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The Shell of Saint James

Some almost white scallop shells

Many a pilgrim is already thoroughly acquainted with the scallop shell before reaching Santiago de Compostela. Its abstract depiction as yellow beams on a blue background has pointed them to the tomb of the Apostle Saint James in hundreds of occasions. And many of them walk their Way with a shell tied to their backpacks or their staff or even to the flap of their hat in the style of some St. James statues.

Scallop shells with the red cross of Saint James

The scallop shell combines today's symbolic character (it's also part of the papal coat of arms of pope Benedict XVI.) with its practical function for the medieval pilgrim. According to tradition it served the wayfarer as a tool to scoop water from the most shallow puddle to drink it or to to fill their dried calabash with it.

Following the Way of Saint James through Galicia one might encounter the "Vieira", as the scallop shell is called in Galician, even on the walls of buildings. There they might serve as decoration in various numbers and patterns. In some rare cases one may find an old building with one facade completely covered by the shells as a protection against rain and humidity.

Scallop shell carved into stone

Once arrived in Santiago the scallop shell can be encountered in two further variants: carved in stone above the entrance of buildings in the old town and made of silver. The shells of stone date back to the days when the cathedral's chapter used to mark its property in this manner. The silver clam shells offered by many shops are used during baptism to pour holy water over the head of the new member of Christianity.

Finally there are also the culinary aspect and even a musical one. "Pecten maximus" - the scientific name of the scallop - is considered a delicacy. A typical way of preparation in Galicia is to have them scalloped in their own shell. In traditional Galician music the "Vieira" is sometimes turned into a rhythm instrument. By rubbing the outer part of two shells with their radiating fluted pattern together one can achieve a surprisingly loud washboard like noise.