Cowrie shells are having a big moment. It seems that everywhere we turn, we are seeing the lustry, magical shell. But did you know that beyond their beauty, the cowrie shell has a rich history of symbolism across the world?
According to African legend, if you are attracted to the shell it was believed you carried the strength of the ocean. In Africa, South America and North America, the cowrie symbolized prosperity and destiny. Additionally, in many West African cultures the cowrie shell is regarded as a sign of fertility.
However, the cowrie shell is one of the recognizable symbols in African culture because it was one of the first signs of wealth and money known to mankind. In ancient Africa, the cowrie shell was used as currency. Because of their light-weight, non-perishable nature, cowries were often threaded into bracelets or long strings of forty for trade.
Possibly introduced as early as the 8th century by caravans of Arab traders, cowrie shells became a standard form of currency especially in the Empire of Mali, by the 15th century. For a long time, the cowrie existed with many other forms of currency in West Africa, including brass, beads, copper rods and salt bars. By the 18th century, the cowrie became the preferred form of currency along trade routes of West Africa and carried a status of wealth and power.
At the time of colonization, Europeans tried adamantly to replace the cowrie shell with new, more centralized bank notes. This effort, however, was not met with willingness from the tribes across West Africa. When the French prohibited the use of cowries as money in 1907, the elders resisted by refusing to include the new money in their monetary system. This resistance lasted until the 1940s.
Today, cowries no longer serves as currencies but still hold great symbolic value. Many cowrie shells still play a part in ritual services in West Africa. As the Hausa say: “Whoever is patient with a cowrie shell will one day have thousands of them.”
At Pame, we hope to inspire you to connect with a larger meaning. Allow the rich history of the cowrie shell to provide a symbol of prosperity that you can carry and honor throughout your day.