AskDefine | Define cowry

Dictionary Definition

cowry n : any of numerous tropical marine gastropods of the genus Cypraea having highly polished usually brightly marked shells [syn: cowrie]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings




  1. Any of the marine molluscs of the genus Cypraea.
  2. The money cowry, Cypraea moneta.


any mollusc of the genus Cypraea
Cypraea moneta

Extensive Definition

Cowry, also sometimes spelled cowrie, plural always cowries, is the common name for a group of small to large sea snails, marine gastropod mollusks in the family Cypraeidae. The word 'cowry' is often used to refer primarily to the shells of these snails.
(It is worth noting that a few species in the family Ovulidae are also often referred to as cowries, and in the British Isles the local Trivia species Triviidae are sometimes called cowries. These other two families are somewhat closely related to the Cypraeidae.)
Many people find the very rounded, shiny, porcelain-like shells of cowries pleasing to look at and to handle.
Cowries have historically been used as currency in several parts of the world, as well as being used, in the past and present, very extensively in jewelry and for other decorative and ceremonial purposes.


Cypraeidae are found in tropical and subtropical oceans and seas worldwide.

Shell description

The shells of cowries are almost always smooth and shiny (a few species have granular shells) and more or less egg-shaped, with a long, narrow, slit-like opening (aperture).
All varieties have a porcelain-like shine (except Hawaii's granulated cowry) and many have colorful patterns. Lengths range from 5 mm (1/5") for some species up to 15 cm (6") for the tiger cowry, Cypraea tigris.

Human use

Cowries (esp. Cypraea moneta) were used as a currency in Africa (Ghanaian cedi in Ghana named after cowry shells) and elsewhere, such as in China and India where the shell or copies of the shell were in theory used as a means of exchange. They are also worn as jewelry or otherwise used as ornaments or charms, as they are viewed as symbols of womanhood, fertility, birth and wealth.
Cowry shells are sometimes used in a way similar to dice, e.g., in board games like Pachisi, or in divination (cf. Ifá and the annual customs of Dahomey). A number of shells (6 or 7 in Pachisi) are thrown, with those landing aperture upwards indicating the actual number rolled.
Large cowries have also been used in the recent past as a frame over which sock heels were stretched for darning. The cowry's smooth surface allows the needle to be positioned under the cloth more easily.
The Ojibway aboriginal people in North America used the cowry shells (which they called sacred Megis Shells or whiteshells) in Midewiwin ceremonies, and the Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba, Canada is named after this type of shell. There is some debate about how they traded for or found these shells so far inland, away from the natural sources. Oral stories and birch bark scrolls seem to indicate that they were found in the ground, and/or washed up on the shores of lakes or rivers. The cowry shells so far inland may indicate the use of them by an earlier tribe or group in the area, and an extensive trade network in the ancient past. Petroforms in the Whiteshell Provincial Park may be as old as 8,000 years, and there are questions about how long the shells were used in that area as well.
On the Fiji Islands, the golden cowry or bulikula, Cypraea aurantium, were worn by chieftans as a badge of rank.



See also

cowry in German: Kaurischnecken
cowry in French: Cypraea
cowry in Scottish Gaelic: Faoiteag
cowry in Italian: Cypraeidae
cowry in Japanese: タカラガイ科
cowry in Lithuanian: Kaurės
cowry in Polish: Porcelanki
cowry in Russian: Каури (раковина)
cowry in Simple English: Cowry
cowry in Slovak: Porcelánovcovité
cowry in Turkish: Cypraea
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