Long before Christianity was born, pagans were crossing northern Spain on foot to purge their soul and honour nature's cycles. This pilgrimage was considered a sacred right of passage; it began at Spain's Easternmost border and ended on the West Coast at Finisterra, the ''end of the world''. Pilgrims would watch the sun fall into the sea in a symbolic born-again ritual. It was also here that they began the fine tradition of burning their walking clothes, a practice which is still enthusiastically loved by pilgrims today.
Then, in the year 42 AD, a soon-to-be-saint named James (Iago in Spanish) came to Spain. Despite his best efforts, he managed to convert only 9 pagans, but happened to be very skilled at killing Moors (Muslims from Morocco). Given that Spain was in constant battle with the Moors at the time, he was nicknamed Iago the Moor Slayer and was considered the protector of Spain. James was eventually beheaded and his body was smuggled from Jerusalem, thanks to a series of so-called miracles. Rumour has it that his body was laid to rest beneath the foundations of Compostela’s cathedral; the city was then renamed Santiago de Compostela in his honour.
Like many things that Christianity borrowed from paganism, the route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (in France) to Santiago de Compostela was repackaged and revamped; soldiers from the Roman Catholic army, the Knights' Templar, were posted all along the dangerous route. Countless churches, monasteries and hospitals were feverishly built to aid the wayward souls of sinners and pilgrims. And to enrich the Vatican's coffers, undeniably.
This makeover brought a disproportionate amount of fame to the already well-known pagan route. To top it off, the Roman Catholic Church began absolving surviving pilgrims of their sins and fast-tracking their souls' entry into Heaven. Prisoners were often sentenced to walk the Camino as a punishment, and servants could even walk off their masters' sins as surrogate pilgrims!
In 2010, over 250 000 people walked the Camino Francés, roughly 800 kilometres from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (in France) to Santiago de Compostela. To follow in their footsteps, you’ll need 4 or 5 weeks, walking an average of 22-25 kms every day.
Photo Collection: Camino de Santiago
Coming soon: How To Prepare And Pack For The Camino