When it comes to history, who did what, when, and why leaves much room for debate and depends largely upon the culture who best protected its recorded history. Such is the case with El Camino and the origins of its first pilgrimages. The Way of St. James (Camino Frances), has remained the most popular route mainly because documented stories of this mystical trail have centered around the remains of St. James the Elder, Jesus’ apostle. Legend has it that in the early 9th century his remains were unearthed based on the vision of a hermit who had seen the image of St. James in a field illuminated by a millions of stars, hence the name Santiago de Compostela (St. James of the field of stars).
You can read more about the Christian history in my post: “77 Days to El Camino: Time for a History Lesson” https://mycaminojones.com/2018/03/06/77-days-to-the-el-camino-time-for-a-history-lesson/.
Pagans and the Milky Way
But today, I would like to delve into what little history is known about the Camino prior to Christianity, as “it is a proven fact that there was a pre-Christian necropolis on the site and also that the Path followed by the Camino existed long before the finding of St. James’ remains in the 9th century”http://www.iberianadventures.com/web_new/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/A-HISTORY-OF-THE-Camino-JOSI-Y-JER-Pagan+Trad-for-PDF.pdf.
“Some of the best examples of the mega stone structures aligned to the winter sun solstice can be found in Galicia [northwestern region of Spain] along with the remains of ancient Celtic villages”http://www.caminodesantiago.com.au/history/.
And frankly, we can start with the debate over the definition of the word Compostela. Some believe that “field of stars” is incorrect saying that the word most likely derived from the “Latin compositum, local Vulgar Latin Composita Tella, meaning “burial ground”, or simply from Latin compositella, meaning “the well-composed one” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santiago_de_Compostela.
However, I prefer the definition of “field of stars,” derived from the Latin campus stellae, as it coincides with the Celtic Pagan history that believes that prior to being dubbed The Way of St. James, the route was originally mapped out by following the stars above. The only difference being that the town we now know as Santiago wasn’t the final destination. The original ending of this pagan version of the pilgrimage had been another 80 kilometers to “the end of the known world” in the coastal town of Finisterre:
“Via Finisterre (from Latin, the Way to Land’s End) and archaeological sites along it show that Celtic peoples travelled it 1,000 years before Christ in search of Land’s End and the Sun’s resting place, celebrating all sorts of ceremonies, … pagans travelling across northern Spain in a born-again ritual on a Megalithic path following the Milky Way.“http://www.iberianadventures.com/a-pagan-history-of-the-camino/.
You’ll notice the similarities of the two stories already lining up. And like me, you will have most likely heard of Catholic tendencies to adopt Pagan beliefs in an attempt to… well, I don’t know if recruit is the right word, but essentially, by using familiar oral stories that Pagans identified with, more believers were ushered into the Catholic Church.
And Finisterre wasn’t left out in this as the legend of St. James’s remains were said to have been transported by boat after his beheading in Jerusalem and delivered to this same Iberian coastal town before being forgotten about until the year 813 A.D. And many pilgrims continue their trek to Finisterre after making their way to Santiago Compostela as depicted in the film The Way, where Martin Sheen’s character ends his journey by throwing his boots into the ocean.
The Two Faced God
Along the Camino, much evidence of Roman artifacts can still be found and it appears that St. James wasn’t the lone tribute being celebrated along this path. Many of the Camino trails shows proof that Pagans had once walked to Finisterre in honor of the Ancient Greek and Roman god Janus:
“Some scholars believe that another clear antecedent to the Camino is the old “Callis Ianus” or “Via Janus” named after the god Janus, who occupied the highest rank among Etruscan-Latin divinities and represented the “Earth’s Axis”, the initiation to the Mysteries, the protection of life on Earth. Janus was the God of gods – the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, passages, endings and time; the god of motion that caused the starting of action and change; and master of the four seasons and transformation. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past, to the sun and the moon, and holding a key that opened gates of the invisible world”http://www.iberianadventures.com/a-pagan-history-of-the-camino/.
The physical proof of this theory lies in the known emblem of the god Janus which still be found along the current Camino trails.
“The tetragram… Arkho Jano Quirico, is the most frequently repeated stone symbol across Europe’s paths – and can be found in several sites along the Camino. We need to take into consideration that the magnetic pole has changed and in the old days Finisterre was the most western point in mainland Europe. For those knowledgeable about the mysteries of the cult to Janus, the Camino has specific characteristics left by the Masonic masters, by the toponimy of the places and by the old shrines that have protected pilgrims for centuries“http://www.iberianadventures.com/a-pagan-history-of-the-camino/.
And while the ending point of the journey remains pretty consistent at Finisterre, its only the starting point of the journey that changes in this depiction of the trail’s history:
“According to this belief, the Path follows the direction established by the terrestrial magnetic field in the Iberian Peninsula going East- West from the Temple of Venus Pyrinea (where the Pyrenees mountains drop into the Mediterranean Sea) to Ara Solis (Unconquered Sun) or Finisterre (Land’s End)”http://www.iberianadventures.com/a-pagan-history-of-the-camino/
The Scallop Shell
Another similarity between pagan and Christian beliefs that comes to light about the history of the trail involves the history of the Camino’s “most iconic symbol,” the scallop shell. These shells are still used by today’s modern pilgrims, often seen tied to backpacks and used on markers lining the trail.
“Medieval Christians would collect a scallop shell while at Compostela as evidence of having made the journey. The association of Saint James with the scallop can most likely be traced to the legend that the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallops. An alternative version of the legend holds that while St. James’ remains were being transported to Galicia (Spain) from Jerusalem, the horse of a knight fell into the water, and emerged covered in the shells” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scallop#Shell_of_Saint_James.
But again, the scallop has Pagan connections with the Camino as well:
“Like many Christian symbols and practices, the association of the scallop shell with the Camino predates the arrival of St James and Christianity in modern-day Galicia. In Roman Hispania, there was a route known as the Janus Path used by pagans as a born-again ritual and ending in Finisterre. Its starting point? The Temple of Venus, Roman goddess of love. Venus is said to have risen from the sea on a scallop shell, as depicted in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and is associated with fertility rituals practiced along the route”https://www.followthecamino.com/blog/scallop-shell-camino-de-santiago.
Both versions are meaningful to me, as I wouldn’t be taking this trip if it weren’t for the hard work of the Christians who have kept their history so well documented as well as the many brave Templars who swore their lives protecting the pilgrams from thieves and murderers. But my own reasons for making the journey align more with legend of the god Janus:
“Ideas and themes associated with the cult of Janus are echoed by the concept of transformation on the Camino de Santiago. The Roman god Janus, … is the god of beginnings and endings, transition and transformation – all ideas shared by pilgrimages and discovered on the Camino today, a constant source of renewal and rediscovery”https://www.followthecamino.com/blog/scallop-shell-camino-de-santiago.
Fly, Fly Away…
As I’m am leaving for Paris tomorrow, this will be my last blog post stateside and I just want to thank those of you who have followed along to this point. My hopes for the trip are simply to keep an open mind and an open heart, to have the courage to seize any opportunity that comes along. Just as pilgrims of yore journeyed to the end of their known world, I feel as though I am journeying to the end of mine. Here’s to the next adventure! Stay tuned 🙂
Thank you for joining me on my Camino.