The life of Santiago the Apostle

The life of Santiago the Apostle is strongly linked to both the history of the Camino de Santiago and the history of Santiago de Compostela. It is impossible to understand why the Camino de Santiago is important or why it is called Camino de Santiago, without knowing the history of Santiago the Apostle.

Who Santiago the Apostle was

Santiago the saint was born, we are told, in Bethsaida, a place in the historical region of Galilee. This area now corresponds to one of the northern states of Israel.

Apostle Santiago The Greater

He was the son of Zebedee and Salome. Like his brother John, he worked mainly as a fisherman with his father Zebedee and his friend Simon. According to the story of the Apostle’s life, both John the Baptist and Santiago (James) decided to leave their life as fishermen when Jesus contacted them to join his group of 12 apostles.

According to the Bible, both brothers were nicknamed by Jesus Christ as “the Sons of Thunder”, given their passionate character. The Apostle James the Greater accompanied Jesus on many of his miracles and witnessed many of his apparitions after his resurrection.

The voyage to Santiago: the patron of Spain and of pilgrims 

According to the history of James the Greater, in 33 A.D., the Apostles were entrusted to the mission of disseminating and promoting the Gospel throughout the world. Santiago the Apostle crossed the Mediterranean and entered Spain, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar.

He thus embarked on his journey through Spain and Portugal, territories known at that time as Hispania. It is not known exactly the route that Santiago followed until reaching Galicia, which in Roman times was named Gallaecia.

Some historians point out that he bordered the south of Spain and then toured the desolate coast of Portugal. Other accounts of the history of the Camino de Santiago, say that he toured the valley of the Ebro, crossing the Catalan lands, and then took the Roman way of the Cantabrian Mountains, until La Coruña. There are even theories that point to that he went to Murcia, passing through Cartagena, and from there he continued northward.

Like the Camino de Santiago, the end is clear. There are possible routes to reach Galicia, which are multiple. This diversity of stories about the route followed by Santiago the Apostle is what has led Santiago to be known as the patron of Spain (or trustee of Spain) and of pilgrims.

In his evangelizing task, the apostle made some disciples. According to Christian history, it was these who continued the work of preaching that Santiago had begun.

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    How Santiago the Apostle died

    According to the history of Santiago the Apostle, while he was in the ancient Roman city of Zaragoza, along with his first 7 disciples, the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She asked him to travel back to Jerusalem to accompany her in her death.

    According to ancient writings, when the Virgin was nearing death, she received the visit of the risen Jesus. She asked Jesus Christ for the 12 apostles to accompany her on the day of her death. But all of them were scattered around the world. So Jesus gave him his wish, allowing him to make a miraculous appearance so that each one of them would be informed of his plan.

    Story of Santiago the Apostle death

    This fact makes Santiago the Apostle travel the whole journey back from Spain to Nazareth in Jerusalem. There he meets the Virgin Mary who was still alive.

    Later, following the persecutions of the Christians ordered by Herod Agrippa I, Santiago the Apostle James died in Jerusalem. There are several theories about how and when Santiago the Apostle died.

    The majority of the theories on the life of the apostle coincide in confirming that he died in 44.A.D. although some also point out that it was in 62 A.D. It is believed that he was the first apostle to die for the Christian faith. On how Santiago died, there is quite an unanimity in pointing out that he was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

    Some theories point out that he was stoned, others point out that he was decapitated and some others indicate that he was thrown from the top of a temple. In fact, as a martyr, Santiago de Compostela probably experienced various of these punishments.

    Where the body of Santiago was buried

    After the death of Santiago the Apostle, two of his disciples, knowing the emperor’s refusal to bury Santiago, decide to flee with his body. According to the legend of Santiago the Apostle, his remains were transported in a boat without a rudder and without a sail. Being guided exclusively by the designs of the Holy Apostle.

    Accompanied by his loyal followers, the boat surrounded the Iberian peninsula. They reached the north-west Coast and continued their journey through the River Ulla, finishing their boat trip in Padrón (Galicia). From there they headed to Santiago de Compostela.

    The legends of the tomb of Santiago

    At that time, the Celtic queen Lupita was ruling the Galician lands. The story is told that on the Camino de Santiago, the monarch did not allow the Apostle’s body to be buried in her lands. To make sure of it, she sent some troops after Santiago’s disciples.

    During the persecution, one of the legends of the Camino de Santiago explains that a bridge ended up collapsing and all the troops died. According to the history of the transfer of the remains of Santiago, the Queen Lupita designed some more tricks, like the one narrated in the legend of the oxen and the dragon of the sacred peak.

    Nevertheless, the followers of Santiago the Apostle were always victorious. Finally, Queen Lupita became a Christian. The popular history of Santiago de Compostela says that the ox was responsible for deciding the place where to bury the apostle.

    The animal decided to rest under an oak, on the top of a small mountain in Iria Flavia. In the place, a Roman mausoleum was raised, with the resources provided by the Queen herself. The sepulchre was known as Arca Marmárica.

    The neglect of the Arca Marmárica

    Years later, the two disciples, who had remained in the care of his remains, also died and were buried in the same place. The remains of Santiago fell into oblivion for eight centuries.

    The tomb of Santiago the Apostle 

    According to the history of Santiago de Compostela, the tomb of Santiago the Apostle was discovered in the 9th century. However, the first clues on the location of the remains of the apostle go back to the appearance in 500 A.D. with some documents that mention the following places:

    • Iria-Padrón
    • Monte Sacro
    • Jerusalem
    • Arcis Marmoricis.

    However, like every legend, the definitive discovery of Santiago’s remains is shrouded in much more mystery. Next, we will tell you, according to the mythical history of the Camino de Santiago, how the remains of Santiago de Compostela were discovered.

    The legend of the discovery of the remains of Santiago

    In 823 a peaceful hermit, known as Pelayo, lived in his house in the Forest of Libredón. In the evenings, mysterious lights, coming from the forest, began to capture his attention.

    Surprised at the strange radiances, Pelayo decided to share his restlessness with Teodomiro, the Bishop of Iria Flavia, at that time. Both men came to the place where the flashes came from and discovered the Marmárea Ark, which was buried. So the lights were interpreted as divine signs.

    Inside it, rested three bodies. They were quickly attributed to Santiago the Apostle and the two disciples, Anastasio and Teodoro who guarded his remains until their death. The bishop immediately informed the King in those years, Alfonso II, of the surprising discovery.

    The monarch travelled to the place of the discovery, which became known as “The Land of Stars”, “Campo de Estrellas” in Spanish, (Campus Stellae) and which would be the origin of the name of Compostela. After his visit he ordered the construction of a temple that would be the precursor of the Cathedral of Santiago the Apostle.

    From that moment on, pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela began. This is the origin of the Camino de Santiago. There are other facts that also explain the importance of pilgrim routes, but that’s another story. If you want to know more, you will have to read our article “The History of the Camino de Santiago”.

    The truth about the remains of Santiago the Apostle

    The story on the authenticity of the remains discovered in Santiago de Compostela is very long. There are many theories and little credible evidence. The Catholic Church assures that the remains that are found there belong to Santiago the Apostle.

    However, some written documents place the Apostle out of Judea on the dates of his death. It is even questioned that the holy Apostle came to walk in Spain, as the story of the Santiago the Apostle tells.

    Some theorists claim that the remains in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela actually belong to Bishop Prisciliano. The reality is that the church has banned, by a papal bull, the carrying out of DNA tests that allow verifying the authenticity of the remains. Therefore, it seems that their worship will continue to be a matter of faith.

    The legend of Santiago Matamoros

    As we told you in the article “The History of the Camino de Santiago”, the discovery of the remains of Santiago the Apostle was made at a very delicate time for Spain on a social and moral level. The Muslim conquest had the Spanish monarchs in check at that time.

    According to the history of the Camino de Santiago, at the time when the Muslims dominated the peninsula, the Christians were forced to pay a tribute of 100 maidens to the Arabs. The refusal of the monarch Ramiro I to make delivery of the hundred young was the origin of the Battle of Clavijo.

    The legend of Santiago Matamoros says that the apostle appeared in dreams to King Ramiro I and told him that he had to fulfil the role of patron of the Spanish. As they say, during the battle the monarch implored Santiago for help and he appeared on a cloud, riding a white horse.

    The Moors were defeated. Since then, the figure of the apostle was imposed on the backs of a white horse and he was announced as Santiago Matamoros. This representation became the symbol of the reconquest and Santiago Matamoros became the protector of the Christians against the Arabs.

    Santiago the Apostle

    That is why, besides being the patron of Pilgrims and of Spain, he is also the patron of the Cavalry Armada. In fact, the last sentence of the hymn of this body was one of the most popular cries during the Spanish reconquest:

    “For Santiago and Spain, close in on them!”

    The name of Santiago the Apostle

    Santiago Jacobo, Saint Jacob, son of Thunder, James of Zebedee, Santiago Matamoros, Santiago Apostle or James the Elder ( or Greater) are some of the names for which the patron of Spain is known. Santiago El Mayor is the most popular name.

    Many people wonder about the meaning of the name the Saint receives. This is linked to the history of the life of the Apostle and the legend of Matamoros. Next, we explain why.

    The original name of the son of Zebedee is Ya’akov. In the ecclesiastical Latin, reference was made to the Saint as Sanctus Iacobus (Saint Jabobo). The term evolved over time, to derive in Sant Iago.

    Given the figure occupied by the Apostle in his struggle against the Islamic world, Christians used to use their name as a battle cry during the reconquest. This fact made the two words “Sant Iago” end up acting as a single. In such a way, that the name of Santiago ended become popularized.

    The term “the greater” comes from the Christian tradition. This nickname was used to differentiate James Zebedee from another James who was also a part of the 12 apostles. The patron of the pilgrims, being the highest, was assigned the nickname of “Greater”, while the other apostle became known as James the Lesser.

    Santiago Apostle Day: 25th July

    The 25th of July marks the day of the patron saint of Spain: Santiago Apostle. The celebration takes place in different towns and cities both in Spain and Latin America.

    The date refers to the day in which the body of the Pilgrim’s patron was transferred to Santiago de Compostela. It was the church that determined the day that this celebration was to take place. However, the festivities in honour of Santiago the Apostle have both a religious and pagan character.

    Santiago the Apostle is also patron of Galicia. For this reason, on July 25th, the influx of pilgrims in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is especially high. If you want to know about other festivals which the city of Compostela is celebrating you can consult our article on celebrations in Compostela.

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    We do not want to say goodbye without telling you that if you have come here for mere curiosity, we encourage you to do the Camino de Santiago. There are many reasons to visit the tomb of this great Spanish legend.

    If on the contrary, you have already decided to go on the adventure, do not forget to consult our pilgrims guide on how to prepare your journey to Santiago. If you prefer, you can contact us and we will arrange your visit to the pilgrim’s patron.

    Buen Camino!