One of the most important symbols associated with the Camino is the Tau Cross, which we can see, for example, in the Glory’s Portico at the Santiago Cathedral, where the apostle is represented with a staff shaped in this way.
The cross has a long tradition behind it, starting in the egyptian and greek cultures. In the Christian era, the cross first became the symbol of St. Anthony of Egypt, and then of the congregation that bore his name, the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony, who founded several hospices along the Camino (for example, at Castrojeriz). Later, St. Francis of Assisi also adpoted the cross as his coat of arms.
Besides all of that, the Tau Cross is also associated with a medieval navigation instrument. Jacob’s Staff, which has a shape similar to that of the cross, was used to measure the height of the stars over the horizon.
One of the monuments that can be admired along the Camino is in the town of Navarrete (Logroño). Here we see the facade of the old San Juan de Acre’s pilgrim hospital, which was founded in 1185. The hospital was named after the city of Acre, located in the Middle East and used by the Knight Hospitallers of Malta as their base of operations during the Crusades.
In the XIXth century, given its state of disrepair, the old hospital ruins were demolished, and the facade was moved to the town’s cemetery, where it can be seen now.
One of the most important elements for the pilgrim is the walking stick. The traditional sticks that we associate with the Camino, called “bordones” in spanish, are about as tall as a man, which gives them several advantages: since they are at “heart height”, they facilitate blood circulation in the upper body, and allow your arms to support part of your weight while walking. This way, your upper body takes active part in the exercise, which won’t happen while normally walking.
Obviously, the same benefits can be achieved with a modern trekking pole or hiking staff, as long as they are tall enough to achieve the aforementioned effects.
The scallop (vieira, pectinidae) is a mollusk that has turned into the symbol of the pilgrims in St. James Way. There are several theories as to why: some claim that, since it’s a species typical of Galicia, pilgrims carried them back home as proof of having reached Santiago. (Curiously, the species most often associated with the Camino, the pecten jacobaeus, is actually most common in the Mediterranean, while the species found in Galicia is another one, called pecten maximus).
Other sources, however, trace its origin to a well known medieval legend, according to which, while carrying St. James’ body to Santiago, one of the horses fell to the water and emerged covered in shells (a variant of this legend claims that, while disembarking the saint’s body, they found a knight on the beach whose horse got scared and ran to the sea, from which both emerged covered in shells).
Aside of this symbolic meaning, the shell also had a practical purpose. According to these sources, during the Middle Ages, pilgrims would carry a scallop with them and present themselves at abbeys, farms… where they would be given as much food and drink as they could pick up in one scoop.