The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago and today it is used to guide pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela. Painted on trees, sidewalks, posts, rocks, dirt roads, the scallop shell will help travelers find their way.
There are many stories, legends and myths that try to explain the link between the scallop shell and the Saint James Way. It is no coincidence that in French the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques (St. James), while in German, scallops are called ‘Jakobsmuscheln’ (James mussels). The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor: its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travelled from all over the world, and all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats during their journey to Santiago. More than being just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose: they were a handy and light replacement for a bowl so the pilgrims could use them to hold their food and drink on their long journey. Pilgrims would also be given food at churches and other establishments, and a scallop shell scoop was the measure for the food that would be donated.
Since the scallop is native to the Spanish coast of Galicia, the shell also became a memento, a physical proof of having completed the pilgrimage to Santiago. The shells could be picked up at the very end of the journey in Fisterra on the Costa da Morte.
There are many legends trying to explain this old association of Saint James with the scallop shell. One of those legends tells that a knight’s horse fell into the water and emerged covered in scallop shells, while the remains of Saint James were being taken from Jerusalem to Galicia.
The shape of the scallop shell also resembles the setting sun, which is an important daily event on the Camino. It is probably not just a mere coincidence that the Saint James Way is a journey to the West, finishing at the ‘end of the world’ (the name given to Fisterra – Finis Terrae) and the setting sun. A custom for modern day pilgrims is to walk the additional 88 kilometers beyond Compostela to Fisterra to toss their shell into the sea and to burn the clothes they wore on their journey. Tossing my shell into the sea? Yeah, I’ll do that. Burning my clothes? I’ll pass on that tradition.