Stories and Legends of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela

July 13, 2023 My travel Journal, The Portuguese Way

Starting the day in Santiago de Compostela was a relief. For the first time in many days, we took it easy. It was a day to enjoy, despite the pouring rain. We decided to visit the Cathedral, now without the weight of our backpacks.

The City of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is a historic city and pilgrimage destination known for its iconic cathedral, rich history, and captivating legends. Located in northwest Spain, it attracts thousands of pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago each year. The city’s origins blend reality and mythology, making it a fascinating place to explore and discover. Its impressive architecture, charming streets, and spiritual atmosphere make Santiago de Compostela a unique and cherished destination.

The Origins of the Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage

The origin of the city of Santiago de Compostela and how it became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world is a fascinating story, blending reality and legend. Trying to clarify events that happened two thousand years ago and have reached us through oral tradition is impossible. Interests, beliefs, and fantasies have intertwined, generating many different versions. Unraveling this tangle is captivating, so I have been reading, asking, and exploring among its ancient walls, and my conclusion is that there is no absolute truth.

My Version of the Events

The story begins in the Mediterranean, where, after the crucifixion, Santiago, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, dedicated himself to preaching his teachings. It is believed that while he was in the Iberian Peninsula, he had a dream or a premonition and had to return to Jerusalem to accompany Mary in her final moments. Once he arrived, he was captured, tortured, and beheaded by Herod around the year 41. According to legend, the king forbade the burial of his body, but some of his disciples stole it and brought it back to the region of Compostela. They supposedly transported it on a stone raft for burial.

Yesterday, I met Manolo, an 83-year-old man, who told me many stories, and among them, he assured me that the raft was not made of stone but rather a raft made of stonecutter’s marble imported from Italy. The raft was on the verge of sinking, and the spirit of Apostle Santiago guided the sailors, who saved his life. In gratitude, they buried Santiago’s decapitated body where he indicated.

Compostela, Field of Stars

Years later, the region’s inhabitants began to see strange lights at night. The King of Asturias ordered an excavation in the area where they found three decapitated bodies. The king declared the hill sacred and named it Compostela, meaning “field of stars.” He built a cathedral there in honor of the Apostle Santiago.

The Beginnings of the Pilgrimage

The pilgrimage to Compostela began in the 12th century when medieval roads were adapted to make the city accessible from different locations. Pilgrims sought healing of the body and soul and the expiation of sins. Their goal was to obtain plenary indulgence, which allowed them to go directly to heaven. These routes became Europe’s most important pilgrimage routes, with an average of 200,000 walkers annually.

The Scallop Shell

In ancient times, the credential that certified pilgrims were the scallop shell, which provided them with protection to return home, as killing a pilgrim was considered a capital sin. The scallop shell became the symbol of the pilgrimage and pilgrims, and its origin is also filled with legends. Some relate it to a knight who entered the turbulent sea and was saved by Santiago’s disciples, who buried his body on the stone raft. Another legend says that Santiago emerged from the waters on his white horse covered in shells to guide and save his disciples amid a storm.

The Pilgrim’s Credential

Currently, the starting points of the Camino provide a passport or credential where pilgrims collect stamps from the places they visit along their journey. Restaurants, cafes, hermitages, hostels, and churches can stamp it. At least two daily stamps are required during the last one hundred kilometers to obtain the “pilgrim” certification in Compostela.

The Cathedral

The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is an impressive monument that marks the end of the famous Camino de Santiago. After all the effort invested in the journey, seeing the imposing facade of the Cathedral is an experience that is undoubtedly worthwhile.

The origin of the Cathedral dates back to 829 when King Alfonso II of Asturias ordered the construction of a chapel on the tomb of the Apostle Santiago. Over the years, various structures and expansions took place until the construction of the current Cathedral began in 1075 during the reign of Alfonso VI.

One of the Cathedral’s most notable elements is the crypt, where the remains of Santiago and his two disciples rest in a silver chest.


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