Holy hens

The henhouse

Before dinner in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, my friend Ingrid and I visited the Cathedral. In place of the usual gold and silver plated backdrop to the altar hung a large black cross. Words describing human suffering had been engraved on it: famine, terror, cancer, flood, fire, grief, pain and many others. I stood contemplating its awful beauty for many minutes.
Next we came on Santo Domingo’s tomb. We’d heard that after he was refused a place in the nearby monastery he became a hermit in a forest. Noticing the trouble pilgrims were having crossing the River Oja he built a bridge over it and continued the path on through the forest. Next he founded a hospital, a place for pilgrims to stay. When he died he was buried close to the path he’d built and the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada grew around his tomb.
Not far from the tomb we heard a hen’s cackle. Above a door we saw a chicken coop. Chickens in a cathedral? We puzzled over the chickens on our way back to the albergue. One of the hospitaleros wasn’t busy so I asked him what on earth the rooster and hen were doing in the cathedral?
“Aaah, that is quite a story,” he said. “It happens that a few centuries ago a family of pilgrims stopped in the town for the night. The innkeeper’s daughter fell in love with the son but he failed to reciprocate. The angry girl planted some silver in his bag then accused him of theft. He was arrested and the mayor condemned him to hang. The parents continued sadly on their way, praying to Santo Domingo for his soul.
On their return they found him still alive. When cut down the son claimed that Santo Domingo had kept him alive by holding him up from below. They ran to the mayor to tell him of the miracle. Of course, the mayor laughed when they told him.
“He’s about as alive as these two roast chickens on my table,” he said. The two chickens immediately regained their feathers and beaks and ran squawking across the mayoral lap.”
The hospitalero took us out the back of the building and pointed to a very fancy henhouse.
“Every 2 weeks we change the chickens over so that they all get a turn at being holy hens.”

Miracle stories abound on the Camino. Many accrete around existing tales, and morph and change as the centuries pass and people’s understandings of the world evolve. We heard several versions of this one. Some concentrated more on the miracle of the son’s survival, others on the miracle of the resurrection of the chickens, the odd one on the mayor’s comeuppance. Privately, I wondered why the girl was never brought to justice.

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