Shells have played a central role in religion
from prehistoric times on. Dominating early religious practices, cowry
shells had powerful symbolism (basically sexual, for they were first and
foremost a female symbol) and this was renewed in the religions of the
great civilizations that followed. The presence of shells in prehistoric
burial places indicates that their symbolic power was believed to continue
in some cultures even today are used as amulets, good luck charms,
and as symbols for love, fertility and life eternal.
examples of some these religious practices are:
Shells fetishes (Note: a "fetish" an object
which is treated with reverence and respect because it is either thought
to have special powers, or is where a god or spirit lives, at
least part of the time) were often used in worship. Ceremonial garbs
are many times decorated with shells and were used in some religious
American Indians also made fetishes of shells.
The Canadian Ojibwa tribe maintained a Grand Medicine Society in which
the sacred emblem was a shell.
Indian Chank Shell
The god Vishnu holds his staff crowned with a very rare left-handed
Chank shell (Note: Hold a shell up,
with the siphon (the open end) down. Most shells will
open to the right. Sometimes, a specimen will coil the
other way; so it opens to the left - so we can say shells are
"right-handed and left-handed - or, "dextral"
and "sinistral". Most Chank shells are right
handed, so the left-handed ones are rare, and treasured
far more!) The Hindu, when praying, often clasps
a sacred Chank or other venerated object in his hands, believing
that it will help his or her petitions be heard. Priests also
use it for holding sacred oils.
Buddhists: The Chank shell also plays a large
role in Buddhist ritual music and ceremonies, and figures into Buddhist
The home of the shrine of Santiago (i.e., St. James): St. James's
badge is the Giant European scallop
shell. Pilgrims to this shrine purchased the
simple but exquisite scallop shells and wore them as a sign of
their pilgrimage to the shrine. This scallop also appears in many
paintings and statues of this saint throughout Europe.
China and other cultures used the cowry in connection
with their burials.
Cannibals during the nineteenth century used cowry shells in
part of their ceremonial rituals.
South and Central America: Archaeological sites have
produced shell trumpets that may have played a role in religious ceremonies.
In the Andes region, a Thorny Oyster and the. Giant E. Pacific Conch, as well as the Atlantic Winged
Oyster all had important religious significance. The Aztecs
of Mexico also used shells in their religion: Tlaloc, the rain
god, is depicted as emerging from a conch shell. They also used
conch and. Horse Conch shell trumpets.
Crete: Shell trumpets were used in religious
Many churches had or still have baptismal fonts made of the
famous "Giant Clam" shell (Tridacna
gigas Linne) or are designed in their likeness. They are
though to be a symbol of birth.