Main symbols on the Camino de Santiago
There are many pilgrims who do the Camino de Santiago every year following the signs and symbols that mark the routes, especially the famous yellow arrow. However, the arrow of the Camino de Santiago is not the only sign you will find during the tour. Although perhaps it is the best known and the easiest to follow.
Yellow arrows, scallop shells, stone markers, stone mounds and other signs are just some of the symbols that help pilgrims get to Compostela, following the Camino de Santiago routes. That is why when someone asks us: Will I get lost in the Camino de Santiago? Our answer is always, if you pay attention to the signs, it is very difficult for that to happen.
To help all those people who fear getting lost on the Camino de Santiago, we have decided to write this article compiling all the signs and the meaning of the drawings on the Camino de Santiago.
In the following sections, you will find information about the origin and history of the yellow arrows, the meaning of the scallop as a symbol of the Camino de Santiago, as well as reading and interpretation of the symbols that will also tell you that you are on the right track.
We’re going with that, but in the meantime: Do you want to do the Camino de Santiago from Sarria? At Santiago Ways, we are experts and we are happy to help you organize this adventure. Tell us when you want to make a pilgrimage and leave all the preparation in our hands.
Have the signs on the Camino de Santiago always existed?
No, the Camino de Santiago was formerly unmarked. During the Middle Ages, especially during the early years of the pilgrimage to Compostela, many pilgrims were lost in the mountains. Many died before reaching the tomb of Santiago the Apostle.
With the passage of time, and as the pilgrimage route was consolidated, signs began to be introduced on the Camino de Santiago with crosses and stone mounds to facilitate the route for pilgrims.
This system was especially useful in warm seasons. During the winter many of the signs that had been placed by the previous walkers, to mark the Camino de Santiago, were covered by snow.
The current signage on the Camino de Santiago began to function well from the 70s onwards. The work that was carried out, in large part, was thanks to that done by Elías Valiña. Below we tell you how this parish priest in O Cebreiro created the famous yellow arrows and promoted the signage along the Camino de Santiago.
The yellow arrows on the Camino de Santiago
The yellow arrows, together with the scallops and the stone markers, are the most well-known and representative symbols of the Camino de Santiago. On all pilgrim routes it is common to find the yellow arrows painted on walls, stones, tree trunks or even on the façades of the houses.
The history of the yellow arrows
The origin of the yellow arrows of the Camino de Santiago dates back to 1984. Its creator was Elías Valiña, the parish priest of O Cebreiro. He had been studying Canon Law and wrote his doctorate thesis on the Camino Santiago.
After carefully studying the Camino Frances and given the small amount of pilgrims that arrived, at that time, at O Cebreiro, Elías decided to mark the route with signs from Saint Jean de Port.
The yellow colour of the arrows
It is said that the yellow colour of the arrow was chosen purely by chance. According to his family and friends, one day Elías Valiña found a group of workers who were painting signs on the road and had plenty of paint. The parish priest of O Cebreiro did not hesitate to buy the left-over paint to start the signage on the Camino de Santiago.
However, there are also those who point out that Elias Valiña left nothing to chance. They say he chose yellow because in France it was the colour used to indicate mountain routes. In addition, yellow was a colour that drew a lot of attention and was able to withstand the passage of time.
Elias began his work with the signs of the Camino de Santiago that are located in the vicinity of O Cebreiro, indicated the route’s direction with a yellow arrow. However, when he was finished, he realized that he still had a lot of paint left. This made him continue with the same colour on the rest of the signage along the entire Camino Frances.
They say that one day, when Elias Valiña was signalling the route, he met up with the Guardia Civil. They were intrigued by the yellow arrows and fearing that he might be signalling a route for terrorists, they asked the parish priest what the purpose of those yellow arrows was. Elías Valiña’s response was:
“I’m preparing for an invasion”
The words of Elías Valiña (creator of the yellow arrows on the Camino de Santiago)
Today, no one doubts that O Cebreiro’s parish priest was being sincere in his reply. Perhaps even he could not imagine the large number of people who would follow his directions to get to Santiago de Compostela.
Popularizing the yellow arrows
In 1987, with the declaration of the Camino de Santiago as a European Cultural Itinerary, the work carried out by Elias was adopted as a reference for signage. Thus, all pilgrimage routes began to be marked with yellow arrows.
In 1989, Elías Valiña died, at the age of 60. Before he died, he asked his close friends, as his last request, not to lose the yellow arrow as a guiding sign on the Camino de Santiago. His friends and the associations of Friends of the Camino de Santiago, many of whom had started through his influence, were the ones who fulfilled his last wish.
In this way, the yellow arrow became yet another reflection of the spirit that is breathed on the routes of the Camino de Santiago, since it is a signal made without pretensions, without logos and placed by heaven knows who. A gesture of solidarity that prevents pilgrims from getting lost on their way to Santiago.
Consolidation of the signage on the Camino de Santiago
The incorporation of signals on the Camino de Santiago, together with many efforts of communication and dissemination, as well as the suitability of the infrastructure, made the 1993 Holy Year a great success. This finished consolidating the network of signals of the Camino de Santiago.
Although the yellow arrow of the Camino de Santiago is the most prevalent sign, next to it began to proliferate a wide collection of signs. In 2018, the Jacobean Council ordered that only the yellow arrow, along with the scallop shell, be used as a symbol to signify the Camino de Santiago.
Also, restaurants, shops or lodgings on the Camino de Santiago were prohibited from using the yellow arrow to signal their location. However, even in the daytime, many businesses use the the simplicity of the yellow arrow mischievously trying to divert pilgrims to its doors. A behaviour that is increasingly persecuted and punished.
Elías Valiña and his work on the Camino de Santiago
Although the parish priest of O Cebreiro has gone in down in history as being the creator of one of the most characteristic symbols of the Camino de Santiago, his work in the recovery of the pilgrim routes was not limited only to the creation of the yellow arrow. Elías Valiña was an important promoter of the Camino de Santiago. Thanks to his work, much of the pilgrim tradition could be recovered.
Elías also contributed to the creation of the Bulletin of the Camino de Santiago, which was dedicated to collecting the current news about the routes, all this contributed to increase the interest in pilgrim tradition. In 1987, the newsletter was replaced by the “Peregrino” magazine.
In addition, Elías Valiña was a great driver in the restoration of O Cebreiro. It was concluded in 1971, with the opening of the ethnographic collection. All of the above led to the fact that in 1985, the parish priest of O Cebreiro was appointed commissioner for the Camino de Santiago.
Other signals on the Camino de Santiago
As mentioned above, along with the arrow of the Camino de Santiago, other signs flourished, many of which still endure. Here’s what other symbols you can find on the Camino de Santiago.
The scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino de Santiago
Of all the symbols you will find on the Camino de Santiago the arrow and the scallop shell are the only ones considered official. Therefore, they are the most reliable.
Unlike the arrow, whose interpretation is extremely simple, since it always points in the direction to be taken, the scallop shell is more complex. As we tell you in the article that we dedicate to the origin and symbolism of the shell of the Camino de Santiago, this signal has one interpretation or another, depending on whether you are in Galicia or in another community.
Stone markers on the Camino de Santiago
The stone markers are other signs that you will often find on the Camino de Santiago. Although their use is more common in Galicia, where they are placed every 500 metres. These are usually made of concrete.
The distance to the Cathedral is indicated on them in kilometres. They are usually decorated with a blue tile, on which the scallop shell appears. They are often accompanied by a yellow arrow to make the signage of the direction of the Camino de Santiago even clearer.
Shrines are also valid signs to know that you are following the route of the Camino de Santiago correctly. These shrines are mounds of stone created by pilgrims themselves. These are the equivalent of the stone crosses placed by walkers during the Middle Ages.
The most famous shrine of the Camino de Santiago is located at the highest point of the Camino Frances, La Cruz de Hierro. There, it is tradition for pilgrims to throw a stone as great as their sorrows or sins.
GR signals on the Camino de Santiago
Some of the routes of the Camino de Santiago coincide with the GR paths (Sendero de Gran Recorrido), so some sections can be completed following this signage. An example is the stretch that crosses Navarra. The signs of the GR are two stripes, one white and one red.
Another symbol that you can find on some routes, such as the Camino Portugues or the Camino Frances, are milestones. These signs are columns made of stone that are located in the sections that run over the ancient Roman road.
As the name suggests, these signs of the Camino de Santiago will be found every thousand steps. Which equates to a Roman mile. These types of directions will not help you to know the route direction, but they will confirm that you are on the right track.
Another sign that can guide you on the Camino de Santiago are the wooden crosses left by pilgrims on the fences that line the routes. This signage is also the result of the establishment of customs and traditions of the Camino de Santiago.
How to follow the signs on the Camino de Santiago and not get lost
Today, almost all the Camino de Santiago routes, which are considered official, are well signposted. Every few kilometres, you will find one of the signs that we have shown in this article.
However, before finishing, we want to explain some tricks to follow the signage of the Camino de Santiago or how to act in case of doubt:
- If you feel lost, raise your head. You’ll probably see a yellow arrow pointing the way a few feet away
- If you don’t arrive at any detour, don’t worry if you can’t find any signage. This appears in places where the pilgrim could get lost. Following a straight line, chances of getting lost are zero.
- At junctions, if you do not see any signs that tell you where the Camino de Santiago follows, always continue straight ahead.
We hope you liked this article and that the information we have provided you in it will be useful. If you know another sign or symbol that may be useful to follow the Camino de Santiago, we appreciate you sharing it with us. Leave us a comment.
To say goodbye, just to remind you that if you want to do the Camino de Santiago with the support of a specialized agency, in Santiago Ways we will be happy to assist you. Call or write on our Facebook page.