The Origin of St James’ Shell

The origin of St James’ shell dates back more than a thousand years. However, its background is even more remote: the year 43 a.C. when the apostle Santiago was beheaded in Judea.

Some years later, his disciples who had accompanied him in his return from Galicia, decided to take the saint corpse back to Hispania across the sea. When they arrived to the Cíes islands – in the entry of the current Vigo estuary – the ship that was transporting the disciples went to the coast, towards a place called Bouzas. They saw that in the shore a wedding was celebrated in that moment.

The thing is the bride’s father – the Lord of the town Maia – had decided to date the groom’s family in his town. The groom’s family came from the town of Gaia.


One of the games they were playing during the party was the “abofardar”. It consisted in riding a horse and galloping while the jockey throws a “bofarda” (lance) to the air and trying to pick it before it falls on the floor. This is something really difficult and it can only be done after a long practice. When it was the groom’s turn, he threw the lance and it deviates towards the sea. The groom went to the sea in order to not lose the lance but he ended up sinking in the sea.

The horse and the gentleman disappeared but the witnesses saw amazed how both reappeared beyond, next to a boat that was approaching. That boat was the ship that was transporting the disciples and the corpse of Santiago.

Once the gentleman recovered from the shock, he greeted the sailors and he realized that both his horse and him had a lot of scallop shells around their body. Santiago’s disciples thought that was a miracle and they invited the groom to board. While the guests were waiting on the island, the disciples and the groom started talking about what happened. The gentleman decided to convert to Christianity, while the disciples decided that all the pilgrims who will go to see the apostle corpse should bring a scallop shell. And this is how the symbol of the St James’ shell started.

The groom went back to the island and he told what happened to the guests, who had seen it from the shore. Some of them also convert to Christianity.

The sailors started feeling a wind that pushed them back to the sea and north. They continued until Arousa estuary where they landed and they transported the apostle corpse to Iria Flavia (Padrón) where he was buried.

Santiago’s tomb was forgotten because of the pursuits to Christians. Around 813 a.C. a hermit called Pelayo, went to see Teodomiro, Iria Flavia bishop to tell him he had seen some strange lights on a cliff near the town.

The bishop sent some people to investigate and they found a tomb with a beheaded body with the head under the arm. They suspected it could be a saint, so from that moment they started venerating the tomb. On June, 24th 2011, the professor Enrique Alarcón from the University of Navarra, announce the discovery of an inscription with the name of Jacob (Santiago in Hebrew) in the apostle sepulchre.

The Galician pilgrim’s scallop shell of the legend has remained as the symbol of the peregrination to Santiago de Compostela. You can see this shell through all the Way to Santiago, from buildings to indications. Besides all pilgrims carry a shell while they walk to Santiago.

Text by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga and illustrations by Ximena Maier.

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