Legends and Myths: Connecting to Ancient Spain

Don Harris | July 2015

July 25th is the feast day of St. James – Santiago – the patron saint of Spain. According to tradition, his remains rest in the crypt of a cathedral in Galicia, a remote part of Spain. According to legend, St. James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred in the holy land, and his mourners placed his body in a small stone ship, which then set sail across the Mediterranean Sea.

Once the boat passed through Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules, the stone craft headed due north along the Atlantic coast until it reached a small port called Padrón in Galicia. (You may have enjoyed Padrón peppers, whose seeds were brought by Columbus from America to the local monastery there.)

Santiago’s body was discovered by shepherds who were guided by a star (Compostela means campus/star). News of this discovery spread across the realm like wildfire and energized Christians who were trying to repel the seemingly invincible advance of the Moors. 

The story of Santiago became their inspiration. Some of the Christian warriors would see him riding out of the heavens on a white horse, to lead them into battle. He became the patron saint of Spain. St. James’ symbol is the seashell and we have chosen to take the seashell as La Tienda’s trademark. Our private label is called Peregrino, the word for pilgrim in Castilian Spanish.

Many older people wring their hands about the reality of their aging. Of course, there are inconveniences, and many aches and pains. However, the senior has a special gift: the ability to recall events earlier in life and to put them into a broader perspective. It is called wisdom. 

For example, I find it enriching to look through the pictures my wife Ruth and I have taken over the past 50 years. With the help of my friend Elaine, I have entered over 3,000 of them in a Flickr account and arranged them by region, and have made them available to all. Many of the pictures revolve around our experience visiting the route of the pilgrims who have traveled the Camino de Santiago.

I find the most interesting category of pictures to be those that were taken in the 1960s before digital cameras were available. Do you remember threading your camera with film – only to run out after 24 or 36 clicks? Then there was the wait until the corner drugstore got a packet of your pictures from the regional processor. Slow as the process was, I must admit I enjoyed leisurely sharing my snapshots with friends.

I remember one late afternoon in the late Sixties, when my wife Ruth and I were first discovering the romance of Spain behind the wheel of our tiny Seat 600 sedan. Driving somewhere along the back roads of Andalucía, we stopped by the side of the road and for the first time my wife Ruth and I watched the process of harvesting olives.

The laborers, with members of the family, spread a tarpaulin under a somewhat gnarled olive tree and shook the branches gently so that only the ripe olives fell to the outstretched cloth. Then they gathered the fallen olives into baskets to bring to the mill. To think that this exact kind of task has been going on for hundreds of years within this very olive grove! The pictures of laboring in the olive groves could have been taken in 1920 or 1820 just as easily as 1965! It would not be much different.

It is part of a timeless evolution stretching back to antiquity. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old and have seen kingdoms rise and fall. The only difference between then and now is that a centrifuge extracts the oil from the fruit rather than being pressed between several esparto discs.

This aura of timelessness was particularly present as we drove along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. For over 1000 years, pilgrims have followed this route across the breadth of Spain, some 400 miles. In medieval times, many of them came from all over Europe. Nowadays pilgrims come from all over the planet! Even St. Francis of Assisi has followed the pilgrimage route.

The Camino de Santiago still prospers today. It is traveled by many more people than it was 20 years ago when my son Jonathan traversed it with some other students. Some of you may have seen the movie The Way, where Martin Sheen reflected upon his experience of the Camino. The pilgrimage road made such a sufficient impression on my son that on their honeymoon, he and his bride Stacey retraced some of his steps together.

The Atlantic Coast is active, like coastal Maine, and the source of some of most extraordinary seafood in Spain. Some people say their experience of Galicia is similar to their wandering throughout Ireland, especially in the mist. There is a certain spiritual feeling you rarely will find anywhere else.

The first time my wife Ruth and I experienced this was when, many years ago, we were headed towards Santiago, and approached the forlorn, windswept mountain village of Cebreiro. Along the way we would encounter cordial people leading their oxen from a day’s labor in the rocky field. The animals had head coverings of rabbit pelts so that beasts of burden would be protected from the sun.

That day we spent in Cebreiro could have easily been 968 AD rather than 1968. The hamlet consists of a grouping of pallozas, or round stone houses, with a straw roof. The townspeople lived in these sorts of sod igloos, along with their chickens and goats. If I can find it, I will show you a picture of a jaunty rooster “ruling the roost.”

There was a very simple refugio, a rudimentary country inn, where we stayed overnight (I was young and foolish then. Now, I am not so sure I would risk a mattress filled with straw). Next to it was a pre-Romanesque church - the oldest one remaining fully intact on the Camino. The priest rings the church bells during the winter to guide the pilgrims through the mists. For many of the pilgrims, the mountain pass of Cebreiro was the last major hurdle before descending to the ocean and Santiago.

We also learned that within this stone church was the legendary Holy Grail. For safekeeping in the face of invading Arab forces that were sweeping across the coast of Africa, Christians passed the sacred Chalice, one to another, from the Holy Land until it ultimately rested safely in this remote corner of the world. To see it we entered the nave of the church and passed by the very large granite baptismal font until we came to the chalice displayed right by the altar.

One stormy day as the wind howled, and people of the village were huddled in their pallozas, the parish priest dutifully went to the church to celebrate daily mass. So the legendary story continues: the door of the church opened in the howling gale, and a faithful pilgrim stumbled inside. The skeptical priest thought to himself "Why in the world would anyone be so foolish as to brave the elements to come to my Mass? After all," he thought looking at the elements on the altar, “probably this is just bread and wine.” 

As he raised the Host during the liturgy, the thin wheat wafer became flesh. When the priest looked into the chalice, he saw that the wine had turned into blood. The news of the miracle spread throughout the area and soon it was confirmed that this was the Holy Grail.

You know, if you are able to suspend your rational 21st century mind for a while, you also can enjoy these legends and myths which animated the minds of our earlier brothers: stone ships crossing the Mediterranean, the relics of Jesus’ brother discovered by shepherds in a field by night in a pasture in Galicia; olive oil being harvested on the same land that Roman soldiers trod; the age old Camino path walked upon by ancient pilgrims whose spirituality might be close to yours.

The cover of the latest Smithsonian magazine brazenly proclaims, “Future is here.” I take comfort in knowing that “Yesterday is here” as well, and it provides a mother lode of wisdom.

Legends have a life of their own, and I encourage you someday to go to Galicia in northwest Spain, just above Portugal. Quietly wander around from town to town. The people of Galicia are of Celtic stock such as those in Ireland and Scotland. They even play bagpipes! 

Tu amigo,