Shell tattoos are among the oldest symbols in human history. They act as reminders of people’s connection to Mother Earth, but they also carry deep symbolism representing our evolutionary journey through time and the many eternal cycles that make up existence. They provide visual metaphorical references to transformation, eternal life, immortality, female anatomy, birth, fertility, sustenance and the ocean.
Shell tattoo meanings in different cultures
Shell tattoos were used as amulets or charms by many ancient tribes and civilizations for both personal protection and good fortune (from Ancient Greece, to Africa, Asia and the Americas).
In Denmark they were perceived as symbols of rebirth, while in Ancient Rome they represented fertility. Shells adorned with human faces found in the graves of Mycenaean women symbolized the eternal life of the soul and its spiritual rebirth. Ancient Mayans believed that every human being was born twice; first in the earthly realm, then again in the spirit world. Shells were therefore seen as symbols of that spiritual journey and second birth.
In Hinduism it is believed that Goddess Lakshmi lives within a giant shell and comes to our planet during Durga Puja (Dussehra) festival, when she visits her siblings Lakshmi, Narayana and Saraswati who live in palaces made from seashells on the ocean floor. The Dhanya (literal meaning: one who brings wealth) represents all forms of abundance such as knowledge, health, fertility, food, pleasure and spiritual growth. Lakshmi’s giant shell represents the cosmic womb from which everything is born and to which all returns.
Saint Augustine described woman as a “vase of clean water” – a receptacle for man’s seed – while Eve carries a stigma of being an unnatural vessel who tempted men with her hunger for knowledge and led them to sin against God. In ancient times women often gave birth in lake beds or rivers because childbirth was seen as a return to the primordial waters from where we emerged into this world to begin our life journey. Water is also associated with emotions, intuition and spirituality – three essential feminine qualities that makes us unique.
Shell tattoos are symbolic of karma (literally meaning “action”). Karma is the belief that all of our actions in this world influence where we go when we leave it. Hindus believe that when an individual dies, his soul travels up the spinal cord to Ajna chakra (or “third eye”) located between the eyebrows. There it meets with karmic seeds, which are in fact memories of all our past actions. Those seeds sprout and determine our future existence. It is said that shells carry within them their own karma, which determines their form and appearance.
Ocean waves represent change, transformation and eternity in many cultures. Hindu cosmology uses wave symbols to represent cycles; for example samsara (repeated birth-death-rebirth) or yuga (cycle of time). The ocean is also seen as an endlessly changing mirror reflecting the constant transformations of nature. This is why shells are used to adorn icons of Lakshmi or Ganesha, both embodying change and rebirth. A broken shell symbolizes the impermanence of all things in this world, while a whole one represents completeness, wholeness and eternity.