Cowrie Shells: A Window Into the Soul of African Arts – Paulski Art

Cowrie Shells: A Window Into the Soul of African Arts

Ever find beautiful cowrie shells on a beach and wonder about their significance? In many African cultures, cowrie shells represent much more than a pretty seashell. They offer a glimpse into the soul of traditional arts and hold deep symbolic meaning. For centuries, cowrie shells served as currency in trade networks across Africa and beyond. But their role went far beyond just buying and selling goods. Cowrie shells conveyed spiritual, social and cultural beliefs through their use in ritual, religion, music, dance, and art.


Cowrie shells have been integral to African culture for centuries. Not only were they used as a form of currency but they were also seen as a symbol of wealth and power. The simple cowrie shell inspired masterful works of art, from intricate masks and statues to colorful beaded clothing and jewelry. Their curves and openings were thought to represent female genitalia and fertility. Kings and chiefs incorporated cowrie shells into crowns and other regalia to display power and status. Musicians used them on instruments to honor ancestors.

Cowrie shells have long been used by African cultures for a variety of purposes. Every shell tells a story. Studded onto thrones, woven into garments, strung into divining boards, or laid upon altars, cowrie shells connected people with the spiritual world. They represented life, death, and the circle of rebirth. A shell as small as your fingernail carried the weight of cultural values and the human experience. Their meaning lives on in art to this day.

The Symbolism and Spiritual Meaning of Cowrie Shells

Cowrie shells hold deep meaning in many African cultures. These natural sea shells, with their smooth, shiny surface and oval shape, have been used in African arts and handicrafts for centuries.

Cowrie shells symbolize fertility, wealth, and prosperity. Historically, they were used as money in some African kingdoms, so cowries came to represent good fortune and abundance. Many people still believe that keeping cowrie shells in the home will bring wealth and financial success.


The shells are also thought to have spiritual power and connection. Their rounded shape represents eternity, continuity, and the circle of life. Cowries are commonly used in traditional African rituals, ceremonies, and religious practices. Some people carry them as a symbol of protection from evil spirits.

In African art and design, cowrie shells are frequently incorporated into everything from textiles, baskets, and musical instruments to masks, wood carvings, and bone or stone sculptures. They add texture, color, and symbolic meaning. The shells themselves are also used to create intricate patterns, mosaics, and mandalas.

Next time you see cowrie shells used in African art or decoration, take a moment to appreciate their deep cultural and spiritual significance. These small sea shells have endured for centuries as a powerful symbol in many African traditions. Their timeless beauty and metaphorical meaning give us a window into the soul of African arts.

Cowrie shells have been an integral part of African arts and crafts for centuries. These colorful shells are more than just decorative - they carry deep cultural and spiritual symbolism. They were once used as currency in Africa and still represent wealth, status and fertility. They are commonly used in jewelry, clothing, and handicrafts as a sign of prosperity.


The cowrie shell resembles female genitalia, so it is also seen as a symbol of womanhood, motherhood and sexuality. Brides will often wear cowrie shell jewelry on their wedding day to bring good luck and fertility. They also have religious significance in some West African spiritual belief systems. They are used in divination rituals and to ward off evil spirits. The Yoruba deity Olokun, who reigns over the deep ocean, is often depicted wearing cowrie shells. Their influence is one that transcends time.

How are they still used in African culture? 

Cowrie shells have been used in African culture for centuries and continue to hold spiritual and symbolic significance. Here are some of the common ways cowrie shells are incorporated into African arts and traditions:

I) Currency

Cowrie shells were once used as currency in some West African kingdoms, with their value based on the type of shell. The shells were strung together and used to buy goods and services. Some shells were more rare and valuable, just like certain coins today. Though no longer used as money, the shells are still seen as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.

II) Divination

In some African spiritual practices, cowrie shells are used for divination and fortune telling. The shells are tossed, and the resulting pattern is interpreted to provide insight or advice. The cowrie shells are thought to connect with ancestral spirits to gain wisdom and glimpse into the future.

III) Adornment

Cowrie shells are commonly used in African jewelry, accessories and clothing embellishment. The shells are strung into necklaces, bracelets, anklets and incorporated into headpieces and fabrics. They are seen as a symbol of beauty, status and cultural identity. Brides will often wear cowrie shell jewelry as part of their wedding attire.

IV) Decoration

Cowrie shells frequently adorn African arts and crafts, including pottery, baskets, statues, and musical instruments like rattles or drums. The shells are thought to bring good luck and fertility. Many African masks, especially Yoruba masks from Nigeria, are decorated with cowrie shells to represent female power or pay homage to water spirits.


Dear reader, these small, unassuming shells have come to represent life, fertility, and spiritual purity. They adorn everything from ceremonial masks and musical instruments to textiles, jewelry, and currency. Cowrie shells transcend their physical form, serving as a symbolic window into the soul of numerous African artistic traditions.

Next time you see cowrie shells incorporated into African art, take a closer look. Reflect on their significance and remember the layers of meaning and symbolism they represent. Though small in size, their impact is profound. Cowrie shells have endured for centuries as an iconic motif in African visual culture, and their timeless beauty and symbolic power continue to captivate audiences around the world.