The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago, and no matter where you are on the road, you will see countless scallop shell symbols.
They are used today, together with the yellow arrows, to guide the pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela. But you will see them on walls, churches, signposts, on pilgrims’ backpacks, and on their bodies as tattoos or at their necks in the form of necklaces.
The ‘Vieira’, as it is called in Galician and Spanish, helps pilgrims find their way to Santiago, but there is more to the scallop shell symbol, and there are many legends, myths, and stories that connect the ‘Vieira’ and Saint James Way.
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St. James and the Scallop Shell
St. James was one of Jesus’s disciples who traveled to Iberia, which is now known as Galicia, to convert pagans to Christianity. When he returned to Jerusalem, King Herrod ordered his beheading, making him the first disciple to be martyred. His body was returned to Galicia by ship, and it is allegedly buried at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
But what is the relation between St. James and the scallop shell? Well, this is explained by the myths and legends any pilgrim should know.
According to one story, the ship that was carrying St. James’ body was destroyed in a storm, and his body was discovered on the shore completely undamaged because he was covered in scallop shells.
A second myth tells us that the ship passed by a beach wedding, and it scared the horse ridden by the bride. The horse got into the water with her on its back, but, thanks to Divine Intervention, they were saved, emerging from the water covered in scallop shells.
There is another legend saying that while the ship with St. James’ body was passing beneath a cliff, a knight fell from the top, and a miracle made the knight emerge from the sea covered in scallop shells.
There are also many stories about the scallop shell dating back to pre-Christian times. In Roman Hispania, pagans used a route, known as the Janus Path, as a born-again ritual, ending in Finisterre. The starting point was the Temple of Venus, dedicated to the Roman goddess of love. According to legend, the goddess had risen from the sea on a scallop shell, which became a symbol of fertility rituals practiced along the route.
If you want to see a clear image of Venus in this position, you can have a look at Botticelli’s work of art called The Birth of Venus, displayed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
The Scallop Shell and the Camino de Santiago
The legends are interesting and get you closer to the local culture. But the scallop shell has one more meaning, a metaphorical one. It is considered that its lines represent the different routes pilgrims take to arrive at the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
In some regions, like Asturias, people consider that the longest line of the scallop is the one pointing towards Santiago.
As already mentioned, the ‘Vieira’ reassures pilgrims they are on the right paths since it is usually placed next to a yellow arrow, the most accurate ‘road sign’ on El Camino.
But the shell is more than a symbol. Worn by medieval pilgrims attached to their hats or cloaks, it also had a practical purpose. They used it as a bowl to hold their food and drink during the pilgrimage. At churches and other establishments that used to feed the pilgrims, the scallop shell scoop was the measure for food.
The Scallop Shell around Europe
The shell became such a powerful symbol of El Camino that it appears in many other places as well.
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.
Also, pilgrims 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.
And, together with a bronze-gilded statue of St James on a pewter scallop shell found at a Galway cathedral in a centuries-old tomb, the scallop shell shows the importance of El Camino and its connection with Ireland.
The Scallop Shell Today
If you plan to walk the Camino de Santiago today, you will most likely not need to eat or drink from a scallop shell. But the ‘Vieira’ will be with you all along. It’s not only a symbol of the ‘right way to Santiago de Compostela’, but also a memento, a proof of having completed El Camino.
If you want to spot fellow pilgrims on the Camino, you just have to look around their neck or on their backpack, because many choose to wear the shell during their pilgrimage.
And, as you can probably imagine, the shell has become a famous souvenir and a great source of business for the shops near the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, as well as many places along the way. You can also buy one as a gift for the Camino pilgrim in your life before they set off, and if you would rather buy them something else we have a big gift guide for hikers, and a different one for outdoor people.
Now that you know the meaning of the scallop shell you are one step closer to being ready for the journey. Of course, you will need more information to decide which way you want to choose, and how you want to get to the Cathedral of Santiago. A good place to start is the packing list that you will likely need.
I love hiking. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.