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Sheila-na-Gig and the lucky vulva

To: alt.lucky.w,alt.magick.tantra,
From: (Ashley Yakeley)
Subject: Re: Sheila-na-Gig and  the "lucky vulva"
Date: Fri, 20 Mar 1998 02:22:17 -0800

In article <>, catherine yronwode

> > re sheila-na-gig. what do you know about her? a real celtic heresy 
> > would make her mary -- ergo jesus' mom.
>         never knew a gal like-a little Sheila
>         her name drives me insane
>                         (Tommy Roe, circa 1959) 
> Sheila is a goddess in her own right and i really don't think she is
> Mary. For one thing, she is never shown with a child.In some ways she
> has more in common with the Hindu goddess Kali, but a happy Kali, a
> "cute" little Kali -- if such a thing were possible. 
> The Sheila-na-Gig is always shown as a bony and thin woman with
> pipe-stem arms and legs and very large-eyes, a neotenic hag of sorts,

> who either exposes and points to or holds open her enormously oversized
> vulva, while smiling a goofy grin. She has an impromptu "Kilroy Was
> Here" look about her. She appears mostly in medieval Irish churches as a
> bas relief, invariably positioned beside or above a doorway. 
> Lots of speculation surrounds the symbolism of Sheila's iconography:
> Some have thought that because she is so bony, she is a famine goddess
> and thus her vulva is a grave -=- but that doesn't hold up too well when
> you gaze upon her pleasantly cheerful face. The usual explanation for
> her position at a doorway is that just as the door is a passage into or
> out of a building, so is Sheila's vulva a passage into the world or
> perhaps the bony grave is a passage out.  

Ron Hutton (see _The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles_,
pp308-316) claims that they are more probably Christian allegories on the
perils of sin. His arguments for this being more likely than the 'Celtic
goddess' explanation:

* They're on Christian churches;

* Evidence from the 14th and 15th centuries suggests that they were often
commissioned (at that time) by bishops and abbots;

* They're almost all very ugly by medieval (and modern) standards - 'bald,
plump and leering';

* They appeared first in Aquitaine in 1050, and didn't reach England until
the next century, and Ireland slightly later.

> I know of no neolithic or "ancient goddess" counterparts to Sheila in
> Ireland. However, it has been speculated that some of the bas reliefs of
> Sheila-na-Gig found in medieval churches are of far earlier manufacture,
> and i have read (and can see from photos) that some are made from
> different stone than that used for the churches themselves. 

This could be a matter of masonry: perhaps preferred stone for carving is
not preferred for general construction.

> It is also speculated that the images still left of her are all that
> remain of many more, ripped down and broken by church officials who
> frowned on her. I recall reading somewhere that the 17th through 19th
> century saw widespread destruction of her image and at least two
> Sheilana-Gigs were taken out of churches in the 19th century but saved
> and have been set back in place in recent years in order to satisfy the
> tourist trade. 

Attitudes to sexual representation change. What starts off as plain ugly
slowly turns into bad pornography by the standards of the time.

> To the priests who hated her, the really galling part of the
> Sheila-na-Gig image is that since she is always on or over a doorway,
> pious church-goers lovingly rub her vulva "for luck" as they enter the
> church.  There is not very much "Christian" in that. 

This could be a resurgence of 'folk paganism' or general pagan impulses. I
believe that paganism is in some sense 'natural religion' in that some
form of it will appear spontaneously given the chance. So even if Hutton
is right, it's not necessarily inappropriate to consider them as
representations of a goddess ...even if their creators didn't.

Ashley Yakeley, Seattle WA

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