A brief history of the Camino

For well over a thousand years pilgrims from all over the world have walked the Camino. Because medieval pilgrims began their pilgrimages at their front doors, trails to Santiago begin in places all over Northern Europe. At the French and Spanish border, many trails converge into one five hundred mile trail across northern Spain that is known as the Camino Frances. This spot of convergence is the small town of St. Jean Pied de Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  From there, the pilgrim route goes over the mountains and across northern Spain to one of two places. The Galician city of Santiago de Compostela is the traditional ending for Christians while the seacoast peninsula of Fisterra was the traditional ending place for Celtic and other pre-Christian pilgrims.

Santiago de Compostela translates as St. James of the Field of the Stars. The name refers to the Christian disciple St. James. The story is told that after James was killed his remains were put in a stone boat that floated across the Mediterranean to come ashore near Fisterra. The story does not end there, for in the year 807 a shepherd is said to have found the remains of St. James in a field illuminated by a multitude of stars.  At the spot where the remains of St James were found, a cathedral was built to house his bones.  No one is certain that the bones belong to St. James, but his long association with the trail has forever linked him to this pilgrim route.

During the middle ages, the Camino was considered one of three major pilgrimages that a Christian could walk to atone for sins, to thank God for blessings, or to ask for divine intercession.  The first two routes were to the more remote destinations of Rome and Jerusalem. This meant the third pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela was the most affordable, accessible, and therefore vastly more popular pilgrim route with literally millions of pilgrims walking this trail during the middle ages. Many of the hostels along the route have been giving shelter to pilgrims for over a thousand years.

As noted, the tradition of walking this route is older than the discovery of St James’ remains.  For the souls waking the trail in Celtic times, the end of the trail was a hundred kilometers beyond Santiago de Compostela at the seaside promontory of Fisterra.

Before the discovery of the western continents, this spot on the coast was thought to be the end of the world, hence the name Fisterra, which roughly translated means “end of the land.” Fisterra, where the land falls away and the ocean goes out into the unknown, has been a place long associated with ideas of transition. On arrival at Fisterra, it is still a pilgrim tradition to burn something of significance that you have carried along the trail or to throw your walking stick into the ocean, thus signifying the completion of the journey and the beginning of a new one.

Pilgrims including St Francis of Assisi, Charlemagne, and the Spanish monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, walked the Camino. The pilgrimage lies on land that has long been seen as sacred by many different groups of believers. Part of its strength comes from how it aligns with the Milky Way constellations.  This alignment reflects its spiritual purposes beyond the ownership of any one religious group.

After falling into quiet times, the trail has seen a return of pilgrims in the last few decades. This reflects how the trail holds timeless spiritual gifts in its very ground, gifts offered with infinite generosity to the hearts of the more than one hundred thousand people that walk the trail every year.