The scallop flutters through the water like a fan. Its shell is dappled with coastlines that ripple with earthly colors – russet, gold, ivory and bronze. It is pleated with ridges and striped with growth lines that mark its childish development. The scallop also has the curious attribute of 100 blue eyes that are draped along its mantle like a string of Christmas lights.
The scallop’s muscle is a firm propellant, urging the mollusk on its erratic explorations. It is also delicious, a dense and tender treat, with a sweetness that is tempered with the bite of the ocean. It is not surprising therefore, that whenever I discover a scallop shell on the beach’s littered table, it always looks to have been licked clean. On our own tables, under the moniker of Coquilles St. Jacques, it swims in butter and wine and then, with irony, is returned to the shell so recently vacated.
The literal translation of Coquilles St. Jacques is “St. James’ Shells”. St. James is the patron saint of Spain, though he was born by the Sea of Galilee – site of miracles, sermons and battles. He was beheaded in 44 AD by Herod Agrippa of Judea, possibly the first apostle to be martyred.
Legend says that his body was then taken by angels and disciples then placed in a rudderless, untended boat. Its bleak journey came to an end on a coast thick with rock and shale known by the ancient name of Galicia. The remains were taken inland for burial in Compostela.
Centuries later the relics were rediscovered, sometime in the early 9th century. Compostela became known as Santiago de Compostela (from the Latin ‘Sanctus Iacobus’) and as history progressed, would flinch under attacks from raiders that ranged from the Vikings to Napoleon’s armies. Despite the danger, The Way of St. James became the most famous route of pilgrimage in the Christian world.
A tangle of paths, worn smooth by the feet of the devout, circulated through Europe to arrive at the gilded heart off the northern coast of Spain.
For an assortment of reasons, the scallop became a symbol of the saint as well as the journey. With every step pilgrims rustled with the shells that were stitched onto the hems of their coarse shirts and caps. The uprooted mollusks dangled from their walking staffs, their frothy outline was embroidered on their pockets. The pilgrim would also carry a scallop with him – so that on presenting himself at church or castle, farm or shack, any tenant could fill the shell with food or drink without turning him away, sparing him the shame of declaring poverty.
Yet why the scallop? Its pretty lines and patterns appear in both myth and symbolism, and explain the scallop’s status as a sacred metaphor. The grooves in the shell, arching from the blinking mantle to meet at the hinge are emblematic of the various pilgrimages that ultimately meet at a single destination: the tomb of Santiago de Compostela.
Two closely related stories exist as well: when James’ body was being shipped towards the Iberian Peninsula, the vessel was clouted with a heavy storm and the body was lost to the tall waves and deep troughs. However, in time it washed ashore undamaged, covered in a protective cloak of scallops.
In another version, as the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore. The groom (some stories have dubbed him a knight) was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, the animal spooked, plunging into the sea along with its rider. But again, both emerged from the sea alive, covered in compassionate scallops.
The seashore is its own pilgrimage. I follow the row of shells rooted in the sand, the cracked ribbon that continues to unwind for as long as the ocean’s generosity endures. I am not a pilgrim, but many times at the end of my journey my pockets are rattling with shells, as if the Atlantic breaths of Galicia were sighing just around the corner.