Sheela Na Gig
Sheela na Gig Artwork By Shelly Mooney

Sheela na Gig, like so much from our mythical past, is a figure somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Who is Sheela?

There are a few different versions of Sheela. Historically the Irish, and the Irish diaspora, marked the 18th of March in honour, but the practise seems to have died out in the 1800s. In some Irish folklore she was said to have been a wife of St. Patrick. Other folklore surviving from the Irish diaspora in Newfoundland tells of an Irish princess called Sheila Na Geira. Whilst in another of their traditions, the last snowstorm after St. Patrick’s day is known as Sheila’s Brush.

Sheela na Gig

But perhaps the most famous Sheelas of all are the Sheela na Gigs. Figures of naked, often older women, displaying their vulva. There are hundreds of these little carvings spread around Ireland, the highest concentration in all of Europe, and they mostly appear on churches and castles from the 11th century. Many ended up being destroyed or damaged as the centuries marched on and Christianity became more puritanical on the island.

Links to an Ancient Past?

We don’t know what Sheela na Gig originally meant to the people who carved her, but it’s possible that she is a representation of an older, now forgotten fertility goddess. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sheela’s Day falls at this time of year, so close to the spring equinox and the official end of winter. Perhaps she bears a connection to An Cailleach, another ancient hag goddess associated with winter.

Her placement above doors and windows almost gives the impression of entering a womb. I personally feel this has echoes of our Neolithic passage tombs, which also bear resemblance to wombs and vulvas. Perhaps these represent an allusion to the passage from one world to the next, the journey between life and death. It’s interesting to note that Cairn T at Loughcrew has a Spring Equinox alignment, and is also associated with An Cailleach.

Renewed Interest

Whatever the case may be, the renewed interest in Sheela na Gig is wonderful to see. These defiant, joyful figures are once again free of shame and receiving the attention and love that they deserve.

Here’s a little Sheela artwork of my own!