Santiago De Compostella: An Inner Journey

“There shall come a star out of Jacob…”

—Numbers 24:17

A fascination bordering on obsession concerning the “brother” of Christ, St. James, began some months prior, however, it wasn’t until I was preparing a lecture on the Romanesque period for my weekly college art history class that some rather nebulous thoughts began to gel. The same week I received a letter from The Fellowship of St. James, an organization I’d never heard of: interpreting this compact series of events as auspicious, I began the notes that follow in the hope that, like any good pilgrimage, they might lead somewhere.

Pilgrimage has been the traditional form of religious endeavor since initiations began under the stars and inside caves. The act of bringing oneself back to a point of origin, by whatever means, constitutes the core of the physical/spiritual journey of the human being. This action has always been aided in part by identification with certain geographical locales which are considered more conducive to the recapitulation experience. One moves through space and time to a place of reference which catapults into another realm entirely: now you are standing on holy ground, free of all constraints. One has arrived at the much sought after goal, and after you commune with God there, you will return to the earth changed, bringing with you the power of change.

We can speak of pilgrimage within the context of this paper in two ways: the physical pilgrimage in which someone actually moves from one place to another by means of locomotion; and the pilgrimage taken symbolically. As we will see, even a symbolic journey involves the physical intent of the pilgrim, and any spiritual change inevitably alters the physical vehicle of the spirit. Distinctions between the letter and the law concerning pilgrimage have sometimes resulted in tragedy, however, as in the case of the 7th century Muslim mystic and thaumaturge, Mansur al-Hallaj. Among the charges leveled against al-Hallaj was one based on his suggestion that a symbolic pilgrimage to Mecca was not only sufficient to fulfill one of the requirements of the faith, but perhaps it represented a superior path. Certainly other Sufi masters have reiterated this injunction, considering such a symbolic pilgrimage to be that of “the elect,” in which the pilgrim circumambulates the ka’aba of the heart, not the ka’aba considered in Islam to be the original house of worship situated in the city of Mecca. The questions concerning the whereabouts of God’s most immediate abode are at the center of any pilgrimage debate, and perhaps should be left to the conclusions of the pilgrim after he or she feels they have arrived at their goal.

It is the conclusion of most historians that during the middle ages in Europe, pilgrimage became big business. The recovery of “relics” by crusaders returning from the holy lands began a cult of saints that resulted in major church building programs. In the case of Santiago de Compostella, found in the Celtic north-west corner of Spain, the emerging cult of saints resulted in the actual building of the city.

In the ninth century, Theodemir, a bishop of Iria announced that a tomb containing the bones of St. James had been discovered on the site where the city of Santiago de Compostella would later appear. There was no basis in fact for the claim that the bones in the tomb were St. James’. This site is 2,000 miles away from where he is placed historically. The cult of saints, however, depended upon legend to draw the faithful, not on fact: there is no “proof” that any of the relics retrieved during the crusades were authentic.

The legend of the founding of Santiago de Compostella based on the excavation of St. James’ bones is worth recounting here:

St. James apparently befriended some Iberian soldiers in Palestine with whom he traveled to Spain and preached at different locations. He returned to Palestine, and according to the Acts of the Apostles, he was martyred there, however, legend asserts that his body was then returned to Spain. This journey took seven days and reads like a good alchemical allegory: The sailor/disciples en-route detected a scent of saintly sanctity arising from the body. At the arrival at the Galacian port of Iria Flavia they were imprisoned by a hostile queen. After their release they encountered a dragon which lay down upon seeing the sign of the cross. This same sign was used to placate a pair of wild bulls who were put into service pulling a cart containing the saint’s body. The bulls were allowed to pull the cart wherever they liked. When they stopped at a spot, the disciples of James felt that this was the place to bury James body. Eight hundred or so years later a hermit was guided by a star to the burial site, which he revealed to bishop Theodemir. The place became known as “the field of the star” (campus stellae). The name Santiago de Compostella is of course derived from this, Santiago (St. James, “St. Jacque,” “St. Jacob” considered phonetically Jacque or Ee-ack-ah, or Iago; and also Jacob as Ya-kobe).

Theodemir built a small church at the site, but some decades later Alfonso III, understanding the political advantages of the situation, built a large basilica, endowing it with generous land grants. The city itself was subsequently built around an emerging pilgrimage industry during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over time a metamorphosis occurred in which the Galilean fisherman of the gospels known as James became Santiago Matamoros, St. James the “Moor-slayer,” the patron warrior saint of Spain. All manner of miracles on and off the battlefield were attributed to St. James.

Santiago de Compostella emerged as the end goal of the pilgrim’s journey through the relic-endowed Romanesque churches scattered across France and Spain. The stars of the Milky Way, it was said, marked the way to Santiago de Compostella, however, guide books, like the one written by the priest Aymery Picaud in the twelfth century certainly helped. Picaud described four main routes crossing France, merging in a single road in Spain at Puente la Reina, leading on through Burgos and Leon, to Compostella.

The symbols of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella are derived from the items connected with St. James: the staff, the scroll with his text testifying to the Incarnation of Christ written upon it, and the scallop shell. The pilgrim depicted with the symbols of St. James is readily identifiable in the artwork during the period of the mediaeval European pilgrimage. Scallop shells were worn either on the hat, as seen in a statue of St. James at Westminster Abbey, around the neck, or near the heart. On the magnificent tympanum of the west portal of the Cathedral of Saint-Lazare at Autun, Burgundy, France, depicting Christ at the Last Judgment by the sculptor Gislebertus, for example, two small figures bearing staffs and shells on the lower left patiently (and confidently) await their turn to be judged. The use of the staff in pilgrimage is self-explanatory, the scroll sometimes associated with St. James has already been discussed, but what is one to make of the shell?

Again, we must rely on the various legends that connect St. James with the shell. In one account, he used the scallop shell as an aid in performing baptism during his first journey to Spain. Another claims that as the saint’s body sailed by on its return voyage to Spain, a drowning knight was saved by a raft of shells and seaweed that miraculously brought him to shore. The shell may be a purely functional item delegated to holding holy water or simply serving as a lowly bowl. All of the pilgrim’s symbols have been immortalized in verse by Sir Walter Raleigh who wrote:

Give me my scallop-shell of Quiet,

My Staff of Faith to walk upon,

My scrip of Joy, immortal diet,

My bottle of salvation,

My gown of Glory,

Hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.1)

Perhaps the symbolic meaning of the shell is found in the name for shells of the comb genus, Pecten Jacobaeus. Jacob being the root of Iago (ie; James) in Santiago de Compostella as has been shown above.

According to Fulcanelli, in the masterwork Le Mystere des Cathedrales-Esoteric Interpretation of the Hermetic Symbols of The Great Work, the shell of Compostella is an alchemical symbol for the substance known as the philosopher’s Mercury, known as ‘the traveler,’ or pilgrim. The combined symbols of the heart and the shell inform the architectural sculpture found in the house of Jaques Couer (Jacque = shell, Couer = heart). The scallop shell worn mystically by the alchemist who undertakes the Great Work and seeks the star (compos stella).

Compos, the four points of the compass which emerge from the crossing point, the centered, composed point of origin + are symbolic of both the cross and the star. Perhaps the juncture of compost (decaying organic matter) containing the “secret fire” with the fire of the star, the stella, signals the perfect combination/identification of philosopher’s salt with the star also seen in the vision of the heavenly body over Bethlehem that began the pilgrimage of the three wise men, the Magi, the star-crossed lovers of Truth. Light emerging from the sepulcher (as in the tombs of both Christ and St. James), or miraculous virginal birth in a manger allegorically relate the same truth to the alchemist.

When the alchemist begins any work, it is process and goal oriented. It is recommended that at the outset one invokes and thanks a higher power for allowing the work to begin. The alchemist’s journey is one in which the physical substance exhibiting changes in the retort is the physical mirror of the enormous changes occurring within the alchemist, changes of an intermingled spiritual and physical nature rapidly accelerated by the Work. The alchemical pilgrim advances rapidly through an ever-changing multi-colored landscape toward the goal, yet, as it has been said, when one takes a step toward God, God in turn runs to that person. Accounts of successfully confecting the Philosopher’s Stone invariably contain a long, arduous, danger-filled journey “half on land, half on water,” full of pitfalls and setbacks, where faith and perseverance eventually bear fruit. “Pilgrims first, then pilots,” says Fulcanelli.2)

One of the most famous alchemists of all time, Nicholas Flamel, embarked upon a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. Whether the account of his journey is read literally or allegorically is of no consequence considering the context of the alchemical path, which integrates the spiritual with the physical by making the “fixed volatile and the volatile fixed.”

In the year 1399, while working as a scribe at the church of St. Jacques la Boucherie in Paris, Nicholas Flamel came into the possession of a book containing alchemical emblems drawn by “Abraham the Jew, Prince, Priest, Levite, Astrologer, and Philosopher to the Nation of the Jews Scattered by the Wrath of God in the Gaules, Salvation, D.I.” Flamel made copies of the figures in the book, studied them assiduously, enlisting the aid of scholars and occultists, all of which came to nothing. For twenty-one years he tried in vain to unlock the mysteries of the text, which he was convinced held the key to the fabled Philosopher’s Stone. Finally, after completing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, Flamel met a Jewish master who successfully deciphered the manuscript. Thanks to this act of faith he quickly succeeded in confecting the Stone of the Wise. From the translation of Raphael Patai in chapter fifteen of his book The Jewish Alchemists, we find the following biographical account:

“Therefore, with the consent of Flamel’s wife Pernelle, carrying with me an extract of them [the hieroglyphic figures], I took the habit and staff, in the same manner in which one can see me [depicted] outside of the arch on which I placed these hieroglyphic figures, in the cemetery, where I also put against the wall on both sides a procession in which are represented in order all of the colors of the stone, as they arise and end, with this French inscription:

Moult plait a Dieu procession S’elle est faite en devotion

Much pleases God the procession If it is done in devotion

(this, which is, so to speak, the beginning of the book of Hercules (Heralius) treating of the colors of the stone called Iris, in these terms: Operis procession multum Naturae placet, etc. (The procession of the work much pleases Nature, etc.) which I put there intentionally for the great clerics who will understand the allusion).

Then, in this manner, I betook myself on the road, and so it happened that I arrived at Montjoye, and then at Saint-Jacques, where, with great devotion, I fulfilled my vow.”3)

Flamel in this account mentions “the stone called Iris,” the iris being the portal, the oculus admitting light. This eye of heaven combines the sphere of earth with the dome of night bringing forth points of light, the heavenly bodies. The combination of stone and light again recall the relationship between salt and stars, the bones of St. james entering Spain at the Galacian port of Iria Flavia, where the light comes to flower in the darkness. The eye of the alchemist admits changes in the light and color of the work in his vessel. Flamel, of course, here relates the many-colored flower(s) of the Iris to the goal of the Work, the purpose of the procession or pilgrimage he undertook with devotion to Santiago de Compostella.

After a life devoted to charity work and church building, Nicholas Flamel followed his beloved wife Perenelle in death and was buried in the nave of the church of St. Jacques la Boucherie in the year 1417.

Recently, Lee Hoinacki, a sixty-five year old former Dominican priest, professor of political science, and subsistence farmer set out on the pilgrim’s path to discover if the light of Santiago de Compostella still shone at the finis terrae, the end of the earth. The journal of his pilgrimage is available in the book recounting his pilgrimage titled, El Camino: Walking to Santiago de Compostella. In an excerpt from the book Hoinacki emphasizes the journey as the goal, his pilgrimage connecting him with the pilgrims that have gone before, as well as those who follow after him:

“All the “inner” experiences of these weeks occurred because they had real links with the experience of the dead who accompanied me…The relics I touch are those ancient pilgrims, their real presence…Most of them are out there…on the camino, waiting to welcome today’s pilgrim. All my thought, all my intense longing, is to walk back out there, and join them on their journey.”4)

Santiago de Compostella may be the perfect goal of the pilgrim based on faith, hope, and charity. The goal is to connect with something meaningful, in order to carry back to life the courage of the quest undertaken fearlessly, enabling all who complete it to emerge as beacons of light, of guidance, first as pilgrims, then as pilots.

Cities of Spain, by David Gilmour, footnote to page 54.
Le Mystere des Cathedrales – Esoteric Interpretation of the Hermetic Symbols of The Great Work, by Fulcanelli, page 141.
The Jewish Alchemists, by Raphael Patai, page 223.
El Camino: Walking to Santiago de Compostella, by Lee Hoinacki.

All material in this section copyright © John Eberly