Of all the various symbols of the Camino, the shell is surely one of the most renowned ones.
You can see them in souvenir stores, hostels, signals, walls. But more than this, you can find one on every pilgrim’s backpack.
There are several legends behind the relationship between the Camino and the shell. The following ones are the most important.
A) (Historic) Some landowners were required to do the path as a form of penitence for their actions. Because of the fact that they did not have the possibility to leave their lands (or maybe, because they decided not to), they resorted to hiring one of their “employees” (farmers, squires etc.), asking them to do the path for them.
Because of the lack of documents and media to testify their pilgrimage, bringing back one shell to the landowner from the Ocean (the metaphorical end of the Camino) was their way to prove that they really did the path.
B) (The miracle) In the medieval times, a pilgrim was seriously dehidrated, and was struggling to search for something to drink. According to the tale, the Devil himself appeared, offering him something to drink in exchange of repudiating Christ, the Virgin Mary and St. James. The pilgrim, courageously, decided to resist, and the Devil, blaming him for his choice, disappeared. A few seconds later, St. James appeared, showing him a fountain full of water and offering him a shell to be used as glass.
C) (The legend) A knight was conducting his horse on the beach near Bozas (a locality on Northern Spain). It was his wedding day. Unexpectedly, a big wave crushed him, and he was submerged. Everybody was sure of his death and extremely sad, both because of the accident and the destiny’s decision to terminate his life on the day of his wedding. However, after some seconds he came out of the water, with his body and his horse's covered by shells. At the same moment, the boat carrying the body of St. James was crossing the same sea. Everybody believed in a miracle of the apostle, and considered the shell both a message and a symbol of the Saint.
I said that I would have provided in my blog a fresh and dynamic perspective of the Camino, so I thought a little bit about a personal version of the shell tradition.
This is my guess...
There is another beautiful legend in the Christian tradition, and it is the dialogue between St. Augustine and the Angel. St. Augustine is walking on the beach, and he struggles to understand the concept of the Trinity (the dogma according to which in only one person there is the Father – God –, the Son – Jesus – and the Holy Spirit). An angel appears to him, and asks him if he is capable to put all the water of the ocean in a shell. St. Augustine says no. Therefore the angel replies that the human brain is like a shell, and the Trinity is like an ocean. St. Augustine smiles to the angel, who quickly disappears.
So this is it. You cannot put the Holy Trinity in a human brain. You can only be enlightened enough to have an imperfect, unsatisfying version of that.
In my mind, it’s the same for the Camino. You cannot put it in some daily thoughts. It is way, way, way more than that…