Friday, 12 August 2016

The Silly Miracle of Santiago de Compostela

The real miracle of miracles is that anyone ever believes them. By definition a miracle is something which allegedly happened but for which there can be no scientific explanation. The problem with that definition is that it is self-defeating. If there can be no scientific explanation there can be no scientific evidence for it.

An almost identical problem exists for very many Christian saints, all of whom are claimed to have performed miracles either before or after death. Most of them also contrived to die in miraculous ways, often in ways which provided a plentiful supply of body parts with which to consecrate future cathedrals and to channel the prayers of the faith to God, Jesus or Mary via the saint's Heavenly remains.

In many cases however, the miracle of saints is that people believe such unlikely tales in the first place, but this was never a problem for the Medieval Christian church because truth could be determined by fiat and what the church said had the sanction of God so became unquestionable truth. The legend behind Santiago (early Spanish form of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus (James)) and the pilgrim routes to his shrine at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, simply beggars belief. There is not a single shred of evidence that any of it is true; not a single document, eyewitness testimony, inscription or written reference or even allusion to it in any contemporaneous record. The legend only appears to have emerged in about 800 CE. 

Saint James was supposedly the brother of John the Evangelist and one of the Twelve Apostles. The legend goes that following Jesus death he went to Spain to convert the Romanised Spanish but returned to Jerusalem in 44 CE where he was promptly martyred, becoming the first Christian martyr after Jesus. Following his alleged martyrdom, his supporters secreted his body to the coast where a rudderless boat miraculously appeared and took them together with the body to the north-west coast of Spain, driven only by ocean currents.

Now the legend splits into two in order to accommodate the fact that pilgrims frequently took home as a souvenir one of the very many scallop shells found along the coast of Galicia.
  1. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, it washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
  2. As the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.
And then nothing more for nearly 800 years.

Route of Santiago de Compostela
Source: Wikipedia
Now came another miracle. Enter the hermit Pelayo. Sitting alone one night in his cave, Pelayo noticed a star flashing over a nearby wood, hence the name de Compostela, probably a derivative of campo de la estrella, or field of the star. Soon after, a Roman burial was discovered and, with no other reason than proclaimed divine inspiration, the remains within were declared by Bishop Teodomiro to be those of Santiago. The miracle here is not so much that Pelayo saw flashing lights given that he was a hermit, nor that digging around in the general area beneath a star yielded up a Roman burial, but that people just accepted the remains to be those of the legendary Santiago on the say so of a Bishop with a vested interest.

The Romanesque church of San Felix de Solovia was quickly erected on the site of Pelayo's cave. It's not clear what happened to Pelayo nor where he was rehoused. Soon after, King Alphonse II of the Asturias adopted Santiago as patron saint of his Spanish empire and, as so often happens at a time when the Catholic Church needs to unite the people behind their patron, Santiago promptly set about performing minor miracles and was elevated to superstar status. The political situation was of course the struggle between Moorish Spain as Al-Andalus to the south and the Catholic Christian kingdoms to the north in their struggle for dominance in the Iberian Peninsula. There are few things quite so good as a few miracles done by a local saint to convince the wavering masses whose side God is really on.

The Pope helped out by declaring that a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago in Santiago de Compostela would earn indulgences and would be the equivalent of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem - a much easier prospect for much of Western Europe. A pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Holy Year (a year in which an Apostle's day fell on a Sunday) would earn the pilgrim the forgiveness of all sins! The Benedictine and Cistercian monks of Cluny and Citeaux in France and the Knights Templar of Spain set about converting the old Roman trade routes into pilgrim routes or Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), the most important being the Camino de Asturias along the north coast and the Camino Frances further south.

And, miracle of miracles, just when he was needed, this devotion to Santiago paid dividends in a battle with the Moors when he appeared on horseback to help King Ramiro I win a decisive battle, earning Santiago his quintessentially Christian name, Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moor slayer.


Recent pilgrim numbers - green bars represent 'Holy' years when all 'sins' are forgiven.
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela reached a peak in the early Middle Ages but due the the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest pilgrimages had fallen to a few thousand a year by 1980. Since then it has been given a boost by such films as The Way (2010), starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed it (actually worth seeing!), the Camino being declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and the fact that there is actually no defined starting point, so pilgrims qualify for a certificate of completion having only walked the final 100 Km or cycled the final 200 Km and still qualify for an indulgence, even the forgiveness of all sins in a holy year. Consequently, the number of pilgrims has risen in recent years bringing much-needed wealth to the local church and much needed jobs for Catholic clerics.

And the entire edifice is based on nothing but the most unlikely tales, obviously invented myths and evidence-free declarations of 'truth' by people with a vested interest and a transparently political motive.


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