Word on a shell as seen by St-Jacques hikers in France

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26 February 2020
By Connexion journalist

The scallop shell is the recognised symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and anyone going on the walk will see it on the posts marking the way, carvings in churches and homes, and actual shells fastened to backpacks or walking sticks.

In French, scallops are called coquilles Saint-Jacques, named after the Saint who is at the origin of one of the three most important pilgrimages for Christians, alongside Jerusalem and Rome.

There are several explanations for its symbolism.

The legend tells that Saint-Jacques, Saint James in English, one of Jesus’ disciples, went to Galicia in the north of Spain to spread Christianity after Jesus’ death.

After his return to Jerusalem in 44 AD he was beheaded by Herod of Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, and was the first disciple to be martyred.

His body was then returned by ship to Galicia, where he was buried.

In the 9th century the story continues that a hermit called Pelagius saw a mysterious light shining over a tomb in the middle of a forest.

Very soon the incredible news spread that the tomb of Saint James had been found, and a church and later a cathedral was built on the site and the surrounding city grew up as thousands of pilgrims came to visit from all over Europe.

The famous pilgrimage site also become a symbol for the Spanish Christian’s in their struggle against Islam and Saint James became the patron saint of Spain.

After reaching Santiago de Compostela, many pilgrims would continue their journey another 70km to the sea at the Spanish Finisterre, so called because it was thought to be the end of the earth.

They would collect scallop shells which were plentiful in Galicia as proof they had made the journey. By the 13th century, vendors started selling them in Santiago de Compostela.

In addition, there are many myths connecting scallops to Saint James.

In one, it is said that the ship carrying Saint James’ body was lost in a storm and eventually the body was washed up on shore, unharmed and covered in scallop shells.

In another a knight fell from the top of a cliff, just as the same boat was passing, and was unharmed and emerged from the sea, covered in scallop shells.

The boat is also said to have passed a wedding on shore. The horse carrying the bride or groom, (depending on the version) ran into the sea, but the rider was unscathed and returned to the beach covered in scallop shells.

Pilgrims have also pointed out that the lines on the shell come from different directions to join at the top, just as the many routes come together at Santiago de Compostela.

Finally, the scallop shell had a practical use as it is a handy shape for drinking or eating.

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