The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route that traverses Spain from its beginning in the Pyrenees to the tomb of St. James the Apostle, located at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia. The Camino saw as many as 2,000,000 pilgrims annually in the Middle Ages, and is regaining similar popularity today. Because of the Camino’s importance in medieval times, it holds, within its declared boundaries of 25 kilometers on either side, the greatest concentration of Romanesque and Gothic architecture in the world.
Known generally as a Catholic pilgrimage, little is said or known of the pre-Christian Camino, sometimes called the “Route of the Stars.” Evidence indicates that the origins of the Camino can be traced back into prehistory, long before the remains of St. James were said to have drifted ashore at Padron, in Galicia. Following the 42nd parallel to the “end of the Earth” at Cape Finisterra, the path of the Camino unfolds along a corridor formed by megalithic sites dating to the second millennium B.C. It is said in Spain that “To walk the Camino is to walk on the stars,” and so we find that these megalithic sites, and the older, original Camino, have many links to the sky.
Megalithic monuments are often associated with astronomical events and orientation. They have been associated as well with ancient roadways, and these in turn with “ley lines,” the “energy channels” of the Earth. Sometimes, as is the case of the Camino itself, the location of these megalithic structures has been thought to obey both models at once, thereby connecting and harmonizing the energies of heaven and Earth. “As above, so below,” states the Hermetic axiom, and so the “Route of the Stars” follows mirrors the path of the Milky Way.
The use of ley lines and astronomical orientation in prehistoric building and site selection can be considered evidence as well of an ancient science known also as the Primordial Tradition, or the Ancient Mysteries. Such a science has been said to lie at the heart of the “art of building” throughout human history, and to encode knowledge of the nature and laws of the universe, and of man. This “art of building” has always implied the alignment of the forces of Heaven and Earth. It also employs a science of numbers and proportions, as a system of discrete and powerful forces, and their relations, that underlie every act of creation.
This “spiritual science” is considered by some to lie, like the Route of the Stars, at the heart of all religions, including Christianity itself. The medieval masons, the builders, architects and sculptors of the churches along the way, preserved it. Organized in lodges or guilds, the medieval masons were the precursors of contemporary Freemasonry, “high priests” in a lineage of keepers of occult, or “hidden,” knowledge, capable of uniting the material and the spiritual, the human and the divine.
A Journey on the Camino is, in this sense, a Journey into the Ancient Mysteries, a Primordial Traditional that once “was,” but has been “lost,” and can be regained. The name “Santiago” itself comes from “Jaime,” or “James,” and like the Italian “Giacome” and the Basque “Jakin” means “sovereign,” or “wise man” while “Compostela” would signify “field or clearing” from the Spanish “campo” “of the star,” “estrella.” Nevertheless, it has been pointed out that the site at which the Cathedral stands is “Compo,” not “Campostela,” indicating a possible connection with the “compos,” or “seed of wisdom,” of Alchemy. “Santiago de Compostela” would mean, then, “Wise Man of the Star.” In a similar manner, the Great Work, the path of spiritual development of the Alchemists, is sometimes called the “Camino de Santiago.”
A Journey on the Camino is an opportunity to explore and interpret, witness and experience the preservation of such a “spiritual science” it is also an opportunity to consider its very source.
Like the labyrinth that is its symbol, the ancient Camino is a Journey to a place of union, to the center of All That Is, whereby the pilgrim can attain self-salvation. It is an opportunity to weave, at every step, myth and history, life and symbol, time and the timeless, until they merge.
As Tomé Martinez observes in his book, The Secret of Compostela, the traditional elements of the Camino can be seen in the sky looking West from Finisterra: the constellations of the “ship,” or Argo, and of Can Major, with the Dog Star, Sirius, towards which the Cathedral at Santiago is oriented. And we remember that a dog always accompanied St. James himself.
From the cliffs high above the Atlantic at the Finisterra, we think not only of the message, but also of the messengers of the Camino that arrived on shore from the sea of the body of St. James the Apostle, and of Noah and his ark which, as legend would have it, landed atop Mount Aro, near Noya, a name etymologically derived from “Noah.” We think of the mermaids and fishmen of lore, of the Virgin of the Camino and the Christ of Agony at Muros, which both, according to legend, floated ashore on the waves.
It was not, as Juan Garcia Atienza observes in his book, Legends of the Camino de Santiago, that the protagonist is Christ, or this or that hero of legend or myth it was about the Ocean itself, from which came everything that was transcendent to that land. It was about the horizon line when one looked out to sea and about its depth and unfathomable secrets, the transmissions of which were picked up on the beach from time to time, or they arrived on shore.
From the high cliffs at “the end of the Earth,” the Milky Way lies reflected in the Atlantic Ocean, and the origins and destiny can, once more, begin to be conceived.
CAPTIONS: From top clockwise:
View of the Camino from O’Cebreiro Lugo
Village near Ponferrada
Labyrinths at Mogor Pontevedra (3,000 to 1,500 B.C.)
Baphomet at the Templar church at Torres del Rio
Ruins of a Celtic “castro,” La Corona
Column Capitol from the 12th century
Cloister at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, Burgus
The Camino de Santiago at Leboreiro
Nov/Dec 2004 – #48