Have you heard of the Game of the Goose?

The Game of the Goose is a board game I used to play as a child… and now play again with my kids.

And how is this relevant to the Camino, you may ask?

In this guest post, Vickie Kelty tells us about the benefits of introducing board or card games on our Caminos. Games can also be a way to keep the Camino feeling alive while you can’t travel. And, of course, they’re a fun way to practice and improve your Spanish.

But apart from all of that, which is valid for any game, really, there’s more.

The Game of the Goose or La Oca, as we call it in Spanish, is an ancient game. It’s origins are not totally clear, but one theory links it to the Camino de Santiago. According to it, this game was created by the Templars in the 12th century; and it was not a game originally, but  an encrypted map of the Camino.

 

Who are the Templars?

But who are these Templars and why would they create an encrypted map of the Camino?

There are many myths and legends around the Templars, so I won’t go into detail but the Knights Templar (or simply Templars, or Templarios in Spanish) were a Catholic military order founded in the early 12th century. They were active for around 200 years, until they were suppressed by Pope Clement V. The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades and one of their duties was to protect pilgrims going to Jerusalem.

To cut a long story short, the order grew rapidly and extended to several countries, including what we today know as Spain.

In Spain, they took part in the Reconquista (reconquest). Many of the territories being reconquered were located along the Camino, so the Templars contributed to the safety of pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela too.

Different sources differ about the extent of the Templars’ presence and influence on the Camino (there were other orders too and things sometimes get blurry). But we do know  for sure there’s a Templar castle in Ponferrada.

Castillo templario de Ponferrada

Templars’ castle in Ponferrada

Why a goose? 

Geese were considered sacred animals from ancient times and they would alert you in case of intruders. Also, only the nobility was allowed to raise geese so, if pilgrims saw a flock of geese they knew they were near a noble household, possibly a safe place.

A lot has been written about the goose references along the Camino. That seems to support the links between the Camino and the game of the goose. We can find examples of these references in the names of many places, such as Montes de Oca, Puerto de Oca, Castrojeriz (which means city of geese) or Manjarín (meaning man of geese). Other references would be builders marks in the shape of a goose leg, found on churches; and even the cross in Puente La Reina’s church of the Crucifix (also in the shape of a goose leg).  

The Game of the Goose

But going back to the game, La Oca would be an encrypted map of the Camino. In those times, most people couldn’t  read, so each casilla* (square) had pictures. The symbols on each casilla would make reference to signs that had been placed along the Camino. Pilgrims would be told what each picture represented. On casilla 6, for instance, you’ll find un puente (a bridge), which allegedly represents Puente La Reina.

The casillas with ocas (geese) on them would represent safe places. Not everybody uses the exact same rules; there are some variations. But this one doesn’t change: if you fall on a goose, you advance to the next one and roll your dice again, saying “de oca a oca y tiro porque me toca”, which roughly translates as “from goose to goose and I roll the dice because it’s my turn”… Sorry, it doesn’t rhyme in English!

There’s a second bridge on casilla 12. If you fall on either of the bridges, you move to the other one and roll your dice again saying “de puente a puente y tiro porque me lleva la corriente” (from bridge to bridge and I roll the dice because the flow carries me).

 

    How many places on the Camino Francés can you recognise?

    There are also other special casillas like:   

    • El pozo (well). The well symbolises depression. If you fall here, you miss a turn and you can only get out with the help of another player.  
    • El laberinto (labyrinth). This symbolises getting lost, which was quite easy during the Middle Ages, since paths were not clearly marked as they are today (and of course, GPS was not a thing either). If you fall here, you go back to casilla 30.  
    • La cárcel (jail) y la posada (inn). Both places represent the necessary rest you need in order to complete your pilgrimage. If you get into jail, you miss 3 turns but you only miss one of you stay at the inn.  
    • La muerte (death). It doesn’t have to represent literal, physical death, although death does happen sometimes on the Camino (and I’m sure it was much more common in medieval times). The Camino is a life-changing experience for many, so death could also be a metaphor for new beginnings.    
    • Los dados (dice). They represent luck, which can be good or bad. There are 2 casillas with dados on them: numbers 26 and 53. There are rule variations for these; the one I’ve always used is this: if you fall on one of them, you have to move to the other one, which means sometimes you’ll be moving forward and sometimes you’ll be going backwards. 

     

    Game of the goose pozo

    El pozo

    Game of the goose laberinto

    El laberinto

    Game of the goose muerte

    La muerte

    So, will you give La Oca a go? 

     

    Today’s Spanish words and phrases

    De puente a puente y tiro porque me lleva la corriente

    *Casilla means square in the context of board games. Other meanings of the English word square are expressed by different Spanish words.

     

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    ¡Buen Camino!

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