Originally, the pilgrims wanted to be close to the relics of Saint James. But are his bones really buried in the Cathedral of Santiago? Or is it all fake news?

Around the year 824, the hermit Pelayo and the bishop Theodemir from Iria Flavia discovered the remains of the apostle James the Elder – admittedly «supported» by divine signs and visions (see my text on the history of the Way of Saint James).

There have always been critical voices: For 1200 years now, the Catholic world has been convinced of the authenticity of the apostles› relics. 

Actually, the last papal confirmation that the relics were real took place in 1879. 

300 years before this the relics were hidden for fear that the English pirate Francis Drake would attack the city of Santiago. The site fell into oblivion and the remains were only rediscovered in the 19th century. Pope Leo XIII then confirmed their authenticity again.

But how credible is a burial of James the Greater, one of Jesus› twelve disciples, in distant Galicia?

James died in Jerusalem

The book of Acts in the New Testament (Acts 12.2) reports how James was beheaded in Jerusalem in the year 43 – 4000 kilometers to the east.

This, of course, put the clergy in Santiago in need of explanation. But the Galicians have always been good storytellers.

The legend soon spread that the rest of the apostles had loaded the body into a boat in the city of Jaffa, which was steered by angelic hands to the coast of Galicia. Eventually, after some tumult with the local rulers, the body was buried in present-day Santiago.

Why so far from where he lived? 

Because James is said to have done missionary work on the Iberian peninsula after the death of Jesus and it is fitting for an apostle to be buried in his missionary area – another legend that only arose in the 8th century.

The story of the wondrous «translatio» (as it is called in Spanish), which incidentally is celebrated in Santiago on December 30th, ultimately led the reformer Martin Luther to state in the 16th century:

Who knows if there isn’t just a dead dog buried there? Or a dead horse?

Luther was never at a loss for a good saying – but one can assume that the bones are human remains (even if no scientific investigations are allowed on the relics).

The city of Santiago was built on a Roman burial ground

Historical fact is that the crypt under the high altar in the Cathedral of Santiago is the remains of a Roman mausoleum. There is evidence that the place where the city of Santiago developed was used as a burial ground in Roman times. This is probably where the addition “compostela” comes from the Latin “compostum”, meaning cemetery. (Galicia was part of the Roman province of Gallaecia, from which the current name developed.)

So everything indicates that the bones in the silver reliquary belonged to a rich Roman.

One might object: Since James was buried in the province of Gallaecia, it is hardly surprising that his mausoleum resembles a Roman structure.

Correct! All that is left to explain is the passage of the corpse in a boat through the entire Mediterranean Sea  – but there are always miracles …

For anyone who may be disappointed by this explanation:

For me, the pilgrimages on the various Ways of St. James are among the most intense and happiest moments of my life. The reliquary in Santiago Cathedral is completely irrelevant to the experience. Many of my pilgrim friends never even visited the shrine. Setting off,  getting involved with the unknown – that’s what it’s all about.

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