Shell Description: The shells of cowries are almost always smooth and shiny (a few species have granular shells) and more or less egg-shaped, with a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture).
All varieties have a porcelain-like shine (except Hawaii's granulated cowry) and many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm (1/5") for some species up to 15 cm (6") for the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris.
Human Use: Cowries (esp. Cypraea moneta) were used as a currency in Africa (Ghanaian cedi in Ghana named after cowry shells) and elsewhere, such as in China and India where the shell or copies of the shell were in theory used as a means of exchange. They are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms, as they are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.
Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.
Large cowries have also been used in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning. The cowry's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.
The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America used the cowry shells (which they called sacred Megis Shells or whiteshells) in Midewiwin ceremonies, and the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada is named after this type of shell. There is some debate about how they traded for or found these shells so far inland, away from the natural sources. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that they were found in the ground, and/or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. The cowry shells so far inland may indicate the use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, and an extensive trade network in the ancient past. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Park may be as old as 8,000 years, and there are questions about how long the shells were used in that area as well.
On the island of Fiji, the golden cowry, Cypraea aurantium, was worn by chieftans as a badge of rank.
About: The cowrie shell has many uses and meanings. It has shown up in the form of money, jewelry, and even religious accessories in almost every part of the world.
Found in the islands of the Indian Ocean, the cowrie shell soon gained popularity throughout much of ancient Africa. Its influence, however, also spread to China, where it was used as a form of currency to such an extent that the Chinese used its shape to form their pictograph for money. Today excavations have found some of the money of ancient China in the form of brass and silver cowrie shells. Wherever the cowrie shells were found, it seems as if they were thought of as wealth.
The back side of a cowrie shell resembles a female sexual organ. The front side is shaped like the abdomen of a pregnant woman. The meaning is not erotic, but represents a miricle of life. This unique design of the cowrie shell is one main reason why this shell has maintained so much popularity throughout history.
Spiritually, according to African legend if you are attracted to cowrie shells you could be family to an ocean spirit of wealth and earth. It also represents Goddess protection which is very powerful and connected with the strength of the ocean. Throughout Africa, and South and North America, the cowrie symbolized the power of destiny and prosperity. Thought of as the mouth of Orsisas, it also is believed to have taught stories of humility and respect.
However you interpret these tiny white shells they are a fascinating, unique addition to your wardrobe. Whether in jewelry, or in crafts, or in any other use you can imagine these shells are sure to add an exotic feel of Africa and make an excellent, one of a kind, fashion statement.
Wayne Kiltz is the founder and owner of Africa Imports. You can find over 100 other articles on African art, culture, and fashion, along with African proverbs, recipes, and African business opportunities at http://www.africaimports.com/
General Information: The Cowry is primarily a female symbol, and so it is often used as a fertility charm. In Gujarat they are sewn on the front of tunics at the appropriate place. They are also sewn around the hems of garments. The symbol for love, fertility and by extension, life itself, they serve as amulets and talismans on every continent.
In Nepal, during the autumn festival celebrating goddess Durga that is called Dasain (Hindi: Dasara>dasa-hara="ten-removing") gambling is allowed. The game turns on how many of a handful of 10 cowrie shells dropped on the table or cloth-covered floor land face up. The eldest male throws and the others bet. If there is more than one head-of-household, then each of the possible "up" combinations is assigned to other people in order of traditional rank. The younger people can bet on one of those.
Lakhpat on the banks of the Kori in Kutch, Gujarat (India) has been devastated by earthquakes more than once, but it used to be a thriving port, where people of the Thar desert traded with their Arabian counterparts. Lakhpat got its name from the amount of trade it handled -- to the tune of 100, 000 cowry shells (one lakh).
On the South Pacific island of Fiji during a kava-drinking or yaqona (Macropiper methysticum) ceremony, a long fibre cord decorated with cowries leads from the bowl to the guests of honor. The white cowry at the end of the cord emphasizes the link with ancestral spirits that this cord stands for.
Since ancient times, the spotted cowry (mainly Cypraeidae, or Erosaria ocellata) was used as a medium of exchange, and was the accepted currency from Africa to China until the sixteenth century. The cowry that was found in use in the Maldives is yellow, and earned the descriptive name C. moneta for its use as money.
There is some evidence that the use of cowries as jewelery in Africa was and is an extension of their introduction as currency by Arab and Indian traders.
The Divination of the Dagara is a highly articulated method of divination, application,
prescription, and practice. The purpose of divination is to discern the patterns of the world and the intersections with spirit as they relate to our lives. It is helpful to know of up-coming difficulties or opportunities so that we can adopt an appropriate attitude towards them. We learn how to create our own divination cloth and be instructed in the meaning of the stones, shells and bones and other objects that are used. We are given the opportunity for witnessing and participating in interpreting spreads done by the training group. We also get direct observation pointing out patterns that are laid out in front of us. This training is for those with a serious interest in utilizing divination as a tool to foster a deepened connection with spirit and as a means of aiding others in bringing greater meaning into their lives.
- Divination by Jacqueline.
- Santeria Divination by Medsen Fey Loulou
- Urban Voodoo by S.Jason Black & Christopher S. Hyatt Ph.D
- The Yoruba Domino Oracle by Carlos G. y Poenna
- Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant
- Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Metraux
- Charms, Spells and Formulas by Ray T. Malbrough.
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