Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Cowrie

I attended a luncheon at work yesterday, attended by my peers in the other colleges of the university. Of course, I was the only African-American amongst 16 other 40-60 year old white women. One woman walked up to me and said, "Shirley, I need your earrings and purse to go with my outfit."

She was wearing a nice top adorned with cowrie shells. I opened my mouth to share the history of the cowrie shell with her, but decided against it. I've been reflecting on that lost opportunity since yesterday.

Today the cowrie shell has become a fashion statement adorned on anything from earrings to purses to necklaces and clothing and worn by anyone and everyone, many people who do not look like me.

I was at Chili's a while back and a white waitress admired my cowrie earrings. She said they would "go with her necklace." I asked if she knew the name of the shells, replying she said, "no, I just liked it, so I bought it." My ex and I shared the name, spelling and history of the cowrie. She was amazed. I wondered, how many others are unaware of the historical significance of this precious shell.

Cowrie shells (also spelled "cowry") were used as a currency in Africa and elsewhere, like China where the shell or copies of the shell were used as a means of exchange. They are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms, as they are viewed as symbols of
womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.

Centuries ago, parts of West Africa used cowrie shells for counting. It was considered taboo to count animals or people so they used cowrie shells as a substitute. They also used shells for money. They would trade their shells for produce or necessities.

Another use of the cowrie shells was to make decisions. They would toss the shells to give a "yes or no" answer similar to tossing a coin ( "heads or tails"). Also, cowrie shells were used as beautiful decorations for jewelry.

Throughout Africa, and South and North America, the cowrie
symbolized the power of destiny and prosperity.

Like so much of our history that has been usurped by others...the cowrie shell has been claimed by main stream America. My brothers and sisters as you wear this beautiful shell I encourage you to wear it proudly understanding, knowing and embracing it's significant role in our history.


BlaqKofi said...

Still & apologies. I had to delete the original post. I've been having a difficult time with Blogger and uploading pics recently. I re-created the post in order to get my pics to upload and your comments were inadvertently deleted. Please feel free to repost...

Love, Blaq

Creyole said...

Great history lesson, I had no idea.

*Nea said...

I wore a cowrie shell in my hair last weekend but decided against wearing the shell in my hair to work so I wouldn't be reciting it's significance all day to my white co-workers. The hisory of the shell is extremely important and it's sad that some will just throw it on without a second thought. Thanks for sharing!

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