A few weeks ago we asked you what was the relationship between the famous painting of Las Meninas by Velázquez and the shells that we see in the backpacks of many pilgrims today, and we talked about one of the most recognizable symbols of the Camino de Santiago: the cross of Santiago
However, if there is truly a symbol that we associate today with the pilgrimage to Compostela, it is none other than the ubiquitous, simple and efficient yellow arrow of the Camino de Santiago.
An arrow in relief, printed on the official signage or simply scribbled in brushstrokes or as yellow graffiti on any wall, stone or tree, always pointing in the direction of the goal and marking our steps at every junction, at every fork in the road, so that the Camino is like Dorothy's (also yellow) path in The Wizard of Oz.
The Way of St. James before the yellow arrow
The yellow arrow is not only the most widely used symbol to mark the different routes of the Camino de Santiago. It is also the most recent, since it would not begin to be used until 1984. Its use began without a preconceived plan and without public institutions or large companies behind it. So, how was the arrow of the Camino de Santiago born?
In the 1980s, the Camino de Santiago had little to do with how it appears to us today, full of life and diversity. The crowds that had shaped it in the Middle Ages had succumbed to the religious crisis of the 16th century and the number of pilgrims had been slowly falling year by year ever since. However, during the 20th century, some people still kept alive the tradition of making the pilgrimage to Santiago by walking to Santiago de Compostela. the different routes to Compostela, with an almost exclusively religious motivation and many more difficulties than today.
First of all, the Camino was not marked. That is, there were no signs of any kind at any point along the Camino. Nor was it delimited, so that most pilgrims ended up taking long detours or, sometimes, getting lost. And, in addition, services were scarce: there was neither the network of public hostels nor the majority of hotels, guesthouses, inns or private hostels that today give us shelter.
The origin of the Camino de Santiago arrow
One of the complicated points was O Cebreiro, mythical village on the French Way at the gates of Galicia - and currently one of the most popular starting points of this route. The ascent from Villafranca del Bierzo was complicated, not only because of the enormous difference in altitude, but also because it was easy to get lost in the mountains.
Then the figure of Elías Valiña, the priest of O Cebreiro, and his happy idea appeared: to borrow some yellow paint left over from the works that were being done on a nearby road and to start painting yellow arrows to mark the path to prevent pilgrims from getting lost in the thick forests of Os Ancares.
Thus was born the first signposting of the Way of St. James.
So far, this is what most media and websites tell about the origin of the arrow of the Camino de Santiago. But there is more.
Elías Valiña was not a Quixote who thought of throwing himself against the windmills. In addition to being the parish priest of O Cebreiro, Valiña had dedicated an important part of his life to the study of the Camino de Santiago: to unravel its history and recover its route. Already in 1962 he had written his doctoral thesis entitled The Way of Saint James. A historical-legal study. So, twenty years later, when he embarked on the enormous undertaking of signposting the whole of the French Way from Roncesvalles along with a number of collaborators, knew exactly what he was up against.
The work carried out by Valiña to identify and delimit the original sections of the Way is still considered to be the safest and most correct, and except for some points that have been altered by new roads or new urbanised areas, the recovery of the Way and its route has been carried out following his studies.
Moreover, the yellow arrow has proved to be very effective and efficient: it stands out enough to be seen without producing, on the other hand, a great visual impact; it is easy to reproduce; and it does not require costly maintenance. That is why, beyond the work of Elías Valiña on the French Way, the rest of the routes have adopted his creation as the basis for their own signposting.
At present, it is the Associations of Friends of the Camino which are responsible (among many other things) for the maintenance of these arrows, repainting them and making sure they point in the right direction.
Yellow, blue, green and red arrows
There is no doubt: the colour of the arrow of the Camino de Santiago is yellow. However, along the different routes that make up the Camino, we can find arrows of other colours, with specific meanings that we explain below.
People walking the Portuguese Way will see, in many sections, a coincidence of yellow and blue arrows, generally pointing in the opposite direction (if you are north of Fátima).
The yellow arrow is the Camino de Santiago, it is clear. The blue arrow belongs to another route and points in the direction of Fátima, a very popular Marian shrine in Portugal, which during the 20th century also developed its own pilgrimage, with several routes.
One of them overlaps to a large extent with the Portuguese Way. So, although most of the blue arrows are in Portugal (the Salazar dictatorship strongly supported the emergence of Fátima as a major pilgrimage centre), it is also possible to see them at several points along the Galician section.
Although the arrow on the Camino de Santiago is yellow, there is one Way that has double signposting: the Vía de la Plata.
Since the Middle Ages, those who made the pilgrimage to Santiago from the south of the Iberian Peninsula often did so by following the ancient Roman road that connected the cities of Augusta Emerita (today's Mérida) and Asturica Augusta (today's Astorga), joining the latter with the French Way to reach Compostela.
The modern recovery of the so-called Silver Route and its subsequent signposting also allowed the recovery of historic stretches of the old road, which has its own signposting, in green, pointing in the direction of Astorga and Santiago.
Both arrows coexist at several points and fork at others, so that the yellow one indicates that the route corresponds to the route of the Way of St. James, while the green one indicates that this section corresponds to the original Roman route.
Finally, at some points on the Camino de Santiago it is also possible to find red arrows next to the typical yellow arrow. As in the previous cases, these are signs of other roads that coincide with the one that goes to Compostela, in this case the Camino Lebaniego.
The Camino Lebaniego is a pilgrimage route that aims to reach the sanctuary of Santo Toribio de Liébana, in the heart of the Picos de Europa. As the sanctuary is located between the French Way and the Northern Way (both to Santiago), it was also used in the past as a kind of communication or by-pass between the two.