Cowrie Shells

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Seashells, in general, belong to the vast family of mollusks, which are a myriad mix of animals. They have been used by humans as a food supply, naturally decorated and collected items from the sea, as currency, decoration, adornment, signaling horns, protective amulets, and tools for spiritual divination. Cowrie shells, derived from small snaillike creatures native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, became important in the culture and religion of Africa. In the ethos, belief, and soul of many African-descended people, cowrie shells speak a symbolic spiritual language on artifacts, garments—and about the past, present, and future. They are also used as tools in spiritual divination oracle readings. This entry begins with a brief look at their natural history and then discusses their role in African religion past and present.

Figure. Dogon Dancer with Cowrie shell mask and headpiece. Source: Alan Tobey/iStockphoto

Natural History

Seashells as a food source are rich in protein and trace mineral nutrients. They are still in abundance and easy to attain along thousands of miles of coastline. However, humans' long encounter with seashells is infinitesimal compared with their existence in the ocean. Currently, according to some scientists, single-shelled life forms have been discovered fossilized dating back to approximately 500 million years, during the Cambrian period.
Primarily located around the areas of coral reef in the enormous Indian and Pacific Oceans (the two combined equal over two thirds of the ocean water) are unique mollusks that produce mostly smooth egg-shaped, colorful shells with a porcelain shine and long narrow aperture opening. The genus Cypraeidae or cowries has approximately 200 species. Their massive breeding habit has prevented them from becoming an endangered species despite their great popularity in various ancient cultures to the present.
Cowries can lay from 100 to 1,500 eggs in a single breeding period. Their size can range from 1/5 inch to 6 inches; they live intertidally, concealing their shells around colorful coral reef in the day and coming out to feed at night. They eat mostly on algae and dead organic matter in the tropical oceans around coral reef. There is and has been great demand for the smaller and durable yellow, brown, purple, and white cowrie-shell color patterns, which have been collected and used from ancient times in Kernet, Nubia, and Ghana (as well as China, India, North Africa, Germany, and Central America) up to current times in the African Diaspora—the Americas, Caribbean Islands, Canada, and Europe.

Use in Kernet

The current historical records indicate that cowrie shells were removed from the tropical oceans and their shorelines because they were an excellent food source, in addition to being aesthetically attractive to the eyes and spirit of humans. Archeological research has reported that Paleolithic (approximately 750,000 years ago) Africans drew pictures of cowrie shells on cave walls. Archeological excavations revealed that, during the Predynastic Kernet period, approximately 3500 BC, many of the poorest people in gravesites in the city of Hierakonpolis were buried with cowrie shell necklaces.
The significance of the cowrie moved from aesthetic appeal to currency in foreign exchange in Kernet. Millions of cowrie shells were found in the elaborate burial tombs of Pharaohs by archaeologists to symbolize their wealth and status. The physically irregular outlined purple, white, and yellowish hue characteristic of currency cowrie shells was insufficient for its demand. Its low supply created a high demand, which increased its value significantly as natural currency. The law of supply and demand ruled the uniquely colored cowrie shells' importance and attraction as natural money in Kernet and other countries on the continent of Africa.
For example, yellowish and white cowrie shell natural currency was used in trade activities among the people of Nubia Nation. Current archeological data confirm that the Nubians were the first builders of pyramids (approximately 220) and that their empire was known for a high number of power queens who ruled their land.
The physical shape of cowrie shells resonated with black people thousands of years ago as a feminine symbol because the bottom side resembles the genital orifice of a woman and the topside resembles a pregnant woman (when topside is kept intact, not cut off). Thus, to the Africans, it appeared as if from the vast ocean had come a living organism with an outer shell that bore a striking resemblance to the physical features that defined the female human: sexual organs and the womb. Therefore, the cowrie shells' natural design primarily encouraged women in Kernet to wear them on their clothing, belt girdle, and jewelry. Cowrie shells developed into a feminine symbol worn initially by women for various reasons.
Cowrie shells transcended from jewelry to amulets in the spiritualized social environment of the burnt-golden skin people of Kernet. The mythological system of Kernet was the spiritual force that inspired the belief that cowrie shells were protective icons. Women were encouraged to wear a cowrie shell belt during pregnancy to protect their unborn and themselves from any misfortune. Cowrie shells act as a catalyst to enhance the belief that they will survive during the child-birthing phase and have a healthy baby.
The power of belief is paramount to people of African ancestry when there is a need to protect a life, complete an arduous task, or connect to a higher force (God/Goddess) in the universe. Belief can enhance, expand, or limit a person's existence. Although spiritual belief systems are outside of the realms of science, for a substantial population of black people, a spiritual or religious system is desired to function positively, live right, feel spiritualized, and be connected to an omnipotent force. (People of African descent are rarely atheist or agnostic.) The spiritual, positive, and protective belief in cowrie shells as amulets moved them from a unique-shelled animal from the tropical ocean water to be sacred and spiritual icons for generations of descendants of black people to come.

West African Currency

On the west coast of Africa, approximately starting in the 14th century, several nations used cowrie shell currency as a means to acquire goods just as much as gold. Initially, cowrie shells were transported from the Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean, by Arabs. Europeans took notice and were startled that West Africans on several occasions accepted cowrie shells as a means of exchange for goods over gold. Eventually, the Dutch and English imported cowrie shells into the gateway of West Africa by way of the Guinea Coast.
In time, cowrie shells diminished as a monetary means of exchange, but they were spiritually elevated, made sacred by myths, and adorned traditional West African people's masks and sculptures.
Traditional West African art in general emphasized the human figure as the primary subject, with visual presentation in an abstract form to represent an image, rather than creating a natural likeness. Art became important in a ceremonial context, and artistic creation can reflect a multiplicity of meanings to various members in the social network.
When the African artists place cowrie shells on their creations (mask, sculpture, clothing, etc.), the artwork can cause an inspired believer of African descent to transcend emotionally and spiritually, especially if presented in a ritual and ceremonial context. There are references in the deep collective unconscious of Africans caused by thousands of years of attraction to and reverence for cowrie shells.
Some examples are the magnificently adorned cowrie shell Helmet Mask Mukyeem and Face Mask Ngaady A Mwaasb from Kuba, Democratic Republic of Congo; Helmet Masks from Cameroon; the splendidly saturated cowrie shells Image of Twins—Ibeji wood sculpture from Yoruba Nigeria; nicely placed cowrie shells on an exquisite Dogon walking stick; fully covered natural gourd shekeres from Nigeria; and a Priestess crown for Dada Bayonni (gentle ruler and sister of Shango) in Maceio, Brazil. These functional pieces of artwork were created by Africans.

The Diaspora and Divination

Also, cowrie shells adorned and spiritualized the hand-made garments and jewelry of the traditional African religions in the diaspora. For example, Chief Priestesses of Yemaya in Brazil and Cuba embed cowrie shells on elegant white and ocean blue garments and majestic crowns. In addition, they adorn themselves with several long cowrie shell necklaces, as well as cowrie shell earrings, bracelets, and rings, during sacred and ceremonial times.
Likewise, the Chief Priests of Shango in Brazil and Cuba placed cowrie shells on white and fire red elegant garments and majestic crowns. They also adorn themselves with long cowrie necklaces, bracelets, and rings during sacred and ceremonial events.
Divination is one of the inner circles of African descendants' cosmology and epistemology. For a substantial amount of traditional people of African descent, participators and believers in the diaspora, there is no partition or disconnection from the omnipotent force (its names and concepts are many, but it is one), higher souls (powerful intermediaries), and those who made their transitions from this realm of existence (ancestors) into another. They believe that the love of the omnipotent force and powerful spirits can change conditions and events for the better with human belief and effort.
A divination oracle reading with cowrie shells is a ritual that worshippers in the faith believe can move the veils between the spirit and human world to semitransparency and open windows and doors for positive changes. People of African ancestry who are devotees of their traditional religions believe that cowrie shells act as a catalyst to facilitate personal communication with powerful spirits in their traditional religions.
Divination is a dynamic and complex procedure based on the up and down positions and patterns of the cowrie shells after they are shaken up and dropped on the ground. The positions and patterns of the dropped cowrie shells to the ground speak a coded language that priests or priestesses can interpret with insight and wisdom to counsel, encourage, or warn their clients who seek personal information and spiritual knowledge. The divination ritual can bring knowledge of a person's past and current conditions so that beliefs, actions, and behaviors can be adhered to or planned to improve or enhance future circumstances.
African descendants of the old ancient religions have deified, spiritualized, and infused cowrie shells with power of myths and a belief system to be used as tools in the center of spiritual divination oracle readings.

References

Keywords

  • divination
  • African people
  • oceans
  • coral reefs
  • spirituals
  • diaspora
  • reefs

Author(s)

Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Andrews, C. A. R. (1998). Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Bascom, W. (1993). Sixteen Cowries: Yoruba Divination From Africa to the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Fisher, A. (1984). Africa Adorned. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Galembo, P. (1993). Divine Inspiration: Benin to Bahia. New York: Athelia Henrietta Press.
  • Thompson, R. F (1984). Flash of the Spirit-African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy. New York: Random House.