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Sheila-na-Gig and the lucky vulva

To: alt.lucky.w,alt.magick.tantra,
From: catherine yronwode 
Subject: Re: Sheila-na-Gig and  the "lucky vulva"
Date: Wed, 25 Mar 1998 19:59:46 -0800

Ashley Yakeley wrote:
> catherine yronwode  wrote:
> > Barry Carroll  wrote: 
> > > 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.

> Ron Hutton (see _The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles_,
> pp 308-316) 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';

I have seen more thin and bony ones than "plump" ones -- but you are
right about their baldness. I had overlooked mentioning that crucial
fact in my mention of their accidental resemblance to the WW II "Kilroy
Was Here" image. 

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

Aquitane in the 11th century! How amazing! Thank you very much for this
information and citation. I had no idea! 

> > 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.

Of course. My real point here was that despite the fact that modern
neo-pagans think of them as "ancient," there are no neolithic exapmples,
and, as you note, differing stone is not proof of an ancient image being
embedded in a later church, merely evidence that two types of stone were
used in a given church, one for carving and one for building. 
> > I recall reading somewhere that the 17th through 19th
> > century saw widespread destruction of her image and at least two
> > Sheila-na-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.

You put that very well. However, i still see them as "cute" more than
"ugly." But not "pornographic," although i agree with you that to
Victorians they could have seemed so.   

> > 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.

Good point...and, although we can never know, there may have been a
streak of rebellion in the adoption of a "sinful" or Z"vulgar" woman as
a totemic lucky figure. 

I still wonder, however, under what possible reasoning the bishops who
commissioned these images were working. 

> Ashley Yakeley, Seattle WA

Thanks much for the information. It helps put these images in contect. 

catherine yronwode

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