These days, buen camino is the most frequent pilgrim greeting along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but I always thought ultreïa was more traditional.
Medieval pilgrim #1: Ultreïa!
Medieval pilgrim #2: Et suseïa!
The usual English translation of ultreïa is onward, but that doesn’t seem to get at the heart of it. Keep going and walk further aren’t as elegant, but they show the encouragement that’s an integral part of the word.
Suseia means upward, more or less. So the medieval pilgrims would be telling each other onward and upward!
I heard the song Ultreïa played and sung fairly often on my pilgrimage, mainly along on the Chemin du Puy in France.
The first time, it was only the melody, as an organ and a violinist played a duet in the Conques cathedral. Since then, I heard the song—and sang it—often enough that I memorized the first verse through simple osmosis.
At the time, I didn’t know about its medieval origins. As I just discovered through the miracle of internet research, the words of the song Ultreïa come from the twelfth-century Codex Calixtenus manuscript, a collection of documents about the Santiago pilgrimage and Saint James himself.
At least, the words of the chorus do (more or less, anyway). I suspect the verses are more recent. They certainly wouldn’t have been written in French in the Codex Calixtenus.
The word ultreïa doesn’t look French, either, though it’s found in a French song.
Curious, I spent some time digging around on the internet, where ultreïa‘s origins are alternately given as Latin, Spanish or Galician. The explanation that makes the most sense to me is that it’s based on Latin, but not pure Classical Latin, but rather a “degraded” Latin on its way to becoming one of our modern Romance languages.
The most helpful information I found on ultreïa‘s history was from Miguel Perles Alabau, an art historian (though I think he was a student when he wrote this), who asked around at his university for information on the term.
As far as I can understand (and that might not be very far, since my Spanish is a long way from perfect), a Franciscan professor who specializes in medieval history told him the word ultreïa has been mythologized. The part about the chorus in the Codex Calixtenus is true: that song really was sung in the Santiago Cathedral. But the story of ultreïa (together with its counterpart, suseïa) being a common medieval pilgrim greeting is apparently a myth.
And then according to a Latin professor, ultreïa basically meant hallelujah, and was a word pilgrims used when they reached Santiago de Compostela.
When I was walking the Camino, a Swiss pilgrim told me he’d heard that in the mystical Camino tradition, ultreïa represents the journey to Santiago, and suseïa is the trip home.
I’ve come across the same idea a few other places as well. I wonder if it’s an old idea, or if it’s another modern romanticization.
Of course, all this is fascinating, but at least to me, it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t make the word any less special to think that it probably wasn’t used as a medieval pilgrim greeting. It’s obviously been associated with the Camino de Santiago for many centuries, and historically speaking, words change their meanings all the time.
And the song is beautiful. Here it is, for your enjoyment, first in French and then in my not-exactly-poetic English translation. And be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom and watch the video: it’s my favourite of all the Ultreïa versions I found on YouTube.
Wishing you all a wonderful New Year filled with long walks (along pilgrim pathways when possible, of course). Ultreïa!
* * *
Tous les matins nous prenons le Chemin,
tous les matins nous allons plus loin,
jour après jour la route nous appelle,
c’est la voix de Compostelle!
Ultreïa! Ultreïa! Et sus eia!
Deus adjuva nos!
Chemin de terre et Chemin de foi,
voie millénaire de l’Europe,
la voie lactée de Charlemagne,
c’est le Chemin de tous les jacquets!
Et tout là-bas au bout du continent,
Messire Jacques nous attend,
Depuis toujours son sourire fixe
Le soleil qui meurt au Finisterre.
(I can’t guarantee the complete accuracy of this translation, but it’s more or less correct, if very unpoetic.)
Every morning we take the Camino,
Every morning we go farther,
Day after day the route calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela!
Onward! Onward! And upward!
God assist us!
Way of earth and way of faith,
Ancient road of Europe,
The Milky Way of Charlemagne,
It’s the Chemin of all the Santiago pilgrims!
And over there at the end of the continent,
Santiago waits for us,
His smile always fixed
On the sun that dies at Finisterre.