We’re all familiar with symbols, those visuals or images that are recognized by others as representing something else. When you see an image of a cross or fish, you think Christianity. When you see three circular arrows, you think recycling. When you see two golden arches, you think McDonald’s. With one image, symbols convey a meaning or experience understood by others.
So, what is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago? The symbol that is used to represent the Camino is a scallop shell. The shell is used on mile markers along the Camino to confirm you are on the right path, they are worn by those walking the Camino to indicate they are pilgrims, and they are used in any Camino-related document (such as your Pilgrim Passport or Compostela) or location (such as albergues).
Is Having a Shell Required to Walk the Camino?
Having a shell is not a requirement to walking the Camino. While having a Pilgrim Passport is a requirement if you would like to make use of certain resources on the Camino, whether or not you have a shell will not make a difference in this regard.
A shell is usually worn or attached to the pilgrim’s backpack. Because it is visible to others, a shell is useful in that it helps pilgrims identify each other. If you have a question at some point, it’s nice to easily identify other pilgrims through their shells. Likewise, when you wear one, you indicate to others that you are a pilgrim.
Many pilgrims nowadays get their shells at the start of their Camino or along the way, but it seems that some time ago, the shell was obtained only after having arrived in Santiago, and served to indicate that a pilgrim completed the Camino. This is no longer the purpose of the shell, and it is the Compostela that now indicates completion of the Camino.
While having a shell is not a requirement, we felt that it was part of the Camino experience and so we did each purchase a shell and attached them to our backpacks. Once you are done with your Camino, it then becomes a nice reminder of your journey!
Where Do You Get a Camino Shell?
The best place to get your shell would be at your starting town. When you get your Pilgrim Passport, you can ask about getting your shell. The same place that provides passports might have shells for sale, or they might point you to a place in town where you can get one. Shells for sale will often come with a small hole with a string, which will make it easy to wear or tie to your backpack.
If you don’t have time to buy a shell on your first day, don’t worry. You can purchase your shell pretty much at any point on the Camino. You will find many stores along the way selling Camino souvenirs and Camino items such as walking sticks. These stores will have shells of multiple sizes. Some shells will have an image of the St. James cross painted on them. Whether or not yours has that image won’t matter - the shell on its own is a sufficient indicator that you are a pilgrim.
We bought our shell at a souvenir shop the first day of our Camino, for two euros each, and attached them to our backpacks. Irene still wears hers on her backpack as a reminder of the pilgrimage.
You don’t necessarily have to wait until you get to the Camino to purchase a shell. You can bring one with you from home!
Why is the Shell Used as the Symbol for the Camino?
There are several legends that connect the shell with the Camino, but there are also practical purposes associating the shell with the pilgrimage.
Legends we are aware of are all a variation of someone being rescued from drowning, through the intercession of St. James, and then emerging from the water all covered with shells. There is also another legend describing how after St. James was martyred in Jerusalem, his body was taken to Spain, and it showed up on a boat, covered with shells. Finally, some say that the lines of the shell represent the different Camino routes; those lines converge in the same spot, just like the different routes converge in the St. James Cathedral.
But, it seems that there were also practical uses of the shell while on pilgrimage. For example, it is said that the shells were used by pilgrims to collect and drink water or wine as they walked, or as a plate when being served food. This no longer seems to be a use for the shells.
Currently, other than identifying pilgrims, its main use is to be pictured next to the yellow arrow in mile markers to help pilgrims confirm that they are on the right path.
What Can You Do with the Shell After Your Camino?
As mentioned above, the shell (along with your Pilgrim Passport and Compostela) will be great keepsakes from the Camino, and will remind you of the successes and lessons from the journey. Just like some people choose to frame their Compostelas upon their return and place them in a place of honor, the shell can be kept in an honorary location, such as hanging on a door, hanging on your backpack/bag, sitting on your desk, or any other location that you will see often, and so be reminded of the Camino. As mentioned above, Irene still keeps her shell on her backpack.
Instead of keeping their shells, some people choose to give their shells to friends or family members, to encourage them to walk the Camino. We chose to keep our own shells as mementos from the Camino, but we did buy a few shells to give to family members. In giving them this symbol characteristic of Camino pilgrims, we hoped that they would begin to think of themselves as pilgrims, and prepare to embark on this great journey.