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The shell?

MartinBryant

New Member
Camino(s) past & future
None so far. Hoping to walk Camino Frances in September 2020
Apologies for what is probably a dumb newbie question :) but here goes...
I have read some posts about obtaining your Camino passport in the office at SJPdP before you start and some also mention getting a shell. Is the shell just as a souvenir of your journey? Or is it required as some sort of official ID?
 

Bradypus

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
Is the shell just as a souvenir of your journey? Or is it required as some sort of official ID?
Certainly not required. In the distant past they were the badge of those who had completed the pilgrimage to Santiago. These days people often carry them from the start of their journey. But there is nothing 'official' about it and if you are walking on a Camino route people are likely to assume you are a pilgrim whether you carry a shell or not!
 

mspath

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances, autumn/winter; 2004, 2005-2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
If you are starting from Saint Jean Pied de Port you can purchase a scallop shell for a small fee and and your Credential at the Pilgrim Office, 39 rue de La Citadelle.

For more info/posts re camino shells and their history see this earlier forum thread
https://www.caminodesantiago.me/community/threads/scallop-shells.28281/

For one modern evolution from an armorial device into a famous iconic brand symbol read this account of the Shell oil company.

For comments/discussion of what the shell denotes for some contemporary pilgrims and why see this earlier one.

Since the legend or hagiography of St James recounts that his dead body miraculously washed ashore in Spain, scallop shells from the sea are his symbol. Hence, from time immemorial carved shells decorate doorway lintels and latches along the pilgrim routes and pilgrims have worn scallop shells (in French, coquilles St Jacques) as their emblem.

Years ago when nervously beginning my first camino a kindly volunteer of the Amis du Chemin de Saint Jacques in SJPdP offered me a pilgrim shell; I wore it with pride. Today at 80 although I can no longer walk long distances with ease that first precious shell hangs at the door of our farmhouse continuing the timeless tradition of marking a pilgrim place; long may it be so.
 
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nidarosa

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Inglés 2009+2017, Francés 2012+2018, Astorga-Santiago repeatedly
You'll also see a lot of people with shell or arrow patches sewn on their packs instead of an actual real shell (in my case because they tend to swing and clank).
 

Albertagirl

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances (2015); Aragones-Frances (2016); VdlP-Sanabres (2017); Madrid-Frances-Invierno (2019)Levante
The shell must have a significance to local residents along the Frances, judging by my experience on my first camino. I was walking through Arzua on a Sunday and noticed open doors on a church adjacent to the camino where people were going in. I entered to attend the Sunday mass. After the mass, a woman approached the pilgrims sitting at the back of the church with a request for us. She carried several shells painted with the red Templar cross and with attached cords. She offered these to us pilgrims with the explanation that they had been painted with the cross by a man from the church whose son had died. He wanted pilgrims to carry them to Santiago and to pray for him in his grief. This has been my camino cross ever since, attached to my pack. I try to remember to pray for him when I am on pilgrimage, as I don't believe that parents ever cease to grieve for a child who dies. The cross attaches me, literally, to the local people near the camino.
 

Felipe

Veteran Member
Shells identify pilgrims as not just another walker in vacation looking for fun. I thought this was unnecesary in the Camino Frances, but it is a personal thing. I wore mine in remote Caminos in France and Germany, where pilgrims are not a so frequent sight. People actually approached me to ask about the pilgrimage and share their own experiences and feelings.
 

RJM

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
A few times
Just a kind of combination souvenir and badge ID as a pilgrim, but not a necessity. I have a nice one I picked up at the beach in Finisterre that I drilled a hole in and attached a short piece of cord to to hang off my pack near the top.
Many places sell and give them away at along the Frances.
 

Juspassinthrough

in our minds, we're vagabonds, you and I
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Frances (2017)
Camino Inglés 2019
Leon-Sarria, June (2019)
Camino Aragonés (2023?)
The shell is just a symbol and whether you carry it from the beginning, purchase it upon your completion or, never get one, it’s what’s in your heart that matters. For me, I now wear a Spanish silver shell which hangs on a chain near my heart as a reminder of all that I saw and learned on my Camino(s). Buen Camino.
 

AlwynWellington

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
please see signature
If your home is near a beach you might do your own beach combing.
I have two shells from local beaches on my pack.
One is a scallop. Enough said.
The other is a bit unique to my country: and a village not far from my home has the shell's name as part of the village's name.

@MartinBryant , kia kaha (take care, be strong, get going)
 

Anamiri

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
2016, 2017, 2019 Camino Frances
I had a plain shell that did two Camino's - I never took it off my pack in between. But last time my grandson insisted that we all had shells with the official cross symbol. Kids are such sticklers for insisting on doing things right!! So now they will probably stay on the packs for good now.
 

Deputy Dan

Member
Camino(s) past & future
Logrono to Burgos in week of October (2017); SJPP - ?, three weeks in 2020!
Some people sew patches on their packs to show off the places they've been. Others of us (without sewing skills?) hang memorabilia of past exploits. The clanking can be stopped by pushing the whole collection inside the pack, but then again, the clanking may alert others to your approach and perhaps they'll step to one side as you breeze past with a cheery "Buen Camino!". And between a handful of beaded thingys and a shell - who needs a bear-bell?
 

Old Kiwi

Member
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Frances 2016
Camino Frances 2019
SdC to Muxia and Fisterra 2019
Camino Portuguese "2021"
On my first Camino I got a scallop shell out of the sea at one of the local beaches here in New Zealand and at the finish of the Camino I left it in Santiago. On my second Camino I got a shell from the same beach but at the finish in Fisterra I waded into the little beach past the fish market and threw it into the water. This time I got a smaller scallop shell for this year's Camino which I will bring back home with me as a memento of the trip and to use again on the next one.
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
Must have been because one of them did the pilgrimage to Santiago? (I have no idea...)
Nope. The Spencer brothers were successful and upwardly mobile sheep graziers and were granted arms in 1504 and they originally opted for seagulls in their coat of arms. They were later knighted and then remodelled their coat of arms; it's a long story but basically their new coat of arms was inspired by the coat of arms of a family with a similar name to which they were however not related.

In any case, scallop shells on coat of arms don't mean that there's a Santiago ancestor in the family. If my memory doesn't fail me, families of crusaders started to include scallops in their coat of arms and later other families adopted them in the hope of sharing their prestige. Scallop shells are one of the most widely used heraldic charges in all countries.
 
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Mycroft

Active Member
Certainly not required. In the distant past they were the badge of those who had completed the pilgrimage to Santiago. These days people often carry them from the start of their journey. But there is nothing 'official' about it and if you are walking on a Camino route people are likely to assume you are a pilgrim whether you carry a shell or not!
The shell also was used in previous eras to scoop water to drink and sometimes as a plate or bowl.
 

Mycroft

Active Member
On my first Camino I got a scallop shell out of the sea at one of the local beaches here in New Zealand and at the finish of the Camino I left it in Santiago. On my second Camino I got a shell from the same beach but at the finish in Fisterra I waded into the little beach past the fish market and threw it into the water. This time I got a smaller scallop shell for this year's Camino which I will bring back home with me as a memento of the trip and to use again on the next one.
Some chapters of American Pilgrims on the Camino, and some churches, do a Pilgrim Blessing for members before they go, providing the shell as a symbol of solidarity and support. It is not required that one carry it en route. I have gotten a number of tiny silver charms with versions of the scallop shell, which I wear on a chain.
 

Bradypus

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
The shell also was used in previous eras to scoop water to drink and sometimes as a plate or bowl.
I have often read this claim in recent years but have never seen any reference to this in historic sources. Can you point me towards any original evidence that supports the idea?
 

Kanga

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Francés x 5, Le Puy x 2, Arles, Tours, Norte, Madrid, Via de la Plata, Portuguese, Primitivo
This interested me enough to start a bit of internet researching, to see if I could find when the scallop shell and St James were first linked in historic sources. We take it for granted today, but it was not always so. It sounds like the 11th century, in association with pilgrimage to the shrine. Before that St James was not really distinguished from the other apostles. Can anyone provide more accurate information?
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
I have often read this claim in recent years but have never seen any reference to this in historic sources. Can you point me towards any original evidence that supports the idea?
@Bradypus, what possessed you, an active and long-standing member of this forum, to ask this question 😂? This narrative (of shells being used by pilgrims to scoop water and now even also being used as plates or bowls) has acquired eternal life. Unkillable.
 
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Bradypus

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
@Bradypus, what possessed you, an active and long-standing member of this forum, to ask this question 😂? This is a narrative that has acquired eternal life. Unkillable.
Interesting philosophical question I suppose - how often does an invented "fact" have to be repeated before it becomes unquestionably true? I am far from convinced of the "food bowl" theory but I would love to see solid historical evidence that proves me wrong. The only references I can find to the idea are recent and no one cites their sources :rolleyes:
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
One could also ask why contemporary pilgrims attach a scallop shell to their backpacks. Why don't they get themselves a gourd? Or purchase small pilgrim badges made from lead alloy and attach them to their backpack in larger numbers? Why don't they wear the traditional broad pilgrim hats? These were all traditional items that helped to identify the pilgrim. Why do contemporary camino walkers choose the scallop shell as their distinctive marker? I think the answer is that scallop shells have been popular decorative elements since time immemorial. They are pretty to look at.

PS: I've just pulled out my copy of The Scallop - Studies of a shell and its influences on humankind from my book shelves. It is a multi-disciplinary study, with lots of pictures, commissioned and "published in London by the 'Shell' Transport and Trading Company, Limited" in 1957. Out of print but fairly easy to get second-hand. I don't know why they don't reprint it, I would guess there is a market out there. Ideal Christmas present for camino pilgrims. ☺
 
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mspath

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances, autumn/winter; 2004, 2005-2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015
This interested me enough to start a bit of internet researching, to see if I could find when the scallop shell and St James were first linked in historic sources. We take it for granted today, but it was not always so. It sounds like the 11th century, in association with pilgrimage to the shrine. Before that St James was not really distinguished from the other apostles. Can anyone provide more accurate information?
Read in the famous Codex Calixtinus, Book 3 which discusses the moving of St James body to Spain and resultant use of shells. See
Liber de translatione corporis sancti Jacobi ad Compostellam.

For various available facsimile copies of the Codex see this web.

For 'recent' history of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral copy see these Forum threads reporting in 2011 the Codex stolen and, fortuitously in 2012, the Codex recovered.

Contemporary history can be indeed be strange!
 
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D

Deleted member 67185

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Kanga

Moderator
Staff member
Camino(s) past & future
Francés x 5, Le Puy x 2, Arles, Tours, Norte, Madrid, Via de la Plata, Portuguese, Primitivo
So indeed the shell became associated with St James in association with the pilgrimage. It does not sound as if there are statues or depictions of St James with a scallop shell from earlier times.
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
I am far from convinced of the "food bowl" theory but I would love to see solid historical evidence that proves me wrong. The only references I can find to the idea are recent and no one cites their sources :rolleyes:
I'm too lazy to google something but if memory doesn't fail me the sources for the idea that pilgrims may have used the shell for scooping water are probably 19th century sources when in particular Spanish/Galician scholars revived the interest in the historical Santiago pilgrimage.

Bowls and plates ... that would have to be late 20th and early 21st century sources, I guess. Blogs and guidebooks mainly.

When I read stuff like this, I sometimes try to imagine it in practical terms. How likely is it that people actually did that or lived that way or had this or that idea in those times? Imagine you are standing at a well or a spring or a river and you are thirsty. Would you scoop water with your shell, which btw is sewed on to your clothes or bag or hat if we are to believe paintings with medieval pilgrims in them, or would you scoop the water with your two hands or the gourd or wooden bowl you carry anyway with your belongings? And since medieval pilgrims got their shell only when they arrived in Santiago and could then use it on their way back home, how did they manage to drink and eat on the way going to Santiago?

The contemporary photos we see are those of pilgrims sipping some red wine in Irache with their shell. And you can see how awkward that is. The shape of a scallop shell is just not a useful tool for such purposes. Good for a photo but not for everyday use. 😂
 
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Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
BTW, I tend to think that the shells became popular first, and the stories about why the shell is associated with Saint James and what they supposedly mean in a symbolic way came later.
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
Scallop shells feature of course also on the coat of arms of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex but you have to look closely to spot them.

Somewhat amazingly, you find plenty of scallop shells on coat of arms dating back to as early as the thirteenth century (1200s). Quote: [People interested in heraldry] of a romantic or imaginative turn of mind might see in it an allusion to the crusades and to pilgrimages of long ago; and indeed that would be a reasonable explanation. But it cannot be denied that we are in the dark and that it could equally well refer to many other things. Devastating military campaigns like the crusades, btw, were regarded as pilgrimages in those days.

I think the same applies to the contemporary use of the scallop shell on the Caminos. While the scallop shell was undoubtedly closely connected with medieval pilgrimages in general and Saint James pilgrimages in particular, that's not why we use it today. We use it because it appeals to our romantic or imaginative nature. And that's why it doesn't matter one bit today whether you acquire your shell in SJPP, pick it up on a beach, order it from your local or national pilgrim association or get it upon arrival in Santiago. Or not carry one at all, as I do. It is today a matter of personal choice/taste/preference.

Coats of arms 13th c.jpg
 
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Albertagirl

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances (2015); Aragones-Frances (2016); VdlP-Sanabres (2017); Madrid-Frances-Invierno (2019)Levante
We use it because it appeals to our romantic or imaginative nature. And that's why it doesn't matter one bit today whether you acquire your shell in SJPP, pick it up on a beach, order it from your local or national pilgrim association or get it upon arrival in Santiago.
@Kathar1na
Many pilgrims carry the shell, and we do not all have a "romantic or imaginative nature." I received my first shell at SJPdP and carried it because I was offered it in the Pilgrim Office as the usual way to identify myself as a pilgrim. Later on that first pilgrimage, I was offered another shell - see my post #6 above- which came to represent the work of prayer and intercession that I consider to be an important part of my pilgrimage.
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
[Many pilgrims carry the shell, and we do not all have a "romantic or imaginative nature."
Erm ... how did we get to this point? There’s nothing wrong with being imaginative. Anyone who walks the Camino Francés, or lives along it for that matter, will have noticed the abundance of shells that contemporary pilgrims carry. I would even go so far as to say that carrying a shell TO Santiago, and in recent years even carrying a shell to Santiago for someone else, has meaning for many and has become a new tradition. It is something that really has caught on. It appeals to people.

However, we got to this point because a claim was made about pilgrims and shells in the distant past. Carrying shells to Santiago and contemporary rituals involving them are something new because in the distant past, ca the 1100s, pilgrims did not carry shells TO Santiago, they brought them home FROM Santiago.

And I would guess that, in the distant past, there was simply no need to ask where to obtain a pilgrim shell. Unlike today ☺.
 
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Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
According to Christopher Hohler's essay in the Shell study, the first literary evidence for the scallop being the badge of the pilgrimage to Santiago is in the Liber Sancti Jacobi or Codex Calixtinus which states that the shells to be attached to the pilgrims' cloaks were on sale (about 1130) in the booths around the Santiago cathedral.

This author also describes the Codex as an eccentric and problematic book. The kind of Baedeker guide in the last chapter ("pilgrims guide") is described as being written by a man anxious to popularise the pilgrimage to Santiago.

In visual arts, the earliest representation of a pilgrim wearing a shell (attached to his scrip) dates from about 1130 to 1140. Incidentally, this is also the period where scallops appeared in coats of arms of crusaders and their families. This may or may not be connected; both phenomena may have developed independently of each other but I for one would not be in the least surprised if it turns out that it was a case of cultural appropriation 🤭 ... the Santiago clergy appropriating from the crusaders who had a practical reason for coat of arms because a need and a desire for a visual identification of knights arose in that period if I understand it correctly. Scallops were a popular motif for crusader knights.

The author also says that it is clear in any case, that the author(s) of the [Codex Calixtinus] did not know (or were not prepared to disclose) the origin of the [shell] badge for pilgrims. He says that any decision to have a formal pilgrim badge at all, such as in the form of a scallop, is most improbable before the 12th century and that the evidence points to this decision having been taken during the reign of the powerful archbishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmirez, in imitation of Jerusalem.
 
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Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
To Santiago and back (no name; Tours; Francés; sea; no name)
In visual arts and in architecture, from about 1500 onwards, the scallop became a popular decorative element, liberally used. When people excitedly report that they spotted a Santiago shell, even in a church context, it is often just that, a decoration that is not connected to Saint James or Santiago. And here's a delightful painting from around 1660 of a child blowing bubbles and using the shell as a container.

Blowing bubbles.jpg
 
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