Planning Part 4: Camino history and symbolism

Camino history and symbolism

pilgrims-shellAs I mentioned in part 1 of this series, the Camino isn’t just for devout Catholics. The pilgrimage has been embarked on by followers of other religions, spirituality seekers, atheists and adventurers alike — and in recent years has attracted up to 275,000 people annually.  Whatever your background or type of spirituality you practice, I believe it is good to know a little about the history of a place to  understand its significance. In this post, I continue to share my research, along with some personal observations. I welcome your comments in the form below.

After you decide what route and when to take your journey, you will want to learn about the Camino symbolism and history. Of historic and practical significance is the scallop shell, which symbolizes the spirit of St. James. Saint James the Great was chosen by Jesus to be one of the twelve apostles and was given the mission to spread the gospel of Jesus. He made a pilgrimage to Spain to spread the word. St James returned to Judea, where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I (10 BC – 44 AD) in the year 44. 1

According to one of the legends, after St. James’ death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.2  From that time onward, the scallop shell has been associated with St. James and the pilgrimage to Santiago. In the Middle Ages, those returning from their pilgrimage wore a scallop shell that they had found in Galicia. They would attach the shell to their hat or pouch and it announced that they indeed were pilgrims. Once in Santiago, however, their trip was only halfway completed as they had to return home the way had come. Most modern-day pilgrims begin their journey with a scallop shell tied to their backpacks. The scallop shell also serves practical purposes for pilgrims as it is the right size for gathering water to drink or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl.2

This video has a great overview of the scallop shell, its history and how it is used.

Today, the scallop shell is widely used as a symbol of the Camino; it’s seen on road signs and trail markers as well as on the official credencial or passport that pilgrims carry. 3


The shell used as Camino route markers vary in style and material–from elaborate bronze shells embedded in cobblestone streets–to modern stylized shell road signs. In any format, the scallop shell sign on a fork in the road can be a welcome sight to weary or lost pilgrims.

IMG_3235 RoadSign Camino

cruz-de-santiagoThe Cross of Santiago (La cruz de Santiago) is another symbol that you will see along the routes in many different variations. It simulates a Latin cross and a sword with three lilies in her arms and grip. It may have originated in the time of the crusades, when knights wore small crosses with a sharp bottom to nail them to the floor and perform their devotions. The sword represents the chivalrous character of St. James and his way of martyrdom. 2

Torta de Santiago My favorite display of the cruz symbol is the beautifully decorated Torta de Santiago that I spotted in a cafe across from the Pilgrim office in Santiago. A slice of torta with a Café con leche will cure any ailment.  Besides adorning pastries, I later discovered on a Camino Facebook group that this symbol and scallop shells are popular tattoos for many pilgrims after earning their Camino Compostela certificate. Just do a Google image search on ‘camino de santiago tattoos’ and you’ll see many examples. Some pilgrims are so moved by the experience of the Camino that it becomes such a profound part of their existence.

The symbolism of the Camino is illustrated in author Paulo Coelho’s first novel, The Pilgrimage, which is set in Spain on the Camino de Santiago. In “The Messenger” chapter, Coelho writes, “And here all Roads to Santiago become one. It was early in the morning when we reached Puente de la Reina, where the name of the village was etched into the base of a statue of a pilgrim in medieval garb; three-cornered hat, cape, scallop shells, and in his hand a shepherd’s crook with a gourd — a memorial to the epic journey, now almost forgotten, that Petrus and I were reliving.”


There is another fascinating Camino connection to Paulo Coelho that I will save for a future post. I will just say that the guy has some deep bonds and love for the Camino.

While today’s pilgrims will most likely be wearing REI gear, using walking poles instead of a shepherd’s crook, and drinking from water bottles instead of gourds, the legacy continues to this day with the use of historic symbols. I love seeing how different people show their unique Camino style through these symbols that have a such an interesting history.

Peregrinos, how do you wear or use Camino symbols? Digame in the comments below.

Up next, Hospitaleros: Welcoming Pilgrims on the Camino – Part 5 of this series.


1. History of the Apostle Saint James, the Great. Follow the Camino
2. Symbols of the Camino. Caminoteca – The Pilgrim Place.

3. Alcorn, Susan. Camino Chronicles: Walking to Santiago. Oakland: Shepherd Canyon Books. 2006. Print.

4. Coelho, Paulo. The Pilgrimage. San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1987. Print.

Digame, por favor.

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