The scallop shell is the most iconic symbol associated with the Camino de Santiago. It’s seen everywhere, from churches and distance markers to pavements and backpacks. But how exactly did this meager mollusk become associated with The Way?
The Scallop Shell in Pre-Christian Times
Like many Christian symbols and practices, the association of the scallop shell with the Camino predates the arrival of St James and Christianity in modern-day Galicia. In Roman Hispania, there was a route known as the Janus Path used by pagans as a born-again ritual and ending in Finisterre. Its starting point? The Temple of Venus, Roman goddess of love. Venus is said to have risen from the sea on a scallop shell, as depicted in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and is associated with fertility rituals practiced along the route.
Ideas and themes associated with the cult of Janus are echoed by the concept of transformation on the Camino de Santiago. The Roman god Janus, for whom the month January is named, is the god of beginnings and endings, transition and transformation – all ideas shared by pilgrimages and discovered on the Camino today, a constant source of renewal and rediscovery.
The Scallop Shell and St James
Santiago de Compostela is named in honour of St James the Greater, the taller of the two apostles named James. James worked as a fisherman alongside his brother John before becoming Disciples of Christ. Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostles began to spread the gospel and convert others to Christianity. As part of his mission, James travelled to Iberia, landing at present-day Padron, to preach to pagans in the area. Sadly, on his return to Jerusalem he was beheaded by King Herod for blasphemy.
Here’s where the scallop shell comes into it. Following his execution, James’ headless body was being brought to Galicia in northwest Spain to be laid to rest. As the boat containing his body approached the coast, a knight on horseback was walking the cliffs above the Atlantic. Upon seeing the boat, the horse bolted and plummeted into the sea with the knight. St James is said to have miraculously intervened and saved the knight, still on horseback, who emerged covered in scallop shells.
The Scallop Shell in the Middle Ages
The first recorded reference to the scallop shell’s association with the Camino dates all the way back to 1106. It’s contained in the Codex Calixtinus, or Liber Sancti Jacobi, an exquisite illuminated manuscript attributed to Pope Callixtus II. The book is essentially a spiritual and travel guide that gathers texts related to St James and information on the routes.
Back then, pilgrimages were long and dangerous journeys undertaken as an act of penance and religious devotion. The pilgrimage started at the pilgrim’s home and continued by foot until they reached Santiago. Once they returned home, either by foot, horseback or boat, pilgrims presented the scallop shell as proof they completed the pilgrimage since the shells are indigenous to the Galician coast. By the 12th Century, scallop shells were being sold by hundreds of licensed vendors around the Cathedral of Santiago cementing their symbolic status.
The Scallop Shell in Ireland
The shell became so ubiquitous with the Camino that it acts as an archeological breadcrumb trail across Europe. Pilgrims that completed the way were often buried with the scallop shell or had it carved on their tombs and have been found amongst religious communities across the continent.
In Ireland, medieval graves marked by the scallop shell have been uncovered in priories and cathedrals in Counties Westmeath and Galway. Excavations at one Galway cathedral unearthed a centuries-old tomb containing a bronze-gilded statue of St James on a pewter scallop shell. These discoveries show the importance of the shell and the long-established connection between Ireland and the Camino.
The Scallop Shell Today
The modern pilgrim embarking on The Way can see the scallop shell at every turn, guiding them on milestone markers and providing a reassuring point in the right direction. Many pilgrims wear the shell, either around their neck or attached to their backpack, making it easy to spot fellow Jacquets on the Camino.
You can pick up countless souvenirs and mementos emblazoned with the shell, which make a great talking point to those who’ve been or want to go. You’ll also notice that churches along the Camino and churches named St James around the world will proudly display this ancient icon as a testament to their connection with the saint.
Practical Uses of the Scallop Shell on the Camino
The scallop shell was historically used for gathering water and drinking and as a bowl for collecting gifts of food and for eating. While no longer used in these ways, it does make a meaningful wine glass when visiting the wine fountain at Irache, just outside Estella. Filled with wine, it can be raised in a toast to St James and the millions who have walked this path before us over the millennia. Salud!