camino de santiago
  • Scallop Shell: why is it the symbol of the Camino de Santiago

    Scallop Shell: why is it the symbol of the Camino de Santiago image

    The origin of the scallop shell as the badge of the pilgrim to Compostela is open to more than one explanation. Found in abundance along northern Spanish beaches, the scallop shell has become closely intertwined with the Camino de Santiago.

    Practical observers argue that the shell was adopted merely as a device for sipping water from streams along the way or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl.  It could also prove a pilgrim had accomplished the pilgrimage as the shell was only found on the Galician shores. By having a scallop shell, a pilgrim could almost certainly prove that he or she had finished the pilgrimage and had actually seen the "end of the world" which at that point in history was the Western coast of Spain. If this is so, it quickly took on greater meaning even to the earliest pilgrims.

    When asked why the Scallop Shell is associated to Saint James two legends prevail:

    James the Great, the brother of John, was killed in Jerusalem for his beliefs. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula.

    1. After James' death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body was washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
    2. After James' death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James' ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse bolted and with the rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

    The scallop design symbolizes the many European starting points from which medieval pilgrims began their journey, all drawn to a single point at the base of the shell, Santiago de Compostela. Today in Spain cement scallop shell markers along the Camino reassure participants that they have not taken a wrong turn and local residents decorate their gardens and houses with shells in solidarity with the pilgrims. A recent pilgrim recalled that the shells “came in various forms: ceramic shells fitted onto road markers, government-issue traffic signs marked with an abstract shell, shining brass shells imbedded in pavements. Some were broken, some had been stolen as souvenirs leaving only a trace of their presence, some were beautiful, some so simply sketched as to provide the mere suggestion of a shell. In all their variations, they marked the route for hundreds of miles. They reminded all of us pilgrims that in the midst of a world both beautiful and broken there are signs to help lead us forward, sometimes right under our feet.”

    Give me my scallop shell of quiet;

    My staff of faith to walk upon;

    My scrip of joy, immortal diet;

    My bottle of salvation;

    My gown of glory (hope's true gage)

    And then I'll take my pilgrimage.

     -  Sir Walter Raleigh



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