She lives on the lintels and doorways of churches all over Europe, especially in Ireland. She looks out in defiance from the stone in which she’s carved: teeth bared, eyes wide, legs spread. Her hands hold open her exaggerated vulva in a pose that is shocking to most modern viewers, especially given the religiosity of her surroundings. There are hundreds of her, and more being rediscovered all the time in ruins, old barns, fields, and bogs. Her name is Sheela na gig, but her origins are so mysterious that no one is even sure of that name’s meaning. No one knows exactly why the Sheelas were made, what they represented, or how they came to be built into the literal foundations of a church that has, at the very least, a fraught relationship with female sexuality.
Still, there are many stories.
One of the most popular is that the Sheela na gig represents a woman in labor, holding her body open as she births a child. Some evidence suggests that Sheela icons were loaned out to pregnant women, to encourage them and help them have faith in their bodies’ ability to accommodate a seemingly impossible task. Many modern-day women first encounter Sheela na gig imagery in this context, as influential midwives like Ina May Gaskin and other birth professionals have adopted her as a kind of mascot. Given our current understanding of the power of visualization and positive thinking, it’s easy to see how powerful a symbol like Sheela would be to the pregnant first-time mother who doubts her body’s capacity, a reassuring visual anchor to a woman in the throes of labor.
When I gave birth in an Irish public hospital, a crucifix hung on the wall across from my bed. Such an image of sacrificial love, of the suffering of the body as a channel for new life and salvation, is far from irrelevant to the birthing process. Still, in a world where the female body is often considered inherently obscene, both more hypersexualized and more taboo than the male body, I can only imagine how powerful it would have been to see Sheela watching over me in that moment.
However, Sheela na gig figures do not always fit neatly into the iconography of birth and fertility. Many of them have skeletal bodies, long and meager breasts, and deeply lined faces or even simply skulls for heads. These markers, suggesting old age or death, lead to two of the other most popular theories. The first is that Sheelas represent the circle of life in its entirety, encompassing the moment of birth in the depiction of the vulva, and the moment of death in the imagery of skulls and bones. The other is that she is the embodiment of the triple ages of the goddess: the maiden, mother, and crone brought together in one body.
Still other theories suggest that Sheela na gigs were used as a warning, a symbol to tell possible invaders that the women of the community were fearsome and not to be trifled with. Other scholars connect them with apotropaic magic and argue that they were used to ward off evil, as folklore sometimes told that a woman exposing her genitals could frighten away evil spirits. Still others suggest that they might be a warning against the sin of lust, although it seems to me personally that this theory comes from a post-Christian paradigm that holds overt sexuality to be more sinful in the first place.
Fertility, birth and death, ferocity, protection, sexuality: all of these are surely aspects of the goddess, and not mutually exclusive of each other. It seems simplistic to argue that Sheela na gigs must represent only one of these ideas, just as it would be to argue that any sacred symbol represents only one concept.
The sacred masculine is ubiquitous in the modern age: Christ on the cross, the Buddha in meditation, the male founders and leaders of almost every major world religion practiced today. Growing up, I was taught that masculine pronouns and names for God were meant to stand for all mankind, just as the word “mankind” was meant to include me, too. Yet I still found myself longing for and seeking out goddess imagery.
In 2018, I wore my eleven-month-old baby to Feile Sile na Gig, a Sheela na gig festival in Kilnaboy, County Clare. To begin the festival, a lecturer led us up a small grassy hill to the ruin of an old church, where a clear Sheela na gig carving was visible over the main entryway. Sheela seemed to watch us as the lecturer discussed the symbol’s history and provenance, and the various folktales and myths about what her image might really mean.
There were once thousands of wooden Sheela na gigs in Ireland, she told us, but they were systematically burned along with many other pagan relics when the island converted to Christianity – an event portrayed in myth by St. Patrick driving out the snakes. We would have no idea today that the wooden Sheelas had ever existed at all, except that the church kept records of their burning.
Listening to her, rocking back and forth as I stood to settle the baby drowsing on my chest, I thought there was possibly no better representation of the goddess, no clearer insight into what the Sheela na gig might really mean, than that. The very thing meant to destroy her is the means of her survival.
Afterward, the organizers led a craft workshop where we created dozens of clay and salt-dough sheela na gigs, some destined to come home with participants and some to be hung on the lintels of former Magdalene laundries, places where “fallen women” were sent away from their families and often worked to death under the guise of religious charity up until the 1990s.
I took my salt-dough Sheela home and baked her dry, which changed her shape a little. She sat on the mantle over my fireplace for more than a year, until the Irish damp got to her again and she started to crumble away. There’s a new Sheela guarding my fireplace now; making her anew doesn’t bother me. Her mutability seems part of her mythology, the shifting and multifaceted symbolism of the goddess, too.