Blog single

Consider the Scallop Shell

A Pilgrim’s Icon

For over a thou­sand years, pil­grims have made the long, beau­ti­ful trek to San­ti­a­go de Com­postela in north­west­ern Spain. They come from all over the Con­ti­nent, fol­low­ing many paths. Even today, there is one Camino, but there are many ways; The North­ern Way, the French Way, the Por­tuguese Way, and myr­i­ad oth­ers. And even the pil­grims that choose the same way have diverse rea­sons for their jour­neys. All these many ways come togeth­er at San­ti­a­go de Com­postela. As the bur­ial place of the Apos­tle St. James, San­ti­a­go takes its place along­side Rome and Jerusalem as part of the great trin­i­ty of Chris­t­ian pilgrimages. 

Like the jour­ney itself, the icons and tra­di­tions sur­round­ing the pil­grim­age are diverse and mul­ti-faceted. Per­haps no Camino icon is bet­ter known to the world than the scal­lop shell. They hang from every back­pack. They dec­o­rate the direc­tion­al mark­ers on the trails. They are carved into the stone of church­es and monas­ter­ies. The scal­lop is ubiq­ui­tous. But what exact­ly does the scal­lop symbolize?

There are many pos­si­ble expla­na­tions. Per­haps only one expla­na­tion con­tains the truth or per­haps there is truth in all of them. Here are my favorites:

  • The shell is a metaphor for the uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ence of the Camino. Along the back of the shell, there are many ways (grooves), but they all merge into a cen­tral point. I love this expla­na­tion because I think the point of con­ver­gence does not even need to be San­ti­a­go. It could be the shared expe­ri­ence of the pil­grim. Or per­haps it could be the con­ver­gence of diver­si­ty, both spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious, towards a com­mon pur­pose. Again, there is only one Camino. But there are many ways. 
  • An expla­na­tion that always com­forts me is the idea that the shell has a prac­ti­cal pur­pose. Pil­grims today have no need for the shell as a uten­sil for eat­ing and drink­ing water, but for thou­sands of years shells have served this pur­pose. Car­ry­ing a shell today con­nects us with all those that have come before. 
  • Anoth­er alter­na­tive is the Fin­is­terre (End of the Earth) The­o­ry. This the­o­ry posits that in the past, Pil­grims that had arrived to San­ti­a­go con­tin­ued on to Fin­is­terre, Spain’s east­ern­most point on the Atlantic Ocean. Here they would col­lect scal­lop shells and bring them home as proof that they had com­plet­ed the pilgrimage. 
  • The sun­set the­o­ry holds that the scal­lop is formed in the shape of the set­ting sun. No mat­ter what way you choose on the way to San­ti­a­go, you are always head­ing west towards the sunset. 
  • I will add one more the­o­ry that is mine and is cer­tain­ly unre­lat­ed to any his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion. I find it inter­est­ing that the scal­lop is the only mol­lusk that pro­pels itself. It is a being in motion, con­stant­ly trans­port­ing itself to its next des­ti­na­tion. Scal­lops seem to be pil­grims of sorts. 

The the­o­ries pre­sent­ed above are no more or less impor­tant then oth­er sup­po­si­tions, some of which asso­ciate the scal­lop shell with St. James him­self. Like the Camino, the shell can have what­ev­er mean­ing brings you the most joy. I hope that regard­less of what the scal­lop shell means to you, your way will even­tu­al­ly lead to Santiago. 

Normal Width Image

Typical Marker Along the Camino