Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My script of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage)
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.
-Sir Walter Raleigh
I’ve already had visions of finding “shell vendors” along the Camino Frances in which I can
purchase the all-important symbol to tell the world that I’m a pilgrim – the scallop shell. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the shell, perhaps use it for wine sipping, as a spoon to scrape up scraps, or maybe shade? So why is the scallop shell a symbol of the pilgrim? Could be many reasons. A particularly popular mythological version has to do with St. James. (Remember he was one of the disciples of Jesus.) After Jesus’ crucifixion, James went to the Iberian Peninsula to preach. Afterward, he returned to Judea where he ended up being beheaded by Herod Agrippa. After his untimely death, James’ body was mysteriously transported by a crewless ship back to the Iberian Peninsula (Galicia). A wedding was taking place on the shore in Galicia as his ship approached. The bridegroom (in some legends he’s rumored to be a knight) was on a horse that spooked at the sight of the ship and ran into the sea drowning them both. Eventually, they both emerged miraculously from the ocean covered in cockleshells, indicating St. James’ first miracle.
Another reason the scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrim on the road to Santiago could just be the shear access to the many seashells in Santiago de Compostela or Finisterre*. Perhaps early pilgrims brought them home with them, as souvenirs and eventually it just became the symbol of the Pilgrim.
Others say the scallop shell is a of love, as the symbol of birth. Botticelli’s Birth of a Venus shows the goddess taking her first step onto the land from a giant Santiago shell. The idea is that the hinged scallop opens and reveal something new….
Another interpretation is that the fingered scallop is the “hand of St. James”, which is outstretched in the open-palmed expression of comfort and encouragement.
Whatever the reason, I’m still wondering….where am I going to get my shell?
*Note here that shells would probably be sold in Santiago versus Finisterre where you could find them on the beach.