Monday, July 19, 2010

Seashell Divination

On Sunday, July 4th, I demonstrated the Seashell Oracle as part of the Magical Chat session. Because I haven’t had time to write an article about seashell divination, I’ll explain a little about how I developed this, and what some other authors have done with seashells.

For a while, I had been demonstrating the Spinning Basket Oracle, which involves tossing small items and fetishes into a flat, round, spinning basket and then interpreting their symbolism in the context of the patterns they make, and I had included some seashells in that. (I haven’t brought the spinning basket out this year, as I’ve done it several years prior, so I don’t know if there would be enough public interest in seeing it again.) Then, Dawne made me a gift of “The Ocean Oracle” by Michelle Hanson, which consists of 200 cards with pictures of seashells. Hanson's cards’ divinatory meanings are based on the individual shellfishes’ behaviors, appearance, common and scientific names, etc. Hanson used to use her own massive shell collection for divination, but hit on the idea of photographing and turning them into cards for greater portability, as well as making them available to all. For the Oracle I demonstrate, I use a basket of my own shells, though because of the physical handling, I don’t include my more fragile specimens. However, there are still enough to make for some interesting readings, going around the group as we do. (I have not gotten around to counting how many shells I use.)

To use the “Ocean Oracle” card set, you look over the images and pick out the shells which seem most compelling, either because you are attracted to them or repulsed by them. Then, you turn over the cards to get the interpretations on the back. You can pick out any number of cards for this, and also arrange them in patterns. For my group demonstrations with my shell basket, I find it best to have the basket passed around the circle, with each person, in turn, picking out two shells. With your eyes closed, pick out a shell with your left hand, to represent unconscious motivations. Then, with your eyes open, use your right hand to pick out a shell that you are particularly drawn to; this represents conscious directions you are taking.

In making interpretations, I use Hanson as a resource, as well as Sandra Kynes’ book, “Sea Magic,” and Katlyn’s “Ocean Amulets,” [Mermade Magickal Arts]. As usual, I add my idiosyncratic views and personal experiences based on my material culture and medical anthropology knowledge bases.

Despite these varied sources of interpretation, there’s always so much more that could be said when contemplating the symbolism of the shell in the context of one’s own life. For example, at the afore-mentioned session, the most popular shell of the day was the “Common Sundial,” Architectonia nobilis, (which I found at Mustang State Park in Texas). This snail’s flattened, rounded outline and distinct spirals with checked markings suggest a sundial or a staircase. The specimen featured in Hanson’s cards is the Giant Sundial, Architectonia maxima, but similar meanings can apply. Hanson says this shell stands for “patience.” Kynes notes that sundial shells “can help us get out of linear ruts and move on” [113], and I made some comments about structuring one’s life and thinking about how we measure time. However, there are other points that could have been discussed. Like all seashells, the Sundial can advise that we have to live our lives in increments, but its appearance underscores the need to take things one day at a time, and take manageable steps—baby steps if necessary. Looking at the scientific name, there is a seeming contradiction in that the shell is called the “Common Sundial,” probably because it is fairly common on sandy Atlantic beaches, but the species name is “nobilis” instead of “vulgaris.” This could suggest that in trying to create structure, we can find noble qualities and refined pleasures in the common things of daily life. The shell also suggests Native American concepts of moving in a sacred manner by moving with the sun, and how this is utilized in healing practices.

Thinking about these shells also leads us to make connections with other things in culture. The idea of the sundial suggests looking at sundial inscriptions. In May, I mentioned how Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to structure her life according the motto on a sundial which read, “I count only the sunny hours.” A good source on sundials is the website It lists (among others) a Latin inscription from the sundial in the Dresden Altmark that reads, “Correct the past, direct the present, discern the future.” Interestingly, this can also summarize some of the goals of divination, including tarot.

By the way, although, for practical purposes, it’s convenient to talk about seashells as material objects, in interacting with them, we must remember that these once housed living beings, and send them blessings, such as wishes for a good rebirth.


  1. Thank you for sharing this article regarding sundials;) I actually live a long way from the ocean but have been finding real sundial seashells periodically on my walks in the most unlikely of places in the city no doubt! Over the course of the last few months I've found a total of 10! So think you for sharing your perspective!

  2. Wow, that is a really incredible example of synchronicity--When symbolism piles up like that, you know that the Living Universe is speaking TO YOU! By the way, although I didn't mention it in the blog post, in the way that one can find interesting connections between objects from nature and man-made objects, I like to read up on the lore of sundials (i.e. man-made sundials used to tell the time), as I saw a lot of them on buildings in Europe, often associated with zodiac murals. There are some internet sites that also supply some of the old mottoes that were sometimes associated with sundials, which give us some food for thought on the nature of passing time.