The History & Symbolism of Smudging with Abalone Shells

How and why did abalone shells become a part of contemporary cleansing culture? Read on for a quick primer on everything you need to know about abalone shells
20 Oct 2021
Words by: Ashlyn Chak

For as long as human civilisation has existed, we have used seashells as currency, jewellery, decoration, and sometimes even containers. Abalone shells are no different — with a unique beauty that comes from exceptionally high iridescence, they also come with a rich history of spiritual symbolism. In the following paragraphs, we will look at how to clean and how to polish abalone shells, where to find abalone shells, abalone shell benefits, and abalone shell properties.

What are Abalone Shells?

Also known as Paua shells, abalone shells are former homes of abalone, a marine snail which deposits multiple layers over time to generate the “bio-crystal” (created by a biological organism rather than formed in the earth from inert minerals) made of nacre. Extremely durable to protect the mollusk inside, they come in a low, open spiral structure with several open respiratory pores in a row near the edge as their thick inner layer composed of mother-of-pearl makes them iridescent and attractive to humans.

From 100,000-year-old deposits at Blombos Cave in South Africa to historic Chinese abalone middens in California where abalones were harvested by Native Americans for at least 12,000 years, these organic gemstones (which sit in the same category as amber and pearl) have been found in archaeological sites around the world, as they were used in many ancient cultures for various different functions, including adornment, tools and currency.

Abalone Shell Interior Lined with Shining Mother of Pearl
Photograph by Dagmara Dombrovska

Abalone Shell Properties

The deeper meanings of the abalone’s natural shield include: the cycle of life, solace, protection and the element of water — these “ears of the sea” represent a connection to the ocean, as the relaxing sounds of the ocean waves have surrounded the abalone for its entire lifespan.

More specifically, the Maori people of New Zealand eat the abalone meat as a Maori delicacy before using the shell to make jewellery, gifts for trading or artwork, in which the abalone shell is used to represent the eyes of warriors and demigod figures. The way that the shell gleams and changes colours in the light is a symbol for change and transition. Maori culture also suggests that the shell strengthens the body and heart of the wearer, empowering them to commune more openly, and in turn bringing connectivity and harmony to relationships.

Fundamentally, the abalone shell is an expression of healing ocean energy. Many use it as a meditation aid, holding it in one’s hand to harness its balanced energy.

Abalone Shell Benefits

Smooth yet textured, the ripples inside of an abalone shell work to remind us of the gentle yet ever-changing tides of the ocean, as it brings a calming sense of serenity like no other. We can easily get lost in the dreamy and ethereal aesthetics of the shell, whilst it silently helps us to open up and expand our consciousness, in the process improving our ability to express turbulent emotions with clarity.

The abalone mollusk is known as being fertile for its species. This fertility aspect means abalone shells are great gifts for new mothers or mothers-to-be, providing much needed emotional support to people who are trying to conceive or guarantee the health of a new child.

In a smudging ritual, the abalone shell’s small holes provide the necessary air supply to keep the fire going, not to mention its use to complete the four elements: water (the shell as a water vessel), earth (the plant material being burnt, a gift from Mother Earth), fire (lighting the plant or smudge stick) and air (represented by the smoke produced).

A burning palo Santo on top of a ceramic abalone shell, singing bowl in the back
Photograph by Kaye Dong
A burning palo Santo on top of a ceramic abalone shell, singing bowl in the back
Photograph by Kaye Dong

A Brief History of Smudging with Abalone Shells

A group of culturally related Native American tribes in the Southwestern United States called the Apache Nation believes that the first woman — who is known as the “white painted woman”, Esdzanadehe, or the “changing woman” — survived a flood in the shell of an abalone before she gave life to the son of water and was reborn over and over again.

The puberty ceremony for Apache girls uses abalone shells to symbolise their new womanhood merging with the previous generations of the “changing woman”. The shell guides Apache girls to connect to their divine heritage.

In many Native American cultures, abalone shells are often used as offerings in sacred rituals and as smudge bowls, as the people believe combined spiritual power of the shell and burning sage will carry their prayers and messages up to the heavens to their gods.

What is Smudging?

Also known as smoke cleansing, “smudging” is a ritual undertaken by Native Americans and indigenous peoples where they burn sacred plants to banish evil spirits.

The most commercially popular materials for cleansing with smoke are white sage and palo Santo, though both are sacred to Native cultures and can be potentially problematic options tainted by cultural appropriation and ethical sourcing. In fact, many types of plants and herbs, even incense sticks, will produce smoke with the cleansing effect necessary to remove negative energy, clear the mind, and take away old and tired energy from your crystals. For instance, lavender promotes calming while mugwort is said to stimulate dreams.

Abalone shells often act as a container for smoke-cleansing with these plant materials.

A sage stick on a brown shallow bowl
Photography by Eva Bronzini

How to Conduct a Cleansing Ritual with Abalone Shells

Since ancient times, people have believed that abalone shells have divine energy. They connect one to their highest chakras — the crown, third eye, and heart chakras — and act as a conduit to a higher realm of consciousness.

To begin cleansing with abalone shells, light the wand, bundle, or stick of your chosen plant and allow the abalone shell to catch the falling ashes or embers. Use a feather or your hand to distribute the smoke all over your body, surrounding space or crystals, as you visualise the negative energy being washed away by the loving waves of the ocean.

As you do this, repeat the following affirmation: “I invoke the spirits of the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air to cleanse this space and bathe it in a positive light.”

The abalone shell is a natural vessel, so it would be wise to keep it protected from the fire and smoke of the burning plants by lining it with a very thin layer of sand to prevent burn marks on the shells’ bewitching lustre. The sand also makes it easier to fan out the smoke.

How to Clean Abalone Shells

Most abalone shells available for purchase would have already been polished, but to keep their beautiful sheen, some regular maintenance is required. Here’s how to clean abalone shells.

Firstly, place the shell under running water and gently scrub the surface with a toothbrush to remove dirt and sand. Then, apply mineral oil to the abalone shell, wiping all over to ensure the oil covers all the crevices. This will enhance the iridescence of the mother-of-pearl. Lastly, allow the shell and the applied oil to air-dry for a few days before touching the shell again.

If you prefer to pick and polish your own, here’s a guide on how to polish abalone shells that are freshly caught from the sea.

Stacked ceramic abalone shells with gold lining
Image courtesy of @christinaliuceramics

Where to find Abalone Shells

Are you ready to let the healing properties of abalone shells assist you in gaining more balance, compassion, and tranquillity? Gorgeous abalone shells are perhaps merely one click away, but to avoid fake, low-quality, or unethically mined shells on the market, The New Moon encourages the more spiritually inclined to be mindful with their purchases. So, where to find abalone shells?

Abalones are quite easy to acquire in Hong Kong’s wet markets and supermarkets, though they usually come in quite small sizes and the bigger ones might require a bit more effort to find. Alternatively, some of the more trustworthy online outlets for abalone shells include Energy Muse and Luméa.

The New Moon also has an abalone shell-inspired ceramic bowl designed by Christina Liu as a continuation of her exploration into the boundaries of realism. The handcrafted nesting bowls are made especially for The New Moon and feature 22K gold lustre, and are created to be ideal for smoke cleansing.