Cover art is ‘The Eye of the Cailleach’ by Margaret McKenna
“Dance me through to the stillnessKathryn Price NicDhàna
to the point where the motion begins.
Dance me through to the silence
to the edge where the world begins.”
One of the most well known cultural phenomenons of Ireland that has elusive meaning and fascinated countless admirers is the beloved Sheela-na-gig. There is no shortage of theories as to her symbolism or usage and these mostly range from the most popular theories as to be remnants of a pagan past or protective talismans to the clergy warning against lust and sex. As they gained notoriety in a more modern world starting in the 1600’s through to the turn of the century, and possibly due to a renewed interest in a distant past in the Celtic twilight era, clergymen began defacing and destroying the figures and started to see them as offensive.
Considering the length at which churches kept records, this alone lends me to believe the meaning of the figures was initially more pagan than Christian. Of course while many figures were destroyed, buried or tossed into rivers, many examples have survived intact or were only partially damaged and they have a seemingly long and celebrated folk history of which we will explore. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Sheela-na-gig is derived from Irish Gaeilge, Síle na gcíoch, possibly meaning ‘Julia or Sheela of the breast’ but other language experts interpret the phrase to mean ‘Old hag of the breasts’ by the late 1700’s. Another variation is Sidhe lena gigh, ‘Fairy woman with her vagina’. Also, in the Folk Duchas there is one reference to her being referred to as ‘Sheela of the Luck’. However, they were purported to just have been called ‘The idol’ or ‘idols’ in various literature just a few years before this popular modern reference came into being as the Sheela-na-gig.
Ireland has the highest concentration of Sheelas with at least 110 to 120 examples but there are also quite a few (approximately half that amount) examples in Britain, Wales and Scotland. There are additionally a few medieval examples scattered throughout Europe in places like France, Spain, Denmark and Germany. However, this particular imagery in general with the hands near genitalia has been found in various individual carvings that would have been handheld both in Europe as well as the isles going back to the Bronze age. Of course, everywhere around the world, figures of sacred women with unique meaning to the people who created these sculptures are very common going back to the Palaeolthic period.
It’s worth noting that while more rare, many of the figures in Ireland and the U.K. appear to be men as well (usually judging by their mustache) and sometimes, women and men appear alongside or near one another. The name ‘Seán-na-Gig’ was invented by writer Jack Roberts to hopefully shed light on this phenomenon equally. The medieval Sheela-na-gigs are all similarly displayed on monastic buildings or their surrounding property as well as to a lesser extent on castles, although some examples have been found even more mysteriously near or within various gravesites. Many churches are composites or conglomerates of the available stone of the locale and this makes it incredibly hard to date the Sheelas but most of them seem to have appeared on buildings between the 13th and 17th centuries.
It can’t be discounted that at least some of these stone figures may have been added into churches from a previously built ruin or sacred site. It was typical for churches of this time period both in Europe and to a lesser extent in Ireland and the U.K. to have various threatening figures displayed on their outer structures and walls to keep evil away. These figures were definitely well known and common across Europe (and the world), displaying genitals or other imagery of a sexual nature. However, I just find it must have been purposeful that Irish churches displayed a Sheela-na-gig alone and more consistently had the same look rather than varied imagery. I believe this lends to a more consistent and unique cultural representation and symbolism.
The sculptures range in size as well as detail based on the mason’s skill. Naturally, no two carvings are exactly the same and many are combined with other iconography or floral motifs, possibly flowers or herbs that also had a protective symbolism. They usually appear to have bigger heads and volvas along with disproportionately smaller bodies. Many scholars believe that these figures are representative of elderly women based on the emaciation of the body, bald heads as well as sagging or smaller breast size. Sometimes their mouths are gaping, tongues protruding or the teeth are bared. Their eyes are typically wide and overall they’re often described as ‘grotesque’ but for me, they remind me of the great Irish goddess Morrígan with their tongue out, screaming, battle raging; fearless. Fascinatingly, a few examples have slash marks on their cheeks or chest remnant of ritual markings. They’re typically standing up or squatting with their arms crossed over or spreading themselves open in some variation.
However, there are quite a few examples of Sheelas laying down on their side or most rarely being displayed upside down. Some figures have neatly shaped and clearly illustrated vulvas while others look ambiguous or torn apart although some of these effects may be due to weathering. Many Sheela-na-gigs but also older Bronze age sculptures have holes that seem to have been purposefully drilled or carved around the belly or genital region and these may have been the places ritually rubbed or touched. One of the most famous examples that may provide an additional link from the past through to the medieval sculptures are those that appear on Boa island in County Fermanagh in Ireland. Both of the main figures have their hands placed near the genital area. They’re thought by archeologists to be over 2,000 years old and likely not a product of Romanization through Rome itself or later through the Roman Catholic Church. They definitely would have been pagan in nature and look uncannily familiar to medieval Sheela-na-gigs, both male and female versions. It’s worth noting the smaller figure was not next to the other originally, but brought from nearby Lusty More Island.
When we explore the sacred Sheela’s power, her possible symbolism unfolds as mysteriously as her presence. Knowledge of her folk power would have likely been transmitted orally and while her symbolism is ultimately still elusive, it’s most likely they were talismans of protection, fertility, and the cycle of life and reincarnation. Their symbolism was subsumed, overtaken and supplanted over but nonetheless they held their power and place within their communities. Quite famously, in a letter to the Pope in 604 the Irish missionary Columbanus said “The culture engaged in becoming dominant, in this case the culture of the early European Christian Church, had both to make concessions and invent attractions if its aims were to be fulfilled.”
Additionally, the Pope went on to say just a few years later in a letter to Abbot Mellitus, a bishop in London, in regards to the various Native folk religion of the region, “…that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshiping the true God… It is doubtless impossible to cut out everything at once from their stubborn minds.” Unbeknownst to many today, there is a long documented record spanning hundreds of years of the church fighting what was in essence a spiritual battle here. They particularly wanted to rid folk traditions regarding the worship of wells, trees and herbs, fertility and death rituals, reverence of Native gods and goddesses as well as folk heroes and many other countless traditions that still remain inevitably wrapped up in the unique ‘Celtic’ Christianity of Ireland.
Roman Christianity, since its inception, typically took on ‘acceptable’ features of the local and surrounding cultures in order to be more adaptable, palatable and gain more followers without necessary force. Ultimately, Sheela may have been the divine birthing assistant for protection and an easy delivery. She was possibly the liminal and Otherworldly woman guiding new souls into the world, this one during birth or the next after death. She may have been a fertility specialist and just to merely touch her was said in times of old as well as more importantly, through to the present, to increase your chances of conception. There are records of clergy chastising community members or even forbidding them from participating in these ‘pagan’ fertility rites just a hundred years ago and yet they stubbornly remain to this day.
Going along with this idealism, and casting an even wider net regarding fertility, she may have been a figure that would have blessed and ensured a good harvest both in crops but also in the productivity of cattle or sheep. This meaning in regards to encouraging an agricultural type of fertility may also provide insight equally into the male figure’s representation. There are countless examples of male figures, sculptures in archeology but also mythical tales of being representative of a phallic penetrative nature and of fertility as well. Comparisons can be made in the act of penetrating soil to plant a seed similarly to the act of conception or even planting an idea.
Sheela may have been a figure that absorbed, transmuted and deflected evil (especially the evil eye) through collecting and transforming it with her magical vagina and essentially, a personified and protective cauldron. Her common positioning over doorways definitely lends to this function to some extent as well as the manner she often curiously overlooks the church graveyard. In the book Faiths of Man written in 1906, it was said that she was “A Keltik lunar and phallic charm… It is a female figure, and considered to avert the evil eye”. Finally, she may have been a remnant of the lustful divine hag that appears variously in Irish myth from the Cailleach to the Morrígan in her hag form when she tested Cú Chulainn by initially appearing as an ugly hag asking him to make love to her.
The various legends typically allude this was a means of testing a king’s character whereby if they accepted a beautiful sidhe woman’s offer while transformed as a hag they were deemed worthy for kingship. Maybe, she was all of the above. Another interesting possibility to consider is that her symbolism changed over time. Even if she began as a Roman Catholic means of condemning womanly lust, however unlikely, over time, the Irish Native community reclaimed her. She became a means of gaining fertility and borrowing some of that ‘sexual’ energy when needed, and became associated with sacred figures, the sidhe or the Cailleach. She may have been a figure that women could strive to embody when needed and indeed, various Sheelas were sometimes associated with specific ancestors or goddesses. As an example the Killinaboy Sheela-na-gig is specifically associated with Brigid.
The cultural underpinnings regarding the Roman Catholic Church and to why they would include them in their structures are that the clergy largely took over the Native and folk positions of Druids, herbalists, fairie doctors and healers. Additionally, many of these churches were thought to be built by Anglo-Normans who actively made great efforts to assimilate and this was possibly one of their ways by including her in their buildings. It’s quite possible that churches that displayed Sheelas were on some level a place related to church midwifery. The birthing process in the medieval world is shrouded in great mystery but we know this event was still governed mostly by women and attended by women. Travel would have been cumbersome during late pregnancy and not all women would have been logistically traveling to designated places for delivery by church midwives. Most women would have likely by and large delivered at home with midwives visiting and attending to them personally but I still find the prospect worthy of entertaining for at least women who had nowhere else to go or who had run away from home. It’s worth mentioning here that similarly, the Catholic Church took over the Gaelic function of hostels (originally held by kings and subject kings) as well where weary travelers would have found warmth, food and shelter.
By the 1300’s at minimum, the church was well involved in the functions of death and burial rituals but also child birthing and performing baptisms with various customs, many that were again very similar if not identical to older traditions. Midwives by this time were well assimilated into the church and governed by the rules of local clergymen. This religious cultural pattern of the clergy controlling or governing women midwives and the birthing process was continued on through time, particularly where mother and baby homes in Ireland were concerned. Fascinatingly, midwives took care of dying or deceased people as well by assisting in end of life rituals or laying out corpses and other customs tied to this event. There was an incredible amount of interrelation between the ideas of birth and death for we know death was seen as a beginning to new life and reincarnation in traditional Irish folk belief. Birth and death were in essence both seen as new ‘births’ or lives. This idealism may lend some insight as to why Sheelas were often placed as already mentioned overlooking the church graveyard.
From this entire collective lens, we can gather a hypothetical reasoning as to why the Sheela-na-gig may have been initially and purposefully displayed as a means of ‘gathering’ and welcoming Native folks into the church’s supplanted spaces within these Native communities and affirming their place intermingling with the Native folk religion and their cultural roles. Similarly to the Sheela and Bronze age handheld idols, another Irish but also wider European cultural phenomenon were ‘birthing stones’ whereby certain stones near churches were thought to increase fertility and may have held ritual significance during birthing as well. Sacred birthing stones held for power and luck during delivery were also known to be used and would have been smaller, handheld and personalized. They were often passed down from generation to generation or given to neighbors and friends as they needed them.
Whether it was a stone, carving, amber beads (similar to the function of Catholic rosary) or Sheela-na-gig talisman, something was likely used to instill strength and protective energy in women during childbirth. If the Sheela-na-gig’s symbology in regards to a birthing talisman is true, when we consider the risks involved in childbirth, her iconography becomes even more inspiring as to the cultural weight her appearance must have held of protection and safety for both women and the men worried for them nearby. It’s thought that as many as one in ten women died in childbirth before modern interventions became available. To this day, the most beneficial position for birthing successfully is squatting, relaxing and ‘opening’ ourselves, reminiscent of the Sheela’s common imagery. Not for nothing, but a tough elderly grandmother figure is going to be the one giving us the hard words needed to get through this often extremely challenging, traumatic and momentous event. There is something truly captivating and viscerally inspiring about these old figures of women unapologetically and brazenly displaying and spreading their vaginas.
Sheela’s Day is also a well known holiday tradition possibly related to her that was referenced in Ireland and celebrated each year on March 18th at least as early as 1785. She was said to have been the wife or mother of St. Patrick but that is likely another pseudo conglomerate of belief systems. The holiday continues to be celebrated in modern times in both Ireland and among the scattered diaspora, particularly the communities of Newfoundland, Canada.
Interestingly, I was on a guided journey with an Irish teacher and it was a journey to Loughcrew and calling on the great Cailleach, who not coincidentally has often been as mentioned, closely compared to or alluded to be the Sheela-na-gig, although this journey took place before I’d heard or knew of this connection. The journey immediately felt dark, earthy, bloody, primal and odorous. She wasn’t wearing a veil but her appearance was veiled and darkly obscure purposefully to elicit this earthen energy. She mentally showed me the ‘Sheela’, as herself, spreading her glorious vulva. She showed me the starscape inside as well as around her and her connection to creation. Telepathically, through this, she sent an energy that was a grandmother or mother’s tough love way of saying step into your power, not just me, but a collective energy towards all involved in the journey. She sent an energy that was to step into your power for we are merely energy, reforming ourselves. She illuminated the pointlessness of so much shame within myself. She was stern that this needed to be shed, for like poison, shame inhibits growth. This imagery was very strong in the form of showing me countless bruises and rotting places across my body. The journey closed with her drawing an ashen tattooed spiral over my lower belly with one boney finger. The bruises faded as the spiral absorbed into my skin. This was representative of our journey, the circular nature of life, of repeating lessons and reaching our own center and power.
She was also showing me through this imagery, the power of ‘transformation through penetration and absorption’. There is fertile ground in being penetrated intimately not just through the physical realm but by ideas; in being a portal of transmutation of energy on multiple nuanced levels that leads to higher understanding. This idea of being powerfully ‘open’ and allowing ourselves to be unashamed of our vulnerability, to be energetically penetrated, to be open to learning, open to love, to grow or change from these experiences is deeply powerful and integral to our human experience. When we reflect on the level at which we are truly healed and able to share, give and receive freely and even through healing sex and baring our naked bodies, we are often finally able to outgrow our old half realized selves stifled by shame and the fear that comes with that. Of course, these reflections encompass any human and strikes at the core of who we are as Earthly inhabitants. Naturally, as we gain wisdom with age we also learn discernment and why we must choose the people and ideas we allow to penetrate us carefully. Potent creative magic happens when we juxtapositionally allow ourselves to be unflinchingly both, vulnerable and powerful… penetrated and impenetrable.
This energy she sent went beyond the idea of a fertility concerning conception and birthing, although that in itself was respected and recognized, but it was an all encompassing ‘fertile and healthy life’ energy through this Sheela and spiral imagery. It was an energy that fuels us all, pushing us forward as vehicles of learning and love but this was a dark and primal love. It was the love that is painful, challenging and consumes us like a raging fire, burning everything down and away that feels untrue to our authentic being. It’s the love that forces us to reach farther, to spread our roots into dark and terrifying places we never wanted to go but had no choice to, in order to weather life’s storms, to grow beyond that which we thought was possible. There are countless scenarios in our lives that will require this immense and unimaginable strength to cope and luckily we have one another and great figures like the Sheela-na-gig and Cailleach as a support. As the meaningful Irish saying goes, it’s only in the shadow of one another that we survive. Of course, I can’t overstate, this is only my own journey and only one experience and reflection that could very well just have been a figment of my own imagination. I share it here only to embody this sense of openness, vulnerability, of sharing and growing through creative thought or experiences.
With everything I have said here, I must make the point that many scholars would disagree with me completely. Many would still say they’re merely patriarchal figures representing and shunning female sexuality and sin. While I believe they likely originated in Ireland just based off of the Boa figures but also their prominence, many scholars would argue they originated in France and only spread to Ireland through Norman conquest. When I say originated in Ireland, I don’t mean that this idea of an openly spread and protective vulva wasn’t brought with immigrants at some point from the continent but that this version, this sculptural design and most importantly, energy or woman figure tied to these specific sculptures was unique. An energetic emanation arising out of the land.
I believe that many earlier Sheela sculptures may not have survived merely because they were carved of wood rather than stone, such as the wooden South Tawton Sheela. Another clue that lends to this is that in the 17th century, various Irish diocesans made sweeping rules that “…all Sheela-na-gigs were to be burned.” The increased use of stoneworks only became more prominent after Roman Christianization as well and the arrival of Cistercian stonemasons around approximately 1100 CE in Ireland. The Sheela-na-gig is a cultural marvel and an astoundingly powerful source of mystery and inspiration. She’s still there, ever present, ever supporting from the dark recesses of our consciousness, testing us as she did ancient kings. She’s still there, her fingers spreading and opening her primal womb of cosmic creation, transmuting destructive forces, whispering old wisdom to lead us forward. She’s still there, ever calling us to go inward, to reach deeper and realize our own strength. There is nothing to fear, she says. You can do this.
Corish, Patrick J. The Catholic Community in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Dublin: Helicon, 1981.
Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-na-Gigs, Unravelling An Enigma. Routledge, London and New York, 2004.