Camino de Santiago: Traditions Old & New

By Amit Janco, Guest Writer

If you count yourself among the growing tide of travellers who have taken to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – a network of “Pilgrim’s Ways” in Spain – you will have noticed an unusual phenomenon: A bonhomie develops among perfect strangers that quite unexpectedly leads to lasting friendships.

Pilgrims on the Camino are a curious bunch – an ad hoc, in flux community of outdoorsy, organized, single-minded, supportive types. Sprinkled with pain-sufferers too. Comprising a tapestry of nationalities, ethnicities, ages and fitness levels, these adventurous and/or spiritual souls are drawn to pilgrimage for the simplest of reasons: to walk. In nature. To think. To be. To seek joy. To celebrate life. And, sometimes, to come undone.

According to historical sources from medieval times, walking the Camino entailed numerous traditions and rituals. At cathedrals along the way, pilgrims would pray to the Virgin or a likeness of St. James (an English translation of the aforementioned Santiago). Monks would assist pilgrims crossing high altitudes in inclement weather by ringing a bell to signal the way. Closer to Santiago, pilgrims would bathe in a river to cleanse themselves of accumulated grit and grime; while arrival in Santiago would mean attending pilgrim’s mass. Still today, a highlight for many weary pilgrims tramping into Santiago, is witnessing the swinging of the Botafumeiro – a metal incense burner suspended from chains, generally utilized during important religious occasions.

One of the rituals enacted over the centuries, and still widely observed by current-day pilgrims, is the laying of stones. In medieval times, stones were carried and placed atop one of the many cairns of stones dotting the roadsides; it was believed that by doing so, a wish would be granted or penance could be made. At the base of the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross), a mound has formed from the vast number of stones that pilgrims have brought from their native countries. To some, the act signifies an honouring of their journey; while to others, it might reflect a symbolic effort to let go – of hardship, grief, loss, illness.

Legend aside, pilgrims today sometimes opt – for reasons of preference or weight – to bedeck cairns and markers with tokens and trinkets imbued with deeper personal meaning or value. The Camino landscape is now punctuated with a greater degree of individual expression; graffiti, flyers, photographs, autographs, mysterious mementos.

As I walk the Camino in 2013 – nearly 1,000 kilometres – I spot a scattered collection of beaded bracelets, feathers, pint-sized dolls, framed photographs and unopened packs of gum amidst the piles of stones. These unusual sightings beckon and buoy me. Physically unable to carry a load of stones due to a physical disability resulting from a near-fatal accident four years prior, I find comfort in knowing that adding a ≥÷shell to the jumble is perfectly acceptable.

As I write in my new memoir, “When we emerge out of another chestnut-filled canopy, I pull out a shell from my pants pocket—one of the few I’ve carried from places far away; Florida, Israel, Indonesia. I place it on a way marker, nestling it among a pile of stones. These are the stones of pilgrims, who carry them on the Camino and leave them behind, on markers, memorials, the Iron Cross. But the combined weight of a handful of stones in my pocket would tip the scales — so I carry lightweight shells instead. The difference doesn’t elude me: Stones are smooth and solid. Each of the shells I carry is fragile, vulnerable to cracks.

I nestle three shells into a pile of frosted leaves and petals, struck by the incongruity of embedding them into a cold and wintry landscape, so far from their native tropical climate. Who will break first, the shells or me?”

Amit Janco is a Canadian author, artist, labyrinth designer and workshop facilitator who often calls Bali home. Her memoir, (Un)Bound, Together: A Journey to the End of the Earth (and Beyond), was published in April 2019. Amit is thrilled to be leading a Retreat On Your Feet journey through Tuscany in May 2020; when the creative process will weave itself throughout days of slow walking. Details at amitjanco.com.

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