The Camino de Santiago has been a pilgrimage route for more than 1,000 years, and there is even evidence that there was a route here in pre-Christian times, way back in the 8th century. It is thought that this ancient route followed the Milky Way to what people believed at the time was the end of the Earth.
According to Christianity, one of the original 12 apostles – Santiago, also known as Saint James – helped to spread the religion throughout the Iberian Peninsula. One theory says that when he died, his body was put in a boat, which landed on the coast of Spain, just west of where Santiago de Compostela stands today; while the other maintains that his body was found by a Galician farmer near the town of Padrón centuries later. Either way, it is said that King Alfonso II ordered the relics be buried in a specially-built chapel, which would later become the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, and attract pilgrims from across Europe.
The Camino grew in popularity in the Middle Ages, attracting over 250,000 pilgrims every year, and it became one of the three most popular Christian pilgrimages – the other two being to Jerusalem and Rome.
There are many theories as to how the route was created. Many believe it was by word of mouth, by way of pilgrims giving each other tips about the route to take. For example, advice may have been given about which towns or villages to stop at along the route; where the streams and rivers were located to find water; and the safest way to cross the mountains. Over many centuries, a path began to form from the thousands of pilgrims who had followed these tips year after year.
The modern Camino was created in the 1980s by Father Elias Valiña, the priest of the Galician village of O Cebreiro, who marked the ancient route with the symbol of a yellow scallop shell on a blue background, so that pilgrims could easily find the way.
It is believed that the scallop shell became a symbol of the Camino because many would actually walk beyond Santiago de Compostela, to the coast (where the body of Saint James was said to have arrived by boat). Many pilgrims would pick up a shell on the beach to prove that they had completed the journey and walked all the way to the ocean. Today most pilgrims tie a scallop shell to their bags to show that they are walking the Camino.
The Camino is becoming increasingly popular in modern times, thanks to a variety of factors. In the 1980s Father Elias Valiña not only marked the route, but also promoted it throughout Europe to the effect that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, while in 2010 a movie about the Camino – called The Way – starring Martin Sheen was released.
In 2016, 176,332 pilgrims walked the traditional French Way, while 278,232 reached Santiago de Compostela – a combination of those who walked the French Way, the Northern Way (along the north coast of Spain), the Portuguese Way (from Lisbon), the English Way (from Ferrol in Galicia), the Camino Primitivo (from Oviedo in Asturias) and the Vía de la Plata (from Seville in Andalusia).