The birth of the Camino was part of a political gamble that was as bold as it was innovative: to build stories that transformed reality beyond what was then within the reach of any state. “Camino” also meant spaces and returns: physical transformations and ideological contagion far beyond the kingdom of Asturias. The Europe we think of when we talk about “European values” is not, except for extreme statists, that of Aachen, but that of the first great medieval network of cities, hostels, and travelers motivated by ideas.
After Herod killed James the Apostle in Jerusalem, his disciples got hold of the dismembered body and head and sailed with it through maritime and fluvial ways to Iria Flavia (Padrón). From there, while looking for a good place to bury the Holy Body, his disciples had to pass through the lands of a powerful woman who has gone down in history as the Queen Lupa. According to the legend recorded in the Codex Calixtino, which recounts the arrival of the body of the Apostle to Santiago, Queen Lupa (Loba), was an ally of the Romans who lived in a castro that was very close to Pico Sacro, and ruled over those lands. The disciples of the Apostle asked the woman for a cart and oxen to transport the body and a burial place, but what the evil queen did was offer them to work with huge wild bulls that would surely end up killing them. Indeed, the bulls attacked them, but when they were about to die, the men knelt and began to pray. Because of this, the bulls calmed down. Seeing this miracle, Queen Lupa decided to become a Christian, and offered them the “Field of Stars” as a burial site, where nine centuries later the body of St. James would be “recovered.”
Obviously, it is a pious legend, but like so many medieval stories, it contains items from earlier pagan stories: Queen Lupa reminds us of the legend of the wolf and the Bear; the bulls are reminiscent of the Mithraic myth, and abundant references to geese in the Camino’s topology and symbology point to other narrative recycling of Celtic origin. But the truth is that today historians tell us that it is very likely that the one who occupies the sarcophagus attributed to the apostle is the famous Priscillian, head of one of the earliest Christian movements in the peninsular Northwest, and first heretic executed by order of the Catholic Church.
But the most suggestive aspect of the origin of the Camino de Santiago is probably closer to politics and strategy than to literature or the history of religion in Europe.
The Camino de Santiago for consultants
Alfonso II the Chaste was a remarkable politician: he turned Oviedo into something minimally comparable to a capital, and recovered in it the Visigoth symbolisms in the monarchical ritual to signify its historical continuity with the Toledo court, legitimizing the Asturian monarchy “backwards.”
And more importantly, he projected it forward into the future creating the idea of the “Reconquista,” an ideology with long-term impact that proved to be remarkably popular among Christian populations.
This view of Alfonso II as ideologue is probably the key to understanding the birth of the Camino. One should not be deceived by his military triumphs -the origin of the later Castilla- as they surely did not deceive him as to the fundamental weakness of his kingdom, sandwiched between the two main European states of the time -the Emirate of Córdoba and the Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne. The Asturian monarchy was, above all, in a state of dramatic demographic inferiority, which translated economically and militarily in constant military raids, and the fiscal voracity of its southern neighbors. For this very reason, Alfonso could not involve Charlemagne directly in his southward expansion if he didn’t want to risk becoming a tributary state of the power of Aachen.
In an era of very low productivity of land, in which the very Carolingian Empire merely enjoyed a minimum population increase, Alfonso’s true needs could not be fulfilled by the states. And yet… it seems that he was able to see beyond that limitation. “Discovering” the alleged tomb of the apostle allowed him to appeal to what we now call “European citizenship” above states, and without the hateful company of alien troops. The floating population not only generated a real local economic and technological renaissance, but also changed its demographics more deeply than the clearing of the lands that Charlemagne carried out up North. A complete local development model that certainly brings echoes of later historical events in the same region.
And what is no less important, the opening of the Camino was the beginning of a whole new map of alliances: financial and technological with the extension of Cluny in the peninsula, which in time would bring about a whole line of transformations and socio-economic development; political and military with Charlemagne, as in the end his territories would benefit as much as the Asturians from the population movement on a map where the other two major cities of Christian pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem were out of reach.
The birth of the Camino was part of a political gamble that was as bold as it was innovative: to build stories that transformed reality beyond what was then within the reach of any state. “Camino” also meant spaces and returns: physical transformations and ideological contagion far beyond the kingdom of Asturias. The Europe we think of when we talk about “European values” is not, except for extreme statists, that of Aachen as celebrated today by the European institutions, but that of the first great medieval network of cities, hostels, and travelers motivated by ideas.