Santiago or Prisciliano? Who is buried in Santiago de Compostela?


In this post I want to talk about a topic that causes controversy in many occasions. There is a fine line that separates legend from history, depending on how this story is interpreted, those on both sides of the line tend to get very sensitive if the interpretation of the story goes against their faith, their creed or their knowledge.

Since this millenary route became El Camino, there have been many discrepancies over the identity of the remains found in the year 813 by a hermit named Pelayo. Most of the historians and old scholars (Louis Duchesne, Claudio Sánchez-Albornóz o Miguel de Unamuno) and contemporaries (Ramón Chao or Fernando Sánchez Dragó amongst others) that have researched and studied in depth, assert that there are neither facts nor historical data to support or demonstrate that James The Elder preached in Spain.

So, whose remains are buried there, that year in year out are visited by millions of people?

As logic will have it, Catholics and historians adept to Catholicism defend that the remains belong to the Apostle James, therefore they reject the more plausible theory of all, the one that asserts that the remains belong to Priscillian, the old Bishop of Avila, who was accused of heresy and sentenced to death by the Catholic church.

I will try to succinctly tell you the story of both of these historical characters and the parallelism between them in order to understand better why the myth of Saint James was imposed over the story of Priscillian.




James the Elder

It is important to clarify that there are five different James on the New Testament and, apparently, during the first centuries of the pilgrims route, the pilgrims did not know exactly to the tomb of which one of the apostles´ they were walking.

There was James the Lesser, the ninth apostle, brother of Jude and son of mary of Cleophas and Alphaeus. He was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, from the year 29 to the year 62, when he was killed with a fuller´s club because he did not want to deny his Christian faith. There is a cathedral in Jerusalem built with his name in his honour.

There was also James the Elder, the second apostle that Jesus chose, son of Zebedee and Salome. He was born about the year 5 BC and died in the year 44 AD beheaded by Herod Agrippa (King of Judea). The Jacobean myth is based on the life and death of this James.


It is not known with certainty which was his birthplace, but it is  probable that he was born in Iria Flavia (currently Padron) towards the year 340 A.D.. Priscillian preached a Christian belief where the cult of God was not antagonistic to the cult of the hearth and the sun, gnostic-manichaean, and was not opposed to women becoming priests. His austerity and thoughts made him very popular in Galician lands and beyond, to the point that he became an influential figure on the west of the Iberian peninsula and became the Bishop of Avila.




James the Elder

Beyond the legend and the oral tradition, there is not much in terms of historical data to show that Saint James preached in the Iberian peninsula. It is also difficult to give it credibility based on documents since there is very little documentation from this time. Scholars agree that the lack of information and documentation was bridged by attributing missionary works to the disciples that did not have them.

The traditional view is that Saint James came to Spain between the year 33 AD and the year 40 AD. Some theories locate his arrival through the Portuguese coast, others by Tarraco (currently Tarragona) to then follow the Ebro Valley, and others even by the great Mediterranean seaport of the city of Cartagonove (Currently Cartagena).

While preaching in the north of Spain he received two apparitions from the virgin Mary: one in Muxia (“La Virgen de la Barca” The virgin of the boat) and another in Zaragoza (“La Virgen del Pilar” Our lady of the Pillar). On the second apparition, James was accompanied by the “seven apostolic men” the first seven converted during his preachings that were later sent to Rome to be ordained Bishops by Saint Peter.

Apparently, the preachings of Saint James were not very successful and on his return to Palestine, between the years 40 to 42 A.D., he was sentenced to death by Herod Agrippa and beheaded on the year 44 A.D. Saint James death is well documented historically.

The first historical references about the peregrination of Saint James to Hispania do not appear until the end of the sixth century or the beginning of the seventh century on the “Breviary of the Apostles”.


Priscillian was born to a family of landowners. His date of birth is approximately towards the end of the first half of the fourth century.

His family status allowed him to travel to many places, amongst them to Bordeaux (370 A.D.) where he studied and then decided to abandon his wealthy lifestyle and take a life of poverty, austerity and equality between people of all genders. Prisciliano started preaching his doctrine towards the year 375 A.D., and his teachings are known as the Priscillianism.

Priscillianism pleaded to return to Christianity its pure essence and asked for a united people in favour of the poor and those disadvantaged, it condemned slavery and it wanted to give women the relevance they deserved. Some even said that he preached naked and that he danced during his ceremonies, in a way that mixed ancestral rituals with Christianism.

Thanks to these ideas Priscillianism and Priscillian became popular in Hispania and Aquitaine, to the point that he became the Bishop of Avila in the year 380 A.D.

The opposing clerics managed to get him excommunicated and sent to exile. He then went to Rome in the year 382 A.D. to get an audience with Pope Damasus the first and explained his side of the story, Damaus denied him help, but Emperor Gratian granted him the reversal of his sentence to exile. He came back to Avila to take again his seat as Bishop.




James the Elder

In the book “The Dormition of Mary” it is written that when she felt her death was near, she asked Jesus to be surrounded by the apostles when she died. Jesus granted  her the miraculous capacity to appear to the apostles while she is still alive to summon them to her. In the year 40 A.D. approximately Santiago receives the apparition of the Virgin Mary on a pillar, where today stands the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar.

In he year 44 A.D. Santiago returns to Palestine and there he is sentenced to death by the king Herod Agrippa, who follow his family tradition from his uncle Herod Antipas, famous for his encounter with Jesus that ended up with the crucifixion of Jesus.

The theory based upon the Christian tradition tells us that two of his followers, Theodor and Anastasio transported his remains in seven days from Palestine to Galicia in a stone boat, they were guided by an angel. Once they arrived to the coast they ask the queen Lupa for her help. The queen, mocking them gave them two wild bulls to take them and she told them that they could bury the remains wherever the bulls stopped. Miraculously the bulls became tamed and leaded the cart to the centre of her palace, she had to abide by her own word and allow them to bury the remains of the martyr and she built a church in his honour.


Once Priscillian returned to his seat in Avile he did not last much, the Emperor Gratian was deposed by Magnus Maximus, who took over the persecution of Priscillian and his followers. From the year 385 A.D. Priscillian was sentenced to death and was beheaded in the German town of Treveris, where he was buried and stayed there for two or three years.

Many signs point to his sentence being politically and religiously motivated. During the fourth century the Roman Empire entered in his decadence and needed a quick reunification. During this same century Christianity has spread considerably by allowing many of the pagan practices as long as they could reach the people and convert them. So, many of the idolatries and rituals and other pagan beliefs were not persecuted while one was considered a“Christian”.

In this atmosphere emerged Priscillian, who in little time gained a multitude of followers and adepts to his cause, to the point that he had to create the first hierarquical independent structure outside the chuch of Rome´s control, this was a cause for worry in Rome. Both church and empire clubbed together with a double purpose, first to stop the rise of the Priscillianism and second, to unify the empire through a united religion: Catholicism.

In fact, Priscillian was not condemned for heresy, but for witchcraft; this is so because if he had been considered heretic, the church will not have been able to confiscate his terrenal possessions, the state would have kept them.

Continuing with Priscillian death, his body was transported in the year 389 A.D. when the emperor Maximus was defeated and beheaded by Theodosius and the Roman church allowed the followers of Priscillian to exhume and carry by boat his remains to his birthplace. At the same time, some other followers started the way to Galicia on foot, this peregrination to Compostela took place four centuries before the hermit Pelayo found the remains.




According to the story, in the year 813 A.D. the hermit Pelayo saw some flashlights that appear to be like a star over the nearby forest pf Libredon. He quickly told the bishop Teodomiro about his finding, the bishop order to dig the place, where they found a headless corpse.

From that moment and to our days, the interpretations, wars, interests, new discoveries, papal bulls and the need of the church to unify Christianity around a figure to counteract the Muslim invasion on the peninsula, so the myth took root and the story of the apostle´s remains spread around.

There have been several requests to have the bones tested with the carbon 14 in order to give a more accurate date of the remains, but it has not been done.

Nevertheless and whomever is buried there, El Camino is much more than the veneration to some bones and the hugging of the Saint´s bust; El Camino is what each one makes of it.

I hope you liked the post and that it has tickled your curiosity to keep finding more about these two characters so present in El Camino.



About Author

Isaac Martínez

Soy diseñador multimedia, hiker experimentado y arquitecto de Rutas en Vojo. Un día descubrí el Camino de Santiago y ya no me lo pude sacar de la cabeza. Me gustaría compartir con todos vosotros la experiencia y conocimientos que he podido adquirir a lo largo de cientos de kilómetros recorridios por esta y otras rutas, y dar a conocer consejos, historias y curiosidades que te ayuden a disfrutar mucho más tu Camino.

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