The cowrie shell holds great significance within Africa and has a long and meaningful history attached to it. It is more than a simple “shell”, in African culture, it holds significant spiritual and even monetary value in the form of currency.
Let’s dwell into the history of the cowrie shell in Africa which comes with many interesting facts.
What are cowrie shells?
Before we delve deeper into the history of cowrie shells, it will be useful to offer a brief explanation of what they are. As Wikipedia describes, a cowrie or cowry is the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod mollusks in the family Cypraeidae – see picture below.
History of the Cowrie Shell in Africa
In West Africa, the cowrie shell was introduced as early as the 8th century by caravans of Arab traders. During colonial times, the Europeans witnessed the fondness that certain African tribes had for these shells and helped them make the main currency in the trade of slaves, gold and many other goods traded at the time. It conserved its status as a means of payment, and a symbol of wealth and power, until the 20th century.
The cowrie also played a role during colonization times. African people were very attached to the cowries and found it very difficult to accept new, more centralized forms of currency. It was a way of defending the independence and sovereignty that they possessed before the colonial conquest. They felt that getting rid of the cowries was like getting rid of a significant part of their culture.
It was the French in particular who wanted to divert the trade from the British Gold Coast to their colony in the Ivory Coast, which was one added reason for them to force their currency, the French franc, onto their colony. In 1907, they prohibited the use of cowries as money. This wasn’t a reason, however, for Africans to stop using the cowries. It still retained its value until they adapted a new currency in the 1940s.
Uses of the cowrie shell
Nowadays, payment systems in Ghana have been modernized, but did you know that the cowrie shell used to be one of the most successful and universal forms of currency in the world? It possessed all benefits you could imagine: durability, convenience, divisibility, as well as being easily identifiable.
They are also non-perishable, as opposed to food products, meaning they could withstand frequent handling and because of their size and weight, were very easy to carry around.
- So how were these cowries handed over when someone had to make a payment to someone else? There were various forms:
- They could be threaded into bracelets or long strings of forty. 50 strings would be approximately the equivalent to 2,000 cowries.
- Packed into pouches
- Thrown into baskets and weighed to determine their value.
Do you want to know about a fun fact? Ghana’s national currency, the Cedi in Akan means “cowrie”. In 1991, the coin for 20 cedi featured the image of the beloved shell (see image above).
Another fun fact is that the headquarter building of the West African Central Bank in Benin, is decorated with cowries the size of windows!
There is even a House proverb associated to a cowrie being of monetary value: “Whoever is patient with a cowrie shell will one day have thousands of them” .
We can trace back the use of cowries to Ancient Egypt where they were seen to be magical tools. Some believed that the magic comes from the resemblance they had to a squatting eye, thus underlining the idea of acting as a protective amulet. Others saw resemblance to a female vulva, associating it with fertility.
Cowries are still used for cowrie shell divination, one of the oldest known spiritual practices in the world originated by the Yoruba people of West Africa.
In one of their traditions called merindinlogun, which literally means “four taken from 20,” a diviner communicates with the 16 original orishas (ancestor spirits) by casting 16 cowrie shells on a carved wooden tray as he poses a question about the future.
The cowries, called “the mouth of the orishas” answer the diviner by landing either face up (positive) or face down (negative).
Nowadays, they are still used as divination tools in Ghana by fortune tellers. The shell is thrown onto a circular surface, and interprets their positions to tell the future. Some use the cowries in conjunction with — or instead of — other tools like bone fragments or kola nuts.
The cowrie was also seen as a protective charm (gris-gris) used by warriors and hunters woven on their sacred masks and costumes for dance ceremonies.
Nowadays, the cowries have developed into fashion statements. You can find many necklaces or head pieces handmade entirely out of these shells – you will be able to find a lot of these accessories at the Arts Centre in Accra.
Modern fashion, especially African inspired, has adopted the cowries into its culture. You can now see them woven into African braided hairstyles (check out the recent movie Woman King where the majority or women warriors are wearing them on their hair), and traditional African-inspired headpieces (check out Beyonce in her videoclip Spirit for The Lion King).