The Significance of Cowrie Shell
The Cowrie as Currency
In West Africa, The cowrie or cowry shell was one of the most successful and universal forms of currency in the world. The humble shell worked its way into the cultural fiber, taking on a deeper symbolic and ritualistic meaning that has never been entirely lost.
The cowrie which is an attractive white shell has all the characteristics required of money, it is easy to handle and carry around due to its light weight, non-perishable, good for small and large purchases. Its shape makes it instantly recognizable and difficult to forge.
The cowries have very little variation in size and form, which makes them easy to count. They were often threaded into bracelets or long strings of forty, or packed into pouches to form greater quantities. For large payments, the shells could be tossed into baskets and weighed to determine their value.
• 40 cowries made 1 string
• 50 strings made 1 head (2,000 cowries total)
• 10 heads made 1 bag (20,000 cowries total).
For very large sums, however, the cowrie shells were not very convenient.
An anonymous Islamic historian described a man who received a large payment in cowries, but ultimately lost money in the deal because hiring porters to carry such a large number of shells back to his village cost him more than the value of the payment.
The Cowrie as a Symbol of Wealth.
The cowrie’s elegant shape represents the female form, its rounded top reminiscent of a pregnant woman’s belly. Thus it is a symbol of fertility. The slit on the underside of the shell can look like a black pupil against the pearly white surface, which is why it is often used to ward against the evil eye. The benedictive power only enhances the elegance of the shells. Cowries are often used as ornamental beads: incorporated into jewelry, worn in the hair, decorating statues and baskets. The cowrie is a protective charm (gris-gris) adorning the outfits of hunters and warriors, woven into sacred masks and costumes for dance ceremonies. It can be an element in traditional medicine and may accompany the dead on their journeys out of this world.
The Lodagaa of northern Ghana, for instance, believe that the deceased need a fee of twenty cowries to cross the River of Death and reach the land of the dead to the west. A Dogon fortune teller tries to divine the outcome of a soccer match with cowrie shells.
Many communities across western Africa and beyond use these shells as divination tools. The fortune-teller throws or simply drops the cowries onto a typically circular surface, and interprets their positions to tell the future. The number of shells used depends on each diviner and the tradition they come from. The Yoruba, for example, use sixteen cowries in their Merindinlogun divination to ask the Orisha spirits for advice. Some use the cowries in conjunction with — or instead of — other tools like bone fragments or kola nuts. Although the cowrie, as currency, lies in West Africa’s past, its symbolic value endures. As the Hausa say: “Whoever is patient with a cowrie shell will one day have thousands of them”.