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Camino de Santiago Pre-Christian History

Camino de Santiago

Pilgrims faithfully walk the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James or Saint James’ Way) to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia every year. The city’s Christian heritage is well documented. Yet, its unique pre-Christian Celtic and Roman history is less familiar to visitors. Various sites in Galicia Spain remind us of the earlier pagan traditions.

Interestingly, long before the discovery of Saint James’ tomb at Compostela, St. James’ Path was named Via Finisterre (The Way to Land’s End). Prior to the advent of Christianity, Celtic influence expanded over Iberian Peninsula around sixth century BC and pilgrims walked a path that led from the Pyrenees in Southern France, past the Bay of Biscay and today’s Santiago de Compostela, to the rocky cliffs of Finisterre (Cabo Fisterra), overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Castro de Santa Trega
Castro de Santa Trega

Situated along the Atlantic coast are lovely beach-towns such as Porto do Son, near Noia, that boast Celtic ruins such as the impressive Castro de Barona. Today, visitors can still see what remains of Porto do Son’s Celtic heritage: twenty circular stone huts circumscribed by the ruins of a double fortified wall. Historians are agreed that Castro de Barona was a Celtic settlement. One can also see a hillside fort Castro de Santa Trega near A Guarda on our Coastal Portuguese route tour.

Castro de Barona
Castro de Barona

The Celts and Druids were not the only pre-Christian people who revered St. James Path or Via Finisterre. Roman pilgrims made pilgrimages along the same path in honor of the god Janus. The path of Janus began at the temple of Venus in the Pyrenees and ended at the temple of Ara Solis in Finisterre. According to myth, Romulus (the founder of Rome) was the one who established the cult of Janus. The Romans believed that Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, the gatekeeper of every festival, religious feast, and holy day.

In 200 BC, as Romans slowly conquered the area of the Iberian Peninsula, Brutus became the first Roman general to reach Finisterre and to marvel at the Phoenician Altar to the Sun Ara Solis, a temple that was sacred to Druid priests and Celtic pilgrims. To the Romans, the Sun Ara Solis was Promontorium Celticum, and its location at Finisterre (near the current lighthouse) was then considered the westernmost point in Europe.

The Celts both feared and venerated the sun. Celtic pilgrims worshiped the sun deity, Lugh. It was their conviction that Lugh also kept Balor, the pitiless sun-warrior who annihilated others with the light from his Evil Eye, at bay. Lugh’s magical spear was said to have tamed the pitiless “sun” of Balor’s eye. We introduce you to Costa da Morte on our fascinating Santiago-Finisterre-Muxia tour.

Today, many pilgrims and visitors also walk the path from the Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre and/or Muxia. It takes about three to four days to get from the Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre; from Finisterre, it is another 19 miles to Muxia. Finisterre and Muxia are actually part of the treacherous La Costa Da Morte (Coast of Death), so-named because the Celts believed that the sun’s demise occurred over the Atlantic ocean every night.

The Costa Da Morte is situated in Spain’s Galicia green region. It is a beautiful area filled with green landscapes, imposing cliffs, and gorgeous beaches. One can come across the megalithic dolmen rock structures said to have been used to track solstices such as Dolmen de Axeitos near the village of Axeitos. Galicia has many festivals celebrating its earlier pagan traditions.

Dolmen de Axeitos
Dolmen de Axeitos

La Noche de San Juan festival on June 23 celebrates the coming of the summer solstice with ceremonial bonfires, fire jumping and even a witch parade. Another likely Celtic tradition is making a queimada which is an alcoholic mix of Galician augardente, sugar, lemon, cinnamon and coffee beans set on fire and accompanied by a ritual of chanting spells to ward away bad spirits.

Galicia also home to ancient Celtic oscillating/rocking stones or Pedras de Abalar. The stones were once used by Celtic and Druid priests to determine the guilt or innocence of a criminal. In Muxia, these Celtic oscillating stones can be found at Pedra Da Barca . These stones are believed to have healing powers near the Sanctuary Of Virxe Da Barca (The Virgin Of The Boat), which was built on an ancient Celtic shrine site.  Other pedras de abalar include the “Pena da Conga” in Melide along Camino Frances on our French Way tour, and the “Castro do Faro” in O Porriño on our Central Portugues Camino tour.

For more information about the Camino de Santiago, please contact us. We’ll be happy to discuss the best travel options for you and what route could be of most interest to you.

 

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