Thursday, 28 June 2018

Witchlines: Spondylus Shell

This is the final (long overdue) piece I have written for the first unit of Witchlines, and I think it provides not only a fitting ending, but also a fitting beginning for the work of Unit 2, as you will soon see. 

Spondylus Shell

He said it was my turn to try, to shape something out of the white, the soft white, light in my hand, like a cloud come down, made stone. He showed me how to carve, how to grind away at the edges with a sharp piece of flint, gifting me with the white, curving form.
What is it? Where has it come from?
Far away, he said, from the place of water, the place of the past, which we no longer know. A place of blue. It is precious.
I did not understand, but I held the white piece in my hand—like bone, but alive under my fingers. I felt it speak to my palm, I felt it move, and I ran out of the village and along the trail that leads into the forest, and went to my special place, where I place the clay figures as offerings. In there, there is a hush, away from the houses where the women sing and bake bread, where the small children chatter and play. It is my green place, where I might snare a rabbit, or startle a deer—or be startled by the whoosh of a bird’s wings, and have my heart beat faster. In the wild green I held the white piece from the place of blue, and I listened to what it told me.
Fish, it said. Fish!
With my piece of flint I began to carve, to shape, letting my hands be led by what dwelt inside the chalky whiteness. Dust clung to my fingers, and settled on my clothes, and from the curve came a leaping form, water-wise and graceful, with tail and scales.
If this white piece says fish, and came from a place of water, of the past, which we no longer know, what does it say now? What can it tell me? What precious knowledge is wound into its flesh?

As one day dies a new day is birthed.

Little white fish, does a future wait in the place of blue?

I placed the fish beside the other offerings, to shine in the green gloom, and speak what it knew of water and of coming days to the earth.

* * *

The shells of Spondylus gaederopus, a type of bivalve mollusc, which lives in the waters of the Mediterranean, were highly valued in Neolithic Old Europe. They were traded far inland, and used for making beads, pendants, bracelets, and other objects, which may have held some kind of magical value.   

For this task I had to describe the making of an object, and what it might mean to the maker. I also allude to both the beginning and ending of Old Europe—for the first people of those Neolithic cultures migrated into Europe from the area of the Aegean; and, after the fall of Old Europe on the mainland, the last vestiges of the culture survived for another 2000 years in the Aegean, most notably on the island of Crete. Thus, the past and the future are linked through a piece of spondylus shell. 

I’ve used some artistic licence here: it’s possible that the Old Europeans who lived far inland from the sea did not know quite what the shells were, or where they came from, only that they had symbolic value, and were therefore deemed to be precious. I have suggested, however, that a memory of their origins may still have lived within them. 

Also note: while the raw shells could be reddish or purple (as pictured below), they would lose their colour over time and become white.

Spondylus gaederopus from Sicily, on display at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano
(Source: Wikimedia, by Hectonichus)


  1. i am so enjoying these stories. thank you for sharing them!

    a silly tangent, but when i was a little girl, i read or heard that many cultures used cowrie shells as currency, and i thought that was such a better idea than our modern, boring, ugly, metal money... i went around for weeks with a pocketful of small cowries, and felt myself quite rich to have several large, speckled ones amongst my shell collection. :) really, i feel much the same now!

    1. Thank you. I've enjoyed writing these little tales, though some of them have been quite a challenge—and most are a little rough around the edges.

      Lovely story! I think we'd be better off without money. And shells are so much more beautiful and mysterious, with their whorls and spines and secret insides. They are true treasures. :)


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