Santiago de Compostela

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Sacred Sites


Santiago de Compostela

Christian legends tell that St. James the Elder, one of the twelve apostles of Christ, had traveled widely on the Iberian Peninsula, bringing Christianity to the Celtic peoples. Following his martyrdom in Jerusalem around 44 AD, his relics were supposedly taken back to Spain and enshrined. Due to Roman persecution however, the early Spanish Christians were forced to abandon the shrine and, with the depopulation of the area following the fall of the Roman Empire, the location of the shrine was forgotten. In 813 or 838 AD, so the legend goes, a hermit led by a beckoning star and celestial music discovered the location of the buried relics.

Historians however, doubt that St. James ever visited Spain and the idea that his relics were transported to Iberia is thought to be a fabrication of the Church. The 'discovery' of the relics provided a convenient rallying point for Christian Spain, then confined to a narrow strip at the north of the Iberian Peninsula, most of which was occupied by the Moors. In addition to the story of the relics discovery there were also reports of Santiago Matomoro, or St. James the Moorslayer, appearing on a white horse in 844 AD to lead Christians into battle against the Moors. These two legends are interpreted by scholars of the Age of Medieval Pilgrimage as attempts by ecclesiastical authorities to gather popular support for the overthrow of the Arabs. Furthermore, it is known that officials of the Cathedral of Santiago actually hired storytellers to travel about the European countryside spreading 'news' of the miracles of St. James and his relics.

While this deceit and corruption of the Church may shock some readers, it is a well-authenticated historical fact that many of the founding legends of medieval pilgrimage shrines were nothing more than tall tales. Such stories were conjured up by enterprising church administrators who recognized that the number of pilgrims visiting and donating money to a shrine was proportional to the miraculous nature of the founding legend and the degree to which that legend was promoted. Over the tomb where St. James' relics were 'found', the first church was constructed in 829 AD and within 100 years Santiago de Compostela was attracting pilgrims from throughout Europe. By the twelfth century it had become the center of the greatest pilgrimage in medieval Europe.

While Jerusalem and Rome were considered the two most important pilgrimage destinations for Christians, because Santiago de Compostela was closer and much safer to visit, it received far more visitors. Four major land routes to Santiago developed over the centuries. Originating in northern France and meandering south through other pilgrimage sites, the routes joined, crossed the Pyrenees Mountains, and then headed to northwestern Spain. The Benedictines built monasteries and hostels to host the pilgrims journeying the routes to Santiago, creating what is perhaps the first major European tourist industry. The emotional appeal and morale boost provided by the cult of the saint swept through Europe as pilgrims journeyed to the 'Field of the Star' for centuries. While most came as true believers, a large number came as a stipulation to inheritance, as an alternative to prison, or simply in hopes of doing a brisk trade with the great numbers of visitors. The photograph shows a stone sculpture of St. James in the garb of a wandering pilgrim. The seashells fastened on his cloak were the badges of the medieval age, signifying a pilgrim's visit to the shrine of Santiago.

The old city of Santiago de Compostela and its grand cathedral are among the most beautiful medieval artifacts in all of Europe. Besides the visual beauty of the place, the atmosphere is charged with devotion and holiness. The institution of the Church may have resorted to some unscrupulous tactics in advertising the site yet the many millions of pilgrims who visited the shrine came with love and sincerity in their hearts. The presence of that love is still strongly felt at Santiago de Compostela.

Statue of St. James the Elder, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Statue of St. James the Elder, Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain

The Role of St. James on the ‘Esoteric Camino de Santiago’

While the Camino de Santiago is generally considered a Catholic pilgrimage to the tomb of the Apostle St. James, buried at the great Cathedral of Composela, a closer look at the Camino and the figure of James reveals that, behind the official Road to Compostela, lies another Camino, sometimes called the ‘Route of the Stars’. Being esoteric in nature, its meaning –indeed its existence- lies hidden in place names and sacred sites, and in the trajectory of the Camino itself; it is also accessed through the signs and symbols used in art and architecture, through myth and legend, and by natural features. In order for these elements to speak, they must be considered alongside their associations with other traditions and varying aspects of medieval and esoteric thought and belief. Here, we will briefly consider but some of the ideas and symbols that are associated with James to see, though this also but partially, where they might lead.

The legend of St. James in Spain tells of his years teaching the Gospel in this country and his subsequent return to Palestine where, in 44 CE., he was martyred by Herod Agrippa, whereupon his remains returned to Spain, by way of a boat guided by destiny, and accompanied by two of his disciples. Drifting in a rudderless boat through the Pillars of Hercules, the party arrived to Galicia where the body of James was buried, lying undiscovered for some 800 years. The legendary nature of this account seems not to have concerned the Church, which instead accepted the authenticity of the remains at Compostela as undisputed truth; its meaning, however, can perhaps better be sought by noting the similarity of this legend with others that tell of heroes and gods who arrived by sea, bringing with them knowledge of an ‘Ancient Wisdom’ which they taught to the natives where they landed. From the Babylonian Oannes – half of whose body is a fish -; to Osiris –meaning, ‘ocean’-; and the Judaic Noah, these journeyers from the West brought with them the seeds of civilization and also of a new religion.

In this sense, the arrival of James must be seen as a corollary to another; that of ‘Noah’s Ark’, said also to have touched shore in Spain: the site was Mt. Aro, located near the arrival place of James and the town of Noya, to which Noah gave his name. If we expand the context of this legend of James to yet other traditions, we find that the direction of the West is not only the abode of souls in the sky -as is the Milky Way, which the Camino is said to ‘mirror’-, but to notions of an ‘earthly paradise’, known by names such as ‘The Blessed Isles’ or the ‘Garden of the Hesperides’. It has often been thought that this ‘paradise’ –called Pardes’, in Chaldean and Paradesha, in Sanscrit- was, in actuality, Atlantis, that advanced civilization which, destroyed by a worldwide, cataclysmic Flood, was the true ‘Land of the Dead’, and whose priests and teachers –the ‘Noah’s’ and ‘Wise Men’ of old-, were the recipient of a certain ‘Divine Wisdom’ that became the origin of certain secret, oral traditions which, even today, are said, by some, to constitute the hidden source of all the world’s religions.

But if such a distinction can be found, on the esoteric Camino, between some earlier forms of Christianity and their Judaic roots and the later Church of Rome, we are then obliged to ask: What connection might there be between the historical St. James and such an Ancient Wisdom? We must first say, for those wondering whether by ‘St. James’ we mean the ‘Son of Zebedee’ or ‘The Just’, that, as Robert Eisenman has shown, they were the same man, to wit, the brother of Christ and both Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem and leader of the Community at Qumran (1). We also point to the very important eponym of James, ‘The Pillar’, by which he is associated with the ‘Tzaddik’ tradition, as a successor in a lineage that, in fact, continues through some Gnostic groups today.

In this regard, we can note that the first ‘Tzaddik’ is said to be Noah, who was, according to the Zohar: “a Righteous One, Assuredly so after the heavenly pattern …”: he is also the “Pillar that upholds the world” and he who “acted so as to be a Perfect copy of the Heavenly ideal… an embodiment of the worlds’ Covenant of peace”. In this sense, we read in the Zohar as well that James was he “for whose sake Heaven and Earth came into existence” (2). We may also note the discovery of “mysterious works” from the library of Qumran that concerned Enoch and Noah, said to have been the guardians of Divine secrets of Heaven and Earth that had, moreover, been “passed down through certain initiates”. Lomas and Knight add: “There is an ancient belief that the mythical ancestors of the human race were men of superb wisdom, and there are many tales concerning Enoch and Noah as holders of divine secrets. These stories occur in much of the apocalyptic literature and although as ancient as the book of Genesis, they clearly come from some other unidentified source ”(3). That James might have known such ‘secrets of Heaven and Earth’ is suggested by the fact, as Eisenman points out, that he was associated with ‘Hechalot Mysticism’, that is, the mysticism of ‘Heavenly Ascents’, as would be further suggested by the (lost) Anabathhmoi Jacobou of Epiphanius, ‘the Ascents of James’. (4). The etymological link between the word, ‘Hechalot,’ and the Egyptian ‘heka’, or magical energy, is also significant in the context of the present discussion.

Another important, and related, role that is associated on the Camino with James is his appearance, as ‘Matamoros’, or ‘Slayer of Moors’, on a white horse at the Battle of Clavijo, where he bears all the symbolism of the Apocalypse. Here he is, in addition, guardian of the ‘Cycles of Time’, where, like Janus -the double headed ‘janitor’ who holds the keys to the Gates of Capricorn and Cancer-, he is associated, through his original Feast Day on Dec. 30th, with St. John, said to be born on June 24th, so that together they hold the solstice axis. But James’ association with Janus extends also to the precession of the equinoxes and the Great Year: in this sense, it is said that one look from the ‘the third face of Janus’, that of the present, reduces all to ashes. And it is in this way that James and John are also associated with Castor and Pollux, the former being known as the ‘Boanerges’, or ‘Sons of Thunder’, while the Gemini Twins are the ‘Sons of Zeus’. Further correspondences can be found in their mutual association with –again- the sea, the Dioscuri being protectors of mariners and James are John of fishermen. Significantly as well, Castor and Pollux ride white chargers at the Battle of Lake Regillus, wearing helmets surmounted by stars and holding each a half of the eggshell from which they were born, a symbol of the ‘egg of the world’.

James –like St. John- was author of apocalyptic works: the First and Second Apocalypse of James were discovered at Nag Hammadi. He was also considered, in Gnostic circles, to be the guide that escorted souls to the ‘Door’ of the Heavenly Kingdom, located at the ‘Gates’ of Capricorn and Cancer. We can point out here as well that the symbol of the ‘Heavenly Twins’ refers, like the Zodiacal ‘Gates’ with which they are identified, to the dual nature of man, as both human and Divine, so that James, as ‘Pillar’ between Heaven and Earth, is not only charged with preserving intact what Guenon calls the ‘deposit of sacred tradition’ but is as well the archetype of universal man and thus the ‘Great Initiator’ into the secrets of the Ancient Wisdom, which function brings us, finally, to why St. James is considered ‘guide to pilgrims’.

In like manner, Atlantis, too, is an ‘Earthly copy of a Heavenly Paradise’. In relation to this idea, we might observe that James, as Bishop and leader of the Church of Jerusalem, was non only in charge of the liberation of the Holy City from Rome, but, as ‘The Just’, with providing ‘stability’, which is to say, ‘Justice’, ‘Righteousness’, which alone, being rooted in a celestial source, can provide a ‘union of Heaven and Earth’. As ‘Tzaddik’, James becomes thus an earthly manifestation of Melki-Tsedeq, ruler of Salem, who is “the Source of all legitimate power” and “the origin and dissolution of all beings of the cyclical manifestation whose Law he represents” (4). That the principle symbols of James as pilgrims’ guide are the staff of authority and the scallop shell of Venus is in consonance with this idea, for it is by this planet that the wisdom of Melchizedek is said, in esoteric thought, to be transmitted.

Reference Notes

(1). Eisenman, Robert, “James the Brother of Jesus”, 1997.
(2). Ibid.
(3). Knight, Christopher and Lomas, Robert, “The Hiram Key”, 1996.
(4). Guenon, Rene, “The King of the World”, 1958.

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela