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The many meanings of Sheela na Gig

Dearest Sheela,

I first saw an image of Sheela na Gig whilst doing my art A Level at 17. She fascinated me. Her grotesque form delighting in her own body. Her ugly crone like appearance seemingly at odds with the overt sexuality of her pose....What enticed me even more was that her symbology is a mystery. The reason for her existence and especially her connection with the Church is unknown.

There are many goddess attributes that Sheela could take on, and throughout her long history I'm sure she has worn them all. Perhaps she truly is all them, the maiden, the mother, the crone. The triple goddess, in all her power, baring her teeth and her vagina to the world.

A Fertility Symbol

A carving of a woman hands holding her vagina open
Sheela Na Gig carving

As a fertility goddess, she stands proud. She shows us our path through labour and she gives hope and representation to women all over the world. A powerful symbol of a woman's ability to stretch and open, to give birth.

I think what I love about her as a fertility goddess is the lack of beauty. This is no rosy, healthy, full of the life, 'it will be all wonderful' fertility goddess. This is a life and death, skin and bones, a give birth to the world and all that is in it whilst roaring your defiance fertility goddess. The rawness can be healing.

Goddess of Sexuality

Images of lust is an interesting book about research on a sexual carvings in religious settings in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Sheela na Gig's are of course a prominent feature. It is put forward in the book that the Sheela's were carved by the church in the 11th/12th century as a warning against lust. Of all the explanations imagined about Sheela and her origins this one has the most research to back it up. I think that this could be true for a lot of the Sheela's found displayed prominently on churches, and they can be rather grotesque. But some Sheela's appear to be smiling and endearing in there strangeness, certainly not something to fear.

As a goddess of sexuality, she has her place. She is certainly not Venus or Aphrodite, this isn't about love and sensuality. However there is something to be said for a symbol that allows for overt sexuality in women. In a society that has demonised it for so long, maybe Sheela is who we need.

Sheela na gig carving above a church door
Sheela Na Gig carving on a church

The Protector Goddess

Another interesting theory is that the Sheela's carved above doorways and windows are actually talismans to keep out the devil and protect us from the evil spirits roaming the Earth. In many ancient cultures the female genitalia were believed to hold magick. That they could be used to cast spells for good or for bad. In Finland for example the vittu, which is specifically a mothers vagina would protect the home, the cattle and the children. A bare vittu shown to the forest would scare away the beasts. Perhaps that was their role in the churches of old. Perhaps back then the vagina was a symbol of power and magick, the divine womb protecting those that passed it. Unfortunately that time has passed and in the 17th century many Sheela's were removed from the Churches as a old symbol that was inappropriate for a more modest age.

Sheela na gig carving with ribs showing
Sheela Na Gig with ribs showing

A Pagan Goddess

It is indeed unlikely that the Sheela's come from a time before Christianity, but the belief that she is a remnant of when the world worshiped the Mother Goddess, and the society was matriarchal is still the most widely accepted meaning. She does bare remarkable similarities to the ancient Greek goddess Baubo. Baubo is generally plump and sits legs apart showing her vulva. Some believe that the idea of Baubo stems from even older goddess religions from around the world. There are many examples of statues and art from ancient times when the vulva was not obscene and often worshipped for its life giving ability. It was even viewed in many places as a portal to the supernatural and it held a power unparalleled.

My personal belief, she is the Great Mother, A representation of the cycle of life. Her open vagina pulled apart giving birth to all of existence whilst simultaneously her crone like appearance showing us that death is the other side. Never one without the other. Maiden, Mother. Crone.

Regardless of when, or how or why these carvings exist, they hold immense power in today's world. Whether you view her as the Great Mother, as a fertility goddess, as a protector or simply as a whore. Sheela has become part of our modern mythology, and there are many lessons to learn simply by looking at her closely.

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