Layers of scallop shells on top of each other

The Meaning Behind the Camino de Santiago Shell


The golden shells on the streets of many European countries can be puzzling to many. And those that do understand why they’re there often wonder why the chosen symbol is a shell.

For example, if you’ve been to major European cities like Brussels then you might well have spotted little scallop shell figures sealed into the ground. Have you ever wondered why they’re there? What is their purpose?

This blog post will jump right in and tell you exactly what the shells are for and the significance behind them!

What scallop shells?

Maybe you aren’t aware of any golden shells along pathways and are very confused as to what I’m talking about. Maybe this picture will jog your memory…

Golden scallop shell sealed into the footpath

Does that look at all familiar? I’ve seen these shells in many cities across Europe including Brussels, Hamburg and Santiago de Compostela to name a few.

These scallop shell figures are of great importance to many travellers and have a very useful meaning. They’re not simply there for decoration!

The scallop shells along the ground are representative of the Camino de Santiago.

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago (translated to the Way of St. James) is a very important pilgrimage route undertaken by hundreds of thousands of travellers every year.

The pilgrimage is made up of a huge network of routes, all meeting at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.

The pilgrimage is one of the most important in the world and holds great Christian meaning to the religious pilgrims who undertake the challenge.

The pilgrimage has been undertaken for centuries by people from all walks of life, including religious pilgrims, tourists, and even those seeking a personal challenge or spiritual experience.

It has grown in popularity so much over recent decades that now only 10% of those that complete a route actually undertake it for religious reasons. The majority undertakes the Camino de Santiago for that sense of achievement when they reach the cathedral.

The most-travelled route, known as the Camino Francés, starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and stretches over 800 kilometres through northern Spain. It passes through many towns, villages, and landscapes.

There are also several other routes that converge at Santiago de Compostela from different parts of Spain, Portugal, and beyond.

Many pilgrims will carry a scallop shell on their journey to signify their challenge. The shells are as significant to Santiago de Compostela as stroopwafels are to Amsterdam or as pizza is to Naples.

What is so significant about Santiago de Compostela?

The pilgrimage and ending point holds significance to Christians as it is believed to be the final resting place of the apostle St. James.

Entry to the cathedral allows visitors to view the grand crypt in which the remains have been laid and there are elaborate shrines to the disciple. Many Christians travelling through the cathedral pay their respects to the apostle and are allowed to embrace a statue of him upon a grand throne.

Santiago de Compostela has also had a troubled history with religion. In the 10th century, the Spanish Christians had a struggle against Islam and the city faced widespread destruction. The entire area had to be reconstructed the following century, following the victory.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The city is absolutely beautiful with Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings all throughout the Old Town. But the cathedral is the most grand building of them all. Designed so that it can be seen from all areas of the city, the cathedral is a beautiful example of a Romanesque structure, with later Gothic and Baroque additions.

The city’s beauty and history have earned it the protection of UNESCO World Heritage Status, and it is very deserving of it.

Why is the Camino de Santiago symbol a shell?

The scallop shell is an iconic symbol of the Camino de Santiago. It holds many meanings and tour guides may give you lots of different explanations as to which idea is correct.

Due to the tradition of shells marking the route and being carried by pilgrims for centuries, the origin of the practice has become quite hazy over time.

I’ve collected a few ideas during my travels about why the Camino de Santiago route is marked by scallop shells.

At a very practical level, scallop shells served as a utensil for drinking from streams and rivers, providing pilgrims with refreshments along their tiring journey. With many pilgrims having to go off the beaten track in their quest to meet the cathedral, they often had to improvise when finding water sources.

a group of pilgrims approaching the city of Santiago

The shells acted as a tool to scoop water from open sources into weary travellers’ mouths. They became a key companion along the route and ensured that pilgrims could quench their thirst more easily.

The shell has also evolved into having a very spiritual meaning. Some people (a lot smarter than me) have interpreted the shell as being representative of the many routes that converge at the cathedral.

The Camino de Santiago has many routes all joining at the centre point of the grand cathedral and some match this to the design of a scallop shell – all lines from the outer corners meeting at the point. The point represents the tomb of St James.

The scallop shell is further linked to the pilgrimage through the legend of the apostle. Many historians believe that, after St James’ death, his body was transported by boat from Jerusalem to the coast of Spain.

Following a treacherous voyage, the body was lost but later discovered on a beach, supposedly covered in scallop shells. As it was undamaged, it was believed that the shells protected St James. This legend further solidified the shell’s place as a symbol of pilgrimage, not only to honour St James but also to act as a method of protection during difficult journeys.

If you choose to go looking for scallop shells yourself, Playa del Orzán is a great beach to start. It’s also just a really beautiful beach, one of the nicest beaches in Spain for sure.

Camino de Santiago shells as souvenirs

Many people visiting Santiago de Compostela for a tourist trip or completing the pilgrimage will want to leave the city with a souvenir. The area around the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is full of gift shops and there is no shortage of shells to take home.

Shells with a painted red cross on the front, attached to a cord to wear around your neck or attached to your backpack are one of the most common souvenirs that I saw while in the city.

There are plenty of people wearing them too. They aren’t just sitting in the souvenir shops untouched, people genuinely want one to take home. I think they are a lovely memento to take home from your journey to Santiago and I’d highly recommend getting one. I saw some priced as low as 1 euro!

There are so many beautiful souvenirs in the city. In fact, I think it is the city that I’ve loved the most for the amount of options available. Whether you’re looking for a fridge magnet, a t-shirt, a new key ring or even some jewellery, I can guarantee that Santiago de Compostela has it!

Other symbols of the Camino de Santiago

As you near the region of Galicia, symbols guiding you to the end point of the pilgrimage change. You will begin to see stone pillars with a blue square containing a shell and sometimes with an arrow directing you to the cathedral. These are referred to as Milestones.

Stone pillar milestone found on our walk to Santiago

They are around every 500 metres when you’re very close to the city centre and there are many signs attached to walls with a similar design.

Souvenir shops take advantage of these symbols and sell beautiful little figures of the pillars. I bought one up for just €1.80!

Gourds are also a symbol of the Camino de Santiago and are widely found in gift shops. In the past, pilgrims used a gourd as a tool to carry water. It was often carried by attaching it to their wooden walking stick.

Not used much now, due to modern technology, the tradition has been lost but remembered through the souvenirs available to buy.

The Compostela is one of the most prized possessions that pilgrims take home from their journey. The Compostela is a certificate which confirms that 100 km has been walked on the Camino and can be requested at the Pilgrim’s Office in the city.

Cyclists must complete at least 200 km of the route to receive their Compostela.

Pilgrims will also carry a passport with them which will be stamped along the journey to prove that they have walked a sufficient distance.

Camino de Santiago Shell: Conclusion

The scallop shells that you see in many cities across Europe are all representative of the multi-route pilgrimage that ends at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The shells act as a a guide to pilgrims to show them the direction they need to travel and also have deeper meanings attached.

There are many symbols that reflect the Camino but the shell is the most popular and traditional. The tourism industry has really taken advantage of the shell’s popularity and souvenir shops get a huge amount of their turnover from selling souvenirs with the shell on them.

So, if you ever see these shells on your travels – now you know why they’re there!

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