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Andrys Onsman
[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

In Jabik’s Footsteps

The ancient pilgrims’ path of Saint Jacob

Text and photographs by Andrys Onsman,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, ©2007

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Travels and Lowlands-L History collections as well.]

European map showing Ljouwert and Santiago de CompostellaFrom the far north of The Netherlands to the extreme west of Spain is a long way, but every year an increasing number of people cycle or even walk the more than three thousand kilometer long Saint Jacob’s pilgrim-path: from St Jabik to Santiago de Compostela (both of which mean Jacob in the local languages). Some enthusiasts cycle the entire route in six weeks, covering a hundred kilometers a day, six days a week for six weeks. And that’s just getting there: most have to cycle back as well. Walking at a fair clip you’d cover about thirty five kilometers day, which means that it would take at least a hundred days to make it. In any case, whether you walk or cycle, it’s a bloody long way. For the less devout, there is, of course, another approach. Fundamentally it is a game of collecting stamps from checkpoints in a number of participating towns and cities along the route. Unless you are trying to achieve redemption, there is no reason to complete the entire course in one go. Many tourists now undertake sections at a time, coming back year after year to complete another section, gradually working their way south or north.

The path starts in St Jabik (called Sint Jacobiparochie in Dutch), a small village in the far north in the semi-autonomous area called Fryslân. I know the area very well because it is where I spent the summers of my childhood. It is an idyllic place, perfect for children; consisting of stunningly beautiful little villages, an icy cold sea and magnificent open farm lands. But these days appearances can be deceptive: in reality the charming cottages and the smaller farms have nearly all been bought by Dutch and German retirees who have done wonders in restoring the buildings but have also in many cases unwittingly killed off village life. The Dutch writer Geert Mak summed up the shift by declaring that God had abandoned the villages. The claim gives a good indication of not only the changing demographic but also of the importance of religion to the Frisians.

Every village, no matter how small, has a church. But churches can’t operate when the largest part of their congregations only visits for three weeks in the summer. Preachers often now come once a month, rather than twice a week. The church seems to be as much a victim of Economic Rationalism as the small farmers forced off the land have been. Despite all that, a clear sunny day lends credibility to the Frisians’ unshakeable belief that theirs is the best country on Earth.

The Frisian people have lived in the area since time immemorial and show no signs of leaving. They have their own language, their own culture and most of all their own unique way of seeing the world, particularly in religious terms. In fact they were the last of the mainland Europeans to withstand the Christian Evangelists: St Boniface was unceremoniously slain in Dokkum on the fifth of June, 754, when he tried to bring the new religion from England to the fiercely independent heathens who had contemptuously withstood all attempts at religious subjugation. At that time the Frisian people put their faith in the more earthy deities like Woden, Frig and Eostre: after all, this was (and continues to be) a land of farmers and fishermen who need the Earth and the Sea to be, if not always bountiful, at least not actively antagonistic. Even today the only things the world seems to know about Fryslận are its black and white cattle and the beautiful jet black horses that the Duke of Edinburgh uses to compete with in Olympic Games.

But the juggernaut of Christianity could not be resisted forever and eventually the Frisians succumbed. These days only remnants of the old religion remain. The God Woden continues to be remembered through Wednesday and the Goddess Eostre through Easter, her festival that was taken over by the Christians and recast as the time when Jesus was crucified. Wherever they went, the Christians were good at taken over existing festivals and attaching Episcopalian significance. But occasionally on a mid-summer’s night, when a full moon hangs heavy in the vast sky, some folk swear they can feel the spirits of their ancestors whispering to them in the old language.

Frisians tend not to do things by halves and when they were eventually converted they took to the new religion with the same fierce single-mindedness with which they had defended the old. Bear in mind that the Frisians have a well-deserved reputation for maintaining their independence. The Romans gave up trying to conquer them, and later even the all-conquering Charlemagne allowed them to remain their own masters. So, when the new religion took hold, they embraced it without reservation but with plenty of criticism. Unhappy with the pomp and ceremony (and corruption) that was increasingly evident in the Papish version, they adopted the pragmatism and egalitarianism of the Calvinists. Religion for those whose welfare depends upon good fortune is a serious business. As an indication of their approach, Menno Simmons, founder of the Mennonites who continue to maintain their old fashioned ways even today, was a Frisian. So it should come as no surprise that these fiercely independent and pragmatic people should take a special interest in Jacob, a dour and serious Apostle who also happened to be a fisherman. He at least would understand the weather and the seasons.

Most English speaking people know him as Saint James because in the New Testament that is what he is called. In the Old Testament however, he is called Jacob, and the Frisians prefer the fire and brimstone certainty of the original to the pumped-up pageantry and subject-to-interpretation parables of the new, so here he is known as Sint Jabik. Linguistically, the Frisian didn’t think much of the language shifts of the seventeenth century either, so the b and the k sounds stayed where they originally were, unlike in that new-fangled English, Dutch and German.

At the other end of the Path, he is known as Sant Iago, a fact which for people raised on Shakespeare, often causes a quizzically raised eyebrow. Curiously, Saint Jacob is known in Spain as the Moor-slayer, and in the play it was Iago who plotted the Moor of Venice’s tragic downfall. But whilst Sant Iago is generally considered a good guy (and his Moor-slaying is played down these days), Iago was the bad guy in the play and, technically, Othello killed his wife and himself as a result of his jealousy. But it does make you wonder.

Along with his brother John, Jacob was one of Jesus’ favoured apostles. It was widely believed that after Jesus’ death, Jacob was sent to Finisterre (literally “the Ends of the Earth”) to spread the gospel. Heading west from Galilee, he walked until he came to Galicia, the area of Spain on the Atlantic Ocean, just above present-day Portugal. That was as far as he could go without falling off the edge of the world. Perhaps he should have tried because a few years later back in Jerusalem, he was beheaded by King Herod. His bones were spirited back to Galicia, and in the eleventh century a magnificent cathedral was built over his grave in Santiago de la Compostela, which still stands and now serves as the end point for pilgrims on the Path. As the country’s patron saint, Jacob is generally revered throughout Spain, but nowhere more than in Galicia.

Picture of St. Jacob in LjouwertIn the medieval context, pilgr../travels/images were common-place all over the world. Europe was no exception: long before Jacob’s bones were buried in Santiago, many cities and towns had “pilgrim routes” leading to holy places. The idea was that the physical journey mirrored the spiritual one that the soul would take to get to Heaven. Some of the routes were quite short, such as to the shrine of Beckett in Canterbury (where Chaucer’s pilgrims were off to in his Canterbury Tales) and others were very long such as the trip to Jerusalem. Some were to graves, such as the Vatican City where late in the twentieth century Pope Paul VI accepted the bones unearthed from under the Basilica of Saint Peter as those of the venerable apostle, and others were to places were miracles had occurred, such as Lourdes where Saint Bernadette saw visions of Mary. In most cases, the reason for the trip was to ask either for forgiveness or favour from God.

Most cities have their own favourite or patron saint, but Jacob continues to hold a special place in all of Western and Northern Europe—and there are signs of the reverence for him throughout the area. All cities have at least one street named after him, and Ljouwert, Fryslân’s charming capital city, is no exception. It is very pleasant to wander around this beautiful little city; looking at the many small reliefs that adorn the older houses that are now being restored. Particular to this story, you can find one that shows a young Jacob on his way. We know it is him because it says so in Dutch and because the four traditional symbols of the pilgrim are clearly evident: the staff, the Bible, the shell above his head and the tunic (which would later become the cloak or mantle).

Elsewhere, high on the walls of the city’s Catholic Church, built in 1254, one of the murals Picture of St. Jacob in Ljouwertshows a somewhat older Jacob on his way through Europe spreading the gospel. The image is fading, but it is still very evident as to who it is. The fact that Jacob looks more like a Teutonic gentleman striding to a business meeting than a Middle Eastern mystic determined to spread the gospel to the pagans indicates that the mural was painted in the seventeenth century, when the city was an important part of the Hanseatic League. For many centuries the Frisian language was the lingua franca of business and economics for most of Northern Europe. It was the successful business men who sponsored the building and decorating of the churches and cathedrals, and they wanted to be able to see themselves in the holy men painted on the walls.

Although the style of the mural is very different to the relief, the pilgrim’s accoutrements are still in evidence—at least in part. The staff has been replaced by a sword (this was the times when Christians were encouraged to consider their struggle against the heathens in more military terms) and the tunic is well on the way to becoming a cloak. On his back he carries a bag, presumably holding his bible. The shell has disappeared, probably somewhere in the faded sections that now seem to swathe Jabik in atmospheric mist.

With so many signs and portents, it seemed churlish for me not to make a start. So with a guidebook (rather than a Bible) in hand, wearing a windcheater (rather than a cloak), but with a shell (from South Melbourne Beach) in my pocket, I left the town of St Jabik to set foot on the path to Heavenly redemption. Although I had neither favour nor forgiveness to ask, it seemed as good a way as any to take a closer look at the changeable landscape of my childhood. If nothing else, it was an excuse to get some fresh air and to think about a few things. And to prove I had done so, along the way I would collect stamps in the back of my guidebook.

Andrys Onsman in front of the St. Jabik signTo my left, under the main sign, is a smaller one showing two bearded men. They are carrying the traditional pilgrim symbols: the staff, the Bible and the mantle. Above, splitting the two characters is a shell. Rather than a conch, it is a scallop shell. In Frisian the word for shell is “skulp”, pronounced much like the English word “scallop”, which in turn is called “St Jacques’ coquille” in French. Not very surprising really, seeing Frisian and English were the same language nine centuries ago.

But translating between the two can create problems. The northern most point of the Path is just outside the town of St Jabik, in the tiny village called Zwarte Haan in Dutch, which translates to English as Black Rooster. However in Frisian it is Zwarte Hoane, which translates into English as Black Hook. The latter makes much more sense because it is a hook of black, peaty clay, and there no black roosters to be seen anywhere. But despite the name of the place having nothing to do with poultry, the stamp you collect at the restaurant is of a black rooster.

Landscape in FryslânOne of the most interesting of the tales that are attached to St Jacob’s Path is the possibility that the first person to walk the route was a clay-worker from this area. The story goes that the chap managed to get himself into a fair bit of strife with one of the local women, without the sanctity of marriage. The local priest was called in to hand out an appropriate punishment. The problem was that the fellow’s family owned much of the land, so the sentence couldn’t be too severe. The priest opted to send the young man on a pilgrimage to Santiago de la Compostela, a task that would keep him out of sight for a while and might just settle him down If nothing else, he’d be tired when he came back. He was allowed to take no food or money or water, and had to collect a signed letter of arrival from the Spanish church. He was allowed, however, to take his girlfriend—which makes sense because you can ask for food, water and a place to sleep along the way but asking for someone to sleep with is slightly more problematic. As legend would have it, the young man died just before arriving in Galicia, leaving his girlfriend to collect the letter and walk back. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

View of StiensWhereas the southern end of the path has its famous cathedral, the northern end has vast empty spaces, especially above you. When you are walking in the meadows, the sky stretches over you like an enormous snow-cone and every now and then a celestial hand gives it a shake. Driven by the winds from the Arctic north, black rain-clouds roll down, stealing the light and occasionally dumping fat showers exclusively where you happen to be. What ever the season, take a raincoat: a sleeveless windcheater over a t-shirt just doesn’t cut it. Trust me on that. On the other hand, showers do pass quickly and if you keep walking you dry out quickly.

Following the old church paths that still give the pedestrian the right of way, the Path bumps against little waterways where small sailing boats nestle under willow trees, over paddocks where the Frisian cows graze contentedly on the lush green grass and through old villages with two names: first in the local language, then in Dutch. Often it is in the churches or the nearby community centres that you collect your stamps, and stop for a chat. Nearly every one speaks English, and if you come from Australia, New Zealand or Canada, they will enquire if you know any of the various members of their family who migrated there in the last fifty years. Man-hole in LjouwertLike Ireland, there are now more Frisians living abroad than in Fryslân.

The last place on the Path before you get back to Ljouwert is a beautiful little village called Stiens. Its centre piece (literally and figuratively) is one of the most beautiful sixteenth century churches still operating. Surrounded by a ring of verdant trees that from a distance look like a green ruff, it remains the social and spiritual centre of village, and anyone who was anyone is buried either inside or in the graveyard. So beautiful and so close to the city, the little houses were bought and restored by the commuters rather than the original villagers.

Back in Ljouwert, after a final stamp, it’s time for a well-deserved beer in a café in St Jacob Street. From here it’s not so far to Spain, and should you wish to continue, simply look at the seven man-hole covers in the middle of the cobble-stoned street. Each has stamped on it a variation of the shell theme and bears the Latin words campus stellae, the field of stars. Line all up all seven and they will point the way Santiago de la Compostela. But be careful of the traffic—it’s getting crowded on Sint Jabikspaad



[To Andrys Onsman’ index]

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