Lord, may this stone, a symbol of my efforts on the pilgrimage
that I lay at the foot of the cross of the savior,
one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds
when the deeds of my life are judged.
–The prayer of the Cruz de Ferro
The Cruz de Ferro . . . the Iron Cross
For pilgrims on Spain’s Camino de Santiago one of the most facinating stops along the route is at the Cruz de Ferro, made famous recently in a movie starring Martin Sheen called, The Way. Many pilgrims say that this sacred place is even more spiritually uplifting than the visit to the actual grave of the Apostle James! I remember that during our pilgrimage, that as we approached the quarter-mile-wide plateau of Mount Irago, everyone in our small group became very silent. I recall it was a foggy morning, very cold, and we couldn’t see anything except occasional traces of the pine forest surrounding us and the road. Then suddenly, just as we reached what would be the highest point that pilgrims will traverse on their journey along the Camino, the mists opened up into a cloudy sky, and suddenly we could see the famous pile of rocks with its cross sticking out of its center known as the Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross.
Possible Reasons For the Tradition
The story of the Cruz de Ferro (an oak pole actually, with an iron cross embedded in its top) actually predates Christianity by at least a couple of thousand years. One theory is that because Mount Irago is such a high place, the ancient Celts who originally inhabited the area may have used the location for some ritual function. There seems to be some evidence as well that suggests that when the Romans occupied this area just before the birth of Christ, that they used a then much smaller mound of stones as an altar to Mercury, the god of travel.
The Most Probable Reason for the Stone-throwing Tradition
But the most likely story is the legend that says that as the apostle James himself passed through the region on one of his early evangelizing missions, he witnessed with a great repugnance how the local pagan priests were performing human sacrifices upon the large granite platform. With a raging anger directed toward the perpetrators of such senseless slaughter mixed, as well, with a loving and infinite compassion for the innocent victims of such cruelty, the saint called out to the Lord for guidance and help. He then reached into the pocket of his cloak, pulled from it a small stone that he had carried with him all the way from Jerusalem, and with the entire might of God Almighty behind him, threw the rock and smote the pagan altar, reducing it to dust. In its place he erected the original iron cross upon the spot to remind the local heathens of the one true God.
The Tradition Today
Today, every pilgrim who passes by, whether they be believers, agnostics, atheists, or pagans, leaves a stone on the pile. In the act of throwing the stone over his or her shoulder, the pilgrim symbolically leaves behind them upon this pile any physical, spiritual, or emotional burdens they may be carrying in their hectic daily lives. For many pilgrims (with the possible exception of the physical act of reaching the cathedral at Santiago itself), this ritual represents the spiritual culmination of their journey along the Camino. Whatever the origin of the tradition might be, the millions of pilgrims who have passed over the top of this mountain in the thousand-year history of the Camino de Santiago have added considerably to the gigantic mound of stones that stands there today; the pile stretches over fifty feet across at the base and is about twenty-five feet tall.
This story is an excerpt from my book: One With the World