Cowrie Shells in Ancient Egypt: From Money to Motherhood

Cowrie Shell | 332-30 BC | Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum

Cowrie shells are the shells of small marine snails that are widely distributed in warm seas. Their texture is very smooth due to their glossy finish, and they come in various shapes, patterns, and colors. Although we simply use them for a collection, Cowrie shells had many uses and purpose in ancient times, particularly in ancient Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, women were highly valued for their ability to conceive children. In order to protect their fertility for the future, girls and young women wore Cowrie girdles. They would also be worn during pregnancy in order to protect their child from any harm or complications, and have a safe and successful delivery. It was also believed that women and children in ancient Egypt were often the targets of the so-called evil eye, an evil spirit that would haunt them and was the blame for miscarriages and deaths. The only way to stay protected from the malicious effects of the superstition was by wearing Cowrie shells every day for the rest of their lives. Even when Egyptian women died, they were often buried with a Cowrie shell necklace to protect their spirits in the after life. Cowrie girdles were often adorned by a small naked female that represented the goddess of fertility, and she protected pregnant women throughout their pregnancies. Even though pregnant women were often visited by female birth attendants to make sure that their pregnancy was going well, the Cowrie shells gave them an added sense of protection. After examining the remains of numerous mummies, Egyptian scholars have concluded that Egyptian females must have had fertility difficulties due to their lack of medicine and resources. Those scholars conclude that these women must have depended on their belief in the power of these Cowrie shells. The shape of the Cowrie shell was even thought to symbolize a woman’s pregnancy due to its round shape, seen as similar to a woman’s pregnant belly as the child grows. The vertical opening in the middle of the shell represents the female vulva, which is the main reproductive organ of the woman.1

Cowrie Shell Girdle of Sithathoryunet, ca. 1887–1813 B.C.E. | Egyptian, Middle Kingdom
Gold | Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Cowrie shells in ancient Egypt were also known to be used for decoration purposes. In the tombs of small children, the Cowrie shells were placed around tombs for decoration purposes. There were two very different designs, one for the girls and one for the boys.  They were thought to offer a connection between the living and the dead. Cowrie shells were also very valuable, and they were used as jewelry as well, and as home décor. The more Cowrie shells one had, the wealthier one was thought to be, and the more respect one was accorded by the people. Because of their high value, Cowrie shells were commonly used as currency; and they traded the shells for things like food, clothing, and other necessities. In the homes of the Egyptians, there were animal figures that were covered with Cowrie shells.  The jewelers who created the decorations and the necklaces used metals to fill the Cowrie shells so that they would make sounds that would capture attention. The jewelers would add gold to the Cowrie shells that would make the shells even more valuable. Such shells were seen as a symbol of the flesh of the gods that were linked to the sun. Silver, another metal added to the shells, represented the bones of the gods and was associated with the moon. The animal that was most used by the ancient Egyptians was the cat. Like the women and children, the Cowrie shells were also used to protect the lives of the animals from evil spirits.2

In conclusion, the ancient Egyptians valued Cowrie shells, and they used for them for many purposes. One of the purposes was their belief that the shells gave some type of protection to women and children from evil spirits. They also protected the lives of the dead when they placed Cowrie shells over their tombs. They also made girdles for pregnant women, who would wear them on their hips in order to protect their wombs and have safe deliveries. When used as necklaces, the Cowrie shells were filled with metals like gold and silver, which gave them significance. We spot them today on the shores of our beaches and don’t realize the importance they have had in the past and the meanings they have carried for lives lived long ago.

  1. Bill Bynum and Helen Bynum, “Egyptian Cowrie Necklace,” The Lancet Vol. 386, No. 1003 (2016): 1525.
  2. Amir Goalni, “Cowrie shells and their imitations as ornamental amulets in Egypt and the Near East,” Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean,  Special Studies: Beyond ornamentation 23/2, (2014): 71-94.
Cowrie Shells in Ancient Egypt: From Money to Motherhood
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28 Comments

  •  Anayeli Prieto writes an interesting and unusually topic that captures my attention as I enjoy collecting seashells. The use of the shells is an interesting and fascinating display of culture and beliefs. I had never heard or even imagine that a shell had a role in anything especially in something as important as fertilization. Prieto explains the importance of the shells to the Egyptians in a respectful nonbias manner.

  • Skimming through this article, I thought that the only use in Cowrie shells was just for currency. I had no idea that they were used to protect women during pregnancy for evil spirits or little kids as well. It is true that no one appreciates the value of the Cowrie shells anymore because it is only used for jewelry. The significance of the Cowrie shells are important to ancient history because they actually had a use for them, unlike today. Very good article with the information that was put into this research.

  • I enjoyed reading this short and informative article. I always love finding out more about little aspects of history. The Crowie shell seemed to be very versatile and serve many purposes, from superstitions, to currency. It seems as human kind has developed, we have always need something to show value. The Crowie shell was today version of the dollar bill.

  • I had never been introduced or had any clue on what a Cowrie shell was until I read this article. This article was very informative, and it is phenomenal how woman in Ancient Egypt valued these tiny shells. The value of these shells can correlate to present day superstitions, such as someone wearing lucky socks for game day, or favorite necklace and bracelet for an exam or job interview. Overall, this article was very interesting.

  • I had no idea that the Cowrie Shells were so important in ancient times. It would make sense that the Egyptians choose the shell to represent the belly of a pregnant woman. I also found it interesting that they were used as currency for trade, food, and clothing. I thought it was funny that jewelers would put gold and silver on the shells to represent the flesh of the gods. Overall, this article was fascinating and had lots of cool facts that I have never heard of.

  • Very informative article. The cowrie shell seems to have been of great value to ancient Egyptians. I was not aware that the shell had uses in fertility related areas, but the explanation was interesting. It was interesting to me that they were also used to ward off the “evil eye” since so many cultures believe in that idea and each has their own object for protection. I also found it fascinating that even ancient cultures used sea shells for jewelry by adding gold much as we do in modern cultures.

  • Very interesting I never knew that about those cowrie shells. I have seen them in jewelry like you’ve mentioned before but turns out they have a whole new meaning. I wouldn’t have guessed that they were used as a protection and reassurance in pregnancy. I can see how much that era value these shells by putting them on tombs as a protection from evil spirits.

  • This is a very interesting. I never would think that a Cowrie Shell would have many purposes and are so valuable in an ancient culture. It brought the feeling of safety and protection form evil spirit. I saw a lot of these at beaches but never realize how much meaning and importance it can have in the past. Thanks again Anayeli for a very informative articles.

  • Egyptian culture has always been one of my major interests, especially their mythology section, I knew about the cowrie shells yet not to this extent. I did not know that cowrie shells were used as methods of protection from bad things, aka evil eye, to instruments for women and their pregnancies. This article was quite eye opening to the many uses of cowrie shells, it was an enjoyable read filled with new knowledge from their culture. Thank you.

  • I never realized just how much symbolism and meaning cowrie shells can have. Interesting how they served for many purposes, from jewelry to money to spiritual protection and protection in fertility. These days, it’s almost laughable to think that people in ancient Egypt fought and possibly killed over these shells. Good job on the article, I found it to be really fascinating.

  • This article was very informative. It is amazing that we can figure out that Egyptian women had fertility issues due to the cowrie shells that they placed their faith in. I had no idea that cowrie shells represented many different things in this ancient culture. This article is filled with a lot of rich information despite its short length.

  • Amazing article. I like how it presented another aspect of ancient Egyptian culture. I did not know that Cowrie shells had such a multifaceted meaning to Egyptians during that time. The article was organized very well and I especially liked how it revealed a little more about the significance of the shells as it developed even further. It was interesting to see how it did not only show some sense of importance for people that were living in Ancient Egypt, but also those in the process of moving on to the afterlife. Towards the end, it also showed how as time passes by, we attach different levels of value to different things. Some things gain more value and some thing decrease in value, in this case, the cowrie shells. All-in-all, it was a great article. Good Job!

  • This was such an interesting an informative article. I never knew that the Egyptians used the cowrie shells for fertility issues. It’s very cool that historians could infer from their heavy use of the shells for fertility that there must have been fertility issues with women. It’s cool the faith that the shells gave the people and how they warded against the evil eye. Thanks for the interesting article!

  • Wow great article! I knew the Egyptians believed in certain gods but never did i know they acted upon it in such manner. it is crazy that we look at it and see it as weird but in reality a lot of religions have traditions that are unorthodox when looked at from a different perspective. Overall very informative essay, i had never known this of the Egyptians.

  • This was an interesting topic it gave an insight into the decorative Cowrie shells. I did not even know what the shells were even called or what purpose they served other than as jewelry. After reading this article I know a lot more. The shells have a whole other purpose behind them and that’s pretty crazy. I would have never thought of the shells being used as currency. Overall great article, very informative. Keep up the good work.

  • Interesting article, I knew that the Ancient Egyptians believed that certain naturally occurring items were endowed with the powers of the gods. Such as with the shells, there may have been some relevance to the belief that they protected young girls and women who would become pregnant and while they were pregnant. Much of it probably could have been a psychological factor that shells had. Interesting to think the thought of the shells being a symbol of protection for women and children while also serving to increase a woman’s fertility.

  • This was a fun read. It’s interesting to think how we just collect the shells but ancient Egyptians had many uses and saw these shells as valuable. I find it interesting that in all the Egyptian articles on this website the Egyptian people find a way to make multiple uses out of anything whether it’s a god or these cowrie shells.

  • Really informative article! I find it so interesting to read about the Egyptians! I would always see these shells back home when we would go out to the island, so it is funny to think how important they were to the Egyptians life. I know that these are also often seen on jewelry nowadays, so it is also interesting to compare how they valued these as a sign of pregnancy and even to an extent fertility. Great read!

  • This is a great article. It was very interesting and informative to read. Looking at your two resources I would guess they were packed with a lot of information. The way you organized your article was helpful when reading. I would always see people sporting these shells but never knew the meaning of it. Great job of this article can’t wait for more!

  • Nice article! The superstition about how wearing cowrie shells would protect a woman and her child from the “evil eye” reminds me of a Mexican superstition where being looked at wrong will lead to bad luck! I wonder if this Mexican superstition stems from ancient Egypt!? You did a good job explaining how wearing a cowrie shell provided some comfort and a feeling of protection for woman and children in times when medicine was not as advanced as it is now. Thank you for the interesting read!

  • To think something I once thought of as only jewelry and decoration had a much more meaning to the Egyptians is crazy. I usually see these shells in the stores of nearby beaches. Before reading this, I thought they were just another shell. The thought of them being used as currency is most interesting to me. Overall, great job!

  • Great article! I have seen jewelry and trinkets at the beach made of what look like cowrie shells, but I thought that was just beach fashion. I really enjoy this article because it is not traditionally taught in the classroom. Today we might think it’s strange how they believed a shell could help them in pregnancy, but we have many strange rituals, wives’ tales, and beliefs about pregnancy and childbirth as well.

  • Great Article to read about Ana! I found it very enjoyable and from what you told me at the office and the article that i read, I can tell you put a lot of time and effort into your research! I thought your article was very well put together. I had no idea that shells could be worth so much and have such a significant meaning to people. can’t wait to read your next upcoming article!

  • What an interesting informative article!! I really enjoyed the read! Its super interesting how stuff that to us now a days really has not significance to other people it once met a lot!! Like its really interesting how in Egypt women believed they had to wear these shells in order to be protected throughout their pregnancy as well as to help them maintain fertile which makes perfect sense that they had to believe on something to help them as mentioned int he article that they experienced a lot of miscarriages due to lack of medical supplies therefore believing in something that could help them against that was great!

  • I have always seen these Cowrie shells many times at many places. I had no clue they had so much significance to them. You are correct that people do not realize how much meaning is behind them and what they were used for. However, I did find it unusual that jewelers added gold and metals to these shells to add more value. I always saw these shells as being accessories such as jewelry. However, it is interesting how they were used to protect others from the “evil eye” by wearing them every day for the rest of their lives. I loved your article because it was very interesting and I learned a lot. Great job!

  • This was such an interesting article to read. I had no clue that these shells could have such a significance to Egyptians many moons ago. I would go annually to the beach with my family and would collect these shells, not thinking there could be such a significance behind them. I can see how they would use the Cowrie shell in relation to fertility and pregnancy. I find it graceful that it gave the Egyptians hope and faith for a new life. Great job on this article!

  • Your article was very informative. I assume you found really good sources since there are only two listed. You successfully illustrated the scene in Egypt where the whole city may have appeared to be adorned in shells. I can just imagine every individual in sight wearing these shells because there would not be many out there who would want to make themselves vulnerable to evil spirits.

  • It is great to learn about the different ways Egyptians used shells that today we simply use for decoration. I would of never imagined people would think to connect the shells with pregnancy and fertility. Although I do think the faith they had in the Cowrie shells was amazing, it is unfortunate women had fertility issues due to it. Good job on your article, it was very easy to read and follow!

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