camino de santiago
  • What's the Significance of the Scallop Shell on the Camino?

    What's the Significance of the Scallop Shell on the Camino? image

    The scallop shell is an ever-present symbol on the Camino de Santiago.   It's seen everywhere including churches, signs, pavements, shop fronts, distance markers, jewellery, and backpacks.  The scallop shell, with its many lines starting along its edges and converging at a central point, symbolises the many paths that pilgrims walk to reach Santiago de Compostela. But why is the scallop shell associated with the Camino?

    Early Associations of the Scallop Shell with St. James

    Santiago de Compostela is actually named after St. James the greater (who was the taller James of both Jesus apostles named James).  He worked as a fisherman with his brother John before they became disciples of Christ.  Following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, his disciples began to evangelise and convert others to Christianity. As part of his mission, James reportedly travelled to Iberia landing at present day Padron to convert the pagans of the area.  He later returned to Jerusalem where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I.

    Following his martrydom, his headless body was returned to Galicia in northwest Spain.  The boat containing his body approached the coast, a wedding was taking place with a bridegroom on horseback.  Upon seeing the boat, the horse spooked and bolted into the sea.  Another variation of the tale has a knight falling from a cliff as the boat with the saint's body passed by.  In either case, the saint intervened, saving the knight - or the bridegroom, still on horseback - who emerged from the sea covered in scallop shells. 

    The Scallop Shell in the Middle Ages 

    Medieval Scallop Shell

    The first written reference of the scallop shell's association with Santiago appears to be contained in the "Codex Calixtinus" also known as the "Liber Sancti Jocobi".  This document was essentially a travel guide to pilgrimage to Santiago written by the French scholar Aymeric Picaud and dated 1106.  

    In the middle ages pilgrimages were long, dangerous journeys undertaken as an act of penance and religious devotion. At that time a pilgrimage actually started from the pilgrim's home and continued until they reached Santiago and then had to return by foot, horseback, or boat.  Accreditation of pilgrimage was first given in the form of badges shaped like a scallop shell.

    Many pilgrims who reached Santiago also continued on to the coast at Finisterre, considered at the time to be the westernmost point in Europe.  From here they could collect one of the many scallop shells indigenous to the Galician coast to bring home as proof of the successful completion of their pilgrimage.  However, scallop shells were also being sold at the Cathedral of Santiago by the mid 12th century, and by the year 1200 there were 100 licensed scallop shell vendors at the cathedral.

    Representations of the scallop shell have been found at many religious communities throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe, indicating the popularity of pilgrimage to Santiago during the middle ages.  Those who made pilgrimages to Santiago often were buried with scallop shells or had carvings of scallop shells on their tombs.  Scallop shells have been found in graves of those who had at the thirteenth century Augustinian priory of St. Mary in Mullingar, County Westmeath as well as at St. Mary's Cathedral in Tuam and at the Augustinian friary in Galway.  Excavations at Ardfert Cathedral in County Galway unearthed a late medieval tomb containing a bronze-gilded statue of Saint James on a pewter scallop shell.  These artefacts attest to the long-established tradition of pilgrimage from Ireland to Santiago.

    Scallop Shell of the Camino

    Pre-Christian Associations of the Scallop Shell with the Camino de Santiago

    Like many Christian symbols and practices, the association of the scallop shell with the Camino far predates the arrival of St. James and the rise of Christianity in Iberia (today named Galicia).   In Roman Hispania, the path of Janus began in the Templo de Venus Pyrenea at Cabo de Creus at the easternmost tip of Spain in Catalonia.  From there is traversed all of what is now northern Spain to end at Ara Solis in Finisterre.  The temple of the Roman goddess Venus, goddess of love and fertility, formed the starting point of this route.  Venus is said to have arisen from the sea on a scallop shell and is often depicted with the shell.  She is also associated with fertility rituals which were said to have been practiced along the route.

    Ideas associated with the cult of Janus are echoed by the concept of transformation along the Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago.  The Roman god Janus, after whom the month of January is named, was the god of beginnings and endings, of transition and transformation.  This concept of pilgrimage as a source of renewal and transformation remains alive and well on the modern Camino. 

    Practical Uses of the Scallop Shell on the Camino

    The scallop shell was historically used for gathering water and drinking and as a bowl for collecting gifts of food and for eating.  While no longer used in these ways, it does make a meaningful wine glass when visiting the wine fountain at Irache, just outside Estella.  Filled with wine, it can be raised in a toast to St. James and the millions who have walked this path before us over the millennia.  Salud!


    Posted By:


    Communications Manager working in all things media, based in Dublin's fair city with a passion for travel and an ear for languages. Having lived in Spain, Geraldine speaks fluent Spanish so is happy to grab the opportunity to skip along the Camino de Santiago at the drop of a hat.


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