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Cowry or cowrie, plural cowries, is the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs in the family Cypraeidae, the cowries. The word cowry is also often used to refer only to the shells of these snails, which overall are often shaped more or less like an egg, except that they are rather flat on the underside.
Many people throughout history have found (and still find) the very rounded, shiny, porcelain-like shells of cowries pleasing to look at and to handle. Indeed the term "porcelain" derives from the old Italian term for the cowrie shell (porcellana) due to their similar translucent appearance. 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 jewellery, and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.
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 the Cypraeidae.
The shells of cowries are usually smooth and shiny and more or less egg-shaped, with a flat under surface which shows a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture), which is often toothed at the edges. The narrower end of the egg-shaped cowry shell is the anterior end. 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 than the adults.
Nearly all cowries have a porcelain-like shine, with some exceptions such as Hawaii's granulated cowry, Nucleolaria granulata. Many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm for some species up to 19 cm for the Atlantic deer cowry, Macrocypraea cervus.
The shells of cowries (especially Monetaria moneta) were used for centuries as a currency in Africa. Huge amounts of Maldivian cowries were introduced into Africa by western nations during the period of slave trade. The Ghanaian unit of currency known as the Ghanaian cedi was named after cowry shells. Starting over three thousand years ago, cowry shells, or copies of the shells, were used as Chinese currency. They were also used as means of exchange in India.
The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America use cowry 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 cowry 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. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Park may be as old as 8,000 years.
Cowry shells are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms. They are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth. The symbolism of the cowry shell is associated with the appearance of its underside: the lengthwise opening makes the shell look like a vulva or an eye.
Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, Ashta Chamma (board game) 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.
Large cowry shells such as that of Cypraea tigris have been used in Europe 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.
- Oxford English Dictionary: "The ceramic material was apparently so named on account of the resemblance of its translucent surface to the nacreous shell of the mollusc. [...] The cowrie was probably originally so named on account of the resemblance of the fissure of its shell to a vulva (it is unclear whether the reference is spec. to the vulva of a sow)."
- Hogendorn, Jan and Johnson Marion: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade. African Studies Series 49, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
- "Money Cowries" by Ardis Doolin in Hawaiian Shell News, NSN #306, June, 1985
- 貝 at zhongwen.com
- Panikkar, T. K. Gopal (1995) . Malabar and its folk (2nd reprinted ed.). Asian Educational Services. p. 257. ISBN 978-81-206-0170-3.
- Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art by Sylvia Ardyn Boone. Yale University Press, 1986.
- "Cowrie Shells as Amulets in Europe" by W. L. Hildburgh in Folklore, 1942
- Cowries as a badge of rank in Fiji.