The Scallop Shell: Walking the Camino de Santiago - how will I know where to go next?

By Kelly Crull

Two years ago my friend Alex arrived in Madrid after walking the Camino de Santiago start to finish in 30 days. Like many pilgrims who find themselves on the Camino at a transition point in their lives, Alex was returning to Madrid without an apartment, without a job, with only a small amount of cash in his pockets, and a one-way ticket to San Francisco to restart his life.

I invited Alex to have dinner with me at a Chinese restaurant around the corner from my apartment, so we dropped off his backpack and headed down the street. I couldn’t help thinking he looked like a mountain man. Smiling apologetically, he had refused to leave his fisherman’s cap, walking stick and water bottle back at the apartment.

Alex ate two plates of food at the restaurant, but he didn’t say much. He seemed to be in another place completely. It was clear, however, that he had developed a strong attachment to the things that had helped him along the way. His walking stick lay at hand’s reach, propped against the wall next to our table, and his water bottle sat next to his plate with the unscrewed cap dangling from an arm of plastic.

He laughed as we stood up to leave the restaurant. “I still expect to see shells on the street corners,” he said, as if scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, had led him here to this restaurant, and that when we got back on the street, they would be there pointing us back to my apartment.

A question many pilgrims have as they prepare to walk the Camino de Santiago is how will I know where to go next? Buying a guidebook and sticking it in your back pocket is a good idea, but other than that, the simple answer is follow the shells.

The scallop shells (vieiras in Spanish) are often yellow and appear regularly in many different shapes and sizes along the trail. They may be spray-painted on a tree or cemented into a sidewalk or mounted on the side of a building or standing along the side of the trail like a road sign, but finding them along the way is all part of the fun.

Many pilgrims who walk the Camino wonder if the scallop shell has any special significance to the Camino de Santiago. Looking back over the centuries, there is evidence that the symbol of the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meaning.

The Myth

As with many myths, the details change depending on who is telling the story, but here’s the one I’m going to tell you.

James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in Jerusalem for his convictions about his brother. James had spent some time preaching on the Iberian Peninsula, and after his death, his bones were mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to the Northwestern province of Galicia in Spain.

A wedding was taking place along the shore as James’ ship approached land. 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, covered in seashells, and galloped off into the distance.

To this day, the scallop shell, typically found on the shores in Galicia, remains the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

The Metaphor

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 Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.

The scallop shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim. As the waves of the ocean washed scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guided the pilgrims to Santiago.

The Practicality
The scallop shell served practical purposes for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago as well. The shell was just the right size for gathering water to drink or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl.

Also, because the scallop shell is native to the shores of Galicia, the shell functioned as proof of completion. By having a scallop shell, a pilgrim could almost certainly prove that he or she had finished the pilgrimage and had actually seen the “end of the world”—which at that point in history was the Western coast of Spain.

Alex has been in San Francisco for a couple years now, and since our dinner that evening at the Chinese restaurant, I’ve also had the experience of walking the Camino de Santiago. I found that like Alex, the few things that guided me along the way, like the scallop shell, began to take on special meaning.

I like to think of myself as a pilgrim, as one who walked the same path as many others centuries before me. I like to think that by sharing this story with you, I am in a small way passing on the tradition of the Camino de Santiago, and its symbol, the scallop shell.

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