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The scallop shell and other symbols of the Camino are key to understanding the history, culture and traditions of this ancient pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Those symbols are the items, signs and places that are strongly associated with this multi-route pilgrimage.
Some Camino symbols have a historical character, some just metaphorical. Let’s explore the most important ones and their significance so you can know more about them before hitting the road that leads to St James’s tomb. After reading this post, you will definitely have a few interesting facts to share with other fellow pilgrims on your way.
Table of content
- The scallop shell or “Vieiras”, a symbol of the Camino
- Other symbols of the Camino
The Scallop Shell or “Viera”, Symbol of The Camino
The scallop shell is the most well-known and iconic symbol associated with the Camino de Santiago. It is closely related to the history of the Jacobean route, it appears reflected on the Codex Calixtinus, as the clergy used to give it to pilgrims on their arrival at Santiago de Compostela city as accreditation for completing their pilgrimage.
From ancient times to nowadays, the scallop shell has accompanied pilgrims on their way, using it not only as a symbol of their pilgrimage but as a practical item, they use it as a container to drink water from the springs and streams along the way, and why not, to also drink from the wine fountain at Irache, just outside the town of Estella on the French Way.
Even though today it has lost its significance as proof of walking the Camino, as people can buy it online; its significance and tradition of carrying it hanging around your neck, backpack or stick are still alive.
Did you know? The scallop shell or Vieira scientific name is Pecten Jacobaeus, it is a proof of the significance of the Camino in Galicia
Origin of the scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino and St James
There is a wide variety of stories, legends and myths about the origin of the scallop shell as a symbol of the Way of Saint James the Great.
The most popular stories, legends and myths that you will hear are:
#1 Some people say that the association of the scallop shell with the pilgrimage is related to its use by pilgrims as a container to drink water from springs and streams.
#2 Another theory is that its popularisation as a symbol of the Camino came after the settlement of some merchants around the cathedral of Santiago in the Middle Ages; they sold the Vieiras that they took from the Galician sea as a souvenir to the pilgrims.
#3 People also relate the Concha of Santiago to the time when the disciple went back to the Spanish peninsula by boat to bury the remains of St James. The ship was lost and destroyed by an extreme storm and after a long period of time, St James’s body was found undamaged and covered in scallop shells, along the seashore.
#4 On their arrival at the Galician coast, the disciples saw a wedding that was taking place on the shore, with the bride on horseback. The horse got frightened and dived into the ocean with the bride still strapped into the saddle. Both the bride and the horse emerged from the water safe and sound covered in scallop shells.
#5 There is another version that associated the scallop shell with Venus, the goddess of love. As Venus’s symbol signifies people’s rebirth, the resurrection, it means overcoming the ego to move forward to a true self, more humble and simple. It means the beginnings and endings, transition and transformation – all ideas shared by pilgrims and discovered on the Camino today, a constant source of renewal and rediscovery.
Did you know? Venus is said to have arisen from the sea on a scallop shell, as depicted in Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus, and is associated with fertility rituals practised along the route.
The Scallops shell as a healing tool
The scallop shell is also associated with one of the 23 miracles performed by St James. When St James cured a knight who suffered from a throat disease by putting a scallop on the affected area, word spread and people started to put scallops near their beds, hanging it on the outside door, putting it near animals drinking place.
Some medieval texts give the shell the virtue of chasing rodents from fields or purifying water and wine.
Did you know? The Scallop shell is not only associated with the St James Way. In the XII century, they were reportedly sold in Mont St Michel in France. Emperor Charles IV received Scallops as a present from the French king when he was passing by Paris on his pilgrimage.
What is the significance of the scallop shell on the Camino?
Nowadays, the scallop shell is not only a symbol but a sign printed on hundreds of milestones in yellow colour on a blue background, along the different Camino routes to indicate to pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.
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.
Did you know? In French, the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques and in German Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels).
Other symbols of the Camino
Although it is true that the scallop shell is one of the most representative symbols of the Camino de Santiago, it is not the only one. There are some other objects, signs or places strongly related to the Camino, here I will tell you the most important ones:
The Cross of St James
This particular Latin-cross simulates a sword and its arms and handle take the shape of a Fleur-De-Lys. Its red colour represents Jesus’s blood and the white background is a sign of purity.
Its origin is related to the times of the Crusades, the Crusaders carried small sharp-edge crosses with them to be able to push them into the ground and pray in the presence of the Cross.
It is common to see pilgrims today carrying St James cross as a pin on their backpack or hat.
Did you know? St James was beheaded with a sword so the cross of St James is also a symbol of his suffering.
The pilgrim’s passport
The credential or pilgrim’s Passport is the way pilgrims have to prove that they have accomplished their pilgrimage. It’s like a passport in which pilgrims have to collect stamps on the different stages of their journey.
It is the certificate that pilgrims can get at the end of their walk to Santiago de Compostela. To get it, it is required to have travelled on foot any of the last 100 km to Santiago routes. Also, people cycling the Camino need to accomplish minimum 200 km to request it. The Pilgrim’s Office is the organisation in charge of issuing this certificate and where people can request their Compostela certificate.
In the past, pilgrims used a gourd as a tool to carry water, they put it attached to their wooden stick. It was a light, practical and cheap way to keep you hydrated along the way. Even though its use today is different, people just use it in a symbolic way.
The typical Camino hat is a wide-brimmed hat that can be folded as a half-moon. As you can imagine, pilgrims walking for long hours under the Spanish sun can get easily sunburned if not using proper protection, so this is the main reason why it became a tradition for pilgrims to wear it. Nowadays, you don’t only see the traditional hat along the way, people wear baseball caps and all types of summer hats to protect them from the sun.
A Wooden Stick or “Bordón”
From ancient times, pilgrims were also recognised for the wooden stick that helped them relieve the impact on their knee when walking. Nowadays, the traditional wooden stick (“bordón” or “cayado”) has been replaced by all types of advanced technology sticks.
The milestones are the blocks of concrete that indicate not only the way to follow but the remaining distance to reach Santiago de Compostela. They have the representative yellow scallop shell on a blue background printed on them and they are usually separated by 1 kilometre, except in Galicia where they are separated by only 500 metres.
Apart from the Scallop Shell, there’s no other symbol which better symbolises the Way of St James than the yellow arrow. It guides pilgrims in the right direction and can be found printed on milestones, wooden sticks, walls, etc., along the Camino.
Its origin is very curious, it dates back to the 70s when Elias Valiña, a priest from the O Cebreiro church, started to mark with a yellow arrow the route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. He’s also the author of the first Camino guide published in the 80s. Still more curious is the significance of the yellow colour which was used for no other reason than it was free. It was the colour of painting used by the workers painting the roads around the area.
If you’re walking along the Portuguese Coastal Way you’ll also find green arrows to guide you to Santiago.
Important! If you see blue arrows on the Portuguese Way, do not follow them, unless you want to reach Fatima in Portugal (opposite direction to Santiago).
The Codex Calixtinus
The manuscript Codex Calixtinus is the most renowned and relevant document of the Jacobean pilgrimage. It compiles five books of all the liturgical texts (Masses, homilies, sermons), Jacobean traditions, the 22 most famous miracles of Santiago and remembrances of the Way of pilgrimage made in France and Spain to reach Santiago between the X and XII centuries.
With more than 60 kg weight and 1.60 m in height, the Santiago de Compostela Botafumeiro is one of the largest incense burners in the world. This is one of the most significant symbols of the Santiago cathedral; it’s made of silver-plated brass and is filled with incense and charcoal that is made to “fly”, swinging from one side to another tied to a large rope to perfume the temple.
Pilgrims who finish their pilgrimage on special dates like St James, Assumption, Easter Sunday, etc., can see the Botafumeiro censer in action as a part of the mass. Apart from these special occasions, it has to be requested beforehand and paid for by individuals.
The Jacobean Year, Holy Year
The year when St James Day (25th July) falls on a Sunday is a very important one for Christians and Camino enthusiasts, so the Jacobean year is a time for the forgiveness of sins.
Believers who visit the tomb of St James in Santiago will be granted the plenary indulgence, the absolution of all their sins.
To obtain the forgiveness of their sins, devotees have to go to confession within 15 days before visiting the St James Cathedral. Once they pass through the Holy Door (Porta Sancta), which is only open to the public in Holy years, they have to pray in the cathedral and to attend Mass.
Did you know? There is a Jacobean year every 6, 5, 6 and 11 years. The next Xacobeo years will be in 2021, 2027 and 2032.
The Holy Door (Porta Santa), St James Cathedral
The emblematic Holy Door or “Porta Santa”, is located on the back side of the St James Cathedral, where the Plaza de Quintana is and it only opens on the eve of the Holy Year, Jubilee years.
The tradition is the believers, pilgrims and curious enter who enter through this door may piously gain the plenary indulgences attached with the Jubilee year celebrations.
Tomb of St James
At the end of your walk to Santiago de Compostela, you’ll finally see the long-awaited cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the Apostle are. It is a tradition to visit the tomb of St James which is located inside the cathedral in an underground crypt. There, worshippers kneel to pray in front of the cedar box, a 19th-century silverwork, where the remains of the apostle and his two disciples are.
One of the things that you’ll see the most along the Camino is the Cruceiros. On the front side, you’ll see the crucified Christ and on the opposite side, you’ll mainly see an image of the Virgin Mary. The Cruceiros are devotional elements integrated into the landscape and the local culture of the region that crosses the Camino de Santiago.