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The Shell

Past OR future Camino
Camino Frances 2008, half Via del Plata 2011, Camino Fisterra 2011, Camino Aragones 2013.
Why do pilgrims bring a shell with them on the walk to Santiago when (if I'm not mistaken) it is supposed to carried as proof of already having been there?
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Nunca se camina solo
Simply because it is a symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago. The tradition was that Medieval pirlgims took a shell home. But for the life of me I can't see that it would be proof since they could have picked one up at any medieval fish mongers on the way back :)

But there ain't no rules - some people may wish to emulate their medieval counterparts and others want to display the shell as a universal symbol of the pilgrimage.
It was more of a souvenir than proof. Such medieval souvenirs from shrines were very common, consisting of metal badges with representations of the saint concerned, ampullae and such like. Probably originated with pilgrims to the Holy Land bringing back a palm. I have never come across a satisfactory explanation as to why the scallop came to represent Santiago.

Those who needed proof, such as those who were sent on pilgrimage to expiate some misdeed, had to obtain a signed document from the clergy at the shrine.

William Marques

Staff member
In the recent past when there were fewer walkers on the Camino and this still aplied to the less travelled routes the wearing of the scallop shell signified that you were a pilgrim rather than a hiker.

The wearing of a shell on the way to your destination may be a new tradition but it is also being extended, many pilgrims on there way to other destinations such as Rome now wear a shell. On that route they may wear the cross keys on their way too. It seems that the signs of having done the pilgrimage are now used by those on their way to their destination to distinguish them from tourists.



Veteran Member
Past OR future Camino
2002 CF: 2004 from Paris: 2006 VF: 2007 CF: 2009 Aragones, Ingles, Finisterre: 2011 X 2 on CF: 2013 'Caracoles': 2014 CF and Ingles 'Caracoles":2015 Logrono-Burgos (Hospitalero San Anton): 2016 La Douay to Aosta/San Gimignano to Rome:
Although paper was introduced in Spain in the 10th C (the Muslims prepared paper from silk, cotton, rags and wood) it wasn't readily available until two hundred years later and I doubt pilgrims would have been given some sort of written certificate.
In some countries, if you could prove that you had been to Santiago for 3 successive years, you were exempt from paying taxes for life. This made the compostellana a target for forgers who sold them to pilgrims on both sides of the Pyrenees.
The CSJ's article on the Compostela says, "Confession and communion remained essential to the granting of the certificate of having completed the pilgrimage, first called la autentica. Originally hand-written and sealed, with slips of paper attesting confession and communion pasted on, it became in the C17th (printing reached Galicia very late) a printed document which included the confirmation of confession and communion. These two elements appear to have been dropped from the compostela in the mid-C18th, and the text as we now have it is little changed since then.
In her paper on “The Origins of Holy Years and the Compostela” Patricia Quaife writes - "the earliest documented account of indulgences granted to Jacobean pilgrims dates only from the mid-thirteenth century. In the 14thC the document was similar to a letter of diplomatic accreditation: handwritten on parchment and signed on behalf of the cathedral chapter by the senior cardinal or canon, known as the Penitenciario."
It is interesting that William Starkie does not mention the Compostela in his book - he says:
"We proceeded along the narrow streets to the offices of the Confraternity of St James and I was given my scallop shell, which for a eleven hundred years had been the badge of kings, prelates and beggars alike." (He wrote this book after his 3rd to Santiago)
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Veteran Member
Past OR future Camino
Someone told me that pilgrims used the shells to drink from streams, fountains etc because the shape of the shell means that sediment sinks to the bottom, so the water became cleaned, this also symbolically reflected the cleansing aspects of the pilgrimage itself.


Active Member
Shell, A word's pedigree

Anyone who is interested in what is so fascination about 'The Shell' should read Shell, A word's pedigree, available at by COX, IAN (ED.): The scallop. Studies of a shell and its influences on humankind, by eight authors. London, Shell, 1957, in-4to, 135 p., + 1 ll., richly illustrated in colour, orig. clothbound, fully ill. with gilt ornaments of scallops. The scallop in art, as heraldic forms, as food.. Contents: Shell, A word's pedigree, Le living scallop, A symbol in ancient times, the badge of St. James, * The cradle of Venus, Escallops in Armory, An excursion into the Americas, The scallop at the table. * See attachment.

It's amazing how many cultures have used the pecten for their purposes, like the Inca's in Peru for making pottery. Anyone knows Botticelli's Venus emerging from the sea in a scallop 'formed from the foam of the sea' (as I read in another book I don't remember now), but do we also know how that foam got there and who's foam it was?

The Rt Hon. Lord Godber Chairman, The 'Shell' Transport and Trading Company, Limited writes in his Foreword (referring to the Company's Golden Jubilee in 1957): "The sea-shell which the brothers Samuel adopted as a symbol of their new and growing business (and which they registered as their trademark) was not the scallop shell as we know it now, but a shell of somewhat indeterminable appearance, and it was only in May 1904 that the orthodox scallop shell became the Company's trademark."

From another little book that I can't find in my library right now I remember that this shell of somewhat indeterminable appearance was the Barnea candida or the Pholas dactylus (pictures) or a similar one as shown on, both not at all like the almost round coquille ornament in architecture and decoration but oblong and rather flat.

The Santiago Enigma ... c3657.html ... tml#p20649


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JohnnieWalker said:
Simply because it is a symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago.

But it seems to go back much further than the pilgrimage to Compostela. I have been made aware of this today in Rome through two different unconnected events.

1. We are preparing for the Papal Mass for the opening of the Bishops' Synod tomorrow in St Paul's nextdoor, and on my entry pass which I have just been given, I noticed the coat of arms of Benedict XVI has a scallop shell. Interested to know more, I explored this: apparently, the shell reminds the pope of St. Augustine who mentioned a scallop shell while reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity.

2. Earlier today we first year seminary students went as a group to the Christian catacombs in Rome, and we had our Mass for the Feast of St Francis there in a second century cavern hewn out of the rock. I noticed with great interest that among the artifacts found in that place during the excavations were a number of scallop shells. These had been buried with the Christians and obviously had been of some symbolic value, possibly as symbols of baptism?

The scallop shell certainly became a symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago, centuries later, and then took on the generic symbolism for pilgrimage in general. So even Saint Roche (San Roque) who was on his way to Rome, not Santiago, is widely shown with a scallop shell in France and Spain, in which the scallop shell symbol reflects his function as the patron of pilgrims. But in Italian iconography, San Rocco is portrayed with cross keys, which makes more sense as he was on a pilgrimage to Rome when he became afflicted by the pestilence; consequently, here he has been a far more popular saint for warding off the plague than protecting pilgrims. In Frascati near to Rome a fresco of San Rocco was miraculously revealed during a time of plague, when some plaster fell from the wall of the church, and it is believed the saint saved the town by his intercession. He has the usual dog but no scallop shell: instead the cross keys symbol on his pilgrim cape.

There is a rich and fluid history behind many of our symbols and the scallop shell undoubtedly has a practical function as well (as a drinking vessel etc., as mentioned in another post on this thread). It is easy for an enthusiastic Santiago pilgrim to jump to conclusions about the use of the symbol, as I must admit I did when I first saw the way it appeared on Benedict XVI's coat of arms. As with anything in visual communications, the meaning of the symbol is often governed by juxtaposition with other visual elements and needs to be 'read' in context.



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