Santiago is a young shepherd boy in the Andalusian region of Spain. At dusk one day, he arrives at an abandoned church. The roof has caved in, and a sycamore tree grows up through the open space. Santiago spends the night in the church with his flock of sheep. He lays his jacket down on the floor, and uses the book he's reading as a pillow to rest his head on.
Santiago, the novel’s protagonist, is introduced in humble settings. His identity as a shepherd quickly connects him to many familiar religious narratives, especially parables from the Bible. The abandoned church will reappear at the end of novel, though it seems entirely unexceptional here.
Santiago awakes early the next morning before dawn. He has had a dream—one he has had before—but he wakes up before the dream has ended. He notices that his sheep awake at the same time as he does. Santiago reflects that they are used to him and have adjusted to his schedule, and then he realizes that perhaps it is the other way around, and he has adjusted to their schedule.
Santiago’s observation of his sheep and his realization that he may have adopted their schedule is important, as the novel emphasizes awareness of the natural world. Throughout the story, Santiago learns from observation and attentiveness, and his sheep are the first symbol of this.
Santiago wakes up the last of his sheep—he knows them each by name. Sometimes he reads aloud to his sheep, and often speaks to them. For the past few days he has spoken to them about only one thing: the daughter of a merchant who lives in a nearby village. Santiago met the girl the year before when he sold his sheep’s wool to her father.
Santiago is introduced as a character with a simple life and simple desires—he loves his sheep, and he is in love with a young woman. He will later abandon both these commitments, however, when he is given the chance to pursue his “personal legend.”
Santiago remembers the events of the year before. The shop was busy when he went to sell wool to the merchant, so the man asked him to wait. As Santiago waited, he read. The merchant’s daughter approached him and asked him about his reading. She wondered how he, a shepherd, learned to read. Santiago told her that he learned in school, and she wondered why he is a shepherd if he knows how to read. Santiago tried to avoid answering this question. Instead, he told her stories about his travels and, as time passed, he wished he could give up traveling and stay with her in her village.
Santiago’s attraction to the merchant’s daughter seems mostly due to her reaction to him—she was impressed by his ability to read, and was willing to listen to his stories. Santiago’s profession, which requires him to constantly travel with his sheep, is a romantic one, but it also gets lonely sometimes. We get the sense that Santiago relishes his freedom, but part of him also wants to settle down and build stronger connections with other people.
Now, approximately one year later, Santiago will return to the same village. He is excited and looks forward to seeing the merchant’s daughter. He reflects that shepherds, like other wandering men, will always eventually find a town where someone persuades them to give up their wandering lifestyle.
Santiago reflects that he is not alone in his desire to settle down and be with another person. This happens to most wanderers: the desire to stop wandering alone. Santiago seems to recognize the universal nature of his own life.
Santiago reflects on the contentment of his sheep as he travels, thinking that they, unlike him, never have to make decisions. The sheep appear to only be concerned with food and water. Santiago thinks that if he suddenly became a monster and decided to kill his sheep, they would be surprised and would not expect this change. This is because they trust him and are no longer wild. Santiago is surprised at these strange thoughts, and wonders if they’re caused by the unrest of his recurring dream.
Santiago’s thoughts about his sheep, although they strike him as strange, reflect his growing awareness of the impact he has on their lives, and therefore the responsibility he has for them. The sheep are ultimately presented as simple creatures, while Santiago is started to experience more complex thoughts and desires. Soon it will be time for him to leave them.
Santiago is grateful for his jacket, which keeps him warm, although at the height of day the heat is intense and he is sorry that he has to carry his jacket. However, in the cold evenings he is glad to have it. He reflects that one needs to be prepared for change. Like the jacket, Santiago has a purpose to his existence. He believes his purpose is to travel, and he has spent two years exploring the Andalusian terrain. Santiago learned to read because he attended a seminary until he was sixteen. His parents wanted him to become a priest, which would've been a great accomplishment for a boy from a simple family. As Santiago studied to become a priest, however, he was not happy, so he summoned the courage to tell his father that instead of being a priest, he wanted to travel.
Santiago’s jacket shows that a blessing and curse may be one and the same, depending on the circumstances. This is one of the many small “lessons” Coelho ruminates over in the course of the novel. Santiago’s original plan to be a priest shows that he has always been a spiritual and thoughtful person, but he ultimately turned away from organized religion and instead sought fulfillment through traveling. Coelho seems to value this kind of spiritual journeying over simply following a prescribed path. This backstory is also important because it accounts for Santiago’s ability to read.
Santiago's father told Santiago that people from all over the world pass through their village. And while these visitors seem to be seeking new things, the world elsewhere is no better than, or even very different from, what exists in their home village. Santiago replies that he wants to see castles in towns were other people live, not just the castle that's next door. Santiago's father says that visitors to the village wish they could stay forever, and Santiago replies that he, in his turn, would like to see the places where the visitors come from.
Santiago’s discussion with his father is basically Coelho’s presentation of the two arguments for traveling versus finding a home and staying there. Santiago’s father feels that he has found the best place in the world, whereas Santiago seeks variety for its own sake. It may be that he will return home in the end, but he has to see other places before he can conclude that his village is truly where he belongs.
Santiago's father presents the obstacle of money. He says that among their people, the only ones who travel are shepherds—so Santiago decides to be a shepherd. The next day, Santiago's father gives his son three Spanish gold coins. He tells Santiago to use them to buy his flock and to take the opportunity to travel, and he gives the boy his blessing. Santiago sees in his father his own desire to travel, but his father has never been able to fulfill this dream because he has had to struggle to survive as a farmer.
Santiago’s father offers the idea of becoming a shepherd as a financially viable way for Santiago to travel. He seems like a good and supportive father, as he actively assists Santiago in pursuing his dream. Santiago feels that his father partly does this because he himself wished to have the experiences that he is able to grant his son—his father wants to live vicariously through Santiago.
As Santiago travels, he thinks back on the conversation he had with Santiago’s father, and it makes him happy. He has already seen many castles and met many women, and he owns a jacket, a book, and a flock of sheep. These things are part of living out his dream. He feels that he could not have found God in the seminary. The world is massive, the possibilities are endless, and he relishes every opportunity to discover new things.
Santiago’s experience of traveling has been a spiritual one for him. He feels he could not have discovered God in the traditional place of the seminary, but he did because he followed his own dream. This worldview reflects Coelho’s own life, as he famously experienced a spiritual awakening on a 500-mile pilgrimage walk in Spain.
Santiago reflects that his sheep don't recognize these possibilities. Because the sheep focus only on food and water, they don't see that the places through which they travel are new every day. Santiago thinks that perhaps all people have this tendency. Since he met the merchant’s daughter, he has not thought of new women, but only repeatedly of her. Santiago does not want to consider the possibility that some other shepherd has already asked for her hand in marriage. He thinks that the possibility of a dream being realized is what keeps life interesting. He also remembers that in the next town he'll reach, Tarifa, there is an old fortune-teller who is able to interpret dreams.
Santiago learns valuable lessons by observing his sheep (and this in itself is one of Coelho’s lessons—that one can become wise merely by observing life). One of these lessons is that both sheep and people are often focused on their basic needs and unwilling to think about the bigger picture. Santiago realizes this tendency in himself because of his unwillingness to acknowledge that the merchant’s daughter may have moved on while he’s been away. Believing in dreams requires thinking that they might come true.
Santiago arrives in Tarifa and meets the fortune-teller, who leads him from her living room to a back room where she practices her craft. The room has a table, two chairs, and an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The two sit down and the woman begins to pray. To Santiago, it sounds like a gypsy prayer. Santiago has already met gypsies in his travels, and he has heard that others do not trust gypsies. Rumors about gypsies say that they make pacts with the devil and kidnap children. Many are frightened of them, but Santiago calms his fears by noting the fortune-teller’s Sacred Heart of Jesus. The woman examines Santiago's hands. Santiago is nervous and his hands begin to shake. He says to the woman that he didn't come here for her to read his palm. He considers paying her and leaving without learning anything about his dream.
Santiago seeks out the fortune-teller because he has had a recurring dream and wishes to learn more about the meaning of the dream. Santiago’s wariness of the fortune-teller’s gypsy roots reveals that despite his exposure to the world, he is still fearful of the strange and different. He believes some of the racist superstitions he has heard, and is nervous around the woman, but is comforted by evidence of her Christianity. Santiago’s own faith seems ambiguous, although he believes in God and the omens God gives him throughout the novel. Santiago is clearly a spiritual individual, and his background is Christian.
The fortune-teller says that she knows that Santiago came to learn about his dream. She adds that dreams are the language of God, so when God speaks through a dream in “our language,” she can interpret it. But if he speaks in the language of the soul, only the dreamer can understand it. Santiago decides to take a chance on the fortune-teller either way. He tells her that he's had the same dream twice and he describes it. In the dream, he is in a field with his sheep, and a child appears. The child plays with the sheep, but suddenly she takes Santiago by the hand and they are both transported to the Egyptian Pyramids. Santiago pauses in his telling to see if the fortune-teller knows what the Egyptian Pyramids are. At the Egyptian Pyramids, he continues, the child says to Santiago, “if you come here, you will find hidden treasure.” Just as she is about to show Santiago the location of the treasure, he wakes up.
The fortune-teller distinguishes between dreams that God shares in “our language” versus dreams that are in the language of the soul. This introduces the concept of a “language of the soul” into the novel. Later this will develop into the idea of the Soul of the World, a connection between all people and things, and a kind of universal language that everything can understand. Santiago’s dream features the Egyptian Pyramids as the site where he’ll find treasure. Throughout his quest, the pyramids symbolize Santiago’s end-goal—the long sought, but foreign ideal of his treasure. The exact location of the treasure is still veiled in mystery, adding another challenge to Santiago’s quest.
The fortune-teller is silent for a while. Then she says that she is not going to charge Santiago anything for her consultation, but that if he finds the treasure, she wants one-tenth of the total in payment. Santiago laughs and asks her to interpret the dream. She says that first he must swear that he will keep his promise about the treasure and her payment. Santiago swears that he will. The fortune-teller asks him to swear again while looking at the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Then she says that the dream is in the language of the world, so she is able to interpret it. She says Santiago must go to the pyramids in Egypt. There, he will find a treasure that will make him a rich man.
The fortune-teller’s clever request for payment reveals her shrewdness, but also her sympathy for Santiago. If he doesn’t succeed, she does not want to ask too much of a poor shepherd—but if he does find his treasure, she will receive a sudden windfall. She is basically betting on him and the success of his spiritual journey. The fortune-teller’s interpretation of the dream is rather obvious, and provides no new insight into the quest. In the context of this novel, dreams often reveal important information about life.
Santiago is annoyed. He feels that he didn't need the interpretation to realize this about his dream. The fortune-teller says that the interpretation of the dream was difficult, because the simple things in life are the most extraordinary. It takes wisdom to realize and understand simplicity. Santiago asks her how he should get to Egypt, but the fortune-teller says that she only interprets dreams, and doesn’t deal in making them a reality. Santiago asks her, “but what if I never get to Egypt?” The woman says that in that case, “I don't get paid.”
Santiago is frustrated that he consulted a professional to learn nothing new. The fortune-teller’s argument introduces the theme of the value of simplicity. Throughout the novel, simplicity is overlooked by the world at large, but shown to have remarkable value in Santiago’s experiences. This also will later connect to the idea of alchemy, and the lessons of the alchemist.
Santiago leaves disappointed. But he remembers that he has several practical things to do, so he goes to the market for food and he trades his book in for a different one. It is a hot day, and he sits on a bench in the plaza. Santiago knows a lot of people in Tarifa. He likes traveling because he always makes new friends. If you see the same people every day, Santiago thinks, these people become a part of your life, and people who are a part of your life want you to change, and when you don’t change, others become angry. All people seem to have a clearer idea of how others should lead their lives. Santiago decides to wait until the sun sinks lower before taking his flock back to the fields.
The novel here briefly moves from the more allegorical, spiritual realm to the practical errands Santiago needs to complete in town. Coelho’s book is like a parable, but it is also a novel set in a time and place, and Santiago faces many “real-world” concerns. Here Santiago reflects on the perils of becoming too close with other people, because close relationships develop a mutual desire to change the other person. Santiago prefers the solitary life of a shepherd and clearly looks down on others when they are judgmental.
Santiago starts to read from the book he bought. As he reads, an old man sits down next to him and tries to talk to him. The old man points to people in the plaza and asks what they're doing. The boy answers that they’re working, and he tries to put the old man off by pretending he’s busy reading. In fact, Santiago is imagining shearing his sheep in front of the merchant’s daughter. He is also trying to remember good stories to tell her. Most of his stories come from books, but he plans to tell them as if he has experienced them himself.
The old man who joins Santiago is innocuous at first glance, and Santiago finds his interruption annoying. Santiago is fantasizing about the merchant’s daughter, although he will soon abandoned such fantasies when he sets off to search for his treasure. His impending quest shows that his interest in the girl is mostly superficial, and even vain, as he is mostly attracted to the fact that she likes his stories.
Meanwhile, the old man asks if he might have a sip of Santiago's wine. The old man then asks about the book Santiago is reading. Santiago feels he should be respectful of the elderly, so he holds his book out to the man. The old man looks at the book and then says it is an important book, but also an irritating book. Santiago is surprised that the old man knows how to read, and that he has already read the book. The old man says that this book says the same thing as almost all the other books in the world. It says that people are unable to choose their Personal Legends, and that everyone believes the world's greatest lie. Santiago wonders what the world's greatest lie is. The old man says that the world’s greatest lie is that we do not control what happens to us.
The old man’s interpretation of Santiago’s book introduces the main idea of the novel: the importance of Personal Legends, and the fact that so many people give up on their Personal Legend (one’s goal or joy in life) rather than pursue it to its end. Many sacrifice their Personal Legend because they don’t believe they control their own lives, and so they settle for something inferior and never reach their full potential. Coelho takes a rather “existentialist” approach here, arguing that we are entirely in control of our existence, and that if we are unfulfilled or unhappy, it is our own fault.
Santiago says that this has never happened to him. He did not want to be a priest, and so he became a shepherd instead. The old man says that being a shepherd is a much better fit for Santiago, because he likes to travel. Santiago notices the old man's clothing. He looks like an Arab, which is not unusual, as Africa is only a few hours from Tarifa. The boy asks where the old man is from, and the old man says that he was born in Salem. Because he does not know where Salem is, but also does not want to appear ignorant, Santiago asks the old man what Salem is like. Then he asks the old man what he does in Salem. The old man laughs and says that he is the king of Salem.
The old man is now starting to be presented as a supernatural or mythical figure, as he has impossible knowledge but first appears in a humble and nondescript form. This is another ancient archetype that Coelho uses—that of the god (or wizard, etc.) disguising himself in order to trick others or point out their prejudices. The old man’s introduction as the King of Salem does not mean anything to Santiago, but this is a reference to a Biblical character, Melchizedek, who is a priest in the Book of Genesis, and who is later referenced by Saint Paul.
The old man introduces himself as Melchizedek, and he asks Santiago how many sheep he has. The boy says that he has enough sheep. Melchizedek says that he can't help Santiago if he feels that he has enough sheep. Santiago grows irritated, because he doesn't feel that he needs help. He asks for his book back, and says he needs to leave. The old man says that if Santiago gives him one-tenth of his sheep then he will tell him how to find his hidden treasure. Santiago remembers his dream, and suddenly everything becomes clear. He realizes that the fortune-teller and the old man may be working together to get money from him.
Santiago believes that he is already controlling his destiny, and he is happy with his life as a shepherd, but Melchizedek suggests that he does not see how much more potential he has. Santiago must desire more from his life if he is going to actually make a change and pursue his Personal Legend. Santiago immediately suspects a plot between Melchizedek and the fortune-teller—he is a dreamer with a tendency towards the spiritual, but he is also wise in the harsh ways of the world.
Melchizedek picks up a stick and begins to write in the sand. As he moves, something bright is revealed underneath his cloak. Santiago is momentarily blinded by its shine before Melchizedek quickly covers it again. Melchizedek writes in the sand the names of Santiago's father and mother, and the name of the seminary Santiago attended. Santiago also reads the name of the merchant’s daughter, which he hadn't even known before, among other things that no one would be able to know about himself.
Melchizedek writes private information about Santiago in order to prove to him that he has access to information far beyond what a regular man might have learned from the fortune-teller in a plot to rob Santiago. This scene echoes another Biblical passage, in which Jesus writes something in the sand and then scratches it out—something private or mystical that is not recorded.
Santiago realizes that Melchizedek is indeed a king, and he wonders why a king would talk with him, a shepherd. Melchizedek says that the most important reason is that Santiago has succeeded in discovering his Personal Legend. Santiago asks what a Personal Legend is, and Melchizedek explains that it's the thing you have always wanted to accomplish. When you're young, you’re certain of what this thing is. But at some point in everyone's life, your convictions about your dream begin to vanish, as you think you won’t be able to realize your Personal Legend. This doesn't make much sense to Santiago.
A key part of the “Personal Legend” for Coelho is the idea that a child knows it—it is something innate that a person is born with. It is only the outside world and the expectations or actions of others that cause the child to forget or give up on his or her Personal Legend. These scenes are not only Melchizedek teaching Santiago, but also Coelho explaining his theories to the reader in simple and universal terms.
Melchizedek explains that the one great truth is that no matter who you are or what it is you do, your true desires come from the soul of the universe. Having a true desire is the same as having a mission. Santiago questions whether this is true, if all one wants to do is travel or marry a merchant’s daughter. Melchizedek says yes, and that the Soul of the World is nourished by happiness. Therefore, our only real obligation is to realize our destiny. When you want something, the universe helps you to achieve it, Melchizedek concludes. Melchizedek and Santiago sit in silence for a while.
Melchizedek expands on this spiritual system of the universe—everything is connected to an entity called the Soul of the World. This is not presented as a Christian kind of god, but rather as a vaguely pantheistic idea. Pantheism is the belief that the universe is identical with divinity, or that God is basically synonymous with everything that exists—there is no god distinct from nature, as god is present throughout nature. This also brings up the ideas of destiny and happiness, as the Soul of the World is supposedly nourished by happiness, so it helps people achieve what they want. It prescribes a “destiny” for people in their Personal Legends, but then it is up to their free will whether they achieve this destiny or not.
Melchizedek asks Santiago why he tends a flock of sheep. Santiago answers that it is because he likes to travel. Melchizedek points out a baker in the plaza. He tells Santiago that that man had also wanted to travel. He has not yet done so, because he does not realize that people at any time in their life should follow their dreams, which they're always capable of achieving.
Melchizedek explains the idea of a Personal Legend with an example—essentially a parable within the parable of the novel itself. Santiago is traveling, as he wishes to do, but the baker is not, even though he has the same desire. Thus Santiago is already more fulfilled than many other people are, even though he has not yet achieved his own Personal Legend.
Santiago says the man should also have decided to become a shepherd. Melchizedek explains that the baker chose his profession because it would give him more recognition than being a shepherd would. Parents would rather see their daughter marry a baker then a shepherd. Santiago thinks sadly of the merchant’s daughter. Melchizedek explains that other people’s opinions of his profession eventually became more important to the baker than his Personal Legend.
Melchizedek explains that one thing that holds many people back from realizing their desires is their concern for what others think of them. A person might choose a more respectable career over the one they actually want, because they place too much value on how the world sees them, and don’t have enough confidence or courage to fulfill their Personal Legends.
Santiago asks Melchizedek why he is telling him all this. Melchizedek says that Santiago was trying to realize his Personal Legend, but now he's at the point of giving up. Melchizedek says that sometimes he appears in the form of a solution or a good idea at a crucial moment, just when somebody is about to give up on his or her Personal Legend. He tells the story of appearing to a miner in the form of a stone. The miner had been mining for emeralds, and just when he was about to give up, Melchizedek appeared as a stone that rolled up to the miner’s foot. The miner threw the stone away in frustration, with such force that it broke open another stone, revealing the emerald inside.
Santiago is at a critical point in the journey toward his own Personal Legend. He is ready to give up because he doesn’t believe in his recurring dream, and he knows that it is easier to continue the life he already has than to seek a distant treasure with no guarantee of success. Melchizedek’s story of the miner shows that persistence is key in achieving a Personal Legend. It is not always an easy task, but one is not alone. For Santiago, Melchizedek himself is there as a supernatural guide to help reveal his Personal Legend.
Melchizedek says that people learn early in their lives what their Personal Legend is, but maybe that's also why they also give up on it early. Santiago reminds the old man that he had mentioned his treasure. Melchizedek says that if Santiago wants to learn about his treasure, he will have to give him one-tenth of his flock. Santiago wonders if could instead offer the old man one-tenth of his treasure. The old man says that if Santiago starts out by promising something he doesn't even have, he won’t want to keep working toward getting his treasure. Santiago tells Melchizedek about his promise to the fortune-teller. The old man says that it's good that Santiago has learned that everything in life has a price. He tells Santiago to meet him in the square at the same time the next day, with one-tenth of his flock, and then he will tell Santiago how to find his treasure. Melchizedek leaves.
It is easy to scorn or give up on the dreams of youth when one gets older, which may be why so many easily abandon their Personal Legends (or so Melchizedek suggests). Melchizedek warns Santiago about promising something he doesn’t have, as turning his treasure from a dream into an obligation might keep Santiago from seeking out the treasure in the first place. Melchizedek then leaves Santiago with a very tough decision—whether or not to sacrifice his livelihood and pursue his Personal Legend, even without receiving any more information about his treasure. Santiago must take a risk—and Coelho is clearly challenging his readers to examine themselves and take a similar risk.
Santiago tries to read, but he is no longer able to focus on his book. He goes up to the bakery and buys a loaf of bread, and while he does so he considers telling the baker what the old man said about him. But he decides to leave things as they are. If he said anything, the baker would spend time questioning the profession that he has worked hard to achieve. Then Santiago wanders to the city gates, towards the ticket window where people buy tickets to Africa. He knows that Egypt is in Africa. The man behind the window asks if he can help Santiago, but Santiago says “maybe tomorrow.” The ticket seller says to his assistant that Santiago must be just another dreamer without enough money to travel.
Santiago considers revealing that he knows the baker’s desire to travel, but sees that this will not encourage the man, but will only make him more unhappy about his present life. Santiago is not Melchizedek, and doesn’t have the right knowledge or wisdom to guide someone toward his own Personal Legend—Santiago only has agency over his own decisions, not those of others. The ticket seller’s reaction to Santiago is to dismiss all dreamers who want to travel. He sees the baker’s plight in many people.
Santiago remembers his flock, and decides he should go back to being a shepherd. On his way back to his sheep, he climbs the stone ramp that leads to the top of the city’s castle. From that point, he can see Africa in the distance, and he can see almost the entire city. Santiago reflects that he is divided between pursuing his treasure and staying with his flock. He must choose between something he is familiar with and something unknown that he wants to have.
Santiago feels committed to his flock—he recognizes that they trust and need him, and he has also grown and learned many things just by living alongside his sheep and observing them. This is essentially Coelho highlighting the choice between staying with the familiar and taking the risk of pursuing one’s dream—a choice everyone faces.
Santiago also considers the merchant’s daughter, but reflects that she does not depend on him like his sheep do, and perhaps she doesn't even remember him. Santiago reflects that he left his father and mother behind, and they have gotten used to this change. His sheep, too, will get used to being left behind. The boy feels jealous of the wind that is blowing because it is free, but he realizes that there is nothing to hold him back from pursuing his dream, and from having the same freedom.
Earlier Santiago had tried to avoid thinking about the possibility that the merchant’s daughter had forgotten him. Now, however, he is being more realistic about her, suggesting that the pull of his treasure is growing stronger. Coelho makes his theory explicit here in the “lesson” Santiago learns from the wind—no matter one’s situation (according to Coelho) there is always the freedom to pursue a dream.
The next day, Santiago meets Melchizedek at noon, and brings him six sheep. He tells Melchizedek that he has already sold all his other sheep to his friend, and that his friend had always dreamed of being a shepherd. Melchizedek says that this is called “the principle of favorability.” In other words, it is an example of beginner’s luck. There is a force that wants Santiago to realize his Personal Legend, and so it encourages him early on with the taste of success.
Coelho makes even common concepts like “beginner’s luck” into aspects of one’s spiritual journey—it’s not “luck” at all, but a “force” encouraging us to follow our Personal Legends. The force that wants Santiago to realize his dream does not control Santiago’s will, but it does impact the world around him.
Santiago asks Melchizedek where the treasure is. Melchizedek says it is in Egypt near the pyramids, which Santiago already knows. Melchizedek tells him that to find the treasure he will have to follow omens prepared by God. Santiago remembers that his grandfather had taught him about some omens. Melchizedek opens his cape and shows Santiago that he wears a breastplate of gold covered with precious stones. Santiago again realizes that Melchizedek is really a king.
Melchizedek presents more concrete evidence of his mystical nature, and his gold breastplate also brings up the idea of “treasure” once more. Omens are used throughout this novel to communicate information and provide warning. God (or the Soul of the World, or a “force”) speaks to characters through dreams and through omens.
Melchizedek offers Santiago a white stone and a black stone from the breastplate. He tells him that the stones are called Urim and Thummim. The black stone signifies “yes,” and the white stone “no.” These fortune-telling stones will help Santiago read the omens. However, Melchizedek cautions Santiago to try to make his own decisions, and not just rely on the stones. Melchizedek offers him final words of advice, saying that he must not forget that everything he deals with is only one thing and nothing else. He must not forget the language of omens. And most importantly he must not forget to keep following his Personal Legend until it is achieved.
Urim and Thummim are another Biblical reference—they are mentioned in the Old Testament as a means of divination or fortune telling, although it’s never specified what kinds of objects they are, or even if they’re objects at all. In this novel they symbolize the opportunity to reach for certainty and foresight, but only through relying on something outside one’s self (essentially choosing “fate” over free will). This is why Melchizedek cautions Santiago about using the stones—because making his own decisions is so important. Ultimately it seems like Melchizedek gives Santiago the stones more as a temptation to test his willpower than as an aid to help him on his quest.
Melchizedek also leaves Santiago with a story. In the story, a shopkeeper sends his son to learn the secret of happiness from the wisest man in the world. The boy travels through the desert until he comes upon a beautiful castle where the wise man lives. Inside the castle are many people, including tradesman and musicians, and there are people talking happily among platters of delicious food. The wise man is speaking to all of these visitors. When the boy has a chance to speak to him, the wise man listens attentively to the boy’s question, then he suggests that the boy look around the palace for two hours and then return to him. He asks that while the boy looks around, he also carry a spoon full of oil without letting the oil spill.
Melchizedek’s story has clear parallels with Santiago’s life, and is yet another parable within a parable. Both the boy in the story and Santiago are beginning a quest, and along the way they will learn from a wise man (currently Melchizedek himself, but Santiago will later encounter the alchemist who will serve as a mentor). The wise man in the story teaches the boy by letting him experience situations for himself and by setting him with a challenge. His instructional style mirrors that of the alchemist, as we will see later.
The boy does this and when he returns to the wise man, he reports that he did not observe any of the wonders of the palace, because his only concern had been to keep the oil from spilling. The wise man tells him to go back and observe the marvels of his world. The boy does so and this time he observes everything, but in the process of observing he accidently lets all the oil spill from the spoon. The wise man says that the only advice he can give him is that the secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, but to also never forget the oil in the spoon. Santiago says nothing in response to the story, as he understands its message: even though he may travel, he should never forget about his sheep.
The moral of the story of the wise man and the boy is that success and happiness exist in a difficult-to-achieve balance between new and old, between adventure and commitment. Santiago interprets this story to mean that his life as a shepherd is an important aspect of the success of his quest. Throughout his quest, Santiago appreciates the lessons he learned from his sheep, and he will again be pulled between the desire to continue traveling on and the desire to stay put.
Melchizedek, the king of Salem, sits on the wall of an old fort in Tarifa that afternoon. He is accompanied by the sheep, who are uneasy with their new owner. He watches a ship leaving the port and knows he will never see Santiago again. He hopes that Santiago will be successful in his quest, even though he knows that the boy will quickly forget his name. He wishes that the boy would remember him and speak of him as Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He looks to the skies, a bit ashamed, and speaks to his God, saying that he knows this admission to be the “vanity of vanities.”
This is an interesting departure from a narrative that generally follows only Santiago and his inner thoughts. Indeed, it’s almost a comic interlude, as it shows that even Melchizedek, the holy man and seemingly immortal, supernatural character, wishes he were given more credit and fame.
Santiago arrives in Morocco, Africa, and he goes to a bar in Tangier. He sees men smoking from a giant pipe, and other people following ritual prayers, kneeling and touching their foreheads to the ground. Santiago dismisses this as a practice of infidels. He feels ill and alone, and he doesn’t speak Arabic, the language of this country. He tries to concentrate on getting to his treasure. Santiago now has a substantial amount of money from the sale of his sheep, and he thought a lot about omens as he was crossing the strait to Africa. He reflects that his sheep were always aware of omens in the natural world, like signs that there was water or danger nearby. He reflects that if God can lead sheep so well, he must also be able to lead men.
Santiago is an outsider in Morocco and is completely overwhelmed, but he is also comforted by evidence that God plays a role in his life and will be able to guide him through the appearance of omens. The level of trust shown by his sheep reminds Santiago to also trust in God to lead him. His sheep, in their simple acceptance and trust, are happy and peaceful. This “lesson” is yet another Biblical reference, particularly to the famous Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”), and Jesus is described as “the good shepherd.”
A young man approaches Santiago and speaks in Spanish. Santiago tells him that he needs to get to the Egyptian Pyramids, and he asks the young man if he will serve as his guide. He offers to pay him to do so. The young man points out that to cross the Sahara desert, one needs money, and he needs to know beforehand if Santiago has enough money. Santiago takes out his money and shows it to the young man. The owner of the bar comes over and exchanges a few angry words with the young man. The young man tells Santiago that they should leave, but as they do so the owner grabs Santiago and begins to speak at him angrily. Santiago doesn't know what’s happening, but he trusts his new friend. The young man tells Santiago that they could get to the pyramids by tomorrow, but they'll have to buy two camels.
Santiago was suspicious of the fortune-teller and Melchizedek, but he is naïve in his dealings with this young stranger, and he shows his own youth and inexperience here. He hands the total sum of his money over to this young man and believes that he will help him get to the pyramids. He does not understand the interaction with the owner and thinks of the English-speaker as his “new friend.” Santiago also clearly has no concept of geography, or how far Egypt is from Morocco—otherwise he would be immediately suspicious of the claim that they could reach the pyramids the next day.
Santiago and his new friend walk together through the busy streets of Tangier. Santiago never takes his eyes off the young man, who is holding his money, but suddenly the most beautiful sword he has ever seen distracts him. After a moment, he turns to his new friend to ask him to inquire about the price of the sword, but in that moment he realizes that the young man has vanished with his money.
Santiago is not entirely naïve about the young man, but he still trusts his own ability to keep an eye on his “friend.” It’s notable that an object of great beauty is what distracts him. Later on he will be equally “distracted” and smitten by the sight of Fatima.
Santiago is feeling sorry for himself as the sun sets, reflecting that between sunrise and sunset of the same day, he went from being a successful shepherd to being stranded with no money in a country where he does not speak the language. The marketplace has emptied.
Santiago reacts to this setback by feeling sorry for himself and focusing first on what he has lost. At this point in the novel, he has not yet learned how to live in the moment and value simplicity.
Santiago reflects that with his sheep at least he was happy, but now he feels bitter and distrustful of all people, because he has been betrayed. He opens his pouch to see what of his possessions are left. All he has are his book, his jacket, and the stones Urim and Thummim. He looks at the stones and feels relieved, because perhaps he could sell them and buy a return ticket to Spain. He reflects that the owner of the bar had been angry because he had been trying to tell him the young man was a thief.
Santiago’s bitterness about the person who robbed him then extends to the world as a whole, showing the persuasiveness of negative thinking. Urim and Thummim appear comforting in this moment, as symbols of certainty in a moment of uncertainty. Santiago does not consider the risk of relying on the stones as he relied on the thief.
Santiago decides to try an experiment with the stones. He asks if the old man's blessing is still with them, and takes a stone from his pouch. It is the stone that means “yes.” He asks if he is going to find his treasure, but when he reaches into his pouch, Urim and Thummim fall through a hole in the pouch. He realizes that this may be an omen. Santiago picks up the stones to put them back in the pouch, although he feels that if he lost the stones it wouldn’t be too significant, because he has promised to make his own decisions. He feels more confident now, and looks around the Tangier marketplace realizing that it is not a strange place, but a new one, and that opportunities to experience new places are what he has always wanted. He tells himself that he is an adventurer looking for treasure.
Santiago begins to use the stones for fortune-telling to reassure himself, but when one stone slips through his pocket he awakens to the implications of what he is doing: he is relying on the stones rather than thinking for himself, as he had promised to do. With this realization, Santiago turns from negative thinking to positive thinking (and perhaps this is why Melchizedek gave him the stones in the first place). This small epiphany makes him realize the potential of his situation rather than the negative aspects of it.
Santiago is suddenly shaken awake. He had fallen asleep in the middle of the marketplace, and it is now the next day. Instinctively, he looks around for his sheep before realizing where he is. He walks through the marketplace, stopping to help a candy seller assemble his stall. The smile on the candy seller’s face reminds the boy of the mysterious old king. The boy realizes that the candy seller is doing the very thing that he wants to do with his life. Like Melchizedek, Santiago can now sense whether a person is near or far from his Personal Legend just by looking at him.
Santiago wakes up and sees Morocco in a new light, a literal echo of the mental “waking up” he just experienced. This new positive attitude inspires him to act with kindness, and his encounter with the candy seller seems to restore Santiago’s faith in the world. The candy seller is generous, and is also apparently happy because he has realized his Personal Legend.
The candy seller offers Santiago a sweet in exchange for his help. Santiago reflects that he and the candy seller were able to understand each other perfectly, although they do not speak the same language. He thinks that there must be a language that does not depend on words, the same language he used to communicate with his sheep. He sees that even though he is in a strange land, he is applying the same lessons he learned from his sheep. He remembers that Melchizedek had said, “all things are one.”
The connection Santiago forms with the candy seller transcends the language barrier that made Santiago feel like an outsider the previous day. Santiago realizes another lesson learned from his sheep: that all life is connected and there is a language that does not depend on words. This idea of a universal language continues to be important in the novel.
That same morning, a crystal merchant awakes feeling anxious. He has had the same shop for thirty years, but it’s located at the top of a hill and not easily accessible to customers. Now it is too late to change this, even though his shop is becoming less and less popular. He feels, however, that he has no control over this. He spends the morning observing the infrequent comings and goings outside his shop window. Just before lunchtime, a boy stops in front of his shop.
The crystal merchant and his concerns are introduced before Santiago encounters him. This foreshadows the role that Santiago will play in his life—bringing prosperity back to his crystal shop. The crystal merchant has fallen prey to the “world’s greatest lie” (according to Melchizedek/Coelho)—that he has no control over his life.
Santiago comes into the crystal merchant’s shop, seeing a sign that says several languages are spoken there. Santiago offers to clean the crystal glassware in the window, because its current appearance does not encourage anyone to buy it. He asks, in exchange, for something to eat. The crystal merchant does not respond, and so Santiago takes out his jacket and uses it to start cleaning the glasses. When he is done, the crystal merchant invites him to have something to eat.
Santiago comes into the crystal shop because his language is spoken there—perhaps this sign is the type of omen he is looking for. Santiago hopes that his work and motivated attitude will act as a type of universal language and persuade the merchant to give him a job.
As they eat, the crystal merchant tells Santiago that he didn't have to do any cleaning, because the Koran requires him to feed any person in need. Santiago wonders why, then, the crystal merchant let him do the work? The crystal merchant feels that the work helped both of them to clear their minds of negative thoughts. After they've eaten, the crystal merchant offers Santiago a job in his store. Santiago says that he can work for the rest of the day and all night, and clean every piece in the shop, but in return he needs enough money to get to Egypt.
The crystal merchant explains his religious understanding of generosity, which is informed by his Islamic faith. His idea about cleaning away “negative thoughts” makes him seem like a similarly thoughtful, spiritual person to Santiago—someone who will understand him. He is generous with Santiago and offers him a job, despite the failing condition of his shop. Santiago clearly still assumes that his journey will be short, and he is impatient to start.
The crystal merchant laughs and says that even if Santiago cleaned his crystal for the entire year, and earned a good commission on every piece, he would still have to borrow money to get to Egypt. There are thousands of miles of desert between Tangier and Egypt. There is a pause, and Santiago's soul falls silent. He wishes he had died and that everything would end forever. All the joy the crystal merchant had seen in the boy vanishes. The crystal merchant offers to give Santiago enough money to get back to his own country. Santiago replies that he'll work for the crystal merchant. After a long silence, Santiago says that he needs extra money to buy some sheep.
The crystal merchant’s words are a painful reality check for Santiago. His hope in an easy solution to his problem is lost. The dramatic hopelessness that Santiago faces in this moment echoes his pessimistic feelings upon losing his money. He now seems to have decided that he was too reckless in choosing to seek his treasure, and he only wants to go home and be a shepherd again. After his initial “beginner’s luck,” he is now facing many challenges in pursuing his Personal Legend.