After hiking up to the rocky outcrop known as Ara Solis—the Altar to the Sun—I’d clambered onto one of the Piedras Santas—sacred stones—to get an even better view across the Finisterre peninsula and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon.
Lying on the western coastline of Galicia in northwestern Spain, Finisterre was viewed in ancient times as the furthermost reach of the known world—the name comes from the Latin Finis Terrae, which means “end of the earth”—beyond which it was believed lay Tir-na-Nóg, the Celtic Otherworld that is the Land of Eternal Youth.
Nowadays, Finisterre is best known through its association with the Camino pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compostela, the proclaimed resting place of Saint James. After reaching Santiago, some pilgrims continue walking for another 86 kilometers to Finisterre, marking the logical and literal end of the Camino trail (for you can walk no farther westward, barred by the giant barrier of the Atlantic Ocean).
The Forgotten Sacredness of Finisterre
What many Camino pilgrims don’t realize is how this route was walked by pagan pilgrims for centuries before Christianity emerged. From the 10th century onward, church leaders sought to appropriate the pagan route, along with many pagan festivals, while suppressing any references to, and memories of, more ancient and heathen practices.
“Finisterre was one of the most powerful places of ancient worship and spiritual initiation in the known world,” says John Brierley in A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Finisterre. “It is, perhaps, a pity that factual records of these pagan, Phoenician, Celtic, and Roman rites have largely been erased from the history books. The early Christian church, no doubt threatened by the ideas behind worship of the sun and the notion of Tir-na-Nóg, suppressed what information was available.”
But despite Finisterre having been subsumed into the Camino, Finisterre still clings on as the mysterious pagan twin to Santiago de Compostela’s overtly Christian status. Ancient burial mounds and tombs made of huge stones from the megalithic era dot the landscape and appear beside the Camino trail on the route from Santiago to Finisterre, as do 4,000-year-old stone carvings.
North of Ara Solis
is another headland jutting into the Atlantic Ocean that is known as Cablo Da Nave
. The name means "Ship’s Headland" and alludes to the mythological boat that carried the souls of the dead
to the underworld ruled by the Greek god Hades, explains Brierley. The furthermost rocks of Cablo da Nave
descending into the crashing waves are said to represent the helmeted head of a Roman centurion laid to rest in the westward direction of the fabled fields of Elysium.
How Finisterre Connects Us to Pagan Lineages and Rituals
The westward orientation of Finisterre is key. Brierley explains how Finisterre marked the fault line between the Christian point of reference toward the east—and Jerusalem and the rising sun, symbolizing resurrection—and the pagan orientation toward the west and the setting sun and the end of life it represented.
“Continuing the ever-popular theme of death and dying is the ominous name given to this entire coastline,” Brierley says of Costa da Morte. “Coast of Death [is] a reference, perhaps, to the cult of the dead of the Celtic Otherworld [rather] than to its manifold shipwrecks.”
As good a spot as any around Finisterre for contemplating such ancient beliefs is Praia do Mar de Fora, a beach that exemplifies the wild beauty and celestial light that pervades Finisterre. Brierley notes the ancient rite—still followed by some pilgrims after arriving in Finisterre—of burning one’s old clothes and “donning fresh garments as an act of renewal.” Another enduring ritual, he says, involves kneeling in the shallows to allow nine waves to wash over the body, “representing a rebirth into a new life washed clean by spirit.”
The westward-facing beach also offers an ideal vantage spot for bewitching sunsets and gaining a better understanding of why in ancient times the sun was worshipped by Celtic druids and those pagan pilgrims in attendance. After all, each sunset marks the sun having burnt itself away at the rate of 365,000 tons a day to light our world from 92 million miles away. How not to marvel at such a daily phenomenon.
What We Can Learn From Our Pagan Ancestors
During my time in Finisterre, and as I delved into its history, I realized that there is much we can still learn from our pagan forbears and the way in which Finisterre has inspired and excited imaginations across the ages. For one, as Brierley also notes, we can only marvel at the zeal of those who risked life and limb to walk so far, all those centuries ago, when travel was incomparably more dangerous and difficult.
Many people today seem to have lost the capacity for the type of awestruck wonder that must have motivated those pagans to head to Finisterre and then gripped their hearts when they encountered what would have been to them the incomprehensible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Nowadays, not only are we struggling to retain the wonder and imagination that is so essential for our souls and spiritual selves, but we are also increasingly turning our backs on the power of ritual.
As Brierley notes, our pagan forbears understood that ritual was a means to relate to a deeper understanding that transcends the strictures of the present—a way to access that mysterious spiritual realm which increasingly seems irrelevant and sidelined by our devotion to all that is rational and empirically provable. Shorn of such metaphysical dimensions, no wonder so many appear angry and struggle to heal as they deal with, in Brierley’s words, “the psychic rubbish of superiority and resentment.”
Our pagan forebears also revered nature and respected the natural order. They practiced land-spirit reverence, as Norse pagan author Patricia Lafayllve notes in "Modern Norse Pagan Practices for Beginners." One way to connect with the spirits of the land, Lafayllve counsels, is to “walk or stand barefoot outside” to “feel the energy of the Earth beneath your feet.”
Indeed, when I stood on the rocks of Ara Solis, I felt compelled to remove my clunky hiking boots and thick walking socks. As thankful as I was to them for their loyal service during endless hiking, they represented a barrier, and it was only when the flesh of my feet touched the rock that it felt right, and I was connected to the Earth.
The Challenges and Rewards of Reconnection in the 21st Century
Grasping the meaning of our temporal and brief lives has been a fundamental human challenge throughout the centuries—whether from the point of view of a pagan, a Christian, or neither. Technology may even be making it harder, going off the levels of discombobulation afflicting society.
“When a careerist culture meets a digital revolution that allows unlimited access to work, something’s got to give,” Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren wrote in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. “And in America, that something tends not to be work demands but is instead the human soul.”
As Brierley describes, if we showed more respect for the efforts of our seemingly less advanced pagan ancestors and their strange heathen ways on the ancient Path of Enquiry that they trod, it might help guide us toward the rediscovery of our Essential Nature that seems increasingly elusive nowadays.
“We have been so long separated from our divine origins that we have forgotten what freedom feels like,” Brierley says. “While ensnared by our outer-directed materialistic world, we unwittingly hold the key to the door of our self-made prison.”
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