Where Would You Find Cowrie Shells?
Cowrie shells are widely distributed and possibly the favorites among shell collectors because of their polished enamel-like surfaces and their beautiful colored patterns. The cowrie appears in all the warmer seas of the globe. But the great cowries, the tiger cowrie and the orange cowrie are natives of tropical regions. They crawl slowly, browsing on weeds, and are shy creatures remaining hidden during the day in crevices or under rocks.
The best-known and most popular is the Cypraea tigris, commonly known as the tiger cowrie, which is a species of cowry, a large sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusk in the family Cypraeidae, the cowries. The shell grows about four inches long and is covered with spots. It was used by 18th Century silversmiths to make shell snuff-boxes and in Italy for burnishing paper and ironing lace.
The shells were often distributed in Europe by sailors and gypsies. Orange cowries at one time sold for large sums on the market.
Large cowry shells such as that of a Cypraea tigris have been used in Europe in the recent past as a darning egg over which sock heels were stretched. The cowry’s smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.
Cowry shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. They are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. The symbolism of the cowry shell is associated with the appearance of its underside: the lengthwise opening makes the shell look like a vulva or an eye.
In Fiji and the New Hebrides in the Pacific they are still worn as badges of rank by the chiefs. The women of Tuvalu use cowrie and other shells in traditional handicrafts.
The money cowrie is a small oval shell, flat and white underneath with thick yellowish-white edges and a pale lemon upper surface. It is found in enormous quantities in the Pacific, from the Moluccas eastward. Large fortunes were at one time made by European traders who transported shells to the west coast of Africa and exchanged them for ivory, gold and slaves. A slave would be worth anything from 20,000 to 50,000 shells.
In 1849 money cowries weighing 240 tons were imported into the English port of Liverpool. A man at Cuttack in Orissa, India, paid for the erection of his bungalow entirely in cowries. The building cost him 400 pounds which in cowries amounted to 16,000,000 shells. The common method of handling the cowries was by threading them on a string, 40 cowries to one string.
Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, Ashta Chamma or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey of Benin). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.
In Nepal cowries are used for a gambling game, where 16 pieces of cowries are tossed by four different bettors (and sub-bettors under them). This game is usually played at homes and in public during the Hindu festival of Tihar or Deepawali. In the same festival these shells are also worshiped as a symbol of Goddess Laxmi and wealth.
Cowry shells were among the devices used for divination by the Kaniyar Panicker astrologers of Kerala, India.
Among the cowries the rarest is Cypreae leucedon. Only two known examples of this pale brown, creamy-spotted shell exist. One is in the British Museum, the other in the Harvard University Museum. More than 190 species of cowrie shell are known to collectors. Some species are used as charms against evil spirits.