Meaning and Use of Cowrie Shells

Meaning and use of Cowrie Shells photo by Daniel Oines. Text added. Licensed under CC 2.0.
Meaning and use of Cowrie Shells photo by Daniel Oines. Text added. Licensed under CC 2.0.

This is a story of a simple shell that is used as money, a tribute, and a way to know the future. Some historians believe the Cowrie shell was one of the first systems of money used, and it’s importance is wide reaching. Fertility, ease of use, and blessings of all kinds can be found in this little package. These are the prized treasures of our ancestors, and we can still benefit from them today. Cowries are used everywhere from Ancient Egypt to New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo.

 

Been All Around the World….

In Ancient Egypt Cowrie shells were prized as great magickal tools. Certain cultures believe that the magic comes from its resemblance to a half-open eye. Other groups see a similarity between the Cowrie and female genitalia, and consequently they have become symbolic of fertility. The age old issue of love walking hand in hand with money comes to light again. Mesolithic jewelry in Scotland features Cowrie shells, according to Jane McIntosh in Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe. Clearly their powerful importance goes back thousands of years.

 

From the Watery Depths…

The shell from the watery depths is actually part of a tropical marine mollusk. It forms spiral shapes evoking its own natural magick in a simple yet complex way. John Scarborough’s Medical and Biological Terminologies theorizes that the word Cowrie is an alteration of the Hindi word Kauri. In Africa the Cyprea Moneta was the species most widely used for financial exchange.

There is an interesting post called “The Gift of the Cowrie” by Latranei Gaibole. It speaks of the connection between the cowrie shell and a mother goddess called “Mote,” whose description seems to evoke the divinity Mami Wata. During ritual Mami Wata appears as the primal feminine, both powerful and strong. These shells come from the ancient depths of the waters of Mother Earth and bless us with their sacred gifts.

 

Find the Future

Kuba hat photo by Rachel Biel. Licensed under CC 2.0
Kuba hat photo by Rachel Biel. Licensed under CC 2.0

Devotees of African Traditional Religions will recognize these blessed shells as the divine tools of Ifa. For those who are unfamiliar with these practices it can be a bit complicated. Ifa is the word used to refer to the deity in charge of divination, the system of divination, and even sometimes the religion as a whole. The ritual used to tell the future involves throwing the cowrie shells on a tray and recording the series of patterns that begin to emerge. Each pattern corresponds to a specific answer. For additional information about Ifa readings and Orunmila, check out Divination Space Station with Awo Robert Ogbe Di. While the book Diffusion of Cowries and Egyptian Culture by M.D.W. Jeffries talks about cowries and cosmology saying that “Among the Ewe is the story that cowries were found in a basket sent from Heaven by (the divinity) Mawu “In New Orleans Voodoo the shells are often used for offering, blessing, and healing. Anyone wishing to connect with their energy can simply put one in their pocket or wallet to attract insight and financial success. Cowries can also be thrown into a moving body of water such as a river or ocean while a wish is being made. There are obviously many other uses and associations for Cowrie shells; I would love to hear your favorites in the comments below.

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