Since the miraculous discovery of Saint James’ remains over 1200 years ago, people have been making their way across Europe to his tomb in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in order to pay homage or do penance.
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is made up of these numerous trails from Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and other countries.
While the points of origin, landscapes and languages differ, these pilgrim routes share certain symbols of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela including the ubiquitous scallop shell, yellow arrows, and a pilgrim passport known as a credencial.
Probably the oldest Camino symbol is the scallop shell. These shells are found on the Galician coast and were originally brought back by pilgrims as proof of their achievement and as souvenirs.
In medieval times, such identification would open doors to a bed for the night or a free meal. There was also the hope that wrong-doers would be deterred by the religious nature of the journey and not rob or harm the bearer.
Their size and shape make scallop shells handy makeshift bowls for eating and drinking so they also served a practical purpose. Over time, they have become an essential part of the pilgrim kit and even today, you will see people attach them to their bags or clothing to identify them as travellers on the Way of Saint James.
Nowadays, you’ll see them everywhere: on churches, statues, crosses, waymarkers and souvenirs. The association between the shell and the Camino is so strong that scallops have also come to represent pilgrimages of all kinds, including the journey to heaven.
Another symbol that’s become synonymous with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela is the Santiago Cross. More elaborate than your average cross, this one has a pointed base and frilly arms.
The red version with the fleur-de-lys arms served as the emblem of the 12th century Galician-Spanish military Order of Saint James. You’ll see it gracing the tops of tasty Santiago tarts when you get to the city.
Credencial, the pilgrim passport
The use of scallop shells as identification quickly led to abuse of the system for providing bed and board to pilgrims. In a bid to avoid such fraud, pilgrims began to carry an evidentiary letter in order to receive hospitality along the Way.
This letter eventually evolved into the credencial or pilgrim passport. These days, it takes the form of a folded card that identifies you as a pilgrim and may still help you find a bed at a hostel, albeit for a small fee.
You can and should get your credencial stamped at places you pass on the Way, such as churches, cafés, accommodation, tourist offices and town halls. As well as proof of your efforts, these colourful and sometimes quirky stamps are a wonderful souvenir of your personal journey.
Compostela, the pilgrim certificate
If you want to qualify for a certificate issued by Santiago Cathedral for completing the Camino, you need to prove that you’ve walked the last 100 km or cycled the last 200 km.
Assuming you arrive in Santiago with sufficient stamps in your credencial, you can take this to the church authorities and receive a beautiful certificate made out in your Latin name, assuming your reason for doing the Camino was religious or spiritual.
Back in the 16th century, this certificate would have earned you 3 days’ accommodation and food in what is now the luxury Hostal dos Reis Católicos but was originally the Royal Hospital, built to tend to the worn out bodies of the faithful.
Yellow arrows on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela
While the pilgrim trails were in constant use a few centuries ago, they dwindled in popularity in the early 20th century, thanks to the motor car, and it wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that the routes were revived and maintained.
At this point, it made sense to introduce an easily recognisable waymarking system and the painted yellow arrows began appearing at junctions. You’ll see other waymarkers on the Camino, such as ceramic tiles with a stylised scallop shell, but the yellow arrow is the most common.
Stone crosses and shrines
Along the oldest routes, such as the Central Portuguese Camino, you’ll see some elaborately carved stone crosses, often depicting pilgrims. They serve to protect pilgrims from evil spirits and provide safe passage under the watchful eye of Jesus.
The various wayside chapels, shrines and niches with figurines of Jesus or St. James serve a similar purpose.
Piles of stones
You’ll notice that some of these crosses, especially those on mountains, have been almost covered with small stones and keepsakes.
Sometimes known as stones of sorrow, the belief is that if you bring a stone from home and deposit it beside a cross or other point on the Camino, you leave your burdens there, too.
The piles of stones and other objects get so high that they need to be cleared on a regular basis so think twice about adding to the problem.
Our tireless team is available to help all those who wish to discover the Camino de Santiago in a calm and comfortable way.