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The Way of Saint James History and Origins

Thousands of pilgrims walk the Jacobean routes every year but, what is the history of the Way of Saint James (or Camino de Santiago)? Let’s discover the origins of the Camino de Santiago, and the fascinating history of some of the most popular routes.

Who was the Apostle Saint James the Greater?

The Way of Saint James history is covered by an aura of mystery and legends.

Let’s start with the history of Saint James Zebedee (Santiago Zebedeo in Spanish), who was one of the Apostles of Jesus of Nazareth. He was also known as Saint James the Greater, to be differentiated from Saint James the Less (another member of the Twelve Apostles).

The Way of Saint James History

The Apostle Saint James was with Jesus in some of the most important events of his life. After the death of Jesus Christ, he witnessed some of his apparitions.

How did Saint James arrive in Santiago de Compostela? 

After the death of Jesus Christ, the Apostles were sent to preach the gospel.

The Apostle Saint James crossed the Mediterranean Sea, and arrive into this piece of land that, back then, was known as Hispania (nowadays, Spains and Portugal). According to some stories from that time, the evangelization of the area started in Gallaecia (Galicia region). Even if there are other narrations that state that it actually started in Cartagena (Murcia).

Nowadays, the Apostle Saint James is the Holy Protector of all Spain.

After getting back to Jerusalem, he was killed by Herod Agrippa I, some time between the years 41 and 44 a.C.

According to the legends, his disciples preserved his remains, and sent them back to Hispania, on a boat made of stone.

After crossing the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic coast, it landed again in Gallaecia. His mortal remains arrived in Iria Flavia (Padrón). In fact, the word “Padrón” in Spanish, comes from “pedrón“, which means “stone”. It is a reference to the boat made of stone that was used to transport the remains.

Once there, he was transported to the place that, nowadays, is known as Santiago de Compostela. His tomb remained in oblivion for many centuries, due to the Roman persecutions. Until it was discovered again in the IX century, by the Bishop Theodemir of Iria.

How was the Tomb of  the Apostle found? 

It was on the IX century, around year 813, when a christian hermit informed the Bishop that he had seen some lights over the hill. This way, the Tomb of Saint James the Apostle was found.

During that time, Alfonso II of Asturias, nicknamed the Chaste (in Spanish, el Casto), was the king of the region.

He ordered the construction of a church over the Tomb. This church, was the origin of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

In fact, there are different theories about the word “Compostela”. One of them, states that it comes from the Spanish  expression “campo de estrellas” (meaning: field of stars). This is a clear reference to the lights seen over the hill where the remains were buried.

It is believed that the word “Compostela” comes from the Spanish expression “campo de estrellas” (in English,  “field of stars”), as a reference to the lights seen over the hill where the remains of the Apostle were buried.

Origins of the Way of Saint James

The discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle meant a revolution in the region, and not only from a religious perspective.

King Alfonso II of Asturias took advantage of such a powerful story (the protection of Saint James the Apostle) to join together all the territories in one kingdom.

Also, to Christianize the area of Finisterre (the End of the World), as its inhabitants still followed the Celtic traditions. In fact, in Finisterre, we can find the origin of one of the most popular Camino de Santiago routes. The only one that does not finish in Santiago de Compostela, but starts there, towards to End of the World: the Finisterre Camino.

At the time, the main religious cities of Europe were competing for the best relics.

Santiago de Compostela became the epicenter of one of the most important pilgrimages. It became a real religious destination, together with Rome or Jerusalem.

The fact is that, other than the religious aspect, the history of the Way of Saint James was also very important from a political perspective. It meant the creation of strong cultural connections between Northern Spain and Europe. And it help to create a powerful tool, in the form of a cultural narration, during the Reconquest.


Historia del Camino de santiago galiwonders

Who was the first pilgrim on the Way of Saint James?

According to the history of the Way of Saint James, the first pilgrim who walked the Camino was the above-mentioned King Alfonso II of Asturias. One of the main challenges of his reign, was to stop the progress of the Muslims, and begin the Reconquest.

As we were mentioning before, the discovery of the Tomb of the Apostle, meant a powerful image to support the political purposes of the time. King Alfonso II of Asturias was able to take advantage of this, and began the first pilgrimage towards Santiago de Compostela. We used the path that, nowadays, is known as the Camino Primitivo (Primitive Way or Original Way in English).

And how did the history of the Camino de Santiago continue?

After these first few years that give birth to the Jacobean tradition, the Camino de Santiago started to be quite popular throughout Europe. Until the XIII century, thousands of pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, moved by various reasons. And even if being a pilgrim in the Middle Ages was not as easy as it could seem to be nowadays. Walkers had to face many risks on the way.

What were the motivations of these pilgrims? What moved them to face so many threats during their pilgrimage?

Some of them were looking for salvation, or to atone for their sins. There were others who did it for money. They walked the Camino de Santiago on behalf of other believers, who were of course wealthier. Also, some pilgrims did the Camino to serve a sentence.

There was such an influx of pilgrims on the Way of Saint James, that the Pope Calixtus II declared the existence of the “Holy Years“: when the 25th of July (day of Saint James the Apostle) was on a Sunday.

After this period, from the XIV century onwards, the popularity of the Camino de Santiago declined. The number of pilgrims fell down drastically for many years (not only on the Way of Saint James, but also in other European pilgrimage routes).

The Way of Saint James History

The Way of Saint James from 1990 

Even if the Camino de Santiago was never completely interrupted, and every year there was a number of pilgrims walking it, figures were quite low between the XIV and the XX centuries.

However, from the 90’s (XX), the Camino de Santiago started to be advertised, from a touristic point of view. The Way of Saint James started to be seen not only as a religious pilgrimage, but also as a social and cultural route. A place to understand the European values.

In 1993, the Way of Saint James was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and, since then, figures have been growing very year.

Last year (2019), the number of pilgrims who obtained the Compostela (Camino de Santiago certificate) was almost 350,000. The number of pilgrims is raising every year, and also the nationalities of those who decide to come to Santiago de Compostela.

In 2019 a new record was achieved: 347,578 pilgrims got their Compostela (Pilgrim Certificate).

History of the main Saint James Ways

On the previous lines, we were pointing out sideways the existence of different Jacobean Routes. Let’s talk about the history of some of the most popular ones:

History of the French Camino 

Even if the French Way (or Camino Francés in Spanish) is one of the most popular routes of the Way of Saint James, it does not mean it is the oldest. This is the Primitive Way (we will talk about this one later).

Camino de Santiago Tours Galiwonders

The French Way arises as an entrance door for those pilgrims coming from France, and other European countries. This route becomes quite popular during the Reconquest, as it was one of the safest paths to get into Santiago de Compostela. Also, pilgrims used the remains of an old Roman road, which made it easier to follow the way.

The main pilgrimage routes of the Way of Saint James in France departed from Arles (that, once in Spain, followed the path through Somport Canfranc in Aragón) and Le Puy, Paris and Vezelay.

These three routes arrived in Spain through Saint-Jean-Pied-de-PortAfter this, all the four routes joined together in Roncesvalles (Spain) and followed the same path until reaching Santiago de Compostela.

This way, the French Camino gets this denomination because it started in France and, on its early years, most of the pilgrims walking it were French.

History of the Primitive Way

Continuing with the history of the Way of Saint James, we must mention the Camino Primitivo (also know as Primitive Way or Original Way). Even if the French Camino is the most popular route, the oldest is the Primitive Way (as it can been understood from its denomination).

This path was the one used by the first pilgrim of history, on his way towards Santiago de Compostela.

Can you remember his name?

Yes, King Alfonso II, who was from Asturias, and started his pilgrimage from home.

This route is quite challenging from a physical perspective and, at the time, was not easy to access (it still passes through remote areas).

That is why it was forgotten for quite a number of years, and the French Way became more popular.

Nowadays, the Camino Primitive is the route chosen by the most experimented pilgrims.

History of the Finisterre Way

The Camino de Finisterre (also known as “Fisterre” in Galician language) is the only Jacobean route that does not finish in Santiago de Compostela, but starts there.

This is not the only difference between this path and other Jacobean routes.

In this case, the Finisterre Camino is even older that Christianity itself.

Even during the Roman empire, Finisterre was known as “the End of the World”. This is a mythical place, with many legends around it, where the sun was set.  This spot became a magical place, a sort of altar to the god of the sun. Many different cultures and traditions converged there, the Celts among others.

Having this said, we can conclude that the Camino de Finisterre has a pagan origin, before the discovery of the Tom of Saint James the Apostle.

However, as we were mentioning before, King Alfonso II took advantage of the circumstances to join together all the different reigns and cultures in one, and Christianize the route.


Historia del Apostol Santiago el Mayor Galiwonders

The Finisterre Way is quite popular for many reasons.

One of them, because it passes through an area full of mysticism, and many pilgrims wanted to continue their walk towards the sea, after reaching Santiago de Compostela.

On the other hand, the area has witnessed the appearance of Mary, mother of Jesus, on different spots, like the Sanctuary of A Barca (in Muxía). For this reason, even if the route has a pagan origin, a huge effort to integrate it inside the Jacobean routes, was made.

The Finisterrana

Nowadays the Camino de Finisterre is one of the most popular routes of the Camino de Santiago, and it has its own certificate, known as the “Finisterrana” (instead of  “Compostela”).

Close to the Finisterre Lighthouse, it is possible to see the milestones that marks the KM0 of the Camino de Santiago. It is very common to see pilgrims leaving their boots, and doing purification rituals after finishing their Camino de Santiago. Or just enjoying the spectacular views.


Peregrino historia del camino galiwonders

History of the Portuguese Camino

Same has happened with other Camino de Santiago routes like the French Way, the Portuguese Way started by using an old Roman road. We can still see some of its remains close to the Porto area.

We can find the origins of the Portuguese Camino on the XIV century, when Queen Elizabeth of Portugal (Saint Elizabeth of Portugal) made two pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela. She felt such a strong connection with the Camino that nowadays, one of the most popular streets of the old quarter of Santiago de Compostela is called “A Raíña” (the queen, in Galician language), because of her.

After her pilgrimages from Portugal to Santiago, not only enhanced the route from a cultural point of view, but it also improved the path from a logistical perspective. Thanks to her, many hospitals were built and maintained along the Portuguese Way.

Also, the importance that the Order of Santiago had in Portugal, contributed to consolidate the Camino Portugués.

Nowadays, it is the second most popular Saint James Way, in number of pilgrims.

We hope this brief information about the history of the Saint James Way was useful, to know a bit more about the Camino de Santiago and its various routes. Please do not hesitate to contact us for any question and to leave your comments below.

¡Buen Camino!

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