Today, November 1, marks the Feast of All Saints (or All Hallows). In honour of the man whose tomb I’ll be on pilgrimage to in March, I decided to share with you all the history of Saint James the Great, Patron Saint of Spain.
Before I begin, I just want to note that I’m not trying to sound preachy by writing this post. Like I mentioned previously, I’m not the most devout Catholic. I have a high respect for all religions, having studied world religions in university. When it comes to Catholicism, however, I have a deep regard for it, instilled in me by my grandmother since I was a kid. I love learning about its history and its saints, and I am especially in awe of church architecture and religious art (I guess that’s my Art History minor showing its true colours).
Part of my reasoning for hiking the pilgrimage is to be part of an ongoing history that’s been continuing since the time of Jesus himself. I personally can’t prove his existence, and yet I find his history, and those of his disciples, fascinating. By walking that route across Spain, even a portion of it, I’ll be walking in the footsteps of an innumerable number of devout believers that have travelled to Santiago’s tomb since the Middle Ages.
I also wanted to note that I’m writing on the following using various resources. The English student in me is trying very hard not to use citations, but my intention in writing about St. James is to relay his story as eloquently as I can without this post sounding like a formal essay. I’m also drawing upon the years of research I’ve done through reading the numerous books I have on the Camino, and all the gleaned information that is sitting on a shelf in the back of my brain.
James, son of Zebedee, was one of the first disciples to join Jesus. Along with his brother, John, they were also joined by Simon (whom Jesus named Peter), Andrew (Peter’s brother), Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon, Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot (THE Judas, who was later replaced by Matthias after his betrayal of Jesus). These ordinary men were chosen by Jesus to spread the word of the Christian faith, and all but one were eventually martyred.
After Jesus’ death, James sailed to the Iberian Peninsula (the extreme southwest of Europe which now encompasses modern-day Spain, Portugal, Andorra, part of France and Gibraltar) to preach the gospel. Legend has it that in A.D. 40, a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to James on a pillar on the bank of the Ebro River, prompting him to return to Judea where he was eventually beheaded by Herod Agrippa in A.D. 44. He is the only Apostle whose martyrdom is documented in the New Testament.
There are a few different versions of the story of how James’ body came to be in Iberia after his beheading in Judea. One story relates that after his death some loyal followers recovered his body (which Agrippa had thrown over the city walls to be eaten by dogs), and then shipped it back to Iberia to be buried. Another states that after his death his body was miraculously transferred by angels to a rudderless ship (that was made of stone, according to some versions), which then sailed to the shores of the Iberian Peninsula, returning his body to the land upon which he preached.
Once he was back in Spain, landing at Iria Flavia, his body was then interred and hidden for roughly eight hundred years.
Sometime in the 9th century, a hermit named Pelagius witnessed strange lights and sounds coming from a nearby field. Aware of the legend that James’ body was hidden in the area, Pelagius contacted the local bishop,Theodomir of Iria, who then ordered the area to be cleared of brush and shrubbery. The tomb of St. James was then discovered, and upon the spot was erected a basilica, the building of which was ordered by the King of Asturias, Alphonsus II. This basilica was eventually joined by a nearby monastery which came to house twelve Benedictine monks. This was the beginning of the town of Compostela (some interpretations of the name lend its roots to campus stellae, or “field of stars”, referring to the field in which James was found and the strange lights that led to his discovery).
Once word travelled that the body of St. James had been found, pilgrims began arriving en masse to visit his tomb. For the faithful in western Europe, Compostela provided a more accessible pilgrimage route as travelling to Rome or Jerusalem was not an easy task.
Images of St. James often depict him holding a staff and wearing a scallop shell. The scallop shell in particular has become somewhat of a logo for pilgrims along the Way of St. James. The origins of this symbol are as clouded as the legend of the transference of James’ body to Spain. Some sources say that the ship that carried James was shipwrecked, and James’ body was miraculously saved, washing up on shore covered in scallop shells. Others note that pilgrims of the Middle Ages collected scallop shells from the shores of Galicia (the region in which Compostela is located) as proof that they completed the journey.
For centuries pilgrims have worn this symbol to identify themselves as peregrinos, and in earlier times this shell acted as their passport along the route, gaining them access to pilgrims’ accommodations, free meals, and other provisions. This symbol retains its importance to this day, with modern-day pilgrims carrying on the tradition of displaying the symbol on their body. It’s even become the official waymark of the route, with variations of the symbol guiding the pilgrim through cities and towns as well as through rural areas.
I will also be donning this symbol when I undertake the route. For the past few years I’ve held membership with the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, an organization dedicated to the Way of St. James that provides members with resources, pilgrim’s passports (a passport used along the route in which you collect stamps from local hostels, businesses, etc. This passport is submitted once in Santiago and is used as proof of completion of the route in order to gain your compostela), and yes, even a patch identifying one as a pilgrim:
This organization also holds meetings at its various chapters across Canada, which I’ll be sure to attend before my own pilgrimage begins. Proceeds from membership dues also help to maintain refugios (or pilgrim’s hostels) run by the Confraternity of St. James, a British organization also dedicated to the Camino, one of which I’ll most likely be staying in while I’m in Spain.
So there you have it — the life and times of Saint James the Great. Hopefully I didn’t bore you all with today’s history lesson, but I wanted to tell the story of the man to whom this pilgrimage is dedicated to. Today, of all days, seems the most fitting.
Happy All Hallows.