The pilgrim’s scallop shell

The scallop shell has become an authentic symbol of the Camino de Santiago and an emblem for the pilgrim. However, few know the origin and history of the pilgrim’s shell.

Shell Scallop, Camino Santiago

In Santiago Ways, who are lovers of the Camino de Santiago, we have been researching everything related to the pilgrim’s shell. In this article we will tell you why it is said that the scallop of the Camino de Santiago is the emblem of the pilgrim route, the various existing theories about how the use of the pilgrim’s shell was popularized and some more curiosities, which you likely did not know.

The scallop shell: the icon on the Camino de Santiago

The scallop carried by many pilgrims hanging from their backpacks is not only a souvenir of the journey, the pilgrim shell is undoubtedly the most universal and representative icon of the Camino de Santiago. A symbol that, without the need for words, speaks of pilgrim tradition.

The shell as a signal for routes on the Camino de Santiago

A sign of the above is that the scallop shell is the symbol officially used to signal the routes along the Camino de Santiago. This can be seen on the stone markers on all the routes of the Camino de Santiago.

It is sometimes depicted printed in yellow on pieces of blue tile, but it is also possible to see the famous shell made of bronze and embedded in the floor of the cities that crosses the Camino de Santiago. Although less common, you can also find them painted on the stones.

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    Many times, the shell of the scallop that signals the routes appears accompanied by the famous yellow arrows that indicate the direction of the road. These have also become, over time, an icon of the Camino de Santiago. Although the tradition of yellow arrows is not as old as that of the pilgrim’s shell.

    However, the shell that marks the pilgrim routes speaks for itself and does not require an arrow to indicate the direction. That is why in many sections of the Camino de Santiago you will find exclusively the shell.

    To decipher the address indicated by the shell it is necessary to take into account whether you have already entered the community of Galicia or not. For the Galicians, the closed part of the shell symbolizes Santiago de Compostela and for them, all pilgrim routes depart from there. That is why, only in the Galician community, it will be the open part of the shell that indicates the direction of the route.

    In other communities, the understanding is the opposite. For example, in the neighbouring community of Asturias, the direction of the route is indicated by the closed part of the shell. This is because, according to them, all roads lead to Santiago.

    The scallop in monumental architecture

    Not only does the shell appear in the signage of the routes on the Camino de Santiago, but it is also present in much of the monumental architecture of the pilgrim towns and villages. When passing through the villages that cross the pilgrim routes it is common to find buildings, fountains or sculptures with the shell of the pilgrim.

    In addition, it is common to find the shell of the scallop as a decorative element in many chapels and churches, whether they have Santiago the Apostle as their patron or not. Some examples of this are the Chapel of San Sebastian, in Riego de Ambrós (stage 24 on the Camino Frances) or the Church of the Virgin of the Pilgrim in Pontevedra, whose floor is shaped like a shell (stage 25 on the Camino Central Portugues).

    Pilgrims and their use of the shell

    In the Middle Ages, the routes of the Camino de Santiago were not marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells, as they are today. However, the origin of this pilgrim icon dates back tothe early years of the Camino de Santiago.

    Shortly after the pilgrimage to Compostela began to become popular among pilgrims during the Middle Ages, they began to carry with them the famous shell of the Camino de Santiago, hence it was also known as the pilgrim’s shell. What happens is that with the passage of time, and even more so with the recovery of the pilgrim routes in the 20th century, the pilgrim’s shell became the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

    Even today, pilgrims have a habit of carrying the scallop shell with them. However, there are certain differences between the use of the pilgrim shell made by pilgrims in the Middle Ages and that made today.

    For example, in the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago was made back and forth. The pilgrim’s shell was carried only by those who made the Camino de Santiago back.

    This was because, for many years, the marketing of the pilgrim shell was only allowed in Santiago de Compostela. Its sale outside the Galician capital was punishable by excommunication from the Catholic Church.

    Today, few pilgrims make the Camino de Santiago back and forth. Therefore, most of them acquire the scallop shell during the early stages of the Camino de Santiago.

    Another difference in the use of the shell by pilgrims from the Middle Ages and the current pilgrims, is the place where they hung it. In the old way, pilgrims usually wore it from the hat or cape. Today, it is most common for pilgrims to place a scallop in their backpacks.

    The origin of the pilgrim’s shell

    At this point, the inevitable question is: why did pilgrims from the Middle Ages begin to use the scallop shell when they were doing the Camino de Santiago? There is no single answer to this question. Some attribute its use to practical questions, while others claim that behind the use of the pilgrim’s shell is a whole symbology.

    Most likely, all the answers are somewhat true. What you will never know is what came first, utility or symbology. Below we explain some of the theories that revolve around the origin of the scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago.

    Utilitarian theories about the shell of the Camino de Santiago

    Within the utilitarian theories that explain the use of the pilgrim shell, we can differentiate two types. Some are those that point to the daily use of shells by pilgrims and others are those that point out that scallops were used as a distinctive and differentiating element, among Christians of the time.

    The shell as a utensil

    Many scholars of pilgrim tradition indicate that the use of scallop shell was popularized among pilgrims because they used it as a glass to drink from fountains, rivers and streams. There are also those who point out that they used them as spoons.

    The pilgrim’s shell as a souvenir

    Within the group of utilitarian theories, we could also frame those who argue that at that time it was very common to find, in Compostela, dishes made with scallops. According to these, the pilgrims when they arrived in Santiago tried this seafood and took the scallop shell as a souvenir, since it was very striking.

    The pilgrim’s shell as a souvenir

    Here they could also frame those who defend that the shell of the Camino de Santiago was a ruse of the merchants during the Middle Ages. These took advantage of the popularization of the pilgrimage to Santiago, settled around the Cathedral and promoted the use of the scallop shell as a souvenir of the Camino.

    The scallop shell as accreditation

    The earlier theories perhaps were valid during the early centuries of pilgrim tradition. But, the truth is that the Codex Calixtinus, which is one of the first books documenting the Camino de Santiago and which was prepared in the 12th century, recalls that pilgrims at that time, were given, upon arrival in Compostela, a parchment and a scallop shell.

    Both elements served to prove their feat and that no one doubted their personal merits and their stay in Santiago Compostela. Since the document was carried on the left, on the way back, the pilgrims placed the scallop in a visible place.

    In this way, they differed from those pilgrims who had not yet paid homage to the apostle. In fact, the use of the scallop shell as an identifying element transcended the pilgrim’s own life. Thus, throughout Europe there have been numerous tombs inside which the famous Compostela scallop shells were laid.

    It is believed that pilgrims from the Middle Ages were buried with the shell of the Camino de Santiago to identify themselves in the afterlife as pilgrims. In this way, they showed, after life, that they had received absolute forgiveness in Compostela and trusted that Santiago the Apostle would intercede for them in the other world.

    Symbolic theories of the pilgrim’s shell

    Regardless of whether the pilgrim shell was used as a utensil or if it was only a souvenir, the scallop must have acquired a special meaning and symbolism, so that it would become an accrediting element for the pilgrim, first, and an icon of the Camino de Santiago, later. Below, we tell you some of the symbolic theories that explain the use of scallop shell in pilgrim tradition.

    Legends and miracles about the Jacobean scallop

    Many of the legends related to the pilgrim’s shell are collected in the Codex Calixtinus. In fact, the manuscript refers on different occasions to the importance of the scallop shell on the Camino de Santiago.

    The origin of the pilgrim’s shell: the wedding

    The first reference to the shell of the Camino de Santiago is related to the transfer of the remains of Santiago the Apostle to Galicia. According to legend when the boat carrying the lifeless body of Santiago arrived on the Galician shores, a miraculous event occurred.

    The two disciples accompanying the Apostle’s body saw that a wedding was being held on the beach. At that time the groom and guests were playing a game, riding a horse, which consisted of throwing a spear and picking it up before it fell to the ground.

    When the groom’s turn came, his horse ran off and they both sank into the water. Both the guests and the two disciples were perplexed when seconds later, the horse and the rider reappeared next to the boat carrying the apostle’s remains.

    When Santiago’s disciples approached the young man to bring him closer to the shore, they were surprised to see that his entire body was covered with scallop shells. In that instant, everyone understood that Santiago had worked a miracle.

    Not only because he saved the young boyfriend from drowning and covered his body with scallops, but also because he and the wedding guests were converted to Christianity. That is why many consider the pilgrim’s scallop shell as the origin of this legend.

    The healing powers of the shell of the Camino de Santiago

    Another miracle collected by the Codex Calixtinus on the pilgrim’s shell took place in 1106, in Puglia. As the manuscript describes, a knight had a swollen throat and no doctor was able to find a remedy to relieve him.

    The desperate gentleman said that if a pilgrim might touch his throat with the pilgrim shell, his pain would calm down. A neighbour of his who had made pilgrimage to Compostela, went to his house and touched his throat with the scallop of the Camino de Santiago. The knight then healed and began his pilgrimage to the tomb of St James the Apostle, to give thanks.

    Religious interpretations of the Camino de Santiago scallop shell

    From the point of view of Christianity, the shell of the Camino de Santiago was associated with good deeds. At this point, the Codex Calixtinus also recounts that some seafood, similar to the oyster grew near Santiago, which were defended with two shells that looked like they had been carved by hand.

    The manuscript notes that these shells, which pilgrims brought home with great joy, symbolized the divine commandments: to love God and your neighbour. In this way, it was believed that as long as the pilgrim carried the shell of the Camino de Santiago with him, he was obliged to submit to the wishes of the Lord.

    In fact, the importance of the Camino de Santiago is such in the Catholic Church and the religious interpretations of the pilgrim’s shell are so valid, that Benedict XVI included the Jacobean scallop in the papal crest. Everything that has contributed to reinforce the religious significance attributed to the Camino de Santiago shell.

    Pagan interpretations of the pilgrim shell

    We must not forget that the motivations for which the Camino de Santiago is made are very diverse and have not always been religious. That is why the scallop shell of the Camino de Santiago has also been attributed meanings that have nothing to do with the Christian religion.

    At this point it is worth remembering that during the Middle Ages, the Camino de Santiago to Finisterre, which is not officially a pilgrim route was travelled by many pilgrims at the time. Beyond Santiago de Compostela was the end of the world and many took advantage of his pilgrimage to the tomb of the apostle to continue to the land where the sun died.

    As we tell you in the article we dedicate to the ancient route to Cape Finisterre, the Camino de Finisterre was a pagan pilgrimage. And there, on the Costa da Morte, it was precisely where the pilgrim shell grew.

    The goose’s webbed foot

    One of the theories that has nothing to do with the Catholic Church is that the pilgrim’s shell symbolizes the goose’s webbed foot. In many ancient traditions, the goose’s webbed foot was the symbol that represented initiation rituals.

    Association with the goddess Venus

    There are also authors who point out that the pilgrim’s shell is related to Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, in Roman mythology. In fact, in Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus and Spring, the goddess is depicted on a scallop shell, as a symbol of fertility.

    Scallop Shell and the association with the goddess Venus

    This theory gathers strength if we analyse the etymological origin of the word scallop. This comes from the Galician word scallop, which comes from the Latin veneria (sea shell) or venerates, both concepts related to the goddess Venus.

    Although the figures are different, both theories agree to associate the pilgrim’s shell with the idea of rebirth. A feeling that people experience when they do the Camino de Santiago.

    At this point, it should be remembered, again, that at Cape Finisterre there are many pilgrim rituals associated with the rebirth of the person. It is therefore not surprising that pagan theories are strongly related to the influence that the Route to the End of the World had on medieval pilgrims.

    Curiosities about the Camino de Santiago shell

    Throughout the research we carried out to produce this article on the pilgrim’s shell, we find some curiosities about the scallop shell of the Camino de Santiago. We don’t want to say goodbye without sharing them with you. Did you know that…?

    • …shells were so important during the Middle Ages that pilgrims were called concheiros or cuncheiros (shell people)?
    • …the scientific name of the pilgrim’s scallop shell is “Pecten Maximusbecause it is the largest?
    • in the Mediterranean there grows a similar mollusc that is called “Pecten Jacobaeus”? Curious, isn’t it?

    With these latest curiosities about the shell of the Camino de Santiago we close this post. If you liked the article, we would appreciate that you could share it with your friends on Facebook.

    And, of course, if you know other theories about the origin and uses of the scallop that pilgrims carry, or any other curiosity about the pilgrim shell, we would be delighted if you could share it with us and with all the lovers of the Camino de Santiago who read us daily. Leave us a comment!

    Finally, just remind you that if you plan to do the Camino de Santiago and would like to have the support of a specialized agency that will help you organize the trip, do not hesitate to get in contact with us. As you can see in this article about the pilgrim shell, in Santiago Ways we put a lot of passion into everything we do.

    Buen Camino!