She Shells

shell 1

Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, by Charles Godfrey Leland, 1891

According to J. B. Friedrich, “Symbolik der Natur” the Sea Shell, on account of its being a product of the Sea, or of the all-generating moisture; and much more probably from its shape, is an emblem of woman herself. Being one of the great emblems of productive Nature, or of life and light, and opposed to barrenness, winter or negation, the sea shell was a charm against evil. The gypsies have retained it as a powerful agent for “luck” showing to what a degree they are still influenced by the early symbolism which effectively formed not one but many mythologies. Among the Hungarian Gypsies the virtue or magical power of a sea shell is in proportion to the degree of resemblance of which it possesses.

This association of shells, with the mysterious and magical, is to be found among gypsies in the East as well, as is shown by the following from my work entitled “The Gypsies.” It describes something which I saw many times in Cairo —
shells“Beyond the door which, when opened, gave this sight, was a dark, ancient archway, twenty yards long, which opened on the glaring, dusty street, where camels with their drivers, and screaming saïs or carriage-runners and donkey-boys and crying, venders kept up the wonted Oriental din. But in the archway, in its duskiest corner, there sat in silence and immovable, a living picture-a dark, handsome woman who was unveiled. She had before her on the gateway floor, a square of cloth and a few shells.
Sometimes an Egyptian of the lower class stopped, and there would be a consultation. She was a fortune-teller and from the positions which the shells assumed when thrown – she predicted what would come to pass. And then there would be a solemn conference and a thoughtful stroking of the beard, if the applicant was a manor a touch on the hand if it was a woman and then the usual payment to the Oracle (seer), and a departure. And it was all old primæval Egyptian, as it was Chaldæan, for the woman was a Rhagarin (gypsy), and as she sat so sat the diviners of ancient days by the wayside, casting shells for auspices, even as arrows were cast of old.
“It is not remarkable that among the myriad manteias of olden days there should have been one by shells. The sound of the sea when heard in a nautilus or conch is marvelously—like that of ocean surges murmuring far.”
“Shake me and it awakens—then apply
its polished lips to your attentive ear,
and it remembers its August abodes
and murmurs as the ocean murmurs there.”
All of this is very strange to children and not less so to all unsophisticated folk, and I can remember how in boyhood I was told and listened with perfect faith to the distant roaring mystery of the ocean song being thus for ever kept alive inland. The next step to this is to hear in the sea-murmuring something like voices, and this is as curious as it is true — that if the mind be earnestly given to it, and the process be continued for a long time during several days, many persons, and probably all in time, will come to distinguish or hear human utterances and eventually words.
There is no special faith required here; the mind even of the most skeptical or unimaginative will often turn back on itself, and by dint of mere perseverance produce such effects. An old pitcher or jug of a peculiar shape is also declared to be admirably adapted for this purpose.
In 1886 I was by moonlight in a camp of gypsies in the old Roman amphitheater near Budapest. It was a very picturesque sight, what with the blazing fire, the strangely-dressed men, the wild shrieking, singing, and dancing women. And when, as I have before mentioned, they showed me the sea shells which they carried as amulets, they exhibited one much larger conch-like form, the tip of which had been removed and to which there was attached a flexible tube. This was used in a very remarkable trick. The shell, or one like it, is put into the hands of the person consulting the oracle, who is directed to listen to the voice of the Nivashi, or spirit of the air. Then she listens blindfolded, the tube applied, and through it the gypsy speaks in a trained soft voice. Thus, in conch-o-manteia, the oracles still live and devotees still hear the Fairies talk.


Now, be it observed that hearing is the most deceptive of the senses—as the reader may have seen exemplified by a lecturer, when the audience were persuaded that he was fiddling on one cane with another, or blowing a flute tune on one, when the music was made by a confederate behind a screen. I myself, a few days since, when in the Köppern Thal, verily believed I heard the murmur and music of children’s voices — when lo, it proved to be the babbling brook.

Some years ago I forget where it happened in England, but I guarantee the truth of what I tell — it was found that the children in a certain village were in the habit of going to an ancient tomb in which there was a round hole, putting their ears to it, and, as they said, of listening to what the dead people were saying. It is facile enough to understand that among them there would be some whose unconscious creative faculty would lead them to literally hearing words or songs.

There is another ancient and beautiful mystical association with shells. The conch when pierced formed a trumpet, whose notes seemed to be allied to the murmuring of the wind and waves heard in the shell when applied to the ear. The sea-god Triton blew upon a shell “meaning thereby the roaring of the waves.” “And in analogous wise a shell is represented on the Tower of the Winds in Athens, to represent Boreas, the north-east wind, and the roaring of the storm” (MILLIN, “Gallerie Mythologique”).

The resemblance of wind to the human voice has probably occurred to every human being, and has furnished similes for every poet. That these voices should be those of spirits is a natural following. So the last Hebrew oracle, the Bath Kol, or Daughter of the Voice, survives in sea shells and lives in gypsy-lore. And so we find in rags and patches on the garments of Egyptian fellahin the edges of Pharaoh’s garment, which in olden time it was an honor for kings to kiss.


Deception of this kind by means of voices, apparently supernatural, is of great antiquity. The high priest Savan the Asmunian, of Egypt, is said to have used acoustic tubes for this purpose, and it is very evident that the long corridors or passages in the stone temples must have suggested it as well as whispering galleries.




One Comment Add yours

  1. Paula Cas says:

    Reblogged this on Paths I Walk and commented:
    Background on Ocean Oracles.

    Liked by 1 person

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