Cowrie: An ornament of treasure
Cowrie lost its original purpose but have maintained relevance due to the diverse ways it is put to use. Also in the memory of many generation and money museum, cowries were used as currency and a fragment of the past representing the journey of West Africa’s trade system (Aniefiok Akpan (1993:pg129).
According to Bozman,(1967:141), the scientific name is Gastropod mollusca of the cypraeidac family. They are said to be originally small sea snails, with some of the larger forms being objects of great beauty. There are roughly two hundred (200) species of cowries in countries across the world but quite many in the Indian Ocean.
Initially, cowrie’s shells were used as a medium of exchange before the introduction of the coin. However, the displacement of its use as a currency by the coin pushed out its other relevance and importance which has made it popular and widely accepted by many. No wonder various Nigerian ethnic groups have vernacular names for this multipurpose object.
This write-up will refresh our memory on the various ways cowrie shells are used presently that has earned it a name “the ornament of treasure”.
Local Names For Cowries
Ethnic Group Local Names
Igbo Ego Ayoro (Eze Eyo)
Tiv Anyi Asoho
Yoruba Owo Eyo
• Source: Nigerian Heritage (1993) Aniefiok Akpan: pg.129
Uses Of Cowrie Shells
Cowrie shells like seeds are commonly used for adornment during ceremonies. Many people particularly women wear strings of cowrie shells, around their neck, waist and across the chest as part of decorative costume for dancing during cultural festivities.
Some women and girls also attach cowrie shells to their plaited hair as a way of enhancing their beauty and this is universally manifest across the various ethnic groups in Nigeria, worthy of note is its use by the Hausa Fulani to decorate their hair and calabashes.
The Igbo use cowrie shells to decorate their local musical instrument and their masquerades come out with costumes heavily decorated with cowries giving them more beauty.
Some school of thought believes that fortified cowrie shells can bring wealth and also offer protection against evil spirits and bad energy. In most places in our society where hunting in still an occupation for many people, cowries are used in preparing charm and amulets which hunter decorate themselves with as they embark on their hunting expedition. No wonder the Yoruba use it to decorate their guns and hunting regalia.
Chobonaija.com has it that these precious ornaments of beauty are incorporated into the walls and ceilings of houses as part of the architectural design meant to ward off evil around the building.
Cowries are still used today in both Igbo and Yoruba divination rituals where it is said to be the eyes of the gods and the womb of the goddess. No wonder it is not possible to watch a Nigerian epic movie without coming across a seer who brings out cowries from his animal skin bag, cast it on a tray or original cloth to consult the gods.
Studies have also shown that women of child bearing age wear cowrie shells during pregnancy to protect their babies from harm, also there is this believe on its healthy and successful delivering power for many that subscribe to wearing it till date, while their counterparts looking for the fruit of the womb drink water made from cowries with the hope of conceiving.
Today as a result of the western impact on our culture and belief system, cowries are fast loosing its grounds to beads, corals and other materials used for decoration. However, despite the competition, cowries has not totally lost its value but has remained an object of treasure for its use in body adornment, beautification, costumes, and architectural designs not forgetting its mystical and ritual value.
Ngerian Heritage (1993) Nigerian Culture (Vol.2)
Aniefiok Akpan U (1993) Cowrie shells in Nigerian Culture (Journal of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (Vol.2)