What’s the meaning of the scallop shell?
Visitors to Santiago de Compostela will soon notice the ubiquitous scallop shell, always pointing towards Praza do Obradoiro, the end of the line, or more precisely the end of many lines.
The scallop is both the pilgrim’s traditional symbol as well as being a Camino de Santiago route mark and can be seen on walls, signposts and inset into streets all over north Spain, as well as all over souvenirs in local shops.
There seem to be differing opinions of the origin of this mark.
Some say that the scallop shell was a useful, simple tool when pilgrims travelled very light as it could be used for drinking from a fountain or pool of water and could also function as a dish for accepting gifts of food from strangers.
Others claim that the scallop represented a successful arrival in Santiago – not the journey – and pilgrims would eat a scallop on entering the city, then fix the shell to their hats in celebration. Santiago is just 30 kms from the Galician coast where scallops are commonplace – or were commonplace before the market for them exploded!
In addition broad lines converge at a single point on a scallop shell, exactly what happens (albeit on a different scale) when various Camino de Santiago trails converge on Obradoiro square in front of Santiago Cathedral.
Pilgrims also traditionally carried a walking stick and a gourd flask containing water or wine.
Apparently there used to be a tradition that pilgrims would burn their stinking clothes on arrival and would be given a new set of clothing by the church.
Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago Cathedral
Homebase for pilgrims is the city’s main square, Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago Cathedral.
Praza do Obradoiro, bordered by the town hall, the College of San Xerome and the magnificent Parador Hostal dos Reis Catolicas as well as the cathedral, is the ultimate destination for pilgrims.
This is where they collapse, cry, laugh, hug, celebrate wildly or praise the Lord quietly (or any combination thereof). Also, this being the decade of the selfie, the younger pilgrims love to be photographed on the unlovely metal cube in front of the elegant, engraved scallop shell in the centre of the square.
There are also plenty of arrivals on bicycles these days, though they can hardly be called pilgrims and presumably don’t earn an indulgence from the church, i. e. time off from Hell.
Santiago Cathedral’s central 12thC facade facing west, being renovated.
The cathedral’s two towers on either side of this centre-piece were undergoing renovation when we were there in 2014; work is scheduled to finish in summer 2015. It was unfortunate and disappointing but didn’t matter in the long run as there are so many spectacular sights in Santiago, not least the incredible decor inside the cathedral and around the other two magnificent entrances, east and west.
On the elaborate cathedral header locals are seen welcoming arriving pilgrims (in fact the topmost figure is apparently St James the Elder). The figures are carrying walking sticks (albeit ancient crooks, unlike today’s high-tech aluminium jobbies) and wearing traditional hats with scallop shells on the brim.
On the east side of Praza do Obradoiro is Colexio de San Xerome, aka Colegio de San Jerónimo, where priests learned different languages in order to hear international confessions, now embellished with a couple of bizarre statues.