Sheela na Gig first came into my life about five years ago, by chance. I found a pendant for a necklace on the Swedish island of Gotland and she spoke to me so loud and clear I’ve never been able to look back.
We’re ready for her now—women all over the world are hearing her calling, from Saudi Arabia’s escaping women to the take-no-more-shit of the metoo movement.
Sheela na Gigs are stone carvings of old women showing their cunt. There’s no polite way of saying it. Not only that, they’re OLD women showing their cunt. The shock value is undeniable, as is their power.
Strangely, they’re often found on churches, especially in very Catholic Ireland.
These naked females displaying their vulva have an extraordinary capacity to fascinate and shock, and something in us immediately recognises their importance. The recent reawakening of the divine feminine around the globe has prepared us for the Sheelas to reclaim their important role in the healing of our collective psyche.
Sheela na Gigs are usually shown standing or squatting with a prominent vesica piscis, or portal, clearly between their legs. They are frequently found in a prominent position in medieval churches and castles, directly over the main entrance or as a corner stone.
The Sheela na Gigs were originally thought to be older pieces that had been incorporated into medieval churches, but research has shown that they were included intentionally as an integral part of the original Christian structures.
During the reformation, most Sheelas were removed and priests were ordered to destroy them or hide them away, and many wooden figures were burnt.
When they were first rediscovered in the late 1800s, they were described variously as “repulsive,” “grotesque,” “hideous,” “ugly,” and “obscene”. The unashamed display of female genitalia, especially that of an older woman, was simply too much for the antiquaries to fit into any meaningful analysis.
The Sheelas are part of the very scant evidence we have of the ancient Goddess beliefs on the British Isles, but the connection was strong enough to ensure it was incorporated into the new religion, Christianity, when it took over. The etymology of Sheela na Gig suggests a relationship with Ma Gog, the ancient Mother Goddess in Britain.
The new beliefs wove their own Mother Goddess mythos through the Cult of the Virgin. The Christian Saints and the Sheelas both acted as intermediaries between worlds, and some Sheela na Gigs in Ireland are still regarded as depictions of saints, while the Madonna is often displayed inside a vesica piscis, the sacred geometric intersection between two overlapping circles resembling a vulva.
The imagery of Mary as a sacred mother connects her with the ancient Celtic Goddess Brigit as well as the Sheelas. In the ecclesiastical year, the purification of the Blessed Virgin is celebrated on 2 February, the day after Brigit’s feast day, who offers a particularly clear example of a Celtic Goddess shapeshifting into a distinct Christian Saint.
The talismanic properties of the Sheelas is attested to by countless stories about their magic. Irish folklore indicates that they were very highly revered and that their power was directly related to the sacred centre of their exposed vulva.
Sheelas were often positioned above doorways and overlooking the landscape, often in the direction of potential enemies. The figures are associated with customs for averting ill luck, and there are many stories in Ireland about enemies fleeing in terror when the women of the house lifted their skirts and displayed their naked genitals.
There are reports of the Sheelas curing illness and ensuring fertility, and there is also an association with midwives and childbirth. Sheelas are often shown squatting and were touched for help in childbirth. They are connected to Brigit by their healing powers and their control over fertility and birth.
Death is intimately linked to the giver of life in a cyclical cosmos, where death is simply another spiritual transformation. In this respect, the Sheelas were the guardian of the portal between life and death and associated with the transformation of awakening. The door to the inner, hidden world and esoteric teaching. Death is associated with woman, and the figure of the hag expresses this eloquently—she must be embraced before the cycle of life can begin again.
The position of the Sheelas above the church door allowed the congregation to enter into the Earth Mother Goddess’s womb for worship even after the new religion had taken hold. This is a threshold that everyone must eventually cross, and through which all life emerges.
Sheela was the separator of worlds: the Queen of Heaven and Earth.
At Tara, the seat of the ancient Irish kings, the new King must enter into a symbolic marriage with the Goddess of the Land on his coronation, and a Sheela appears on one of the standing stones there.
There is a teaching associated with the Sheelas. Passing through her portal offers protection from evil intent, one’s own or that of others. The doorway also symbolises the passage from the external world to the inner, contemplative life. The Sheela protects the gateway to the inner womb from harmful influences. There is an inherent power in female genitalia, and the vulva is equally powerful at attracting good as it is at warding off evil.
In this context, consider the practice of placing a horseshoe above your front door for “good luck”. Is this a collective memory of the ancient veneration of the vulva? What we now term superstitions are often forgotten fragments of lost wisdom.
The Sheela na Gig I visited on my recent trip to Ireland was at Ballinderry Castle in County Galway. This Sheela is surrounded by knotwork patterns, a triskele, a marigold or sun symbol and other Celtic motifs. In this location she’s known as the Hag of the Castle, a name I love.
The sacred hag is often displayed on one leg, with one hand raised, and the other on or near her vulva. I’ve found this to be the most potent posture for casting a spell. Try it, and honour your inner Sheela na Gig – you’ll never want to relinquish the force of your vibrant cunt again!