Authentic or Modern—That is the Question

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One question that pursued Elyn as we walked the trail from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre was whether this road is an authentic, ancient road or a modern invention. There are no end of web sites that claim that it is authentic—https://caminoways.com/ways/finisterre-way-camino-fisterra/camino-finisterre-way, https://www.pilgrimagetraveler.com/camino-finisterre.html, http://www.thetravelmagazine.net/camino-de-santiago-finisterre-way-camino-de-fisterra.html, for example. However, Elyn has studied the Camino since the 1980s and knows full well that most of the hype about the Finisterre route is of fairly modern origin. She has written several books and many articles on the Camino (see http://www.pilgrimsprocess.com).

When she first walked the Camino in 1981 as a part of her research for her PhD dissertation on the modern Camino, the Catholic Church was adamantly opposed to pilgrims continuing on to Finisterre. There were statements by the Church declaring that the Camino de Santiago ended at the tomb of St. James in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and there was no Camino leading further. We have watched over the years as that rigid position has gradually softened and the church, instead of rejecting the route, has coopted it. Now there is actually an office at the pilgrims’ center near the Cathedral devoted to the Finisterre route. You can get a Finisterre Camino pilgrim’s credential to be stamped en route, and you can get a certificate at the end if you so desire. This appears to me to be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” That the Finisterre route dilutes the centrality of Santiago’s tomb is unquestionable. So, one of our objectives as we set out from Santiago was to explore the authenticity of the Finisterre route.

The Camino Francés (French Route) which leads from the French border across northern Spain to Santiago is dotted with small villages whose main street (and sometimes only street) is called “Camino de Santiago.” Many were established in the Middle Ages to support the pilgrimage. Over the centuries the Camino declined in popularity, and many of these villages were nearly abandoned. When the Camino became popular again in the 20th century, people came back and reinvigorated many of those towns. Several are now thriving little communities. On our walk to Finisterre we didn’t see any “Camino” towns on the route. That was one piece of evidence that we were walking a modern invention rather than an ancient Camino.

The Camino Francés is lined with Romanesque and Gothic churches, chapels, and cathedrals related to the Camino and St. James. While there are some interesting churches to visit on the Finisterre route, they didn’t seem to have the historic connection to pilgrimage that one finds on the traditional route to Santiago.

There was pilgrimage to sacred sites at Cabo Finisterre hundreds of years ago—and probably long before. There’s a Roman altar at the Cabo and remains of ancient dolmens dating thousands of years earlier dot the region. But that doesn’t mean that those pilgrimages had anything to do with Santiago or that they originated in Santiago de Compostela. In addition, there is lots of evidence that promoting the route to Finisterre began in the 19th century with Galician nationalists and more recently in the 1990s as part of the development of rural tourism.

On a more subjective level, we have always noticed a feeling that we were “walking in the footsteps of our ancestors” as we made our pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I felt no such feeling on the Finisterre route. The scenery is lovely and the towns inviting, but it didn’t have the same Camino “juju” for me. In my opinion, the Camino Fisterra is a modern invention, not an authentic continuation of the Camino de Santiago.

Why are so many people trying to prove otherwise? I believe that the answer is economic rather than religious/spiritual. The stream of pilgrims walking through those small towns and stopping to buy goods and services is a boon to those communities. In addition, the companies offering guided tours need to keep expanding their offerings to attract repeat travelers. A “new” Camino is an attractive option. Most of the online sites touting the Camino Finisterre I’ve seen are run by tour agencies.

I have no quarrel with people trying to “make a buck,” but in this instance I have to side (maybe for the first time!) with the Catholic Church—The Camino Finisterre is not a part of the Camino de Santiago.

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