The Camino before Christianity
There have existed many routes to Santiago de Compostela during ancient Rome. During those times, these routes were used for trade and were nick named the Milky Way by those who travelled along the path. The path followed the Milky Way Galaxy as you could easily see it at night, heading west towards the Atlantic Ocean. To this day, many pilgrims do not simply stop walking once they have reached Santiago de Compostela. In fact, they continue towards Finisterre, which gets its name from the Roman belief that this spot was actually the end of land or the most west portion of mainland Europe.
Origins of the Scallop Shell symbol
In the region of Galicia in northern Spain, you will find many scallop shells washed along the shore. The scallop Shell has thus become the symbol for hikers of the Camino de Santiago. The origins of this symbol are mythical in nature, which still makes for a lovely souvenir for most hikers.
There are two versions to this myth. The first version describes that after the death of St. James in Jerusalem his body was transported to Santiago de Compostela by boat. A fierce storm struck the boat the body was lost at sea, just off the coast of Spain. Several days later the body washed up along the shore undamaged but covered in scallop shells.
The second version describes how his body was transported to Spain after his death but this time the boat had no crew. As the boat was approaching northern Spain, there was wedding just along the shore. The bridegroom was on horseback and upon seeing the ship of St. James approach land, the horse and bridegroom were startled and fell into the water. When the horse and bridegroom surfaced out of the water they were unhurt but covered in scallop shells.
The scallop Shell is also intended to be used for metaphorical reasons. The different grooves along the surface of the shell symbolize the many different paths one can take to reach Santiago de Compostela. As well, many pilgrims in earlier times used the scallop shell to drink water out of as the shell was perfectly sized to act as a bowl or cup. You will see many people with the scallop shell hanging from their backpack or from their staff/walking stick. Staffs in earlier times had a hook on the end to allow items to be hung from it and normally, the scallop shell was one of those things hanging.