Cypraea caputserpentis.jpg
Cowries are generally seen on rocky areas of the sea bed
Scientific classification
Cowrie (Cypraea chinensis) with fully extended mantle
Shells of various species of cowrie; all but one have their anterior ends pointing towards the top of this image

Cowrie or cowry (pl. cowries) is the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod mollusks in the family Cypraeidae, the cowries.

The term porcelain derives from the old Italian term for the cowrie shell (porcellana) due to their similar appearance.[1] Shells of certain species have historically been used as currency in several parts of the world, as well as being used, in the past and present, very extensively in jewelry, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.

The cowrie was the shell most widely used worldwide as shell money. It is most abundant in the Indian Ocean, and was collected in the Maldive Islands, in Sri Lanka, along the Malabar coast India, in Borneo and on other East Indian islands, and in various parts of the African coast from Ras Hafun to Mozambique. Cowrie shell money was important in the trade networks of Africa, South Asia, and East Asia.

Some species in the family Ovulidae are also often referred to as cowries. In the British Isles the local Trivia species (family Triviidae, species Trivia monacha and Trivia arctica) are sometimes called cowries. The Ovulidae and the Triviidae are somewhat closely related to Cypraeidae.


The word cowrie comes from Hindi कौडि (kaudi), from Sanskrit कपर्द (kaparda), which has its origins in Tamil கவடி ("kavadi").[2]

Shell description

1742 drawing of shells of the money cowrie, Cypraea moneta

The shells of cowries are usually smooth and shiny and more or less egg-shaped. The round side of the shell is called the Dorsal Face, whereas the flat under side is called the Ventral Face, which shows a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture), which is often toothed at the edges. The narrower end of the egg-shaped cowrie shell is the anterior end, and the broader end of the shell is called the posterior. The spire of the shell is not visible in the adult shell of most species, but is visible in juveniles, which have a different shape from the adults.

Nearly all cowries have a porcelain-like shine, with some exceptions such as Hawaii's granulated cowrie, Nucleolaria granulata. Many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm for some species up to 19 cm for the Atlantic deer cowrie, Macrocypraea cervus.

Human use

Monetary use

Cowrie shells, especially Monetaria moneta, were used for centuries as currency by native Africans. In his book Marriage and Morals, Bertrand Russell attributed the use of cowrie shells as currency in ancient Egypt to the similarity between shape of the shell and that of female genitalia.[3] After the 1500s, however, the shell's use as currency became even more common. Western nations, chiefly through the slave trade, introduced huge numbers of Maldivian cowries in Africa.[4] The Ghanaian cedi was named after cowrie shells. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowrie shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency.[5] They were also used as means of exchange in India.

The Classical Chinese character for money () originated as a stylized drawing of a Maldivian cowrie shell.[6] Words and characters concerning money, property or wealth usually have this as a radical. Before the Spring and Autumn period the cowrie was used as a type of trade token awarding access to a feudal lord's resources to a worthy vassal.

Ritual use

The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America use cowrie shells which are called sacred Miigis Shells or whiteshells in Midewiwin ceremonies, and the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada is named after this type of shell. There is some debate about how the Ojibway traded for or found these shells, so far inland and so far north, very distant from the natural habitat. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that the shells were found in the ground, or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. Finding the cowrie shells so far inland could indicate the previous use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, who may have obtained them through an extensive trade network in the ancient past.

In Brazil, as a result of the Atlantic slave trade from Africa, cowrie shells (called búzios) are also played as used to consult the Orixás divinities and hear their replies.

Cowrie shells were among the devices used for divination by the Kaniyar Panicker astrologers of Kerala, India.[7]

In certain parts of Africa, cowries were prized charms, and they were said to be associated with fecundity, sexual pleasure and good luck.[8]


Cowrie shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. In Mende culture, cowrie shells are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.[9] Its underside is supposed, by one modern ethnographic author, to represent a vulva or an eye.[10]

On the Fiji Islands, a shell of the golden cowrie or bulikula, Cypraea aurantium, was drilled at the ends and worn on a string around the neck by chieftains as a badge of rank.[11] The women of Tuvalu use cowrie and other shells in traditional handicrafts.[12]

Games and gambling

Cowrie shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, Ashta Chamma or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey of Benin). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.

In Nepal cowries are used for a gambling game, where 16 pieces of cowries are tossed by four different bettors (and sub-bettors under them). This game is usually played at homes and in public during the Hindu festival of Tihar[13] or Deepawali. In the same festival these shells are also worshiped as a symbol of Goddess Lakshmi and wealth.


Large cowrie shells such as that of a Cypraea tigris have been used in Europe in the recent past as a darning egg over which sock heels were stretched. The cowrie's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.

In the 1940s and 1950s, small cowry shells were used as a teaching aid in infant schools e.g counting, adding, subtracting.

The cowrie shell has many uses and meanings.[14] It has been used as money in many cultures. They are popular for jewelry, and religious accessories all over the world. Found in the Indian Ocean and the Sahara desert. Cowrie shells are especially important in much of ancient Africa.

Its influence also spread to China. There it was a form of currency so much that the Chinese used its shape to form their pictograph for money. Wherever the cowrie shells are found, they almost always symbolize wealth and fertility.

Spiritual meaning. In African legend, a love of cowrie shells shows that you could be family to an ocean spirit of wealth and earth. It also represents the Goddess of protection in the ocean. In Africa, and in the Americas, the cowrie symbolized destiny and prosperity. Also thought of as the mouth of Orisha. Believed to have taught stories of humility and respect.

For many people today, cowrie shells make fascinating jewelry and decorations. Whether in jewelry or in crafts, cowrie shells add the exotic feel of Africa

See also


  1. ^ "Porcelain, n. and adj". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 18 Jun 2018.
  2. ^ "Cowri". Retrieved 25 Sep 2013.
  3. ^ Russell, Bertrand, Marriage and Morals, 1929, Ch.4, p.34.
  4. ^ Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson (1986). The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521541107. Retrieved 29 April 2015.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  5. ^ "Money Cowries" Archived 2009-04-05 at the Wayback Machine by Ardis Doolin in Hawaiian Shell News, NSN #306, June 1985.
  6. ^ 貝 at
  7. ^ Panikkar, T. K. Gopal (1995) [1900]. Malabar and its folk (2nd reprinted ed.). Asian Educational Services. p. 257. ISBN 978-81-206-0170-3.
  8. ^ Tresidder, Jack (1997). The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols. London: Helicon. p. 53. ISBN 1-85986-059-1.
  9. ^ Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art by Sylvia Ardyn Boone. Yale University Press, 1986.
  10. ^ "Cowrie Shells as Amulets in Europe" by W. L. Hildburgh in Folklore, 1942.
  11. ^ Cowries as a badge of rank in Fiji. (archived)
  12. ^ Tiraa-Passfield, Anna (September 1996). "The uses of shells in traditional Tuvaluan handicrafts" (PDF). SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin #7. Retrieved 8 February 2014.
  13. ^ "Tihar". Yeti Trial Adventure. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  14. ^ "The meaning and history of the cowrie shell | Africa Imports". Retrieved 2021-10-27.

Further reading

  • Felix Lorenz and Alex Hubert, A Guide to Worldwide Cowries; Conchbooks (1999)

External links

Media files used on this page

Cypraea caputserpentis.jpg
Monetaria caputserpentis (synonym : Cypraea caputserpentis), very common in intertidal rocky areas.
A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader.jpg
A print from 1845 shows cowry shells being used as money by an Arab trader. BENJAMIN WATERHOUSE HAWKINS / SSPL / THE IMAGE WORKS
A drawing of Monetaria moneta (synonym :Cypraea moneta) Linnaeus, 1758
Antiquities of the southern Indians, particularly of the Georgia tribes (1873) (14777393065).jpg
Author/Creator: Jones, Charles C. (Charles Colcock), 1831-1893, Licence: No restrictions

Identifier: antiquitiesofsou00jone_0 (find matches)
Title: Antiquities of the southern Indians, particularly of the Georgia tribes
Year: 1873 (1870s)
Authors: Jones, Charles C. (Charles Colcock), 1831-1893
Subjects: Indians of North America Indians of North America
Publisher: New York : D. Appleton and Co.
Contributing Library: The Library of Congress
Digitizing Sponsor: The Library of Congress

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Text Appearing Before Image:
ad nothing which they reckoned Richesbefore the English went among them, except Peak,Poenoke, and such-like trifles made out of the GunkShell. These past with them instead of Gold and Sil-ver, and servd them both for Money and Ornament.It was the English alone that taught them first to puta value on their Skins and Furs, and to make a Tradeof them. Peak is of two sorts, or rather of two colours, forboth are made of one Shell, tho of different parts; oneis a dark Purple Cylinder, and the other a white ;they are both made in size and figure alike, and com-monly much resembling the English Puglas, but notso transparent nor so brittle. They are wrought assmooth as Glass, being one-third of an inch long, andabout a quarter, diameter, strung by a hole drilld throthe center. The dark colour is the dearest, and dis-tinguishd by the name of Wampom Peak. TheEnglish men that are calld Indian Traders value the 1 History and Present State of Virginia, book iii., chapter xii., p. 58. Lon-don, 1705.
Text Appearing After Image:
AM. PHOTO-LITHOGRAPH.C CO NY \ OSBORNES PROCESS I SHELL-MONEY. 503 Wampom Peak at eighteen pence per Yard, and thewhite Peak at nine pence. The Indians also makePipes of this, two or three inches long, and thickerthan ordinary, which are much more valuable. Theyalso make Buntees of the same Shell, and grind themas smooth as Peak. These are either large, like anOval Bead, and drilld the length of the Oval, or elsethey are circular and flat, almost an inch over, and onethird of an inch thick, and drilld edgeways. Of thisShell they also make round Tablets of about fourinches diameter, which they polish as smooth as theother, and sometimes they etch or grave thereon Cir-cles, Stars, a Half-Moon, or any other figure suitable totheir fancy. These they wear instead of Medals beforeor behind their Neck, and use the Peak, Buntees, andPipes for Coronets, Bracelets, Belts, or long Strings,hanging down before the Breast, or else they lacetheir Garments with them, and adorn their Toma-hawks and ev

Note About Images

Please note that these images are extracted from scanned page images that may have been digitally enhanced for readability - coloration and appearance of these illustrations may not perfectly resemble the original work.
Different cowries.jpg
Author/Creator: unknown, Licence: CC BY 2.5
Cowrie shells - sozhi roll of 3.jpg
Author/Creator: Sodabottle, Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
cowry shells used as dice for games of chance in Tamil culture (சோழி/சோவி). This indicates a roll of 3