Why is the Scallop Shell the Symbol of the Camino de Santiago?
The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago and today it is used, along with the yellow arrow, to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes.
Painted on trees, sidewalks, tiles, etc… the scallop shell (or ‘Vieira’ in Galician and Spanish) will help you find your way to Santiago.
WHERE DID THE SCALLOP SHELL COME FROM?
There are many stories, legends, and myths to explain the ancient link between the scallop shell and the Saint James Way.
Since the scallop is native to the coast of Galicia, the shell also became a memento, a physical proof of having completed the pilgrimage to Santiago (and quite often walked to or via Fisterra, on the Costa da Morte). Pil who have completed the way sometimes have the scallop shell carved on their tombs. The symbol was found in many religious communities across the continent. For instance, in Ireland, in priories and cathedrals in Counties Westmeath and Galway, many medieval graves marked by the scallop shell have been discovered.
It is no coincidence that in French the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques, while in German scallops are called ‘Jakobsmuscheln’ (James mussels). If you look carefully, you will see that not only the churches along the Camino but also those dedicated to St James around the world have this ancient icon displayed, as a proud testament to their connection with the saint.
WHY IS THE SCALLOP SHELL IMPORTANT TO PILGRIMS?
The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. However, it is open to interpretation. Which side points to Santiago?
In some regions, the scallop’s longest line is considered the one pointing towards Santiago. This is the case in Asturias, for example, if you are walking the Camino Primitivo or the Camino del Norte, and some parts of the Camino Portugues.
But don’t let this fact confuse you, take the scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino, reassuring you you are on the right path! The scallops are most of the time placed next to a yellow arrow so always follow the arrows (no confusion here!), as they are the most accurate ‘road signs’ to follow.
Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats during their journey to Santiago.
More than being just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose: they were a handy and light replacement for a bowl so the pilgrims could use them to hold their food and drink on their long journey.
Pilgrims would also be given food at churches and other establishments, and a scallop shell scoop was the measure for the food they would be donated.
HOW IS THE SCALLOP SHELL USED TODAY?
Today, the shell is a symbol guiding pilgrims from across Europe to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. Shell markers painted in bright yellow point the way for thousands of Camino pilgrims wearing scallop shells on their backpacks.
Wherever you may travel, the scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.
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Buen Camino! Bom Caminho!
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Provided I can do so safely, in 2021 I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.