Traditionally, the cowrie shell has a very specific meaning and history, but because many people who use cowries are not knowledgeable about the meaning and history that cowries carry, they are often misunderstood and misinterpreted. Cowrie shells are not meant to be mere fashion statements; they are serious spiritual items that deserve respect and honor.
Cowrie is the common name given to marine gastropods belonging to the family Cypraeidae, a family of marine snails that are found in the tropics. They are found in the Indian Ocean, around southern California and in many other places.
To fully understand the importance and history of the cowrie shell, I petitioned Master Naba, Dogon Priest and Spiritual Master from Burkina Faso, one of the centers for culture and spirituality in West Africa.
The cowrie shell was the first symbol of money and wealth known to mankind. In Ancient Africa (and at the time, the African civilization encompassed every land on Earth), the cowrie was used much like the dollar is used today. They were wealth, and they were traded for goods and services. But why would humanity choose the cowrie shell over all other items that could be used for the same purpose?
"There is a Goddess who lives in the water called Mote or more affectionately, the "Mommy of Water". This Goddess lives in the sea, and because the sea surrounds all of the lands and is connected to all water on Earth, she is accessible through any body of water. This Goddess is a powerful Goddess who affects the lives of people on Earth as well as other Deities. Mote often adopts people as a husband, brother, sister, mother, friend, child, etc., and she can become very jealous when a human that she has adopted becomes close with another human being because she fears that her adopted human might pay more attention to the other human being than to her. The Mommy of Water has the ability to reward those who please her and to punish those who do not. The rewards that the Mommy of Water gives when she is pleased is the cowrie shell, and this is where the notion of money comes from," Master Naba explained.
"The Mommy of Water is so powerful that she was able to prove to the entire world that she can reward or punish people at will. The cowrie shell comes as a token of recognition by the Goddess," Naba went on to say. "When people pleased her, she made the sea wash out cowrie shells on the beach that came from deep within her kingdom, the sea. They came as a proof of being accepted by the Goddess and as a reward and gift from her. Because it carried such a heavy spiritual meaning, people who did not live by the coast wished to trade things with people for the cowrie shells. They wanted to have something from the Goddess too."
Why was it so important for someone to have an object that was given by a God or Goddess? Why would people travel hundreds of kilometers to trade goods for little shells? "Cowrie shells are a gift from a Deity. The best way to access a Deity is through the gifts offered by that Deity," Master Naba said.
The Mommy of Water is a very powerful Deity in that she can affect human life and personality drastically. While she is not part of an Ennead of Gods and is seen as a "lesser" Goddess, her direct contact with humans makes her popular and powerful. Her counterpart on land is the Goddess Sekhmet, a very powerful Goddess on Earth. "Her gift of the cowrie shell is one that is not taken lightly, as it symbolizes one of the four elements of life : "mooey", or water. Gods of the other three elements also give important gifts," explained Master Naba, "that could have been used as money but were not. Nwt, or fire, gives the holy fire, a purifying fire that is needed for a God to reach the heavens, and Nwt gives the celeste rock as a gift. Shw (air) gives incense and spices. Geb (Earth) gives gold. We do not see gold in the same materialistic way that others do... gold is really a gift from the God Geb and is holy and spiritual."
It makes sense that divination is often done in traditional Africa using cowrie shells. "The best way to access a Deity is through their gift," Naba told me. Cowrie shell readings, then, are not readings of Earth Energies, but rather readings of intervention. The accuracy of the readings depend on the growth of the reader. "Mote is a Goddess that can affect everything. Every God found her useful, and that is why cowrie shells are used. The reader is using the influence of the Goddess when doing a reading because she has access to every deity, being and place!" Naba explained.
The cowrie shell has often been associated with the female sexual organ. This association has no basis in spiritual fact or tradition and is a modern concept.
Use of Cowries
Cowrie shells have many uses, both traditional and modern. While they are currently used by many people as decoration and a fashion or social statement, their traditional uses are many.
Gifts - If someone gives you cowrie shells as a gift, they are really offering you wealth and a way to improve yourself. They are giving you a gift from a Goddess, and this carries a deep spiritual significance.
Gambling - Traditional gambling involves the use of cowrie shells in a game similar to craps. The gambler takes four shells in the hand and throws them. If three are open and one is closed, the thrower wins (open means the jagged side faces up); all other combinations means that the thrower loses.
Sympathetic Magic - Cowrie shells are destined to transfer power and good fortune to whoever they are oriented toward. On the other hand, because Mote also punishes, ill fortune and bad luck can also be transferred. Depending on the circumstance and use of the cowries, the effect can be either harsh or rewarding.
Readings - Cowries are often used in readings, such as in Ifa. When they appear face up, this is a positive sign; face down normally means one will not get what one expects.
Ancestral Offering - The cowrie shell plays an important role in ancestral offerings. When one puts cowrie shells inside the grave or coffin, the dead person can use them whenever needed in the World of the Dead for intervention.
Symbol of Fortune - The cowrie shell carries with it good luck and material wealth. It is a gift from a Goddess, so it always carries the concept of good fortune and blessing from the Deity.
While cowrie shells have become a social statement, in reality, they are a highly valued spiritual token of Mote's blessing. They are used in weddings, funerals, traditional ceremonies, art... their uses are countless. We can adorn our bodies and our instruments with cowries... we can tie them in our hair and sew them on our clothes... they can hang from our ears or necks... they can be given as gifts or offerings... the only thing that one should never do with a cowrie shell is burn it. Regardless how we use the shells, one should always keep in mind the significance of the shell and its true spiritual meaning.