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The Pilgrims Shell


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Can anyone please explain to me what the pilgrims shell is, what it signifies and where do I get one, if I need one?

At the moment I have butterflies the size of elephants, my camino begins Thursday...

Kind regards blue skies

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Hi Alli,

In Santiago you will not have any problem picking up a shell. Every 10 meters there will be a shop selling these, plastic and all.

If you go to a restaurant and ask for "Vieriras" you will get served the shell and it is quite good (I am not really a seafood kind-of-guy, but this I like). Then afterwards you ask them if you can keep the shell (they clean it for you and you bring it home). This might be a nicer experience than just buy the plastic shell in some store. Anyway, an idea.

If you have to have one during your walk? I have a feeling that these kinds of things are bought at arrival in Santiago, and that many do not actually carry them along the way. I might be wrong.

Regarding the meaning of the shell, I am not sure. Anyone?

Welcome to Santiago Alli!

Greetings from overcast 13c Santiago,
ivar said:
If you go to a restaurant and ask for "Vieriras" you will get served the shell

better if you ask for 'vieiras' :) Scallop in English

ivar said:
If you have to have one during your walk? I have a feeling that these kinds of things are bought at arrival in Santiago, and that many do not actually carry them along the way. I might be wrong.

traditionally, yes. The Liber Sancti Jacobi mentions shells being on sale in Santiago: you wore it on the way back to show that you had been to Santiago and were a returning pilgrim of St James. This was the equivalent of the palm of Jerusalem (a pilgrim to Jerusalem was called a 'palmer' and the reasonably common English surname Palmer comes from that; the less common Romer is from pilgrim to Rome).

In the modern camino cult, though, hardly anyone walks back, and the custom has grown up of wearing one on your way there. This is a modern invention.

ivar said:
Regarding the meaning of the shell, I am not sure. Anyone?

why the scallop became the symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago is a mystery. Generally explained by the legend of a horseman emerging from the sea covered in scallops, though this is a late legend and probably spurious. In any case, Santiago is not on the sea and, zoologically speaking, St James Scallop, pecten jacobaea, is a Mediterranean species that doesn't occur on the Galician coast. In classical times, the scallop was associated with Venus, though why this should have been transferred to St James isn't at all clear. My own view is that the shell was associated with a fertility cult in Galicia which the Church appropriated, but that's pure speculation on my part. It's further confused by other pilgrim shrines, such as Mont-St-Michel, also adopting the scallop.

For more info on this subject, the oil company Shell published a book on their logo, 'The Scallop', in 1957 for their 60th anniversary, with scholarly articles on the use of the shell, including by pilgrims to Santiago. Copies of this are frequently found in 2nd-hand bookshops; try internet sites of these or places like eBay.

[later edit: the word 'vieira', used in Castilian, Galician and Portuguese, actually comes from venera/Venus. As Ivar says, that's what you'll find on menus, though in Spanish the pilgrim's shell is 'concha de peregrino', from Latin conchylia (ultimately from Greek 'konche'), from which French coquille and English cockle (and conch) also come. Interestingly, the placename Conques also comes from this via the Occitan version 'conca', though apparently from the topography not pilgrim's shell.]
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What you may care to do is to have a meal of scallops before you leave home having bought the scallops in their shells from your local fish shop. You or a friend can then drill two holes with an electric drill into the larger curved part of the shell to put ribbon or string through to attach it to your pack (more comfortable than round your neck). I know it doesn't sound right that you can drill shells but I have done it a few times and it works. This seems better to me than buying a pristine bleached shell from a souvenir shop. As Peter says the modern tradition is to wear one on you way to Santiago.
The 2024 Camino guides will be coming out little by little. Here is a collection of the ones that are out so far.
From AP, 25-Apr-2005

Pope's Coat of Arms Has Bavarian Elements
FRANKFURT, Germany — Pope Benedict XVI has included traditional
Bavarian elements and a nod to St. Augustine in his papal coat of
arms, the diocese of Munich and Friesing said Monday.

A crowned Ethiopian, a bear and a mussel — all of which appear on
the insignia of the diocese — also appear in the three-sectored
insignia chosen by Benedict.

The bear, which is saddled with heavy packs, symbolizes the weight
of the papal office, the diocese said in a statement.

It has its origins in a Bavarian legend concerning the diocese's
patron, Korbinian, who encountered the animal while on a trip to
Rome. The bear ate Korbinian's mule, and God saddled it with the
mule's packs.

The mussel dates back to a parable by St. Augustine — about whose
works the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote his final thesis —
and symbolizes "diving into the groundless sea of God," the diocese

At an audience in Rome with German pilgrims Monday, Benedict shook
hands and kissed children, telling them "my roots are in Bavaria and
I'm still Bavarian as bishop of Rome."

Ratzinger served as archbishop of Munich before being summoned to
Rome in 1981 to become the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog.

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