Reflections on Spain's St. James
Santiago’s sacred route takes humanity to a threshold veiled by a mosaic of lore and myth. It invites us to a more intimate solidarity with our past. The waters of his mountain streams and verdant hillocks dispel the disquiet of our world, whispering to us that we are finally home.
This is my reflection on the history behind the shrine, its roots in pre-Christian spiritual activity and symbolism, the routes of pilgrimage and their historical namesake, St. James. I invite you to peer into the shadows of Spain's past and examine one of her most cherished icons, St. James the Greater. His history contains narratives that emerge from an ancient historical reality, find expression through legendary accounts based on popular histories and cross-cultural lore and speak to our millenniums-old universal interior voice.
The Master Returns Home
The rías of Galicia broke through the cloud-enshrouded horizon the morning of the Master's return. The journey began after a clandestine departure from the Roman-controlled port city of Haifa. His disciples had reclaimed their leader's head and decapitated body from the refuse dump beyond the west wall of Herod Agrippa's city. It was decreed that his body be exposed to the elements following the afternoon execution and be denied the ritual washing and pre-dusk burial which custom required. The apostle's followers removed his remains under the new moon, ritually washed and wrapped them and later arranged for passage to the coast.
The transport of the body would be completed before dawn. His disciples hoped for anonymity among the matutinal bustle of Haifa's docks. Their small, single sail ship would follow the Mediterranean's mercantile routes of the 1st century AD with the remains sequestered under a wax-coated canvas and surrounded by provisions for the perilous spring journey, they cast off. Their departure went unnoticed among the numerous fishing boats setting out that morning.
The crew would claim that divine intervention turned their rudder and filled their sail as they slipped past Roman port garrisons and sea patrols. Following the coastline, they passed the lands of Cyprus and Crete and sailed through the Straights of Malta. Charting a course around the islands of Sardinia, Corsica and down past the Balearic Islands of Mallorca and Ibiza, the voyagers would anchor in the ample harbor of Nova Cartago to take on fresh water and food and set sail south.
The water's roll off the Iberian Levante would become more pronounced as they sailed towards the Pillars of Hercules. They traversed the straits without incident and anchored in the ancient port city of Gades.
Their faces were unknown to the Phoenician merchants who resupplied them for the final stretch of their voyage. Gades had been a frontier port of call for mariners a millennium before the birth of their martyred leader. Frequented by pirates and adventurers, this bustling city lay two days sailing time southeast of the ruins of the fabled city state of Tartessus. Gades’ dancing girls were heralded throughout the Mediterranean basin and it was here that the famed Heracles once walked. The sights and happenings of this borderland settlement would be the disciples’ last contact with the remnants of their world. Before them stretched the darkness of the Western Ocean.
Locals told stories of the unpredictable sun-swallowing waters of the western sea. The Celtic tribes of the Iberian Peninsula named this expanse of water the Land of the Dead. The Master's disciples would do their best to dismiss these tales. As they ventured out into the ocean's waves, which rumbled and broke along the western coast of the peninsula of Roman Hispania, they must have wondered whether their journey was well advised.
The crew proceeded north within sight of the rocky bluffs of the Iberian coastline, the land of the Lusitanians. Ever moving northward, their journey was almost complete.
That morning, lost in time but remembered in lore, Jacob bar Zebedee was thought to have returned to Spain. Thus began the mythic journey of Spain's iconoclast, St. James, the Greater, the Apostle of Compostela. The stars over his burial ground would name his resting-place, Campus Stella, marking this site for rediscovery by a shepherd monk generations later.
Jacob bar Zebedee, martyred Jew from a fishing village off the Sea of Galilee, would redefine Spain's spiritual identity. Pilgrimage to his tomb, aligned with St. James’ celestial star field, the Milky Way, would become the nation's most enduring ritual and he, its most enigmatic personage.