Meetings with Remarkable Sheela-na-Gigs

by Fiona Marron

I am not sure where I first heard the term ‘Sheela-na-gig’, but I do remember trying to find out what it meant. Most explanations I came across were colourful but derogatory towards women. My favourite was ‘a crazy hoor that might leap out at you showing her gee’, that last word being the slang in Ireland for the female genitals and not a million miles away from ‘gig’.

I was enthralled when I heard that there were actual stone carvings called Sheela-na-gigs, hidden away in the National Museum because they were regarded as the pornography of our ancestors. I was curious and determined to see ancient stone carvings of naked women exposing their genitalia.

It was in the early 1980s, when I was a student at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, that I started what the great archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, author of Language of the Goddess and Civilisation of the Goddess, called my ‘Sheela odyssey’. Along the route of that odyssey, I looked at, touched and painted stone carvings that inexplicably linked me to something greater than me. The Sheela-na-gigs inspired me to paint them. Even though much about the Sheela remains a mystery, I have come to enjoy and celebrate that mystery and my hope is that you do too.

Sheelas have been known by many different names in different parts of Ireland. They have been called the ‘idol’, the ‘evil eye stone’, the ‘devil stone’, the ‘witch on the wall’ and the ‘hag of the castle’. The earliest literary references come from John O’Donovan’s ordnance survey letters for Tipperary in 1840, where he mentions a carving at Kiltinan Church. (When the figure was stolen in January 1990, the publicity did much to popularise Sheelas again).

James O’Connor, who made a marvellous replica of the stolen figure, quotes O’Donovan’s description of the Sheela as “the figure of a woman in bas-relief, rudely done, but whose attitude and expression conspire to impress the grossest idea of immortality and licentiousness. (It) represents a woman who was known by the name Sile ni ghig”.

Sheela, as well as being a woman’s name, means femininity and also a special kind of woman: a wise woman, a spiritual woman. Some say the name originates from Macroom, County Cork, where it was used to describe old women. ‘Na-gig’ is more obscure. Barbara Walker speculates that the term means ‘vulva woman’, with ‘gig’ or ‘giggie’ meaning female genitals and related to the Irish ‘jig’, which in turn comes from the French ‘gigue’, which in pre-Christian times was an orgiastic dance. In ancient Erech (Iraq today) a ‘gig’ seems to have been something similar to a holy yoni (a symbol of the female genitals venerated by Hindus). The sacred harlots of the temple were known as ‘nu-gig’. Who can say if the word could have travelled so far?

Laurence Durdin-Robertson declares that ‘Sheela’ means the image of a woman and ‘gig’ is the name in Norse for a giantess – the oldest of the goddess races. He also suggests that Sheela-na-gigs are a derivative of the frog goddess, symbol of the vulva as opening to the underworld. Gimbutas said that my representations of Sheela fron Carn Castle, Westmeath, which I entitled The Hag in the Iron Wood [front cover] reminded her of the frog goddess of Çatal Höyük in Turkey.

Other squatting goddess figures, almost identical to the Sheelas, guarded the doors of the temples in India, where all who entered would touch the gaping yonis as an act of self blessing. Sheelas also have distinguished breastless rib cages similar to the Indian goddess Kali in her corpse aspect. Kali is the goddess of death and destruction but also the creator and giver of life. When I thought about this, I saw a connection between Kali and the Cailleach, the Irish crone or hag, known under many names and thought to have been a goddess who married a series of husbands and passed from youth to old age more than once. She still survives today as a lively figure in modern Irish folklore. I see her as the creator and devourer of the world, a symbol of the great mother in continuous cycles of life, death and rebirth.

"Raising Her Voice" from Seirkiernan

“Raising Her Voice” from Seirkiernan

Eleanor Gadon remarks that Sheela-na-gig is remembered in Ireland as the old woman who gave birth to all races of people, and that her function as a decoration on the church was similar to the gorgon on Athena’s shield, to protect and to ward off evil.

The Sheelas that are still in situ today – many unfortunately badly damaged by being exposed to the elements for centuries – are placed over the entrance archways of medieval Christian churches, castles, gateways and bridges as symbols of protection and fertility. Indeed, I believe that the Sheelas served as a bridge between pagan and Christian cultures in Ireland, Scotland and Wales and even England and France.

How old are they really? How many have been lost, stolen or buried? Could they be the continuation of goddess imagery from 35,000 years ago that Marija Gimbutas discovered? It is all a wonderful mystery. Jorgen Andersen in his magnificient book, The Witch on the Wall, writes about the recent evidence of a Sheela-type carving from the Neolithic period found in Grimes Graves (below) in Norfolk, England. This would suggest that the Sheelas as we know them today may be reproductions of older carvings.

Goddess figurine from Grimes Graves

For me, they are a celebration of life, the power of female regeneration, the cycle of life, death and re-birth. I’ll never forget the day one of my teachers arranged for me to have access to the crypt of the National Museum, where several examples of Sheelas were stored. I was accompanied by a security guard. He told me to walk quickly as I had only twenty minutes. I remember walking down a large stone stairway, at the bottom of which was a long corridor. The smell of antiquities filled me with anticipation and excitement. There were hundreds of artefacts stored there. I wanted to look at everything but knew I had to keep focused on the mission in hand. Eventually we came to the area where the Sheelas were. The guard pulled the string of the lone light bulb, and, as the light flicked on, at least twenty Sheela-na-gigs in all their vulva glory stared at me.

I gasped in awe and probably fear. It was the most incredible sight. I didn’t have time to be frightened, but I was. I remember a sort of buzz in my head. I attempted to start drawing, but my hand was shaking. There were so many carvings, all so different, carved out of various types of stone in various shapes and sizes. I decided to try to focus on just one at a time. It took longer to do some than others because their stones were eroded and the image unclear. My eyes kept being drawn to the vulvas, those dark secret caves. 

"Voice from the Rock" from Ballylarkin

“Voice from the Rock” from Ballylarkin

I asked the guard if I could stay a little longer. Kindly, he gave me a few extra minutes, even though he said he had better things to do than stand in front of ‘those horrible yokes’. Then my time was up and I had to leave.

Back in my studio space in the college, I reworked several of the drawings, putting in details of light and shade as I remembered. Those amazing hags started to take shape, and I was so excited. About a week later, I decided to make new drawings – but all the original drawings had disappeared from my portfolio. I couldn’t believe it!

I searched everywhere, but they never turned up. But a bigger disappointment and mystery was ahead: I was denied access to the Sheelas in the museum when I requested a second visit. Perhaps I didn’t plead hard enough; perhaps I gave up too quickly. But it would be almost a decade before I would be in the crypt of the National Museum again, renewing my acquaintance with Sheela-na-gigs.

I gave up on the Sheelas, but they did not give up on me. While I was living in Oregon and pregnant with my eldest son, Gordon, Sheelas re-visited me in my dreams. They were strange and wonderful dreams, all with amazing colours and intense feelings. I remember one where I was the foetus in the womb, and a Sheela was yelling with her mouth as big as her vulva. I was always extremely emotional when I woke up. I started to draw Sheelas again, using my dreams as reference, but I knew instinctively that they were just not quite right. One night it became clear to me that I just had to see those carvings again.

On my third trip home, I was successful. The Dean of Antiquities at the Museum referred me to a person who remembered me from the time ten years earlier, and I was invited to draw two Sheela-na-gigs that were in this person’s office. It was fantastic to have all day to draw and absorb every detail of these two marvellous and wonderfully preserved Sheelas. I got to know Sheela Ballylarkin, Co.Kilkenny [top of page], and Sheela Co.Cavan [below] very well indeed. 

"The Witch in the Wall", from Co. Cavan

“The Witch in the Wall”, from Co. Cavan

A few days later, I returned to the crypt, and this time I had as much time as I wanted. I will always be extremely grateful to the people who made this possible. The ancient smell was the same, but the Sheelas were now stored in a different area and there were only nine of them. They looked lonely and neglected as they rested on their dusty shelves, but even in the dim light they still had a very powerful presence. I got to work.

As I was drawing, I experienced that buzz in my head again. This time I was not afraid but allowed myself to tune into it. Various images of Sheela’s female form became more definite as I studied the carvings. It was as though they were emerging from the stones. It was easy now to see the details I had missed before. Each Sheela had her own distinct personality.

As I gained confidence in my drawings, and familiarity with each Sheela, I felt ready to touch the carvings with my hands. It had not felt right to do so without getting to know them first. Touching them, I learned more intimate details – a nipple on a breast, scars or tattoos on a forehead or around the incised ribs. One of my most amazing discoveries was to touch the vulva of the Burgesbeg (Co.Tipperary) Sheela and discover she had a dropped cervix or else a giant clitoris. I decided it must have been the former, as it was common for women to have a dropped cervix after many childbirths. This Sheela became my ‘Soul Carrier’, a title I chose because practically all of her had eroded except for her vulva, which she held preciously with her fingers. Her vulva became her soul-centre for me.

In the dim light and quiet calm of the crypt, I meditated on the mystery of these incredible carvings and the effect they were having on me. There was so much to explore and find out about. One thing I was definitely sure of was their connection to the Goddess and Her culture, her manifestations of life, death and rebirth. The Sheelas were the embodiment of all three aspects – the triple Goddesses if you like.

I spent three days down in the crypt of the Museum. The security guards had got to know me and never bothered me as I sat doing my drawings. They had a little room nearby, where they had breaks and made tea. I could hear their footsteps as they walked around.

I decided to attempt some photography. I timed the flashes for when the guards were out of sight. I felt that they would surely disapprove of me taking photographs and quite possibly confiscate my film. I took deep breaths to stay calm, but my heart was beating so hard I felt it could be heard. I gradually photographed all the Sheelas. The brightness of the flash illuminated them like never before. I got glimpses of more detail and texture on the stones. I prayed the photos would come out and be in focus.

As I reached the end of my roll, my camera made its loud rewinding noise. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guard walking close to the area I was in. I threw my jacket over the camera and held my breath. Suddenly he stopped and turned the other way. I wondered if he knew what I was up to. Had he heard the whirring noise of my camera? Not taking any chances, I extracted the roll of film and hid it in my bra. Then I reloaded the camera in case I had to hand over the film. As it turned out, I didn’t have to hand over anything, but it was exciting playing spy for women of the world who love the Goddess and her symbols.

Later, as I worked in my studio in Portland using a variety of media and colour, I found each Sheela wanted her particular aura of colour that represented and expressed different feelings. Sheela Carne Castle – “The Hag in the Iron Wood” [front cover] is sexy and nasty with her defiant hunched up shoulders and strong squatting legs. I believe she is one of the most powerful of all my Sheelas.

“Raising Her Voice“ from Seirkiernan (Co. Offaly) is the only one of her type with her vulva holes that resembles a cribriform (many-holed) hymen. Flashes of blue, green and gold fill her vibrant background which sings joy and strength and also quiet endurance.

Professor Etienne Rynne has put forward the idea that Sheelas have a definite pagan background. He quotes examples from Germany in the fourth century BCE and first century CE. He claims that they are associated with a fertility cult which merged with the god Cernunnos, lord of the animals, and that this would account for the medieval protection aspect.

Another theory is put forward by Brian Branston of Stratford-on-Avon. He says that “Sheelas represent the Earth Mother waiting to be fertilised by the sky father. This is the reason why the pudendum is being so invitingly held open. The sacrament of fertilisation took place each morning at sunrise when the sun shone on and covered the Goddess in her original position”. I really like this idea, a possible explanation for Newgrange on winter solstice, if one views the entrance as the opening to the womb/temple inside.

Mary Condren makes another lovely womb association when she talks about the Killinaboy Sheela from Clare. The congregation enter the womb of the building through the arched entrance, above which is a wonderful Sheela.

Killinaboy was the site of the next part of my odyssey – seeking out Sheelas still in situ. I arrived at Killinaboy to see the Sheela above the arched entrance of the ruins of a church built in the eleventh or twelfth century, on the site of an early monastery founded by Saint Inghean Bhoithe. The Sheela is known locally as Baoith. Saint Inghean Bhoithe would have been a very important saint since her name is derived from the cow Goddess Boand, one of the greatest of the prehistoric Goddesses. Boand is sometimes linked to Brigid, who is often portrayed with a cow. There is a wonderful stained-glass window of Saint Brigid with her cow above the altar in Clane Church in my home village in Kildare.

The Killinaboy Sheela was barely visible, there was so much ivy covering her. My husband Brian helped me up on his shoulders and, with the aid of a long stick, I managed to beat back the encroaching ivy to expose this wonderful Sheela exposing herself. I made drawings and took photographs, and remember feeling it was a perfect day. On a break, I lay down on the ground underneath the Sheela and adopted her pose. As I lay like this, staring up at her, I was overcome with sadness. I began crying. I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t stop. I cried for women suffering everywhere, my sisters all over the world.

The vagina is a sacred entrance, but how do we regard it in this day and age? Unfortunately not with respect and honour. Too many women and young girls are daily used and abused and raped all over the world. Too often this part of a woman’s body is looked upon with shame. We can even be ashamed of it ourselves. The way of the Goddess is almost lost to us. I wept deeply, with all of my body, for my sisters – past, present and future.

Our menstrual blood is regarded as a curse, a dirty inconvenience, as we moan and groan about this most precious and wondrous of substances. But Vicki Noble, an American shaman who has been a guiding inspiration for me, says that menstrual blood under certain scientific microscopes gives off a white light, the only substance from our bodies to do so. Sheela’s message to me was ‘Look to where you came from’ – a mother’s womb. This is what I heard in my head, so I attributed it to Sheela.

Back in Portland, with photographs and dozens of drawings, I began to study each Sheela-na-gig and interpret and represent her as she dictated. I relinquished control and absorbed this ancient icon as she emerged both from eroded stone and centuries of silence. I had an incredible amount of energy, and there was a wondrous calm and balance in my life. I felt I was doing what I was meant to do. In my own way, I was setting the Sheelas free. And then it was time for them to meet the world. My many women friends, who were aware of my adventures, were patiently waiting to see the paintings and drawings. I was very protective of these images which had come to mean so much to me. So I had an ‘opening’ at my studio and invited about twenty women to come. Our ages ranged from twenty-something to sixty-something. We were maidens, mothers and crones and we celebrated our womanhood.

There were gasps, shrieks and tears, shouts of anger and joy and laughter. Every woman had so much to say; I loved how our talk was so free and open. We talked about our bodies and especially our vaginas. We talked about our sexual feelings and experiences, about childbirth and stillborn babies, about sexual frustrations and sexual fears, about religion and repression, and, of course, about the Goddess and the legacy She has given us all.

The energy that night was something we could all feel as we danced to it and acknowledged it as our collective female power. And I offered it up to Sheela-na-gig and thanked her. In her glorious mystery, she has a lot to answer for. May the dance continue.

All paintings by Fiona Marron