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Strange tales from the Camino

Golden Altar 3The Camino de Frances runs for nearly 500 miles across Spain and takes in some extraordinary sights – not least of which are the churches and cathedrals.  English churches were stripped out of their booty during the reign of Henry VIII – no such thing happened in Spain.  For anyone used to pottering around elegant but largely unadorned English churches those of Spain come as a bit of a culture shock.  God and Gold go hand in hand the extravagant and exuberant altarpieces of many Spanish churches and cathedrals.

But aside from the awe-inspiring bling of the alters, there are also many strange, and sometimes gory, hidden away amongst the treasures.  If you can drag your eyes away from the gold, glitz and glory for long enough you will find some very strange things on the walls of these buildings.

Bota Fumeiro - Santiago Cathederal

Bota Fumeiro – Santiago cathedral

The cult of martyrdom

skull and lion bwThe word itself is from the Greek, meaning to witness, and came to be applied to those who suffered torture and death for their Christian faith – although the concept and psychology of martyrdom pre-dated Christianity and existed amongst Jewish and Pagan Peoples as well. It was the Christian Church however, who really ran with the idea of martyrdom and it became an important aspect of the Christian Ethos.  The Catholic Church in particular seems to have made quite a cult of the suffering of Martyrs and viewed them as powerful intercessor between worshipers and their god.

Bones and relics of martyrs quickly became currency, both spiritual and materially, and appeared in churches and religious establishments.  The market for martyrs could be competitive and certainly brought great riches for many religious houses with the faithful flocking to centres of pilgrimage such as Santiago de Compostela, here they could offer gifts to the relics and hope that the saint would look favourably on them.

The bones of a saint

The bones of a saint

Wounds 1

Visceral wounds

Female martyrs are often depicted as beautiful

Female martyrs are often depicted as beautiful

A Martyr being beheaded

A Martyr being beheaded

Slaughter of innocents

Slaughter of innocents

Admittedly, and no disrespect to Christian’s intended, what struck me most intensely in viewing many of the relics and images of martyred saints that are displayed in Churches and cathedrals along the Way of St James, was the sheer delight in portraying gory and visceral deaths.  Some of the images had an almost macabre humour whilst others seemed almost distasteful in their veneration of human suffering. In the days before sadomasochism had been identified, I can’t help thinking that, whilst pious viewers saw the images as a offering an example of Christian fortitude, there must surely have been many others who viewed these images with something other than their god in mind.

cherub with chains


Shackles donated to a church

Nevertheless, some of the images of martyrdom and miracles have a distinct sense of humour about them.

'I think he's dead'  'No I'm not, it's just a flesh wound!'

Persecutor: “A scratch? Your head’s off. Xtn Martyr: No it isn’t. Persecutor: What’s that, then? Xtn Martyr: [after a pause] I’ve had worse. Persecutor: You liar. Xtn Martyr: Come on ya pansy.[1]

The following tale is associated with the Church of Santo Domingo and is both bizarre and humorous.

The Miracle of the Cock and the Hen

santo dom 1During the Camino, I visited the cathedral of Santos Domingo de La Calzada.  Here I was baffled by the presence of a very ornate hen-house situated within the cathedral and inhabited by a rooster and a hen.  Not sure if it was simply that the priest simply had a fondness for fritatta’s (they did seem quite popular along the Camino) I soon found out that it was connected with a very odd tale involving a pious pilgrim, a woman scorned, a resurrection from the dead and some zombie chickens*.

I have come across a few versions of this strange tale, the version below is taken from the website of Santo Domingo cathedral and seems the most comprehensive:

“Legend tells of a German Pilgrim called Hugonell who was walking to Santiago with his parents, when they decided to rest at an inn in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The owner of the inn´s daughter immediately fell in love with him; however her feelings were not reciprocated, so the girl, angered, placed a silver cup into his luggage and accused the boy of theft. Thieves at that time were punished by hanging, and this was the fate of Hugonell. His parents, saddened by his death continued the pilgrimage, and upon arriving in Santiago de Compostela, began their return journey to visit the grave of their dead son. When they arrived in Santo Domingo however, they found their son still hanging in the gallows but, miraculously alive. Hugonell, excited, said to them: “Santo Domingo brought back me to life, please go to the Mayor´s house and ask him to take me down”. Quickly, the parents arrived at the Mayor´s house and told him of the miracle. The incredulous Mayor, who was preparing to have dinner with friends, responded: “That boy is as alive as these two roast chickens we are about to eat,” and suddenly, the chickens came to life, sprouted feathers and beaks and began to crow, and so, to this day there is a saying about the town which goes: “Santo Domingo of the Way, where the roosters crow after being roasted”.

santo dom hen coup 4

Hen coup in Santo Domingo Cathedral

Sacred chickens

Holy Hens

From silver hens...

From silver hens…

...to sacred cookies.  The legend is popular today as ever.

…to sacred cookies. The legend is popular today as ever.

 *Not strictly true – in this version the chickens are at least allowed to sprout new feathers and beaks – other versions leave the reader imagining bald cooked chickens running zombie like through the town – a truly fowl image *har har har* (sound of tumble weed blowing across the internet).


All images copyright Lenora at http://www.hauntedPalace.co.uk

[1] Adapted from Monty Python’s Holy Grail – Black Knight scene