The history of cowries: between trade, religion, divination and beauty – ACTUSEN

Cowries were the main currency in Africa, before slavery and colonization. But nowadays, they are of no importance compared to bank currencies. Nowadays, social changes have upset the importance of cowries. The advent of bank coins gave a secondary role to cowries. So much so that they are used as an object of sacrifice. Also, in Africa, in remote areas, some use them to conjure spells. In addition, in the medicinal field, cowries can be used to treat many diseases such as skin infections. ”SourceA” approached historian Sobel Dieng to find out more.

For centuries before slavery and colonization, the use of cowries was commonplace in the customs of Africans. These small shells were used for several things, they were a bargaining chip for traders. Africa was the epicenter of trade of all kinds: gold, spices and fabrics were the most coveted objects. The different kingdoms have all contributed to the flowering of this traditional currency. The cowry has different meanings. Whether in Africa, India and even America, the cowrie had very religious meanings and conferred certain powers on the wearer. “In Africa, for example, the legend said that if we were attracted by these small shells, it meant that we had a family connection with the spirit of the Ocean of wealth and the earth. The cowrie is therefore truly considered a lucky charm in Africa. People who wore cowries were assured of powerful protection from the spirits of the oceans. The cowrie was also meant to bring prosperity to its owner. This is why in Africa, we find a lot of cowries attached as decoration on traditional outfits, hairstyles but also jewelry”.

“People who wore cowries were assured of powerful protection from the spirits of the oceans. The cowrie was also supposed to bring prosperity to its owner.

The cowrie, also called Monetaria moneta, was widely used a few hundred years ago in different regions of the world such as Asia, Africa and even Oceania. “These shells were used as currency in trade. At the time, owning cowries showed the prosperity and power of its owner. They retain this currency status. If this shell was used as a means of payment, it was not entirely a coincidence. This seashell has some very useful features. Indeed, each cowry looked alike, that is to say they all had the same size, the same shape and the same weight. It was therefore very convenient to make payments because they were used either to count one by one or to weigh according to the amount due. One of the last uses of our Cowry Shell was a more profane activity, the very opposite of religion.

“The cowries were used to read, to predict the future of people who wanted to. For this, several activities were offered to them. The best known and most used was “the Cauris throw”. The procedure was very simple, it was necessary, as for a simple drawing of clairvoyance cards, at least two people. One of them being the clairvoyant and the other the client wishing to know his future.

“The cowries were used to read, to predict the future of people who wanted it”

On the terms of use, Sobel Dione explains: “At first, the person wishing to know his future had to mix the shells and then formulate his request or his dearest wish. The latter would then blow on the shells, before throwing them into a space defined beforehand by the seer. Then, the clairvoyant proceeded to interpret the figures formed by the cowries. Depending on the culture, seers use between a dozen and even a hundred cowries.”

Matar DIOUF, Correspondent in Fatick

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The history of cowries: between trade, religion, divination and beauty – ACTUSEN


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