Sunday, November 13, 2011


There are many legends about James the Greater, and urban-legends (those that developed after the discovery of the saint's tomb in the 9th century).  Most of them show that the story about the Jew Yakhov Ben-Zebedee having evangelised in Spain, being buried in Compostela, and being seen at a battle fighting the Moors, are just that - medieval legends. 

However, there is a saying that 'the path is made by walking'  and knowing the truth about the St James legend will never cancel out the long history of the pilgrimage to a cathedral town named after him, nor will it deter most people from feeling 'called' to walk in the footsteps of the millions that have trodden the paths to Santiago.

But remember, there is another saying, that 'the truth will set you free'. Knowing the truth can set you free to follow the Camino pilgrimage trails your way, as a lover of art and architecture, history, music or cuisine, as a long distance hiker, or just as a nice long holiday. You are not a superstitious   medieval peasant and do not have to follow the Camino in the medieval, penitential tradition if you don't want to!  Today, only Catholics can earn an indulgence for the remission of sins.  If you are a Protestant, you were set free by the first 'protestors' at the start of the Reformation.

El Camino –  urban legends 

       1.      The Jew , Yaakov Ben-Zebedee evangelised in Spain.

The basis for this legend can be found in the late seventh century Latin translation of a Byzantine Greek compendium called the Breviary of the Apostles which asserted - with the words "and Spain" - that James evangelized in Iberia.  When this text was at last critically edited in 1988, it became clear these two little words were a later interpolation by someone (not the original author) who wanted to make the text consistent with then-prevalent beliefs. The words don't even make sense in the context where they appear. (Kate van Liere, Professor of History)

    2.      The story that his decapitated body was carried to Iberia from Jaffa in 6 days, across the Mediterranean,  in a stone boat with no sails, blown across the seas by angels. 

Obviously a legend. No clarrification needed!

3.      The story that he is buried in Santiago Cathedral is a legend.

In France alone, there were three tombs containing the body or body parts of St James. There were nine with heads and numerous others with limbs o other appendages. According to an earlier tradition, the relics of the Apostle were kept in the church of St-Saturnin at Toulouse from the 6th century and his left hand was the prime relic in Reading abbey. There are legends that claim that the body of James the Greater had been taken to Spain minus his head.  John of Wiirtzburg, writing about 1165, says the head remained in Palestine and was regularly shown to pilgrims.

      5.      Bishop Godesalc started a flood of pilgrims to the tomb of St James which created an historical ‘Camino’ to Santiago from Le Puy.

The fact that Bishop Godescalc was the first famous pilgrim to visit Santiago in the Xth century was not not known until 1886 – a thousand years after his visit.  All documents relating to his visit were lost and only rediscovered in 1886.  The Le Puy route is a modern footpath reinvented at the start of the 1970s on a decidedly fragile historical base following a GR hiking trail with places to visited selected subjectively.
6.      The Liber Sancti Jacobi was the first Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago.

The Liber Sancti Jacobi was never a ‘Rough Guide’ for the literate few to Santiago and was unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages.  Only a few copies were made – the 12th century, 14th, late 15th, early 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.  These were only read by the clerics and historians who had access to the monastery library. The original Codex Calixtinus is an enormous book which was only re-discovered in 1886.  Until it was stolen 2011 it was kept in the Cathedral at Santiago.  The name Pilgrim Guide was given to it early in this century.

7.    Aimery Picaud was the author of  Book Five of the Liber Sancti Jacobi

Aymery Pi­caud became the ‘author’ of Book Five of the Liber Sancti Jacobi only in the 19th century.  His name appears only twice in the entire Liber Sancti Ja­cobi, both times in the addenda to the five books. The book is a compilation of many different writers.

8.  Millions of pilgrims have been trekking to Santiago in a continuous stream for over a thousand years.

As a European phenomenon, the pilgrimage to Santiago enjoyed only bout 300 years of glorious hey-days from the 10th century - reaching a peak in the 12th and 13th centuries.  There was a sharp decline from the 14th century with about 400 years of extremely lean days (and a brief revival in the 1700’s).   When the relics of the saint were ‘lost’ in 1589 the pilgrims stopped coming in any number and stayed away for almost 400 years.  The dissolution of the monasteries and the abolition or transformation of refuges and hospitals reduced the pilgrim routes of the Christian West and Compostela vanished from the mind of non-Spanish Catholicism.  By the Holy Year of 1867 St James' shrine was all but forgotten and only 44 pilgrims attended mass on his feast day.  The ‘Camino’ as we know it was revived in the late 1970’s and early 1908’s

    9.  Santiago Matamoros was seen at the battle of Clavijo in 844

This was a legend, created in the 12th century

    10.   St James’ Feast Days have always been on 25th July. 

The burial site of St James was discovered on the 25th July, between 813 and 835.   In the early Middle Ages the 30th December was St James’ Feast day, based on the old Hispanic (Mozarabic) rite.  In the 11th century King Alfonso VI abolished the Hispanic rite in favour of the Roman rite and July 25 became the principal feast day.  It was formerly on the 5th August on the Tridentine Rite calendar.
11.  Pope Calixtus II granted a Jubilee (Holy Year) to Compostela in 1122 which was ratified in 1179 by Pope Alexander III as a perpetual Bull by Regis Aeterni.

Santiago historians and academics say that Compostela Holy Years only started in the 15th Century. 

12.  Medieval pilgrims were all poor, foot sloggers who trudged enormous distances to Santiago.
Nobleman and women, Knights, clerics with large retinues, Kings and Queens all travelled to Santiago.  The great majority of pilgrims (outside of Spain) sailed to Galicia rather than make the long, dangerous journey overland. Most of them travelled in the Holy Years. It was possible to travel in comfort if one could afford it. Fit pilgrims often travelled by foot or on horseback and by the 15th century enterprising carters had already started acting as travel agents. In 1595 the Englishman Fynes Moryson paid 17 crowns (probably each at 80 Kreuzer) for a journey from Augsburg to Venice to a carter who provided horses, accommodation and food.   
      13.  The Compostela is a ‘get-out-of-jail’ certificate.

The modern Compostela was introduced in the 1950’s though no records of it exist before the 1970’s.  The Compostela is merely a certificate asserting that one has arrived in Santiago after walking the last 100km or cycling the last 200km.  The 'get-out-of-jail’ paper is an Indulgence - often confused with the Compostela - is only available to Catholic pilgrims who visit the tomb of the apostle, make confession, attend mass, recite a prayer (such as the Creed or the Lord's Prayer praying for His Holiness the Pope) in order to earn the indugence.

14.    Pilgrimage has always been viewed as a pious and reverential journey.

At first, pilgrims and pilgrimages inspired admiration and even astonishment. After the reformation, the cult of relics (regarded as disgusting and deceiving) and the veneration of saints became non-pc throughout most of Europe.  If, as Luther argued, Christ had died for your sins, no intervention of saints was necessary, so why go on a pilgrimage?  Why leave your homes, your work, your families to bow down before a fragment of a dubious relic? 
Pilgrims were viewed with suspicion.  The religious wars started and many atrocities were recorded by both sides. 
"By the 16th century  a great part of the European population was descending to the level of paupers. The problem of the millions of poor people in the cities and on the roads, countless offences against property, acts of violence by vagabonds and beggars, and bands of robbers or banditism as Fernand Braudel called it, inevitably led the authorities to intervene. In the long run bureaucracy engulfed the pilgrims. What was worse, all parts of the population began to mistrust and despise pilgrims, to the detriment of the custom of pilgrimage. Once again "falsos peregrines" (false pilgrims) made their appearance on the road to Compostela; the unemployed, vagabonds, beggars and those who owed taxes made use of the charitable establishments along the way. Once again the state reacted by bringing out strict laws to prevent its subjects from migrating. " Robert Plotz

ts the journey that is important, not the destination. (This is a Buddhist quote)
      This is an original Buddhist quote and would have horrified most Catholic pilgrims in the Middle- Ages whose prime goal was to reach the tomb of the saint in Compostela and earn thet 'get-out-of-jail' card. The Santiago Archdiocese website makes it quite clear that (for good Catholics at least) the journey is not the goal. "The most  important thing here is the Goal, not the Way.  Jacobean Pilgrims do not go on pilgrimage for the sake of the Way. Through the Way they reach the Tomb of Saint James the Great. Thus, the Way is just a means, a road the pilgrim walks along."

The Bible:   Acts 12: 

And he [Herod Agrippa] had James the brother of John put to death with a sword. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also.

The legend:

The disciples of Yaakov ben-Zebedee took his body to Jaffa (Tel-Avivi) where a stone boat, guarded by angels, awaited them.  The boat, which had no sails, took less than a week to sail to the west coast of Spain and landed at the port of Iria Flavia (near Padron).  They laid his body on a stone which immediately formed into his sarcophagus.  He was buried on a hillside.  The burial site was forgotten for almost 800 years. 
On the 25th July, in the 9th century AD (between 813 and 835) a hermit named Pelayo had a vision of a large bright star surrounded by a circle of smaller stars hovering above a place on a hillside.  He reported his vision to Bishop Theodomir of Iria Flavia who decided to investigate and discovered a tomb containing the body of the Saint and two of his followers Athanasius and Theodore. 
Q:  How did they identify the bodies? 
A:  There was a letter lying near the body.   [Nobody has ever seen this letter which must have been written 800 years earlier so they are not sure what language it was written in but the Bishop was able to read it all the same.]  It said:

' Here lies Santiago, son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of St. John, whom Herod beheaded in Jerusalem : he came by sea borne by his disciples to Iria Flavia of Galicia, and from thence on a car drawn by the oxen of the Lady Lupa, owner of these states, whose oxen would not pass any further.’ 
 Nobody can, or wants to, take Santiago out of Compostela.

“To take St. James the Greater out of those centuries in which faith ran riot and life glowed with fancy, and in which the world prepared itself for an outburst of art and literature and vision beyond aught that antiquity knew, is not only to leave significant movements in history beclouded, but also to lessen the charm of the past, and to lose much of its hope and inspiration”.
Rev. James S. Stone (The Cult of Santiago, 1927)

Note: Some photographs are mine, some are copied from Wiki Commons.


  1. Great post, Sil! But now I'm sad.. I really wanted to believe the stone boat story! ::j/k:: Do you know if the Catholic Church still issues indulgences for walking this pilgrimage? Have you run across that information?

  2. Yes - of course!! In the Holy Years pilgrims get a full plenary indulgence - which means that all their sins are forgiven.
    The plenary indulgence is also given in ordinary years on Easter Sunday; 21st April (the anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral); and on St James's three feast days. (25th July, 30 December and 23 May).

  3. Brilliant stuff, Sil. But not a word about Priscillian!!! Someone wrote in the Forum recently that St. James is "in his cathedral". I have never had any problem with that in fact I gave a big hug and a word of thanks just last week. But then I went down to see Priscillian "the Heretic" down in the basement. Great post. Hope you don't mind if I share...

  4. So, what's your point? I am in love with it all. Faith and tradition don't often have anything to do with logic, or historical fact. You must believe. And if you don't well, that's your loss.

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  6. We are all in love with it Joni.
    We also love Christmas and although most of us don't believe in Santa Claus (even though Saint Nicolas was a real person)we still celebrate it!

  7. Amazing what a little historical "whisper down the lane" leaves us with! And yet, in the end, we still have a beautiful Cathedral and a wonderful way of focusing our journey, inward as well as outward. Even with out the legends being true! For that alone I am grateful. Having grown up Lutheran, now a Catholic, I still kinda shudder at the leg bones, skulls, fingers and other things beautifully displayed in reliquaries!! But these are (thankfully!) different times! Great post Sil!! :-)