Cowrie shells have been used as spiritual and symbolic objects for thousands of years across many cultures and religions. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Cowrie shells symbolize fertility, birth, feminine power, wealth, and prosperity.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the extensive spiritual symbolism and meaning behind cowrie shells. We’ll learn about the history of cowries in spiritual traditions around the world and dive into their associations with major goddesses.
We’ll also uncover cowrie shell divination practices in various cultures as well as their significance in Feng Shui.
Origins and History of Spiritual Cowrie Shell Symbolism
Earliest Known Symbolic Cowrie Shells
Cowrie shells have been revered by various cultures for thousands of years. Some of the earliest known symbolic uses of cowrie shells date back over 12,000 years ago to the Upper Paleolithic period. Archeological evidence shows prehistoric peoples believed cowrie shells held spiritual meaning tied to fertility, feminine divine power, birth, and rebirth.
The shells are thought to symbolize the vulva and female regenerative organs.
Over 9,000-year-old decorative cowrie shells were found at a ritual site in Turkey. Excavations in Libya uncovered jewelry containing cowrie shells from 10,000 years ago. And cowrie amulets have been discovered in Ancient Egypt tombs over 7,000 years old.
The shells spread through trade networks and captured the imagination with their shiny exterior, symbolism, and rarity.
Spread of Cowrie Shell Iconography and Beliefs
As cowrie shells disseminated more widely, various cultures incorporated them into folklore, myths, rituals, clothing, and art:
- In Ancient India, cowries represented fertility and were seen as the dwelling place for Lakshmi.
- Throughout southeast Asia and Oceania islands, cowrie symbolism intertwined with feminine life-giving powers and deities.
- In Ancient China, cowries were thought to provide protective and prosperity-drawing powers.
- In parts of Africa, cowries symbolized Mother Earth, birth, wealth, and were used as traditional currency.
- And in Ancient Rome, cowrie shells were seen as symbols of Venus due their visual similarity.
By the Middle Ages, cowrie iconography and spiritual beliefs had disseminated globally. Cowrie shells inspired rituals, clothing, masks, statues, amulets, staffs, artwork, and more across nearly every inhabited continent.
The shells came to ubiquitously represent feminine energy, fertility, wealth, power, and protection.
|Use of Cowrie Shells
|Upper Paleolithic Era
|Symbolism for fertility and rebirth
|10,000+ Years Ago
|Jewelry and decorative amulets
|Integrated into mythologies and rituals
|Global religious iconography and art
From prehistoric rituals to their integrations into the mythos, lifestyles, and art across the world’s ancient civilizations, cowrie shells have an extraordinarily long and rich history as spiritual symbols.
And these potent representations and beliefs around cowries continue to this day in many cultures.
Goddesses Associated with Cowrie Shells
Cowrie Shells and the Goddess Lakshmi
In Hinduism, cowrie shells are considered highly sacred due to their association with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity. According to mythology, Lakshmi was born from the churning of the milky ocean, emerging like a beautiful young woman who held white cowrie shells in her hands (1).
The cowrie thus represents the sea of plenty over which Lakshmi reigns.
As symbols of abundance and good luck, cowries are often depicted with images of Lakshmi. During Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights associated with Lakshmi, cowrie shells may be exchanged as gifts or used to decorate shrines in homes and temples.
Many Hindus also believe that keeping cowrie shells in the home can invoke Lakshmi’s blessings (2).
Cowrie shells also play a prominent role in Lakshmi puja, the worship rituals performed for the goddess. As Lakshmi’s favored objects, the cowrie shells receive direct reverence during ceremonies when flowers or rice may be scattered over them as offerings, or fragrant oils can be used to anoint them (3).
By honoring the cowrie shells associated with Lakshmi, devotees hope to gain her divine favor.
So in Hindu iconography and spiritual traditions, the humble cowrie shell holds profound meaning as a sacred emblem of the goddess of abundance.
Venus of Willendorf Figurines
The Venus of Willendorf is the name given to a 4.4-inch statue of a nude female figure estimated to have been carved between 24,000–22,000 BCE. Considered one of the oldest works of prehistoric art, it features expansive breasts, hips, thighs, and exaggerates female reproductive organs, implying associations with fertility and abundance (4).
Remarkably, the figure was discovered with its legs concealed beneath a woven cowrie shell skirt. The shell covering seems to signal the figurine’s connection to earlier Mother Goddess archetypes in Paleolithic cultures.
Just as shells symbolized the life-giving sea, the shells adorning the Venus of Willendorf statue suggest the female’s divine fertile, nurturing qualities.
As a prehistoric symbol of womanhood, procreation, and the veneration of feminine spiritual forces, the cowrie shell skirt on the Willendorf Venus imbues the female form with otherworldly qualities of an ancient Mother Nature deity.
Oshun and Yemaya
In traditions of some West African diaspora religions like Santeria, Candomble, and Voodoo, Oshun and Yemaya are two important goddesses respectively representing fresh waters and oceans. Both orishas, or deities, are symbolically associated with cowrie shells.
As goddess of rivers and fertility, devotees honor Oshun with offerings of cowrie shells planted around bodies of fresh water. The shells evoke Oshun’s flowing waters seen in rivers and streams. And as an orisha connected to abundance and reproduction, cowries also nod to Oshun’s fertile blessings (5).
Similarly, Yemaya rules salt waters, and cowrie shells found washed up in ocean tides serve as reminders of her divine presence. Regarded as the Mother of All, sculptures and images of Yemaya often depict her adorned in necklaces, bracelets, and dresses gracefully embellished with cowrie shells from her watery domain (6).
So while Oshun and Yemaya govern separate spheres of water, both goddesses share close spiritual ties to the cowrie shell and its connections to feminine energy, fertility, flow, and the life-giving force of water.
Cowrie Shells in Divination and Fortune Telling
Ifá Divination in West Africa and Diaspora Traditions
Cowrie shells have been used in Ifá divination traditions in West Africa for centuries. Ifá is a religion and divination system that originated with the Yoruba people that has now spread globally. In Ifá, Babalawo diviners cast cowrie shells and interpret the patterns to decipher messages from the Orisha spirits and give guidance to believers.
Cowrie shells used in Ifá divination typically come from the Cypraea moneta or Cypraea annulus species. Their small size and domed shape makes them perfect for casting divination patterns. According to Ifá lore, the Orisha spirit Orunmila was the first Babalawo and used cowrie shells to create the original Ifá divination system.
So for practitioners today, cowries carry a long history and spiritual energy.
In African and Latin American Santería rituals, priests known as Santeros or Santeras also read cowrie shell divination patterns to communicate with the Orishas. So whether visiting a Babalawo or Santero, cowries remain integral for believers to find their spiritual path.
Chinese Fortune Telling with Cowries
In Chinese culture, fortune telling with cowrie shells dates back to at least the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE). Chinese diviners used 32 or 64 cowrie shells in intricate divination procedures to answer questions about everything from love and luck to auspicious days for events.
The two rounded sides of a cowrie shell were designated as yin (female) and yang (male) energies. Diviners would cast spreads of shells and count how many landed face up or down to determine balances of yin and yang in a person’s life.
More recently, simplified fortune telling boards painted with Chinese characters are used with only 3 cowrie shells.
Today in China, you can still find fortune tellers in parks and temples casting cowrie shells on cloth divination mats to give advice. The cowrie remains integral in traditional Chinese prognostication even as other modern methods like tarot grow in popularity.
Cowrie Reading in Indian Culture
Cowrie shells play an important role in the religious and divination practices of Hinduism and ancient Indian cultures. In early Vedic scriptures like the Atharva Veda, cowries were associated with prosperity and used as currency.
Hindu astrologers and priests analyze the position of cowrie shells as they fall naturally or around charts and mandalas to make predictions about a person’s life. Specific numbers and patterns in the cowrie fall are believed to indicate certain future events or karma.
Cowrie shells are also used ceremonially to represent female fertility and creativity in Hinduism and Buddhism. Several Hindu deities like Lakshmi are connected closely with cowrie symbolism. With such a rich history, the cowrie continues to hold deep meaning in Indian spirituality and forecasting.
The Feng Shui of Cowrie Shells
In Feng Shui, cowrie shells are prized for their powerful symbolic properties that can enhance multiple areas of life. Their striking shape and connection to the ocean make them ideal for attracting desired energies into a space.
Enhancing Fertility Energy
Cowrie shells have long been associated with fertility, which is why they are commonly seen in Feng Shui cures for couple hoping to get pregnant. Their resemblance to the female reproductive system is likely the origin of this belief.
To boost fertility chi and improve conception chances, place 3-9 cowrie shells in the southwest and north areas of your home or bedroom. The southwest governs relationships and fertility, while the north improves pregnancy chi.
Arranging the shells in odd numbers makes their energy more dynamic and powerful.
Attracting Income and Prosperity
The distinct shape of cowrie shells brings to mind the abundant flow of wealth and their lustrous sheen seems to shine with prosperity essence. For these reasons, they are premier symbols of affluence in Feng Shui design.
Place a bowl filled with cowrie shells near the front door or in the southeast sector of a home/office to activate financial luck. The southeast is the money spot and the front door is where ch’i enters, so cowrie shells summon fortune through both locations.
For best results, choose shells with vibrant natural coloring and minimal flaws. Polished shells with metallic paints can also enhance their prosperity-boosting effects.
|Feng Shui Tip
|Place 3 cowrie shells in your wallet
|Improve cash flow
|Arrange 9 cowrie shells on office desk
|Boost career luck and business success
Using Color Symbolism
Cowrie shells come in a diverse array of colors and patterns, each with its own energetic vibration and symbolic meaning.
- Red cowries represent vigor, passion, and activity
- Pink shells connect to gentle, loving energy
- Purple symbolizes spirituality and imagination
- Blue evokes calm, relaxation and open communication
When using cowrie shells in Feng Shui enhancements, choose colors aligned with your intention. For instance, place red cowries in the fame area to increase reputation or use blue shells in a relationship cure to support clear dialog between partners.
Their visible color energies will magnify the shells’ innate prosperity and fertility properties.
With their unique shape imbued with life-giving symbolism and vibrant color energies, cowrie shells are a beloved and versatile Feng Shui cure. Display them in key areas suggested by Feng Shui masters to stimulate all forms of abundance.
Personal Empowerment with Cowrie Shells
Cowrie Shell Jewelry and Adornment
Cowrie shell jewelry and ornaments carry deep symbolic meaning. Adorning oneself with cowrie accessories can be a powerful act of personal affirmation and a reminder of inner worth. Bold cowrie shell necklaces, bracelets, and earrings serve as protective amulets, warding off negativity and enhancing feelings of confidence and empowerment.
According to many spiritual traditions, simply gazing at cowrie shells can magnify self-assurance and leadership qualities. The vibrant colors and mesmerizing textures open up creativity, intuition, and stimulate success-oriented mindsets.
Cowrie Shells in Goddess Rituals
In goddess spiritual practices, cowrie shells hold special meaning as symbols of the divine feminine. Cleopatra and Aphrodite iconography often depicts these powerful goddesses adorned in cowrie jewels as representations of their beauty, wisdom, sexuality, and authority.
In rituals honoring goddesses like Lakshmi, Oshun, or Aphrodite, practitioners may surround themselves with cowrie shells to harness feminine energy and usher in blessings of prosperity, fertility, self-worth, and deep inner power.
Decorating with Cowries to Manifest Goals
Strategically decorating one’s home or altar with cowrie shells can help focus energy on manifesting dreams into reality. Simply placing a bowl filled with cowries on a desk, bed stand, or altar consecrates the space for improved creativity, strengthened confidence, and accelerated manifestation.
The vibrant vibration of the shells works continuously in the background to align one’s reality with heartfelt desires.
Feng shui principles also uphold using cowrie shells in home decor for their abilities to attract joy, passions, motivation, and financial prosperity. Arranging cowries in specific areas like entryways, office spaces, or kitchens enhances those spheres accordingly.
With focused intention, cowrie shells infuse living spaces with their ancient wisdom to empower and bless all who dwell within. Their striking textures and symbolic potency make them dynamic tools for personal enrichment and conscious creation.
Cowrie shell symbolism has endured for millennia and continues to hold deep spiritual meaning in many cultures today. Their associations with abundance, feminine energy, sexuality and life cycles connect them to universal archetypes we all share.
Whether you feel drawn to work with cowries as ritual objects, use them for telling fortunes, wear them as jewelry, or adorn your home with their vibrant colors, understanding their history helps unlock their power.