The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James, is a network of pilgrim routes leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain. Along the way, there are various symbols that are commonly associated with the Camino. Let’s discover some of them together:
1 The Scallop Shell
The scallop shell, also known as the Scallop Shell of Saint James (concha in Spanish), is the most recognizable symbol of the Camino de Santiago. You can see it on signs and markers used as a waymark along the route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where St. James is said to be buried.
Do you know its origin? Several theories have spread over the time. According to the legend, after Saint James was beheaded in Jerusalem, his followers placed his body in a boat, which miraculously sailed to the coast of Galicia. Later his followers discovered his remains covered in scallop shells.
Another theory suggests that the shell was a symbol used by ancient pilgrims to indicate that they were traveling to Santiago de Compostela. Even today pilgrims wear it on their clothes or backpacks.
In the past, the journey was long and dangerous, so the shell was considered a useful utensil for practical uses such as drinking water or taking food. Can you guess today where is it possible to fill your water bottle and refresh yourself? Exactly! In a large scallop shell-shaped fountain found in some towns and villages along the Camino de Santiago.
Additionally, pilgrims collected shells from beaches, particularly at Finisterre, as evidence of the completion of their journey. We can define it as a sort of ancient version of today’s Compostela.
Furthermore, the perfect ribbed structure of the shell resembles a halo and a star, emblem of the Pilgrimage to Compostela (Campus Stellae, “the field of stella” or ‘the place of the star’), precisely because the cathedral of Santiago stands where a star appeared in the sky to indicate the place where the remains were of St. James. Today, the statue of St. James is located in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela . It depicts St. James as a pilgrim, holding a stick and a scallop shell, and it is customary for pilgrims to touch the statue as a sign of completion of their journey.
Regardless of its exact origin, the Shell of Santiago remains a significant symbol, representing the history, legend, and spirituality of the journey.
2) Yellow Arrow
The yellow arrow is another prominent symbol used to indicate the direction of the route. It is painted on walls, roads, trees, sidewalks and buildings. This means that if you keep seeing it, you are on the right path! The yellow arrow is a modern symbol of the Camino, introduced in 1984 by the brush of a priest from O Cebreiro, Elías Valiña, one of the most important promoters and curators of the Camino de Santiago.
Elías Valiña took care of signaling the Camino mainly from France (Roncesvalles) to Santiago de Compostela with yellow arrows (with the help of associations of Friends of the Camino) in order to revitalize the pilgrimage route that was becoming extinct, by making the journey easier. In fact, the routes at that time were not well defined so it was easy to get lost.
What about the yellow color? There are several anecdotes referring to the priest Valina who bought scrap paint cheap or free from the road workers and traveling with his Critroes 2HP used it in all the points of the French Camino where it was easy to get lost.
Hence, this color also used to signal road works means that it is bright and easily visible, even from a distance. It is also the sun’s color, a symbol of hope, guidance, renewal and community in many cultures assuming the importance of the shared journey translated into helping each other along the way.
In fact, Compostela is located at the western end of Europe, and a little further on is Fisterra, or Finis Terrae: the end of the known world at the time. So any pilgrim going to Santiago through European countries must move from east to west, thus imitating the natural movement of the sun.
You will often find the yellow arrow combined with the shell on the so-called mojón, or milestones, engraved with the number of kilometers to Santiago de Compostela and often a place name.
3. Walking Stick
Many pilgrims carry a walking stick with them during the Camino de Santiago. Why? Because it provides a useful aid in walking long distances and balancing on rough terrain, but also has symbolic significance, representing the support and stability, while taking into account the physical and mental challenges faced along the way. Support that comes from faith and travel companions. The walking stick is usually represented with a flask on top (calabaza), made from an emptied pumpkin, or from the shell tied to its top.
4. The Cross of St. James
The Cross of St. James is a representation of the apostle St. James thus refers to the religious and spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage. The cross can be found on churches, chapels, waymarkers, and other important landmarks along the route or it may be used as a personal symbol by pilgrims. The Cross has a particular shape: at the top it seems like a lily and then it lengthens like a sword. The blade itself also refers to Santiago Matamoros, a depiction of the holy warrior on horseback, a symbol of protection in battle during the Spanish Reconquista. Another meaning is linked to the martyrdom of St. James, who died precisely beheaded with a sword. Along the Camino this cross almost always appears red on a white background, to represent the blood shed by the apostle St. James. Moreover, the Order of St. James was also associated with this cross.
The same coat of arms of the city of Santiago de Compostela features the cross of St. James, in which are visible the images of a royal crown, a chalice and a host surrounded by seven crosses (symbolizing the Old Kingdom from Galicia), the apostle’s tomb and finally the star that the hermit Pelayo saw shine when he discovered his body.
Dulcis in fundo…The cross is also a famous decoration of the “tarta de Santiago” , typical sweet of Galicia made with almonds.
The Compostela is a certificate of completion given to pilgrims who have completed at least 100 km on foot or 200 km by bicycle. It is written in Latin and is a tangible symbol of the pilgrim’s dedication to the Camino de Santiago.
Choose to cover the last 100 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago with Inspirience!
6. Camino Passport
The Camino Passport, also known as the Credential, is a document that pilgrims receive when they begin the route and that they carry with them along the Camino de Santiago. It identifies the pilgrim with his personal data and intentions.
The Credential is proof of their journey documenting their stops along the way. The passport is stamped at various locations, including churches, hostels, and cafes, providing a record of the pilgrim’s journey upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela.
7. Cairns of stones
Along the Way, you will also find piles of stones (Milladoiros in gallego) that other pilgrims leave as a signal of their passage. According to the legend, these stones represent acts of penance as those who carry a stone from the starting point to the humble place obtains forgiveness of their sins proportionate to the size of the stone and sacrifice in carrying it. A good symbolic method to get rid of the boulders of the soul!
When you will find a lighthouse, the last columns with the signs of the way and a boot, you will have reached the end of your path. You will be in Finisterre where the earth ended and, according to the Celts, the souls embarked to the afterlife, being considered the most westerly point in the world.
A huge boot, one last big step before the horizon and the sun shining on the ocean.
But as we know.. what looks like a sunset.. is nothing but the beginning of a new dawn.
These symbols, along with many others, have become an integral part of the Camino de Santiago by embodying its history, traditions and spiritual significance of the pilgrimage.
Since you are on the Camino, don’t forget to enjoy an excellent gastronomy and satiated with the flavors of Galicia.
Immerse yourself with Inspirience in this journey so as not to lose any detail and meaning.
We just have to say “keep going!” and “Let’s go higher!” or rather: Utreia Et Suseia!
Do not hesitate to contact us for any further information. We are ready to leave together!