The scallop shell (in Spanish: concha de Vieira) has, over the past centuries become the recognized official symbol of the famed Camino de Santiago. It can be seen throughout the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Sometimes it is engraved on posts, sometimes painted on signs, and through some of the more populated areas, as part of their official street signs or emblazed into the road. This has been done throughout most of the Camino in order to guide pilgrims along the way.
Not only is the scallop a guide throughout the journey, but it has also become a symbol of the Pilgrim themselves. Often the pilgrims (peregrinos in Spanish) will obtain a scallop shell at the beginning of their walk. They then sew it to their clothing or pack or wear it around their neck to identify them as a pilgrim – to locals and tourist alike.
But why the Scallop Shell?
One of the biggest reasons perhaps is the fact that scallop shells can be found on the shores in Galicia, near the end of the walk. Maybe pilgrims were looking for a souvenir to take home with them to commemorate their walk or even to prove to others the success of the walk from areas like France or Belgium.
Even though it may have started as a token of remembrance to the pilgrim, over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on symbolic meaning in relation to St. James the Greater (who is the main inspiration for those on pilgrimage through the Camino de Santiago) and his death.
There are two versions of the myth surrounding the origin of the symbol of the scallop with regards to the death of Saint James, who was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 AD.
Version 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 washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
Version 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 groom was on horseback, and upon seeing the ship approach, his horse spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, both emerged from the water alive, covered in scallop shells.
For those non-religious pilgrims (an oxymoron if you will) as well as the religious, the scallop also has come to be a metaphor for the actual map of routes itself. Imagine (in the photo to the right), that the grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of the Apostle, Saint James the Greater in Santiago de Compostela.
Will I be carrying this symbol of the Camino?
About a month ago, I was contemplating how to get my scallop shell, I knew that I didn’t want to buy it at the beginning of the walk like a tourist because this isn’t your typical tourist vacation. I wanted it to be as authentic as possible. As I was deciding where I was going to go snorkeling in Florida, a sudden memory flooded me of my late Grandmother, Armen Gamble (aka Grandmom).I'm Learning why Pilgrims carry a Scallop Shell on the Camino De Santiago! #Camino #CaminoDeSantiago Click To Tweet
See, although I loved my Grandmom, her life and story remain somewhat a mystery to me. We often related more to our maternal side of the family growing up due to the quantity of children that were our age that were around to play with. However, despite my lack of intimate knowledge, I suddenly remembered how she collected shells and proceeded to contact my cousin and Aunt – sure enough they had one perfectly preserved scallop shell left that belonged to my Grandmom. It had been wrapped in tissue paper and tucked away in my Aunt’s drawers.
When I asked why my Grandmom collected shells at all, she said, “Grandmom was born in Atlantic City, NJ and lived one block from the beach on Ventor Ave. this is where and when she was the happiest. When the Great Depression came, the family moved to Washington DC. She was about 10 years old and it was a very big change. They were extremely poor and living conditions were difficult – bed bugs etc. but when they could, they made their trip to the “shore” to have a vacation – to refresh their spirit. My mom knew how to budget and stretch a dollar and support 2 kids on her meager income which included sending us to Catholic School, piano lessons and scouting. She always took us to the beach one week out of the year. She went to the beach to renew her spirit – she was so happy there. She just loved the ocean so much – it was just fun to see what “treasures” we could find.”
So with my symbol, a gift from my Grandmom, I hope that the Camino will also renew my Spirit!