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The Legends of Saint James

Saint James the Greater.

This image hangs over the Marion and Terry entrance of the Cathedral.
It dates from 1950.

             Pious historians have struggled for centuries to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Saint James’ life.  Some of these stories have become so overlaid with fantasy that they strike the modern reader as too silly to be believed.  The only certainty is that a tremendous devotion to Saint James the Apostle grew up around a certain tomb in Compostela in Spain (as late as 1884, these relics were approved by Pope Leo XIII).  The mystery is, how the apostle James came to be buried there.  According to legend, he had traveled to Spain in the early years of his brief ministry, and met with little success, winning over only a handful of disciples.  Legend also tells us that two of these (Theodore and Athanasius, by name) accompanied him back to Jerusalem, where he was martyred at the hands of Herod.  It was these same disciples who stole away his body, and with it climbed into a rudderless boat.  They begged God to be their pilot; the boat drifted to Galicia, Spain, and there the apostle was buried; in due time, his faithful friends were buried beside him.

            For centuries the tomb was forgotten.  It was rediscovered in the ninth century.  Two quite distinct legends have come down to us detailing how this miracle came about.  One tells us that “shepherds abiding in the field” witnessed mysterious starry signs in the sky.  The Bishop of Iria Flavia, Teodomiro, following the lead pointed out by the stars, discovered the tomb of the apostle.  (Incidentally, until recent years Bishop Teodomiro was considered as much a piece of fiction as the legend in which he figures, but modern excavations beneath the Cathedral of Santiago discovered that he was quite real, buried in the ninth century near the tomb of the saint he so loved.)

            A second legend which overlaps in some details with the first is related in the Song of Roland.  In this famous narrative of the crusades against the Moors, there is a scene in which the emperor Charlemagne, in a dream, is blessed with a visit from Saint James the Greater.  The apostle promises that Charlemagne will conquer the Moors throughout all of Spain; he then shows him a vision of a starry road in the sky, telling him to follow this path to the saint’s tomb. 

Saint James "the Moorslayer."

This little image, which was a gift to Father Ryan,
inspired the great puppet which makes an
appearance every year on the Feast of St. James.

           In fact, modern scholars consider both legends as deriving from a simple misreading of the name of the village where the tomb was located, Compostela.  Medieval linguists preferred to understand “Compostela” as campus stellae, or “field of stars.”  In fact, the name is a corrupted form of compositum, past participle of the Latin verb componere, “to bury.”  The recent excavations of the area under the nave of the Cathedral have revealed that the tomb of the Apostle was in fact part of a very ancient necropolis, in use from the first century B.C. until the end of the sixth century A.D.  This discover has led many archeologists to believe that the attribution of these relics to the Apostle James is not as far-fetched as has been supposed.  In this case there may well be “a grain of truth in the wildest fable.”

             And, true or not, the great battle in which Saint James had purportedly achieved victory of Charlemagne made both the emperor and the saint international celebrities.  The apostle’s fame as a miracle worker spread far and wide, and year after year, more and more pilgrims began to make the journey west to visit his tomb and beg for his intercession.  These pilgrims had to be accommodated:  in the 830s, with a simple chapel built over the saints’ tomb; then, in 899 with a grander basilica, later destroyed by the Moors.  In 1075 work was begun on the present-day Cathedral of Santiago, which was at last consecrated on April 3, 1211.


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804 Ninth Avenue
Seattle, Washington  98104
Phone 206.622.3559  Fax 206.622.5303