Shells

Walk along any of El Camino’s numerous routes and you’re bound to come across one at some point or another. No, not a cross or a church or any other number of the religious paraphernalia one would expect to encounter on a pilgrimage, though there are plenty of those to be sure, but rather, a scallop shell. Adorning everything from T-shirts to buildings to the human body (tattoos of the shell were common), one could argue that the symbol has become nearly as inseparable from the popular pilgrimage as the saint who inspired it. Despite its omnipresence though, we never really grew tired of seeing depictions of the shell for each one was a reminder that we were not only on the right path, but following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims that had walked down that same path before us. And it is this interpretation of the scallop, as a symbol of the many roads one takes while walking on El Camino, that it draws its most significance. For, just as the many lines on the shell travel across it only to eventually converge at its base, so do the many routes and pilgrims of El Camino travel across Europe only to eventually become one in Santiago.

Below, a sampling of some of the many shells we came across during our time on El Camino.

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While walking on El Camino, it is common to attach a shell to your backpack to identify yourself as a pilgrim. In medieval days, when a pilgrim’s sustenance came from the generosity of villagers along the way, the shell was used as a bowl to place food and water in from those willing to give.
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Along major roads it was common to see signs both directing pilgrims which way to go as well as warning motorists that this particular stretch of the road is part of El Camino.
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During medieval times, an order of knights was established to protect pilgrims along El Camino. The Order of Santiago, as it was known, often used the scallop shell as a symbol for their order. In this picture, a house in Salamanca is covered in the shell, leaving no doubt that the former owner of the house was a wealthy member of the order.
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A bar along El Camino where the owner has hung a shell bearing the name of every pilgrim who has stopped for a drink or snack. The shells seen in the picture are only a fraction of the ones on display in his establishment.
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Our shell
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We even came across shells in Brussels pointing the way towards Santiago. Here’s one on a church we walked past…
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…and one we found on the ground.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

The Shell

Look —
Each line
bursts down
like inverted sun rays
convening
at the calcified cathedral.
Straight paths,
everyone of them.

Feel —
Tracing the indentations,
each bump and groove
is a hill, rock, river traversed,
beer, blister, dinner shared.

Listen —
Not to the ocean
or the rush
of circulating blood,
but to the stories
centuries of pilgrims are telling.