There are numerous legends and myths surrounding this well-known symbol.
The scallop shell can also be seen in medieval representations of St. James the Greater as well as basic depictions of pilgrims. It is an ancient symbol, one that has become closely associated with the Camino and Christian pilgrimage in general.
Why is that? How did the scallop shell receive such an association?
Part of it was due to certain legends surrounding the arrival of St. James’s body in Spain. One story recounts that after James was martyred in Jerusalem in the year 44, his body was taken to Spain and when the ship reached the shore a horse was spooked and fell in the water. The story goes on to say how both the horse and rider were miraculously saved and came forth from the water covered in scallop shells.
On a more practical level scallop shells are naturally found on the coast of Galicia near the location of St. James’s tomb. For pilgrims in the Middle Ages the journey was typically done to fulfill a penance given by a priest. In order to verify that the pilgrim did in fact reach the final destination, a local souvenir was required. Over time pilgrims began to take the scallop shells they found and then presented them as proof when they returned home.
At first pilgrims who wanted a scallop shell had to continue the journey past the tomb of St. James to Finisterre, but by the 12th century vendors saw the lucrative opportunity and began selling the shells near the cathedral.
Besides being a souvenir for pilgrims, the scallop shell was also used as a bowl for food and water.
From this close association with the Camino the scallop shell was more generally known as a symbol of pilgrimage. It was used to symbolize the Christian’s journey towards heaven, evoking the Letter to the Hebrews and how we “are pilgrims and strangers on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13).
The Catechism further explains how, “Pilgrimages evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer. For pilgrims seeking living water, shrines are special places for living the forms of Christian prayer” (CCC 2691).
With this in mind the scallop shell was also used in the administration of the sacrament of Baptism. Not only did it prove to be a practical tool to pour water on someone, it also carried that same symbolism of pilgrimage with it. Baptism is the start of the Christian journey and so when a priest uses a scallop shell to pour water on a child, he is initiating that child on a pilgrimage towards heaven. This is also why the scallop shell can often be seen artistically represented in baptistries or on baptismal fonts.
The scallop shell is an ancient Christian symbol, one that has a long and rich history.