The popular Spanish name for the astronomical Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago
According to a common medieval legend, the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by traveling pilgrims. Compostela itself means “field of stars”. Another origin for this popular name is Book IV of the Book of Saint James which relates how the saint appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the route of the Milky Way.
As penance – The Church employed a system of rituals to atone for temporal punishment due to sins known as penance. According to this system, pilgrimages were a suitable form of expiation for some temporal punishment, and they could be used as acts of penance for those who were guilty of certain crimes. As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
In the registers of the Inquisition at Carcassone…we find the four following places noted as being the centres of the greater pilgrimages to be imposed as penances for the graver crimes: the tomb of the Apostles at Rome, the shrine of St. James at Compostella [sic], St. Thomas’ body at Canterbury, and the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne.
There is still a tradition in Flanders of pardoning and releasing one prisoner every year under the condition that this prisoner walks to Santiago wearing a heavy backpack, accompanied by a guard.
Enlightenment Era – During the war of American Independence, John Adams was ordered by Congress to go to Paris to obtain funds for the cause. His ship started leaking and he disembarked with his two sons in Finisterre in 1779. From there he proceeded to follow the Way of St. James in the reverse direction of the pilgrims’ route, in order to get to Paris overland. He did not stop to visit Santiago, which he later came to regret. In his autobiography, Adams gave an accurate description of the customs and lodgings afforded to St. James’s pilgrims in the 18th century, as well as mentioned the legend as it was then told to travellers:
I have always regretted that We could not find time to make a Pilgrimage to Saintiago de Compostella. We were informed, … that the Original of this Shrine and Temple of St. Iago was this. A certain Shepherd saw a bright Light there in the night. Afterwards it was revealed to an Archbishop that St. James was buried there. This laid the Foundation of a Church, and they have built an Altar on the Spot where the Shepherd saw the Light. In the time of the Moors, the People made a Vow, that if the Moors should be driven from this Country, they would give a certain portion of the Income of their Lands to Saint James. The Moors were defeated and expelled and it was reported and believed, that Saint James was in the Battle and fought with a drawn Sword at the head of the Spanish Troops, on Horseback. The People, believing that they owed the Victory to the Saint, very cheerfully fulfilled their Vows by paying the Tribute. …Upon the Supposition that this is the place of the Sepulchre of Saint James, there are great numbers of Pilgrims, who visit it, every Year, from France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe, many of them on foot.
Adams’ great-grandson, the historian Henry Adams later visited Leon, among other Spanish cities, during his trip through Europe as a youth, although he did not follow the entire pilgrimage route, and that particular book was published posthumously. Another Enlightenment-era traveler on the pilgrimage route was the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.
Camino de Santiago • Locations & Activities