People walk the Camino out of different reasons. You, dear Reader, also have your own very personal inspiration for doing it. However, no matter how manifold these inspirations can be, knowing about the origin of ’El Camino’ may add a unique ’spice’ to your experiences.
Did you know that the road you are about to walk is one of the oldest pilgrimages in Europe, honouring the apostle St. James whose remains are buried in Santiago de Compostela, the destination of ’El Camino’? This is why the way is also called The St. James’ Way. The walk towards Compostela can be started from different points in Europe, though one of the most popular one is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in southern France.
Although parts of the way were walked in the Pre-Christian era, too, it reached the peak of its popularity in Medieval times. Kings, queens and the common folk alike took the road to learn, experience or express their religious devotion. (Less is known about the fact that the Church also used the pilgrimage as an expiation of punishment for criminals. This tradition still lives on.)
Just like nowadays, also in the Medieval period, the road emphasized simplicity. Hospitals and hospices, simple accommodations were built to feed and protect pilgrims free of charge. Many of them still exist.
You definitely can’t miss to get a scallop shell before starting to walk. (They are available in every Pilgrims’ Office.) It has been the symbol of the St. James’ Way for a long time. Practically, strapping it onto your rucksack, you let other people know that you are walking ’El Camino’ to Santiago de Compostela, just like many of your predecessors. In Medieval times it also served as a proof of completing the pilgrimage since this shell is native only to the Galician shores, the end of the Camino.
But here is another, more mythical answer to why it is the scallop shell: It is known that St. James the apostle, who served his Church as a preacher on the Iberian Peninsula, was executed in Jerusalem. His disciples wanted to ship his body back to Hispania to bury it there. According to one legend, on its way the ship was hit by a heavy storm and the body disappeared in the ocean. Later it was found on the shores of Galicia, undamaged, covered in scallop shells.