Scallop Shells & Other Symbols of the Camino
There are many symbols you will encounter on your way. Let’s review the most important ones so you know the background of them. Don’t forget to pack a scallop shell!
The scallop shell (Vieira) is the ancient symbol of the Camino de Santiago. In French the scallop is called ‘Coquille Saint Jacques’ and in German ‘Jakobsmuscheln’. There are a lot of stories going around about the origin of this symbol. The most common one is related to the death of Saint James in 44 AD. It narrates how his body was lost in the ocean during a heavy storm when his remains were being transported by his disciples from Jerusalem to Spain. When it washed ashore in Galicia, his body was covered in scallop shells.
During your walk you’ll be seeing the shell frequently and it will become your guide together with the popular yellow arrow. Although there are parts of the camino where the longest line on the shell is pointing to Santiago, it’s better to follow the arrows, because the direction in which the shell is placed is not consistent with the ‘guide’ metaphor.
You will probably carry a scallop shell in or on your backpack as most pilgrims do: the shell indicates that you are a traveler on the Camino de Santiago.
If you’re looking for ways to carry less weight in your backpack you should know that the scallop shells were used in ancient times (and not so ancient) to drink and eat, serving as a bowl.
Wally is of course our mascot and much valued team member. He is the leader of the famous Yellow-Arrow-Team that will guide you along the way.
The origin of the arrow goes back as far as the lifetime of Elijah Valiña, pastor of Cebreiro, a great promoter of the Camino. He was the first person who began to mark the route with yellow arrows. The use of this sign eventually spread on all the ways.
The red cross over a white field is the most popular Christian cross of all times. The cross is the symbol of Christianity and God’s protection; the white color is the symbol of purity and the red color symbolizes the blood of Christ.
The red cross over a white field was used regularly during the Middle Ages, among others, by the French crusaders (which had the largest army fighting in the Crusades), the Knights Templar, and also as the national flag of England since the 16th century.
Galicia was the only kingdom of the Iberian peninsula which was not conquered by the Muslim armies. The Galician kings of the time worshiped St James or Saint Jacob (Sant-Iago, as he is called in the Galician language), for they believed that the Compostellan apostle was granting them holy protection over the Muslim armies.
This Galician cultural export became eventually the symbol of the Military Order of Santiago, a Christian knighthood founded in the 12th century in the kingdoms of Castile and Portugal for patrolling their borders with Muslim Spain.
The red sword-cross known as the “Cross of St James” is represented as a red cross flory or flowered cross over a white field, where the shape of the cross is actually the blade of a sword. The military red cross of St James of Compostela is one of Galicia’s oldest national symbols and can often be found in Galician heraldry and iconography.
You will encounter this cross also as decoration on the very famous desert ‘Tarta de Santiago‘.
CamelBak was not the first drinking system for pilgrims :-). Ancient pilgrims used a ‘Calabaza’ (Gourd) to carry their water supply with them.
It became a symbol for pilgrims and you will not easily find a Pilgrim’s walking stick without the accompanying symbol of the gourd.
The Botafumeiro is a famous thurible found in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (in the past similar devices were used in large churches in Galicia, nowadays also in the Tui Cathedral). Incense is burned in this swinging metal container, or “incensory”. The name “Botafumeiro” means “smoke expeller” in Galician.
The Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is one of the largest censers in the world, weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height.
Shovels are used to fill the Botafumeiro with about 40 kg of charcoal and incense. The thurible is tied to the rope with elaborate knots. The censer is pushed initially to start its motion. Eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes, producing increasingly large oscillations of the censer. The thurible’s swings almost reach the ceiling of the transept. The incensory can reach speeds of 68 km/h as it dispenses thick clouds of incense.
At the top of the swing, the Botafumeiro reaches heights of 21 meters. It swings in a 65 meter arc between the Azabachería and Praterias doorways at the ends of the transept. The maximum angle achieved is about 82°. The maximum can be reached after about 17 cycles, and requires about 80 seconds of swinging.
It costs about 300 Euros for each thurible “performance” at the cathedral. Although this is expensive, the swinging of the thurible is very popular with pilgrims, tourists and visitors.
Watch the video:
This post is also available in: Dutch