While in Europe I fulfilled a long held dream and walked the 800 km Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James) from St Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. Pilgrims have been travelling the road to Santiago on foot or horseback for over a thousand years and, at the height of its popularity in the 11th-12th centuries, over half a million people a year made the pilgrimage from all over Europe. Santiago de Compostela was one of the top three medieval pilgrim destinations (alongside Rome and Jerusalem), with pilgrims flocking to embrace the statue of the Christian apostle James the Greater whose mortal remains are said to lie buried beneath the silver shrine in the Santiago cathedral.
A friend walked the Camino back in 1985 and I’d always promised myself that one day I would do the same. Her interest was medieval history and there was certainly plenty of that on offer, but I was more interested in the idea that the Camino followed the path of the Milky Way past Santiago towards Cape Finisterre (Land’s End) the most westerly point on mainland Spain and a place revered by the Celts who built a solar altar there to worship the setting sun.
Like other places with Celtic origins, I found Galicia to be full of megaliths, standing stones and prehistoric sites and some basic research revealed that many of the Christian cathedrals, shrines and holy places on the Camino were built on the site of more ancient temples. Santiago de Compostela was no exception, with excavations revealing not only the remains of an older cathedral destroyed by the Moors but also a Roman temple and an even older Celtic well. Another famous Camino landmark, the Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross, marks the highest point of the track and was originally the site of a pagan monument.
‘Santiago’ is Spanish for ‘St James’, while ‘Compostela’ means ‘field of the star’. The official explanation for the city’s origin is that in 835 AD, the secret burial place of St James the Apostle was revealed by a bright shining star twinkling over a remote field. However, further research shows that when Christian pilgrimages to the burial site began in the 9th century, this road of the stars already existed and had done for hundreds if not thousands of years! In fact the whole of the Camino from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, is peppered with villages, places and mountain passes named after stars or after a trail of light, as if it were a stellar route, a route leading to a special destination - the field of the star. I discovered that in Roman times, the road to Santiago was a trade route known as the Via Lactea or Milky Way. And today those stars can be seen everywhere – on signposts, in churches, on rose windows in the Gothic cathedrals, on the stone wells and monuments and on restaurant menus. And before the Romans came the Celts. The trademark Camino scallop shell is an ancient symbol for the setting sun and was a focus of pre-Christian Celtic rituals in Galicia long before the birth of James. The scallop shell is also a pagan fertility symbol connected with the goddess Venus and the divine feminine
So Who Built the Camino de Santiago and Why?
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors believed the earth was a living organism, linked by power channels through which life energy flowed. They marked these places of energy and power with dolmens and megalithic structures, linking them to each other with roads and pathways across the surface of the earth. And they built temples near the sacred places, nexuses of power, where the telluric currents of the earth met with the astral currents of the skies - a manifestation of the concept ‘as above, so below’. The Camino de Santiago following the path of the sun from east to west across Spain appears from an earthly perspective to lie directly under the Milky Way.
Both the French and Spanish sides of the Pyrenees are dotted with dozens of stone circles or cromlechs, dating back to prehistoric times. Studies have shown that these stone circles represent stars reflected on earth from the sky above and if viewed in groupings reveal the precise configuration of constellations in the same way the three major pyramids of Giza mirror the stars of Orion’s belt.
During a conference at Salamanca University in 1999, Juan José Ochoa de Zabalegui presented his hypothesis that the original pilgrimage towards the west of Spain, which later became the Camino de Santiago, originated with the people who built these stone circles in the Pyrenees. In de Zabalegui’s study, he emphasises the widespread belief in the ancient world that both ends of the Milky Way possessed a star gate. He writes of a stellar cult dating back to the 6th century BC who believed there were two doors for the passage of the souls, a northern gate in the constellation of Orion, represented by the summer solstice, birth and descent into the body and a southern gate at the tail of the constellation of Sagittarius, represented by the winter solstice, death and ascent to the gods. The Camino de Santiago following the Milky Way to the setting sun at Cape Finisterre was quite literally an earthly re-enactment of the soul’s journey from life to death.
I found an interesting quote from the 20th century French alchemist Fulcanelli: "The Way of Saint James is also called the Milky Way. Greek mythology tells us that the gods followed this route to go to the palace of Zeus and the heroes as well followed it to enter Olympus. The Way of Saint James is the stellar route, accessible to the chosen ones, to the courageous, persevering and wise mortals." Metaphysically therefore, a pilgrimage to Santiago and Finisterre, whether Christian or pagan, represents initiation and a return to the source or dwelling place of the gods. If this seems a bit farfetched (and when you’re taping up your blisters on a top bunk wearing wet shorts believe me it does…) consider this. Icons of St James show him preceded by a dog as he travels the Camino towards the sacred field of the star. The band of the Milky Way passes through the constellation of the Great Dog containing the brightest of all stars – Sirius. And when is Sirius the Dog Star at its brightest? In the lead up to the northern hemisphere winter solstice as the dying sun travels through Sagittarius (the constellation associated with St James) at the time of year associated with death and ascent to the gods.
Many people believe that walking the Camino de Santiago opens them to life-changing personal and spiritual experiences powered by the energy from the Milky Way above and the millions who have trodden the earthly path below. I certainly met men and women whose lives had been completely transformed by their journey across Spain. My own experience was one of open-hearted love and I often found myself overcome by tears of joy, wonder or gratitude. Apart from the soul’s natural response to the incredible natural and architectural beauty and energy of the places we visited, I have rarely encountered so much goodwill, kindness, openness and warmth from a group of fellow travellers. It really was a magical journey and while I’m not sure that I returned to the source or even became a courageous mortal, I watched the stars of the Milky Way twinkling overhead every night.