As I prepare for tomorrow’s workshop, I have been going through my notes on seashell divination. Unfortunately, I have not yet gotten around to writing an article on this topic. However, although these are my rough draft thoughts, here are some things to think about when working with seashells:
Mythical Associations: As symbols of the Sacred Feminine, it can be said that all shells are emblems of the Goddess. Also, their elemental Water symbolism links them to the Moon Goddess, who is ruler of the tides as well as the watery world of the Unconscious, as do their often globular shapes. Of course, shells’ spiral structures evoke the Goddess’s dance of life. Additionally, many shell names honor goddesses, including the groups known as Venus, Astarte, Lucine, and Semele clams; the Turban and Star-Shells of the genus Astraea; and individuals such as the Junonia. Neptune and Triton also get their due, though male mythical figures are more seldom referenced. A study of shell names would reveal other mythical figures, including nymphs and muses. Goddesses may also be alluded to through their epithets and other imagery and associations. Thus, the cowries, genus Cypraea, evoke Aphrodite, who was called the Cypraen, because she was believed to have come into being off the coast of Cyprus and had a central cult there. Cowries can also allude to Demeter, because they reminded the ancients of little pigs, and pig images were offered as votives to Demeter. If you are attracted to a shell which suggests some mythical figure, consider what that iconology may mean to you.
Tarot Symbolism: Persons familiar with Tarot card meanings can make some creative connections with the symbolism of certain shells. For example, snails, especially moon snails, have obvious associations with the Moon card, and also with the High Priestess and Empress, who are often depicted with lunar emblems, and the members of the Cups court, who are often depicted with shells. As spiral forms, shells’ growth symbolism may be suggested in card illustrations which feature spiral lines, as in Crowley’s Thoth card deck’s Fool and Star. Tarot associations may also be made through other graphic images. The miter shells, so named because they resemble the headgear worn by leaders in certain religious hierarchies, suggest the Hierophant, and therefore his concern with the transmission of spiritual teachings. (The Pontifical Miter is especially suggestive of the Hierophant’s crown, and so would make a good amulet to evoke Hierophant qualities.) Because carrier shells attach other shells to their backs as a form of camouflage, they suggest the 10 of Wands, which depicts a man carrying a heavy load. However, some species of carrier shells limit their attachments or even remove them when they get to a certain stage, and the man portrayed in the 10 of Wands appears to be headed toward a destination where he can unload.
Diet: A mollusk’s feeding habits can be considered when contemplating its general symbolism. While some of them graze on algae and other plant materials, others are predators who devour other mollusks after drilling holes in their shells, smothering them, or prying them apart. The cone shells are noteworthy, here, for being able to paralyze their prey with their venomous stingers. Therefore, I sometimes interpret cones and others as “The Dangerous Feminine,” which can be positive or negative, depending on the overall context of your interpretation. That is why cone shells have been suggested for use in protective magic.
Colonial animals: Some of the main forms in which we find corals are in tight, compact colonies (e.g. brain, star, or rose corals), branching colonies (as in staghorn, tube, or bush corals), and as free-living, individual polyps. As corals are best known to us for their collective lifestyle and their ability to build structures, your choice of a piece of coral may say something about your linking to society and how you structure your life. A compact form may indicate that you recognize a need to be more connected to others. Consider how the Japanese have a word for an emotion that we haven’t recognized as an emotion: the joy of being part of a group. Also, how can you bring collective action into your personal goals? Branching corals may indicate a desire to take your community in new directions, while the choice of a single polyp may point to a more solitary existence. Of course, as human beings, we are not confined to any one of these lifestyles, but can make different choices at different phases of life.
Your choice of coral may also point to some survival strategies. Branching corals have a fast and spreading growth pattern, while the more compact corals are slower growing, but are able to take more of a pounding from the surf. The symbolism of the coral also gets into issues of rival communities and resources, which is why Michelle Hanson’s “Ocean Oracle” labels the coral card, “competition.” Because corals vie with mollusks for the calcium in their environment, they produce substances that repel mollusks.
Clinging: Limpets and barnacles are remarkable for their ability to cling to rocks in the roughest zone of the surf, so they suggest qualities of tenaciousness and the ability to survive in a hostile environment. (Barnacles are more of a nuisance for humans, because they create drag by covering the hulls of boats; cleaning them off is a very difficult chore.) The question for you as a human is how survival conditions affect your choices. For example, in a hard times economy, a job seeker may be advised to take the first job that he or she is offered, and hang on to it for dear life. In other contexts, limpets and barnacles may indicate clinging to people or to faith, or other such metaphors.
One or Two-piece Shells: When we think of shells, the forms that usually come to mind are either the Univalves (aka Gastropods) such as snails, whelks, periwinkles, and conches, or the Bivalves (Pelecypods) such as the clams, cockles, oysters, mussels, and scallops. This symbolism brings up issues of Self and Other, and how they affect our experience of Wholeness. Selecting a clam or cockle may express your need to somewhat modify your actions and take another person into consideration. If you select a shell of which only one half is present, there may be some issues regarding a partner who is not present for you in some way. A special case is the jingle shell, which is seldom found with both halves, because one half is more likely to remain clinging to its rock. Jingles as well as some other types of ark shells, oysters, and others which have asymmetrical halves may also say something about inequality in a relationship.
Well, those are my thoughts for now. For those of you who have some treasured seashells, I hope this will enhance your enjoyment. Always remember that they once housed living beings, so we have to be respectful of their ecological needs.