The botafumeiro

Surviving the botafumeiro!

Once inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, an important stop for all the pilgrims of the Camino, you will find the magnificent botafumeiro hanging from the ceiling of the Cathedral. The name means “the smoke spreader.” It is a giant incense holder whose original purpose was to mitigate the smell of the thousands of pilgrims gathered in the church, who often had traveled for hundreds of miles with limited access to showers and baths. Today, while hygiene has improved considerably, the botafumeiro is still a wonder to behold and an important part of the tradition of the Camino.

The botafumeiro weighs 116 lbs. (53 kg.) and is 5 ft. (1.5 m.) high. It rises 65 ft. (20 m.) swinging over the aisles of the Cathedral at a speed of 43 mi/hour (70 km/hour). It works with a system of ropes and pulleys pulled by eight men called tiraboleiros.

It was first used in the XI century, and the botafumeiro has been changed several times during the years. In the XV century, French King Louis XI donated money to replace the old one with a new one made in silver. That lasted until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte decided it was a nice souvenir and took it back to France with him.

The botafumeiro has broken several times in history. The first time was in 1499, when Princess Catherine of Aragon was visiting the Cathedral. With the excitement of the moment, when the incense holder was flying at 68 kilometers per hour, one of the four chains broke, and the rest couldn’t hold the weight, breaking as well. The botafumeiro flew off like a projectile through the transept, slamming against the Platerias door.

Between 1729 and 1851, the botafumeiro was made of iron (the heaviest one in history) and although it has broken other times, it has never caused major injuries! Seeing it fly inside the Cathedral is a lovely experience that we all need to survive once in a lifetime.

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