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The heART of Ritual


The Sheela na Gig - An Ancient Fertility Goddess?

Sheela na Gig’s are stone carvings of women exposing their genitals which are found mostly on church buildings associated with the Normans, however they have also been found outside Ireland and many believe they are vestiges of older, Pagan iconography. There has also been some support for two carved figures found on Boa Island, Co. Fermanagh to be considered as part of the Sheela na Gig family and one of these carvings is believed to be pre-Christian.

Sheela na Gigs can also be considered to display postures indicating meditative positions. A connecting and similar argument has been put forward for the Cernunnos figure found on the Gundestrup cauldron.

Scholars have noted the association between yoga positions and iconography relating to Hinduism and a possible earlier Proto-Indo-European spiritual discipline. There is also evidence that these positions can be helpful for pain alleviation during childbirth which would mark another interesting function of the icons.

Until quite recently the academic consensus, while leaving some small room, tended to favour the idea that Sheela na gigs had been created by the Normans around the 11th century. Sheela na gigs have been found in high numbers in Ireland and Britain, as well as Western Europe. This would, indeed, seem to play into the Norman hypothesis. The difficulty with this is that the theory must then discard or ignore pre-Norman figures.

Comparative scholarship within anthropology and archaeology has shown that the archetype of the Sheela na gig can be found worldwide and at far older dates. The Goddess, Lajja Gauri, is a good example. An even older representation is the so called 'squatting woman' found at Gobekli Tepe, dating to 9'500 BCE at least.

In the image for this post I have included both a 12th century Sheela, as well as a figure that dates from over 8’500 years ago. As you can notice, even though the style of carving may be different, the symbolism and gesture are the same. This ancient 'Foremother' figure pictured was found at Lepenski Vir, Serbia and has been dated to roughly 6'500 BCE. She was the most prominent 'goddess' found at this site and she seems to have been associated with wombs, water and birth.

Marija Gimbutas has also written about the correlations between this figure and the frog goddess of Egypt, Heqet, who was also a protector of pregnant women and birth. This is an important clue in the original identity of the Sheela na gig. This figure may even date back further to the Palaeolithic where we have bone engravings of frog/toad women. These carvings are interpreted to represent regeneration and the cycle of life.

Seeing the Sheela na gig as an updated representation of a goddess who was a protector of pregnant women would certainly seem to make sense. Not only do we have a direct relationship to ancient goddess carvings, but to a specific goddess who has been documented as being evoked to assist at births. The problem of course is looking back over such a vast distance in time and expecting interpretations to have remained the same. Even today we can see how diversified opinions can be when it comes to symbolism and archaeological viewpoints. Is there any reason as to why Christians would have placed representations of a Pagan goddess on their buildings?

Well, we have a better understanding today about the repression of the wise-woman tradition in all of its manifestations. In a previous post I have written about the suppression of women sorceresses, the bean feasa and the older earth goddesses themselves. The expression of women’s sexuality is another reason why Sheela na gig’s might have been placed within church structures: it would be a way in which to visually curtail this power and assert its ‘sinfulness’.

There is another theory that the placement of the Sheela within a church was to protect the weakest part such as a door or window from evil. In this context there is both a practical reason as well as a magical transference reason for including the Sheela as part of the church. One interpretation of this is that the power of the Sheela was now curtailed by the power of Christianity.

Ironically, similar figures from the Republic of Palau in the western Pacific called Dilukai were also placed over doorways to protect against evil but when Christian missionaries arrived they propagated the idea that the images were to shame immoral women instead. This has a similar ring to the previous Irish interpretation of Sheela na gigs.

Speculating about this is one thing but do we actually have any other historical precedent for the deliberate misinterpretation of ancient pagan deities by arriving Christians? Actually, we have much more than that.

In a letter sent by Pope Gregory in 500AD, Christian missionaries and monks were told to curb the violent attacks against pagans and their places of worship. In this letter, the Bishops and monks are encouraged to instead Christianise the sacred sites and swap pagan idols for Christian saints and counterparts. This would indicate that a process was in place long before the Normans arrived to change the meaning of idols from representing the more ancient gods and goddesses to something else entirely.

So, does this mean that all Sheela na gig figures are original, ancient carvings? No, I don’t think so, but some might be. What it does indicate, though, is that there is an even stronger case today for the antiquity of the *motif* represented in the carvings. Many previous interpretations of Sheela na gigs came before the new findings and information relating to the goddess figures of Lepenski Vir, for example. Seeing the Sheela na gig as an ancient goddess of regeneration seems much more viable today than a few decades ago. (C.) David Halpin.


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