Cowrie Shells & African Masks
Imagine paying for your goods with...shells.
The cowrie (aka "cowry") shell of Africa has been the most popular and abundant historical currency on the continent since being introduced from the East / Middle East.
Biologically, cowrie or cowry shells come from snails of the family Cypraeidae. Most cowrie shells are smooth, shiny, and oval-shaped with a center slit.
The ancient Egyptians included millions of cowrie shells within Pharaoh's tombs. North and West African tribes often produced sacks of cowries as a dowry or bride-price. Throughout the continent, cowries have been used in decorative jewelry and masks and the cowrie shell is now a widespread symbol of the continent, its culture, and its art.
For many West African cultures specifically, the presence of cowrie shells indicates fertility. A regular practice within countries such as The Gambia is the threading of cowrie shells onto a bin-bin, a waistband worn around a woman's hip for the purpose of increasing fertility.
Due to the overwhelming abundance of small cowrie shells, they are often said to bring good luck or prosperity to the bearer. For some African tribes, the color white is believed to be a sign of luxury. In Sudan, Egypt and Cameroon, for example, cowries have been used as a sign of wealth in burials, rites of passage, and musical festivals.
Cowrie shells are also tagged with a mystical quality, and have played an integral role in West African fortune telling, numerology, and prophecy. Among the tribes of ancient Benin, however, the stigma associated with counting directly one's cowries was strong-some cultures joined in their belief that bad luck would come to those who counted their wealth aloud.
Symbolically, cowrie shells also are a representation of a spirit within all natural things. Their hard, durable quality represents longevity to people of many West African tribes. Their popularity has also helped craft several sporting/gambling games that use cowrie shells, and made them an integral part of music and indigenous instruments.
These symbolic qualities and beliefs have led to the cowry's rise in becoming a popular and valued object of currency for hundreds of years. During early colonial times, many Africans preferred being paid with cowrie shells over gold coins-a surprise to many Europeans. Learning of this preference, Europeans injected a large number of cowrie shells into the market, depreciating the shells' value and leading to many modern-day bans on the use of cowries as currency.
Today, just as centuries ago, cowrie shells are featured in a number of African crafts. African masks, sculptures, jewelry, boxes, clothing and other artifacts are often adorned with cowrie shells of varying sizes.
African Masks with Cowry Shells: