Compostela — ‘Field of the Star’?

By Joshua Tree National Park – Perseid Meteor Shower; 8/11/15, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44122793

In a previous post I mentioned seeing the Perseid meteor shower about halfway between Burgos and León and it got me thinking about the origins of the name Compostela, which some suggest comes from the Latin Campus Stellae ‘Field of the Star’.

Etymologies — the origin and explanations of names — can be fun.  For example, my name is Denis, which comes from Dionysius, the name of the Greek god of wine and debauchery (clearly my parents are far-sighted people), and until recently I lived in a county called Westmeath, which is… well… west of Meath.  Sometimes you don’t need a degree in advanced linguistics to work with etymologies.  Anyway, Compostela has been etymologised as deriving from Latin campus (‘field’) and stellae (‘of the star’).  This might be an example of what is known as a ‘folk-etymology’, where a name is believed to derive from well-known and common elements, when it actually derives from older and obsolete words, which are then replaced by modern and more readily comprehensible forms.  In the case of Compostela, its name may originally come from compostum, meaning a burial place (think garden ‘compost’), but there are other suggestions too.  The form Campus Stellae is associated with the tale of a hermit named Pelayo, who in 813AD supposedly saw a star hovering over the spot where the long-forgotten saint’s tomb lay.[1]

It would be easy to play the credulous historical detective and suggest that there really was a Pelayo who witnessed the Perseid meteor shower, and this led him to identify the site of what he thought was Santiago’s tomb.  However, linking the discovery of a forgotten saint’s tomb to a heavenly sign is a trope of medieval literature, and of course it has good biblical precedent, in that the Magi are said to have located the site of the nativity by following a star to Bethlehem, also from East to West.  Whether the story led to the folk etymology or the etymology to the creation of a story to explain it is very much chicken and egg.  But by the same token, hyper-scepticism should not prompt us to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Medieval Christianity held that observing the motion of heavenly bodies, whose movements were regular, offered a glimpse of the sublime.  The constancy of the stars was a blueprint for God’s plan for creation (rather like Javert saw in Les Misérables), and when something out of the ordinary occurred — like a meteor shower — it could be interpreted as a sign for good or ill.

The Perseid meteor shower is a series of tiny particles trailing off the comet Swift–Tuttle, and is so called because it looks like they are coming from the constellation of Perseus (but there is no connection with it; this is just an earthbound perception).  This year it’ll be at its most visible on the 11, 12 and 13 of August, when you might see up to 40 or 50 meteors an hour at its peak.[2]  Within Ireland one of the best places to view it is southwest Co. Kerry, an area of extremely low levels of light pollution and home to the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve.[3] Or just stay outside, look to the sky, and see where it takes you.


[1] Oxford Reference, ‘Santiago de Compostela: Overview’: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100441348

[2] https://earthsky.org/?p=165416

[3] Wikipedia, ‘Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerry_International_Dark-Sky_Reserve

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