The Scallop Shell
You might see them painted on signs, hanging from pilgrims’ backpacks and walking sticks, or even carved into buildings as if they were adorning giant sandcastles. The scallop shell has become a symbol of the Camino de Santiago and it’s impossible to walk The Way without seeing it.
The scallop shell was originally a symbol of our man, Saint James, who was a fisherman before he abandoned his life to become one of the twelve apostles. Legend has it that when his body was cast to sea after he was martyred, and the boat washed up on the shores of Galicia, a horse and rider went into the sea to retrieve him. When they emerged from the water, they were covered in scallop shells (there are several versions of this legend, but either way, someone is covered in scallop shells).
Scallop shells are very common among the Atlantic coast of Spain, so they came to be a sort of a “badge” for the pilgrims walking the Camino. They used to serve a practical purpose: worn by the pilgrims, others knew who they were and what they were doing so that they could offer hospitality to the pilgrims along The Way. The shells were also used as vessels for food and drink as a way for churches to offer pilgrims sustenance (as much as could be scooped with the scallop shell) without losing too much money, and served as proof of completion once they arrived at their destination.
The scallop shells were eventually placed onto buildings and carved into rocks to lead the pilgrims along safe routes toward Santiago de Compostela. The drawing of the scallop shell also serves as a symbol of the Camino: the grooves in the shell represent the many roads of the Camino coming together at a single point at the base of the shell (Santiago de Compostela).
Eventually, the shells were phased out as proof of completing the Camino (it became quite easy to simply buy them off someone else or find one of your own and make false claims), but they still serve as marking points to show the way.