Conch shells have a long history of ritualistic use in a variety of cultures and religions. Ancient believers in these practices have maintained that conch shells hold certain metaphysical properties. In fact, the conch shell is still viewed by adherents to various religions as having an array of distinctive spiritual qualities.
The conch shell has long been used in rituals by Tibetan Buddhists, who will blow a conch shell to call worshippers to a religious assembly. Conch shells also are used by Buddhists as receptacles for holy water and as an instrument in the performance of religious music. The conch shell's use in Tibetan Buddhism originates with the significance these shells held in India's Vajrayana Buddhism. Beforehand, the conch was a highly significant symbol in ancient Hinduism. In modern Buddhism, the conch shell represents the voice of Buddha. Adherents believe its sound can awaken a person from ignorance.
In ancient Indian mythology, the God Vishnu blew into a conch shell and made the first sound in all creation, a sacred sound known as "aum." In Hinduism, the conch shell represents the five elements--earth, water, fire, air and space. In modern India, the conch shell is blown at the beginning of sacred rituals because of the belief that the vibrations emitted from the conch shell will dispel negative energy and purify the environment.
The conch shell commonly is used in Hawaiian ceremonies. According to ancient Hawaiian belief, an ancient race of tiny people called the Menehune once coexisted with Polynesians, who considered this tiny race to be godlike. New settlers to the islands believed the sound made from blowing a conch shell had the power to control these tiny deities. They would blow the conch shell whenever they wanted the Menehune to do their bidding. One Hawaiian legend recounts how the Menehune, fed up with this abuse, stole the special conch and played it night and day, preventing the Hawaiians from getting any sleep. Finally, brave Hawaiians retrieved the stolen conch shell from the Menehune.
Adherents to certain aspects of New Age spirituality believe conch shells symbolise such feminine aspects as birth, regeneration, marriage and fertility. In China, some believe conch shells can bring good luck and ensure a positive experience in the afterlife. In Islam, the conch shell represents hearing the divine word, while ancient Greeks and Romans used the conch shell to symbolise their respective sea deities. The conch shell was even part of the belief system of the ancient Mayans, who believed its spiral shape represented infinity.