Sunday, December 26, 2010

Day 76 - Scallops on the Camino...

The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. I have been browsing the Internet to try and understand why this beautifully shaped shell is of such importance and how it came to be associated with the Camino. The following is a medley of what I have discovered.

Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance is actually due to pilgrims wishing to take home a souvenir!

Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was killed in Jerusalem for his convictions about his brother, John. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula.

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 bridegroom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim. As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God's hand also guided the pilgrims to Santiago.

In art James appears as three distinct types; one of them is the pilgrim: He wears the pilgrim's broad-brimmed hat and cloak. From his staff or shoulder hangs the wallet or water-gourd of the pilgrim. His special attribute, the scallop shell, appears on his hat or cloak, or on the wallet.

The scallop design symbolizes the many European starting points from which medieval pilgrims began their journey, all drawn to a single point at the base of the shell, Santiago de Compostela. Today in Spain cement scallop shell markers along the Camino reassure participants that they have not taken a wrong turn and local residents decorate their gardens and houses with shells in solidarity with the pilgrims. A recent pilgrim recalled that the shells “came in various forms: ceramic shells fitted onto road markers, government-issue traffic signs marked with an abstract shell, shining brass shells embedded in sidewalks. Some were broken, some had been stolen as souvenirs leaving only a trace of their presence, some were beautiful, some so simply sketched as to provide the mere suggestion of a shell. In all their variations, they marked the route for hundreds of miles. They reminded all of us pilgrims that in the midst of a world both beautiful and broken there are signs to help lead us forward, sometimes right under our feet.”

Practical observers argue that the shell was adopted merely as a device for sipping water from streams along the way. If this is so, it quickly took on greater meaning even to the earliest pilgrims.

The scallop shell has thus become the main symbol of the Camino.  Another explanation is that scallops are native to the Galician coast, and pilgrims would bring back a scallop shell to prove that they had been there, and completed their pilgrimage. Pilgrims could have their sins forgiven, and criminals were able to get out of prison if they completed the Camino. Many people did it in hopes of miraculous recovery from disease.

The scallop shell is also the symbol of Baptism, and is found frequently on Baptismal fonts. The dish used by priests to pour water over the heads of a catechumen (a person under instruction in the rudiments of Christianity, as in the early church) in Baptism is often scallop-shaped.

To add to this angle - scallop shells symbolize birth (think of Botticelli's Venus) and the Camino for many is connected with rebirth or the beginning of a new life. 

On a practical note...

Scallop - 'An edible bivalve mollusc with a ribbed fan-shaped shell.' - Oxford dictionary

Scallops, like clams and oysters, are mollusks having two shells. They differ, however, from those shellfish in that they are active free swimmers. The scallop swims freely through the waters and over the ocean floor by snapping its shell together. This action results in the development of an oversized muscle called the "eye" and this sweet flavored muscle is the only part of the scallop eaten by Americans.  Europeans, in contrast, eat the entire scallop meat.

A scallop (pronounced /ˈskɒləp/ or /ˈskæləp/) is a marine bivalve mollusc of the family Pectinidae. Scallops are a cosmopolitan family, found in all of the world's oceans. Many scallops are highly prized as a food source. The brightly colored, fan-shaped shells of some scallops, with their radiating fluted pattern, are valued by shell collectors.

The name "scallop" is derived from the Old French escalope, which means "shell".

And...did you know?

Winston Churchill's family coat of arms includes a scallop, as does John Wesley's (and as a result the scallop shell is used as an emblem of Methodism!).

If that hasn't wet your appetite for more knowledge - maybe this will!

Scallops taste divine and if you've never tried it, here's a link with an easy to prepare recipe!

Finally, I'd like to leave you with a lovely poem I found.

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;

My staff of faith to walk upon;

My scrip 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 can't wait to hang my own scallop shell around my neck!


  1. Dear Emilene.
    What an interesting post!

    For sometime now I've been wanting to send you a link, but let me explain first...

    I have a blogging friend in France. We've been fellow bloggers for a long time and our journey with our respective animals ("Angel" Digby - his dog - and my own "Angel Maxdog") followed a similar path. The day my blogging friend said goodbye to Digby, a surreal thing happened.
    Take a look...He writes beautifully.

    Sending lotsaluv

  2. Oh my word - I've been following his blog for a while now! Read my November post - 'Day 47...'. You are right, he writes beautifully! I've commented on his blog that I would pay good money to see pictures of the cleaning lady, the waitress and the rest of the cast!

    I've tried to contact him personally but he doesn't display his email address anywhere...

    Thank you so much for your lovely comments, I really appreciate it!

  3. Great post. I love this stuff!

  4. Thanks JJ - thought you would! I must say, I really had fun doing this one. I think I'm going to look for a job as a travel writer/photographer and spend my years discovering new and wonderful places with fascinating stories...

  5. So cool. I don't know if I've ever eaten a scallop. I'll never look at them the same way again!

  6. I know Kerri - who would have thought there's so much information behind a tiny little shell! I have had them in a restaurant over here, they really are quite divine!

  7. You've really assembled a lot of great photos and information!

    I've heard the scallop shell may also be a remnant from the pagan pilgrimage route that (possibly) preceded the Christian one, and led to "the end of the world" in Finisterre....

  8. Well done!! Wait till you see the sides of houses done in scallop shells! Very cool looking!

  9. Anna-Marie - I didn't even know that there was a possible pagan pilgrimage route that preceded the Christian one! You are a wealth of information my friend! You've really got me thinking about the 'Abraham' route/pilgrimage as well...

    ksam - Oh my word - do you have any photos of those houses? I'd love to see that!


Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment, I welcome your input!