If you’ve walked the Camino de Santiago, you’ll have followed a route marked with scallop shell symbols. Along with many other pilgrims, I have a scallop shell hanging from my pack to let others know I am walking a Camino. Walking along, I keep my eye out for the scallop shell symbol, and note cafes, albergues, and other services that use the scallop shell as a sign that these places are hospitable and friendly to itinerant pilgrims.
But when you think about it, the scallop shell seems like an odd symbol to represent the path of the Camino, the most traveled pilgrimage route in all of christendom. The scallop shell seems distinctly peculiar as a christian or Catholic symbol when we have come to expect a crucifix, or perhaps the Madonna.
So where did the scallop shell symbol come from? If you look at the history of the Catholic church, it is very common for pagan beliefs and symbolism to be absorbed and incorporated into doctrines and practices. The adoption of the scallop shell symbol is a prime example.
Back in the times of the Greeks and Romans, the scallop shell was a symbol of the Goddess Aphrodite, Venus to the Romans (think of the famous Birth of Venus painting by Botticelli). In the Roman era, an important ritual began at the Temple of Venus near the forum in Rome, and continued in some cases with a spiritual journey to the Atlantic coast of Galicia. This ritual journey was indicated and marked with the scallop shell symbol.
This journey encompassed fertility rituals invoking Venus along the way, and was also sacred to the two-faced God, Janus. Janus was the God of beginnings, transitions, transformations, doors, and endings: all highly relevant to pilgrimages and pilgrims.
A gift of walking a Camino is the encounters and conversations with folks from all walks of life and many parts of the world who are looking out for each other. It is astounding to realize as one walks the Camino that one is part of a tradition the predates Christianity, and speaks to the common humanity and ability of all of us to get along together.