By John E. Staller

On Wednesday, 24 July 2013, a horrific train wreck and subsequent fire occurred in the town of Santiago de Compostela. The relics of Saint James the apostle, who is known as Santiago in Spain, are held in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which goes back to the 12th century. The town and its cathedral are the focus of an annual pilgrimage along what is called El Camino de Santiago, a road which stretches across the Pyrenees into different parts of the continent and has been followed by Christians since the Middle Ages.

Saint James was the patron saint of Spain and New Spain during the conquest of the New World. His symbolic association in Spanish culture is with the thunderbolt and twins. Spain transformed St. James from a humble disciple of Jesus into Santiago, a sword-wielding warrior mounted on a fiery steed yielding his most terrifying weapons, lightning (glurya scintilla, the Flash of Glory), the thunderbolt, and arquebus. These symbolic associations are Spanish in origin and not biblical. Inspiration for this tableau appears to extend back to ancient Celto-Iberian and Roman traditions.

Both Santiago and lightning have long been seen as a malevolent force, associated with death and resurrection, but also agricultural fertility and wealth. Spanish legends credit Santiago and Santiago de Compostela for enabling the Catholic faithful to maintain the northwest part of the Iberian Peninsula and with driving out the Moors. Thus, the city and saint also have symbolic associations to the birth of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.

The saint’s feast day was the day following the tragedy, but instead of the joyous festival and masses that characterize the 25th of July every year, masses were held every hour in the cathedral and the main mass in celebration to Santiago was transformed from a mass of joy to one of mourning for those who perished in this disaster. This ancient city in Galencia, originally a Roman cemetery dating back to the 4th century, has long been associated with Celtic legends as a sacred place where the souls of the dead gathered to follow the sun across the ocean. Now once again these departed will forever be associated with this ancient and sacred place and its annual pilgrimage venerating Santiago.

John E. Staller, co-author of Lightning in the Andes and Mesoamerica: Pre-Columbian, Colonial, and Contemporary Perspectives

Image credits: (1) Codex Calixtinus. Photo by Certo Xornal from Ribeira, Galicia, España. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Tragedy in Santiago de Compostela Tragedy in Santiago de Compostela. Photo by Contando Estrelas from Vigo, España. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.