelling all the roads to Santiago until he finally finds her, working like a common peasant. Enraged that she would lower her status to such a level, he grabs his knife and plunges it into her heart. He immediately regrets his actions and as repentance, devotes the rest of his life to prayer and in service to the sick and poor pilgrims that pass through Obanos. This story of ‘princess to peasant’ and ‘murderer to saint’ is re-enacted every summer in the town of Obanos, Navarra. It is held outside in the Plaza de los Fueros every two years in July, and they celebrate their fiesta late August to early September in honour of the town’s patron saint, John the Baptist, with fireworks and gigantes - giant figures that represent the famous characters from the legend.
The Fountain of Reniega
The next legend takes place not far from Obanos, on top of a hill in the Perdón Mountain Range. A young pilgrim on his way to Santiago is climbing the hill, known as the Alto del Perdón, and arrives tired and hot and terribly thirsty. The devil appears before him disguised as a traveller and offers him a drink on the condition he deny his faith in God. The young man refuses so the devil tries again with another offer of a cooling swig of water if he denies the Virgin Mary. Again, the man rejects the offer. Finally, the devil promises to quench his thirst if he denies the Apostle James. The young man is getting desperate and is sorely tempted but prays to the Apostle for spiritual fortitude as he refuses to relent a third time. At that moment, the devil disappears in a puff of sulphur and is replaced by Saint James himself who leads him to a hidden source of spring water where the pilgrim drinks deeply from the Apostle’s scallop. This place is now known as the Fountain of ‘Reniega’, which means ‘refusal’, or ‘renouncement’.
El Poyo del Roldán
Lord Roldán and his knights are travelling from France to Santiago and decide to spend a night in the town of Alesón, near Nájera, La Rioja. The next day they ride on towards Nájera where a giant Moor, descendant of Goliath named Ferragut, lives in a castle. Over three metres tall and with the strength of four men, Ferragut is a tyrant best to avoid, but when the giant hears the French knight is approaching, he challenges him to a dual. Roldán accepts the challenge, and they fight for hours with neither appearing to tire.
Eventually Ferragut, recognising he has met his match, offers to let Roldán and his knights leave. Roldán refuses and they continue fighting for two more days before the giant falls upon the Frenchman and pins him to the ground with his great weight. Knowing he won’t be able to get up, Roldán manages to pull out a small dagger instead and sinks it into the giant’s only vulnerable spot, his belly button. The giant dies and the grateful village give the knights a great treasure which is said to be buried beneath the Poyo de Roldán – marked by a stone hut on the hill.
The Legend of the Holy Grail of O Cebreiro
O Cebreiro is a small village in Lugo, Galicia, 1098m above sea level, known for its pallozas (Celtic round houses), thick mists that tend to envelope the village much of the year, and snow during the winter. The legend takes place around the year 1300 AD on a bitterly cold winter Sunday. Juan Santín walks from a neighbouring village through deep snow and harsh wind all the way up to the church to celebrate Mass. The monk, who wasn’t expecting anyone to turn up that day, accuses the man of coming only for the bread and wine. But just as he’s scolding him, the bread miraculously turns to flesh and the wine chalice is filled with blood. At the same moment, a statue of the Virgin bows her head to the man – a position she still holds today.
In 1486, when the Catholic Monarchs hear of this legend, they travel to the village hoping to take possession of the famous chalice, but Queen Isabel mysteriously changes her mind last minute and decides to leave it where it is. Instead, she gives the church a reliquary to safeguard the chalice, where they can still be seen today. The Pilgrimage of the Virgin and the Holy Miracle is celebrated on the 8th and 9th of September.
There are so many myths and legends born from the Camino – stories that have been passed from mouth to mouth and help link its rich past with the present. Today’s pilgrims make their way to Santiago for many different reasons, religion being just one of them, but they all share in the history that makes the Camino unique and, if they’re lucky, may just bear witness to a miracle of their own.
If you make it to Santiago one day, be sure to keep an eye out for the Ghost of Praza da Quintana where its shadow is said to appear on the cathedral walls every night.