Symbology of the Cowrie Shell.

Shell Description: The shells of cowries are almost always smooth and shiny (a few species have granular shells) and more or less egg-shaped, with a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture).

All varieties have a porcelain-like shine (except Hawaii's granulated cowry) and many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm (1/5") for some species up to 15 cm (6") for the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris. Human Use: Cowries (esp. Cypraea moneta) were used as a currency in Africa (Ghanaian cedi in Ghana named after cowry shells) and elsewhere, such as in China and India where the shell or copies of the shell were in theory used as a means of exchange. They are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms, as they are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.

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

Large cowries have also been used in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning. The cowry's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily. The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America used the cowry shells (which they called sacred Megis 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 they traded for or found these shells so far inland, away from the natural sources. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that they were found in the ground, and/or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. The cowry shells so far inland may indicate the use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, and an extensive trade network in the ancient past. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Park may be as old as 8,000 years, and there are questions about how long the shells were used in that area as well.

On the island of Fiji, the golden cowry, Cypraea aurantium, was worn by chieftans as a badge of rank. About: The cowrie shell has many uses and meanings. It has shown up in the form of money, jewelry, and even religious accessories in almost every part of the world.

Found in the islands of the Indian Ocean, the cowrie shell soon gained popularity throughout much of ancient Africa. Its influence, however, also spread to China, where it was used as a form of currency to such an extent that the Chinese used its shape to form their pictograph for money. Today excavations have found some of the money of ancient China in the form of brass and silver cowrie shells. Wherever the cowrie shells were found, it seems as if they were thought of as wealth. The back side of a cowrie shell resembles a female sexual organ. The front side is shaped like the abdomen of a pregnant woman. The meaning is not erotic, but represents a miricle of life. This unique design of the cowrie shell is one main reason why this shell has maintained so much popularity throughout history.

Spiritually, according to African legend if you are attracted to cowrie shells you could be family to an ocean spirit of wealth and earth. It also represents Goddess protection which is very powerful and connected with the strength of the ocean. Throughout Africa, and South and North America, the cowrie symbolized the power of destiny and prosperity. Thought of as the mouth of Orsisas, it also is believed to have taught stories of humility and respect.

However you interpret these tiny white shells they are a fascinating, unique addition to your wardrobe. Whether in jewelry, or in crafts, or in any other use you can imagine these shells are sure to add an exotic feel of Africa and make an excellent, one of a kind, fashion statement.

Wayne Kiltz is the founder and owner of Africa Imports. You can find over 100 other articles on African art, culture, and fashion, along with African proverbs, recipes, and African business opportunities at

Cowries as Wealth: Cowrie Shells The Currency of Africa

Cowrie shells were the most popular currency within Africa. Pictures of cowrie shells adorned cave walls. The Egyptians considered them to be magical agents and also used them as currency in foreign exchange transactions. Archaeologists have excavated millions of them in the tombs of the Pharaohs.

In the thirteenth century, cowrie shells were brought to Africa from the Maldives in the Indian Ocean by Arab traders. They first came to Egypt, then across the Sahara to the western Sudan region. Later, they were brought in by Dutch and English traders through the Guinea Coast ports of West Africa.

The Europeans were astonished that the Africans preferred cowrie shells to gold coin and in places where gold was the international unit of foreign exchange, cowrie shells were used to purchase small necessities.

Cowries were used in many other ways. One use was as special-purpose currency: bridewealth, payments for fines, divination ("the money of Ifa"), funerals, initiation into secret societies. Another was as decoration: on clothing, drums, divining chains, headdresses, ritual masks and furniture, and in games and in computation.

General Information: The Cowry is primarily a female symbol, and so it is often used as a fertility charm. In Gujarat they are sewn on the front of tunics at the appropriate place. They are also sewn around the hems of garments. The symbol for love, fertility and by extension, life itself, they serve as amulets and talismans on every continent.

In Nepal, during the autumn festival celebrating goddess Durga that is called Dasain (Hindi: Dasara>dasa-hara="ten-removing") gambling is allowed. The game turns on how many of a handful of 10 cowrie shells dropped on the table or cloth-covered floor land face up. The eldest male throws and the others bet. If there is more than one head-of-household, then each of the possible "up" combinations is assigned to other people in order of traditional rank. The younger people can bet on one of those. Lakhpat on the banks of the Kori in Kutch, Gujarat (India) has been devastated by earthquakes more than once, but it used to be a thriving port, where people of the Thar desert traded with their Arabian counterparts. Lakhpat got its name from the amount of trade it handled -- to the tune of 100, 000 cowry shells (one lakh).

On the South Pacific island of Fiji during a kava-drinking or yaqona (Macropiper methysticum) ceremony, a long fibre cord decorated with cowries leads from the bowl to the guests of honor. The white cowry at the end of the cord emphasizes the link with ancestral spirits that this cord stands for.

Since ancient times, the spotted cowry (mainly Cypraeidae, or Erosaria ocellata) was used as a medium of exchange, and was the accepted currency from Africa to China until the sixteenth century. The cowry that was found in use in the Maldives is yellow, and earned the descriptive name C. moneta for its use as money.

There is some evidence that the use of cowries as jewelery in Africa was and is an extension of their introduction as currency by Arab and Indian traders.

Prophecy: Cowries could be cast by seers or prognosticators to determine outcomes.

Lord Atisha (Skt.: Atisha Dipankar Srijnan,) the renowned 11th-century Bengali scholar, had been invited to help restore Buddhism in Tibet after the persecutions under King Langdarma:

". . . Atisha prayed to Avalokiteshvara and Tara, inquiring how far the religion and sentient beings would be benefited, how far the wish of the king could be fulfilled, and whether there would be any danger to his own life. Having prayed on these three matters, that very night he dreamt he heard the words: "Go to where you will find a small Buddhist temple and inquire of the yogini who comes there."

Having thus dreamt, in the morning he took a handful of flowers and proceeded to a temple where he met a yogini, hair flowing to the ground. To his inquiry, she replied, "There will be benefit if you set forth for Tibet, especially with the help of an upasaka [Tib: genyen]."

Still desiring to pray at Buddha Gaya and make great offerings there, he approached the abbot Jnana Shri Metri, by whom he was given a handful of cowries to deliver to an old white-haired woman who was living at Buddha Gaya. When Atisha reached that city the old woman demanded: "Give me the cowries that were sent to me." Atisha, having paid homage mentally and questioned her in his mind, got the same answers as he had received before (from the yogini). But when he inquired about physical danger, she replied that if Atisha did not set forth for Tibet, he would live to the age of ninety-two years, whereas if he did set forth, he would live to be only seventy-three.

At this, Atisha courageously decided that he would not care about his health if his journey would benefit Tibet." ~

Gift of the Seven Shells

At Tingri, "by the Chuwar road going through Peykhu," Milarepa was given seven shells as an offering and by way of an apology by one of a group of pretty girls bedecked in jewels on their way to Nokme.

Seeing my emaciated body, one of them said, 'Look! What misery! May I never be reborn as such a creature.' Another one said, 'How pitiful! A sight like that depresses me.' I thought to myself, 'I have compassion for these ignorant beings.' And, feeling pity, I stood up and said to them, 'Daughters, do not speak in this way. There is no reason for you to be so distressed. You could not be born like me, even if you wished. It is astonishing that you feel compassion, but your compassion comes from pride and a wrong understanding.

In thanks, the Yogi sang:

'I invoke the Compassionate Lama,
I offer the sacred Dharma in brief song.

Above, in the celestial mansion of the Devas,
Conventional Doctrine is preferred; true Doctrine is ignored.

Below, in the palace of the serpent gods,
Worldliness is preferred; the profound teaching is ignored.

In the middle, on man's Earth,
False teachers are preferred; authentic teachers are ignored.

In the four regions of U and Tsang
Teaching is preferred; meditation is ignored.

In the dark days of Kali Yuga
Wicked people are preferred; the good are ignored.

In the eyes of these beautiful girls
The handsome man is preferred; the hermit is ignored.

In the ears of these young girls

This brief song sounds pleasant; the profound Dharma unpleasant.

These are my instructions in song.

This is my response to the gift of the seven shells. This is the celebration of your forgiveness.' ~Lhalungpa's Life of Milarepa.

This small shell embody every component of animism, its mystic quality, valued for their durability, symbolizing fertility, used as burial Offering, fortune telling, talisman in rite of Passage.

The most popular currency within Africa. Pictures of cowrie's shells drawn by the Paleolithic African appear on cave walls. The ancient Egyptians considered the cowries shells a magic agent, a talisman of fertility and in some cases used it as currency in foreign exchange .Archaeologist have excavated millions of them in the toms of the pharaohs.

Numbers: The Akin of Ghana associates the Queen mother with three and the king with four. They consider the odd numbers 3, 5, and 7 to be favorable in divination. When a person is in trouble he is likely to seek advice from the diviner. The diviner equipment included four cowries shell in which he rolls out the shells and examines their positions. If four land with the open down, the prediction is most favorable.

Barter: In some societies barter was the bass for trade, while in others the currency became standardized in the form of beads, bracelets, iron, metals items, etc. the materials used as currency usually connected witch Nyama, The cowries shell was mostly accepted for barter or currency.

How were cowries shell handled? Cowries were counted out in groups of five, while along the coast they were pierced and threaded, generally in strings of forty. In area where cowries were not strung, their use depended upon a rapid method of grouping them in successively higher units. In Nigeria trade was carried on by both men and women.

Counting Cowries: Some system of reckoning were expanded because of the demands of cowries counting often a special system of numeration wasused just for cowries shell arithmetic. In quick counting, the Ewe removed twenty times three cowries and added ten which give (20X3) +10=70 cowries. The Igbo people had a unique system of cowry equivalents with a special nomenclature First the shells were counted out by six and then ten groups of six were combined to form piles of sixty cowries.

Government records: The fabulous gold wealth of the Asante kingdom belonged to the monarch and his subordinate were required to report their transaction. The Asantehenes and his treasurers kept accurateaccounts balancing and every twenty days with the aid of cowries shell to tally their sums.

Game Of Chance: Market day recreation game, from two to a dozen might participate in the version. The player squat in a circle, each with a stack of cowries in front of him to serve as his bank. The challenger tosses his handful so that the shell spread as they fall .Winning or losing depended upon the combination of cowries falling with the opening up or down Yoruba of Nigeria, the cowries' shells surround the face of the dancer symbolize the affluence and power of the lineage that the masquerade honor and it also signifies prosperity. The most important thing on the Yoruba crowns of the 18th century was cover with cowries shell.Also among the Yoruba, particular ceremonial occasions required cowries shell payments such as funerals and initiation into securest societies along with certain fines as adornment, cowries shell is everywhere on clothing, drums, divider chains headdresses, ritual masks and furniture, also among the Yoruba certain ceremonial occasions required cowries shell payments such as funerals and initiation into securest societies along with certain fines, as adornment, cowries are everywhere on clothing, drums, divining chains headdresses, ritual masks and furniture.

The Cameroon: Cowries were used as a sign of wealth and prestige, especially on royal thrones, adornment, crowns, beadwork and musical instruments.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo: Cowries shell are featured in beadworks, because of the white color witch is an indicator of wealth, cowries are used extensively on clothing and luxury objects, only the king is allowed to wear cowries in bulk. Taboos: There were some African cultures that the counting of African and domestic animals and valuable possessions would lead to their destruction, to circumvent the taboo, counting was done indirectly, example in the kingdom of Benin a massage would be sent by the chief announce that the Nyama threatened disaster, to the crops and livestock, unless the people did as he asks. Every man and woman was to bring to the place a cowry shell for each animal he or she owned. First he or she must touch the animal with the cowry shell, to transfer the danger to the shell and the shell deposit in separate piles for sheep's, goats and cattle's.

The Dogon of Mali: Central to the Dogon cosmology is the number eight in the beginning were the four sets of twines representing the eight ancestors, the eight elders as the original of mankind and the eight men, the eight seeds and the eight joints. In the outline of the African's Nyama, made at every birth by the Nummo's Nyama, eight cowries shell are put in place of each hand and foot.

Depreciation of the cowry shell currency: European was able to manipulate the value of the cowries by bringing large quantities of the shells into Africa at small cost to themselves. Beginning in the sixteenth century as cowries depreciated in value, it became too expensive to transport them from one market to the next. Prices might still be quoted in terms of cowries, but the actual transitions for high-valued items were carried out in gold dusk, kola nuts, salt, iron, copper, brass, livestock, etc. Cowries in the twentieth century: By no means did cowries shells disappear after the British government introduced coinage. Cowries were an integral part of daily life in many regions of Africa for use as tool of Nyama and special purpose currency. In the 1920's the Igbo people kept them in circulation, particularly in the inland areas. In the Yoruba and Nupa territory they reappeared during the severe depression of the 1930's. In 1942 payment in some parts of Nigeria were express in cowries, rater than in coinage. Although the use of cowries as ordinary currency has been discouraged or outlawed these small shells have a function as special-propose money as bride wealth and for various ceremonial payments.

Today the cowry shell is used in perhaps the same ways as our ancestor have used them, they can be found in contemporary jewelry, clothing, hairstyles, contemporary art, etc.

Cowrie Shell Divination - Merindilogun

The system of 16 cowrie shell divination (Merindilogun) has been utilized and passed down from elders to their initiate Priests for hundreds/thousands of years.

As each individual born has already agreed to his/her destiny and the parameters which define this destiny, divination is meant to remind the questioner of what it is that he/she agreed to in that massive contract signed before birth. Orunla, the memory keeper for all who have, and will live, is the witness to this creation, between the ephemeral and the physical, the potential and the actual. The Babalawo is the High Priest, Father of the Mystery who will reveal one's ultimate life's destiny, ideal choices and path through which to manifest these choices.

The Babalawo utilizes the final and highest system of divination only received through the initiation of the crowning of Orunla. The Santero(a) is a priest of one Oricha, while possessing initiations of many other Oricha. Oricha can be described as aspects of the One, faces of God, archetypes. Saint like entities existing both in the astral, and manifesting into the myriad of physical forms that we all see on a daily basis.

Each Oricha, and therefore each Priest of the Oricha, has their specific realm of expertise, their specialization related to their attributes and manifestations in the material world. Most Oricha Priests perform divination through 16 cowrie shell consultations with Eleggua (messenger deity owning communication, and able to translate between the diviner and other Oricha) On rare occasions divination is also performed directly with the shells of each individual Oricha.

While only men receive the initiation of Babalawo (having "two hands of Orunla") selected men and women receive "one hand of Orunla" linking them to the mystery of divination in a deeper manner. They do so to become of service to Orunla, the Babalawo and the community at large.

While the Babalawo has two hands in order to 'manipulate' the mystery, the Santero, with one hand of Orunla 'holds' the mystery.

Why does one come to the Santero for divination/consultation?

Whether due to general spiritual curiosity, a desire for evolution or learning through a concrete and unbroken spiritual tradition, or due to specific questions and issues which the client finds "hidden" to their memory or in need of resolution, divination opens doors into all areas of ones life.

Some questioners feel a vague nagging curiosity, or something missing or still undiscovered, a "calling". Some clients have need for insight into specific issues such as health, family, relationships, material or financial improvements, recovering the blessing of pregnancy, children, the success of a project, or the discovery of a path to fulfill their overall needs. Eleggua (through 16 shell divination) will open doors to any and all questions, giving information, insight and also step by step procedures and actions through which these questions/issues can be worked with and improved.

Sometimes a question with which the client arrives is simply the mask under which is hiding the deeper information to be conveyed. One sometimes receives answers to questions not asked, or asked in silence. There is unlimited revelation through conversation and consultation with the Oricha. This is different and unique for each questioner as this system delves into an individual's deepest secrets and memory.

Through divination(s), many basic life areas are explored. Long life, health, family, career, children, travel, potential challenges and opportunities are building blocks to a "snap-shot" of the questioner's life. Whether the client is moving toward their highest destiny or missing some critical points in cooperation with one's "destiny"; whether "on path" or "off path" in good fortune or misfortune, the shells will tell. Specific issues, topics and questions are explored. There are unlimited ways in which to affirm one's good fortune, correct one's misfortune, and manifest or assist in manifesting one's goals. All of this is ascertained through the "registro" the 16 shell reading.

In "modern" terminology, this procedure is akin to an energetic "MRI" looking at all sides and perspectives as well as through the subject. From these diagnoses, prescriptions are made for works ranging from simple exercises and offerings to more elaborate actions (traditional rituals, offerings and sacrifice) to yet more complex rituals and initiations.

It is divination (the recalling of ones own memory) which prescribes the best actions to take based upon the entire view of an individual's energy, situation and destiny. Often initial and most current consultations are performed by the Santero. The Babalawo's wisdom and system must be employed for many initiation to life-term readings (unchangeable constants) and is always a blessing to receive.

The cooperation and harmony between the Santero and the Babalawo are implicit in the Lucumi religion (Santeria) as certain readings, rituals and initiations may only be performed by the Babalawo while other rituals and initiations may only be performed by the Santero.

Once curiosity or need becomes strong enough, it will often occur that a Priest will "coincidentally" present himself in one's life. "Registros" (Readings) must be requested by the client/questioner to the Priest. It is outside of this tradition to seek to answer a question on behalf of someone who hasn't requested this help.

It is important to have a sense of trust and openness with the Priest who is working on your behalf. Sometimes this comes through personal recommendation, sometimes through an instant rapport, instinct or guidance from Spirit.

In the times of old village living, Priests were always within reach and could be sought in person, or through one of their god-children, (initiates/students). Readings were always done in the home, Ile, which is also the church, in our religion. While there are many benefits to this living style, today's' geography and social structure have created families who live in vastly different areas of one another. Practitioners of similar expertise or of complimentary expertise, are often separated from each other and their god-children and clients by time, space and daily responsibilities.

When in search of a Priest (Santero or Babalawo) and a spiritual family one may look outside of their geographic area through today's communication devices.

It is possible to request and receive a registro (reading) at long distance with the proper materials sent from client to Priest. A registro will explain and detail the things seen regarding the client's general life circumstances, specific topics for interest and answers to questions asked .Certain of the prescriptions (recommendations) made may be able to be done by the client (e.g.. simple offerings in nature, simple cleansing and the development of ancestral connections) If more elaborate recommendations are made, one must go, in person,to the Priest in order that these cleansings (limpiezas) offerings, sacrifices (ebo) and rituals are performed. As most households (Iles) have relatives (spiritual family) and acquaintances in various locations, it is possible to receive a registro and then, based upon the results and directions given, explore the Ile and place to go to continue in this process if geography prevents travel to the original Priest consulted for the origin reading.

This Ile is located in Northern Florida; Ile Ochun has god-children/initiates, clients and related Priests from a wide expanse of many US states, Cuba and Brazil. Our lineage comes from Cuba, Pimienta Line(Rama Pimienta) and has the blessing of a direct line to the respected Babalawo and elder Santera (Yeye Ochun's Godparents) as well as many wonderful respected elders who willingly share their ache with this family.

Many godchildren, at various states of initiation and learning have moved long distances to practice, participate and immerse themselves in this Ile. Many others successfully progress in their study and individualized course of initiation living at a distance and traveling to be with their family while studying hard and keeping up communications from afar. For each individual there is an individual destiny and a way to manifest it.

The rate at which an aleyo progresses through initiation is quite varied for each individual

  • What is the ultimate destiny one is working toward achieving?
  • How much energy and time is available and dedicated (considering ability, time and energy already focused elsewhere, crisis resolution, curiosity, spiritual desire for evolution)?
  • What and how is one willing to sacrifice?

In the Lucune tradition each individual is encouraged to follow and develop their own best destiny at their own necessary pace. "It is better to love one's own destiny than to covet someone else's". Once one or many registros have been requested and followed, both the questioner and the Oricha begin to develop a relationship, and clearer communication.

By now, there must be tested trust, as communication between the questioner and the Oricha has been established through the Santero and is working well for all involved.

Some people continue a dialogue from the point of an uninitiated observer of the faith. Others are called to initiate (make a mutually agreed upon promise) and begin a more intimate level of relating, interacting and recognizing the Oricha.

Regardless of what level of initiation one goes through, it is easier to accept one's destiny than to fight it. One is always advised and given free will to choose. This choice is recalled in the memory of everyone's "Head" higher consciousness. Gaming: Cowries were retained as the traditional "dice" for playing the ancient game of Parcheesi or Pachisi (corruption of an Indian word for 25 -- the highest score in a throw of 6 shells.) Though mainly a children's board game today, it is authentically played on an cloth embroidered with two intersecting three-laddered staircases that divide the cloth into quarters. Small carved beehive-shaped "men" move up the steps of the arms of the cross.

Each arm of the cross has three columns of eight squares. Three of the squares on each arm are distinctively marked with a dot or other emblem that is called a castle: the middle step at the end of each arm plus the fourth squares on the outer ladders (counting inwards from the end of each arm.) The very centre of the cross (where the ladders intersect) is the large square called the charkoni.

Sixteen beehive-shaped pieces are used: four each of black, green, red and yellow. Although in the city the usual cube dice are used, the traditional way is to determine chance by tossing 6 small cowry shells that land either mouth up or down. The number of moves:

2 cowries with mouths up = 2
3 cowries with mouths up = 3
4 cowries with mouths up = 4
5 cowries with mouths up = 5
6 cowries with mouths up = 6 + grace
1 cowries with mouths up = 10 + grace
0 cowries with mouths up = 25 + grace

A grace is a special condition crucial to the game.

Parcheesi is played by two pairs of people, each person sitting opposite his or her partner; Yellow and Black play against Red and Green. (Two can also play, but then each person has to play both sets of men that "belong", ie. one plays Yellow and Black, and the other Red and Green.

To begin, all the pieces are placed in the charkoni. Each player throws the cowries and the person with the highest score goes first. Turns go counter clockwise, ie."right-turning."

The objective is to move all four pieces in a set down the middle of the nearest arm, around the edge of the board going counter-clockwise and then back up the same arm to finish in the charkoni. To distinguish starting pieces from those that are on their way back up to finish, the pieces moving up the final leg are placed on their sides, Pachisi is won only when both partners get all eight pieces in the charkoni.

The moves: The high score player throws the cowries, and moves a piece the number of steps indicated. When you get a grace, it indicates that a piece may be played out of the charkoni onto the board (if so desired,) then the player also gets a free throw until a 2, 3, 4 or 5 is obtained.

The first piece can leave the charkoni on any number, but any subsequent pieces are only allowed to start (or re-enter) using a grace.

More than one piece from the same side can occupy the same step or square, but a piece is not allowed to end up on a castle square that is occupied by any enemy pieces. If a piece finishes on a non-castle square inhabited by one or more enemy pieces, the enemy pieces are captured and returned to the charkoni where they can start again only on a grace. A player making a capture is allowed another immediate throw of the cowries.

Moving is not compulsory and a player may decide not to move even having thrown the cowries. That tactic is used to remain safely on a castle, or to help a partner. A common strategy is for a piece to remain on the castle at the end of the third arm until a 25 is thrown so that the piece can finish without any risk.

In order to assist a lagging partner, a piece may continue around the board a second time. Pieces finish the game by re-entering the charkoni having completed a circuit of the board, but they can only do so on a throw of the exact number required. Pachisi can vary from place to place.

Here are some alternate rules:

Seven cowry shells can be used instead of six. Different amounts can be allocated to the different permutations. Sometimes there are only 2 grace numbers: 10 and 25.

Sometimes men are only allowed to enter the charkoni on a grace throw.

If you get 3 graces in a row, there is a penalty, eg. lose a turn and/or any pieces that have moved must be returned. "A square occupied by two or more pieces cannot be passed by an opposing piece. This rule, which is possibly a non-Indian modern invention, naturally changes tactics significantly since, whereas in the basic rules outlined above it is inadvisable to put two pieces from the same side on the same square, under this variation putting two pieces from the same side together is a good defensive strategy. " ~ Master Games.

Some versions use the graces differently. Instead of using the actual amounts of 6, 10 and 25 to enter or re-enter a piece, the amount of a throw can only be used to move a piece already on the board in the normal way. Then the grace is played separately and allows a single piece to be moved one square, or allows a single piece to be moved out of the charkoni onto the first square of an arm.

If the game seems too simple, try Chaupar in which you play with two-part turns. First the cowries are tossed one or more times according to the numbers. Then, only once the throwing is completed, are the piece or pieces moved according to the cowry throws. So to begin a turn, the player throws the cowries. If a grace turns up, the player is allowed another throw and so on until a 2, 3, 4 or 5 is thrown. Then for each throw, the player moves one piece as indicated by the amount on the cowries. So if three throws were made, the player might move: 1 piece 3 times or 1 piece twice and another once, or 3 pieces once each.

Some history of Parchisi - Naga cloth decorated with circles of cowries

Shells have played a central role in religion from prehistoric times on. Dominating early religious practices, cowry shells had powerful symbolism (basically sexual, for they were first and foremost a female symbol) and this was renewed in the religions of the great civilizations that followed. The presence of shells in prehistoric burial places indicates that their symbolic power was believed to continue beyond life.

Shells in some cultures even today are used as amulets, good luck charms, and as symbols for love, fertility and life eternal.

Some examples of some these religious practices are:

"Africa: Shells fetishes (Note: a "fetish" an object which is treated with reverence and respect because it is either thought to have special powers, or is where a god or spirit lives, at least part of the time) were often used in worship. Ceremonial garbs are many times decorated with shells and were used in some religious ceremonies.

"North American Indians also made fetishes of shells. The Canadian Ojibwa tribe maintained a Grand Medicine Society in which the sacred emblem was a shell.

Turbinella pyrum - Indian Chank Shell (right-handed)

India: Hindus: The god Vishnu holds his staff crowned with a very rare left-handed Chank shell (Note: Hold a shell up, with the siphon (the open end) down. Most shells will open to the right. Sometimes, a specimen will coil the other way; so it opens to the left - so we can say shells are "right-handed and left-handed - or, "dextral" and "sinistral". Most Chank shells are right handed, so the left-handed ones are rare, and treasured far more!) The Hindu, when praying, often clasps a sacred Chank or other venerated object in his hands, believing that it will help his or her petitions be heard. Priests also use it for holding sacred oils.

"Asia: Buddhists: The Chank shell also plays a large role in Buddhist ritual music and ceremonies, and figures into Buddhist iconography.

Spain: The home of the shrine of Santiago (i.e., St. James): St. James's badge is the Giant European scallop shell. Pilgrims to this shrine purchased the simple but exquisite scallop shells and wore them as a sign of their pilgrimage to the shrine. This scallop also appears in many paintings and statues of this saint throughout Europe.

"Egypt, China and other cultures used the cowry in connection with their burials.

"Sierra Leone: Cannibals during the nineteenth century used cowry shells in part of their ceremonial rituals.

"Pre-Columbian South and Central America: Archaeological sites have produced shell trumpets that may have played a role in religious ceremonies. In the Andes region, a Thorny Oyster and the. Giant E. Pacific Conch, as well as the Atlantic Winged Oyster all had important religious significance. The Aztecs of Mexico also used shells in their religion: Tlaloc, the rain god, is depicted as emerging from a conch shell. They also used conch and. Horse Conch shell trumpets.

"Minoan Crete: Shell trumpets were used in religious ceremonies.

"Christianity: Many churches had or still have baptismal fonts made of the famous "Giant Clam" shell (Tridacna gigas Linne) or are designed in their likeness. They are though to be a symbol of birth.

Divination by Cowry.

The Divination of the Dagara is a highly articulated method of divination, application, prescription, and practice. The purpose of divination is to discern the patterns of the world and the intersections with spirit as they relate to our lives.

It is helpful to know of up-coming difficulties or opportunities so that we can adopt an appropriate attitude towards them. We learn how to create our own divination cloth and be instructed in the meaning of the stones, shells and bones and other objects that are used. We are given the opportunity for witnessing and participating in interpreting spreads done by the training group. We also get direct observation pointing out patterns that are laid out in front of us. This training is for those with a serious interest in utilizing divination as a tool to foster a deepened connection with spirit and as a means of aiding others in bringing greater meaning into their lives.

Obi Divination - Using Coconut or Cowrie Shells
Its History and Purpose

At the center of many African Diaspora religions is the concept of communication with the Spirits. It is an intricate part of the spiritual development of the initiate and it is considered a method of obtaining an answer as to what one should do in situations that can be posed as an affirmative or negative ("Yes" or "No") answer.

Every branch of the Yoruba based religions that have come to the New World during the Diaspora is given permission and opportunity to use Obi as a method of divination; from the Babalawo (High Priest), Babalorisha (male priests or santeros), Iyalorishas (female priestesses or santeras) and Aborisha (those not fully initiated into the religion).

Tradition instructs us to take a fresh coconut and split it into four equal parts, making sure not to do this by throwing the coconut against the floor, but opening it by striking it with something heavy. Obi is a basic tool of divination for any believer and in Spanish it is called dar el coco. When using the coconut, it is usually used to consult with Ellegua, guardian of the crossroads, but it can be used to ask questions of any of the orishas, who are the nature-based Gods and Goddesses of the religion. In lieu of fresh coconut, sometimes cowrie shells are used for divination.

Obi is used to ask "Yes" or "No" questions of either the orishas, the ancestors of the querent or the Ori (Soul) of the querent. Obi is also used to determine whether an offering to the orishas is needed or is an offering is sufficient and acceptable to the orisha.

Obi Shell Patterns

The coconut or shells are considered as two male and two female. The person doing the divination not and interpret on how they fall; whether "open" or "white coconut insides up" or "closed" or "dark coconut outside rind up".

The five patterns are as follows:

Alafia (all four white sides of coconut showing or all four "open" sides of cowrie shells) means "Yes, with Blessings!". This means that whatever the querent asked, it would happen most definitely and even more than they believed.

Etawa (three white coconut sides and one dark rind side or three "open" shells and one "closed" shell) means "You will probably receive what you asked but there will be some work involved or obstacles to overcome."

Ejife (two white coconut sides, two dark rind sides or two "open" and two "closed" shells) means "Yes, definitely." When you get this answer, it is tradition not to ask any more on this subject.

Okana (Okana Sode) (three dark rind coconut sides and one white or three "closed" shells and one "open" shell) "No."

Oyeku (four dark rind coconut sides or four "closed" shells) "No!" A stern negative answer that indicates negativity and may need additional spiritual cleansing or works done for the querent.


  • Divination by Umbra Ingredior.
  • Santeria Divination by Medsen Fey Loulou
  • Urban Voodoo by S.Jason Black & Christopher S. Hyatt Ph.D
  • The Yoruba Domino Oracle by Carlos G. y Poenna
  • Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant
  • Voodoo in Haiti by Alfred Metraux
  • Charms, Spells and Formulas by Ray T. Malbrough.

Other useful Resources:




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