Santiago de Compostela lies only twenty miles inland from the Atlantic ocean at the far western extremity of the European landmass, known by the Romans as Finis Terra, the end of the earth. For them the ocean was the Mare Tenebrosum, the dark sea. Since ancient times this coastline, known as the Costa da Muerte, the coast of death, had been used by traders who sailed along it towards the tin mines of the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. It was an important trade route linking the classical mediterranean world with the Celtic.
It was via these old trade routes that cultural and religious ideas were transmitted. For the Greeks the far west was considered the mythical Land of the Dead and they dubbed the inhabitants the Keltoi after Caillaech, their mother goddess.
Galicia, a remote land bordered by the sea to the north and west and the mountains to the south and east retained her Celtic heritage long after the surrounding area had been Christianised. Still today, the landscape contains occasional druidic dolmens.
At Finisterra the Celts had a major pilgrimage site, the Ara de Solis, the altar of the Sun. The cardinal points had symbolic meaning too. The East represented Birth and Resurrection, the West: Death and the Afterlife.
Combined, these elements indicate that the area around Compostela had from prehistoric times been a significant place of pilgrimage associated with funeral rites.
Medieval maps depict a circular area surrounded by water with Jerusalem at its centre and Galicia at its western point. Christian conceptions of the world also regarded the west coast of Spain as the limit of the earth. Considered in the context of the Mission of the Apostles it was a significant location. According to widely held belief the End of the World could only happen when the Apostolic Mission had been accomplished, that is the Gospel had been spread to the furthest reaches of the world.
The Arab invasion of Spain at the beginning of the eighth century seemed to fulfill the prophecy of the Book of Daniel concerning the fourth empire of the World. This empire would be the final one, culminating in the Apocalypse.
The Asturian abbot Beatus of Liebana was a refugee from Islamic Andalusia and the illustration of the Earth in his celebrated Commentary on the Apocalypse confirms the Apostle James as evangeliser of Spain. A number of prophetic ideas were now coming together.
Had the Mission of the Apostles been completed? Was the perceived threat to Christendom posed by the Arab invasion that prelude to Apocalypse prophecied in Daniel and Revelations? If so, what more fitting place to go in pilgrimage than that remote corner of the world.
The discovery of the tomb of the Apostle at Compostela a generation after Beatus seemed an inevitablity.
As the Book of Saint James tells us with Apocalyptic foreboding: “As the Eastern Apostolic See was established by St. John at Ephesus, so was the Western established by St. James. And those Sees are undoubtedly the true Sees. Ephesus on the right hand of Christ’s earthly kingdom, and Compostela on the left, both which fell to the share of the sons of Zebedee”.