SHEELA-NA-GIG by Carol P. Christ

On a trip to Ireland several years ago, I was fortunate to have been able to see the Sheela-na-gigs in the National Museum of Dublin.  Two of these Sheelas including the one removed from the Seir Kieran Church of County Offaly, pictured below, are currently on display.  They stand at the doorway of a room dedicated to items from the medieval period and easily missed.  As there was little interest in them and they are not in cases, I was able to silently commune without interruption.

We also had the opportunity to see one Sheela in situ at Killinaboy Church in County Clare.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the meaning of the Sheelas and the reasons why they are often found in rural churches.  Our Irish guide at Killinaboy seemed embarrassed by the one perched above the doorway of the church.  After having spent twenty minutes discussing a Celtic cross, she devoted about two minutes to the Sheela which she said was a warning against the sin of lust.  This prominent scholarly opinion is repeated in the book Sheela-na-Gigs by Eamonn Kelly published in conjunction with the museum.

Sheelas are carved images of women who point to their swollen or enlarged vulvas.  Closer inspection reveals that most of them are bald with large skull-like heads and small sometimes sagging breasts; some of them also have prominent rib cages.  Whereas others have been disgusted, frightened, and repelled by the Sheelas, I felt calm and comforted in their presence.  Touching them and cradling them in my hands, I felt a sweetness about them.

Taking inspiration from female scholars Margaret Murray, Edith Guest, and Marija Gimbutas. Barbara Freitag in her book Sheela-na-Gigs argues that the Sheelas must be understood in the context of medieval folk religion.  She sees the swollen vulvas of the Sheelas as depictions of women in the process of giving birth: the Sheelas thus were propitious symbols that women may have touched or turned to for protection.  But what about their more frightening death-like upper parts?  Frietag believes that the Sheelas were also images of the death.

The seeming contradiction between the life and death images is resolved once it is understood that in pre-Christian religions birth, death, and renewal were understood to be parts of a single process. This may explain their symbolism but why were they placed in churches?  Frietag suggests that the Sheelas were incorporated into church architecture because the people would not abandon them.  Usually they were placed in a position where they could not be touched, decorated, or anointed.  Incorporation was a step towards control and eventual eradication.

Eradication was never complete.  Frietag was able to document the existence of 167 Sheelas in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.  Some of these are now missing and many show signs of deliberate defacing.  Those that have remained can still speak to us across the centuries of the sacredness of the female body and of our human connection to the processes of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life.  They call us to honor our bonds with our mothers and our Mother, the earth.

At least  nine or ten Sheelas are stored in the basement of the National Museum of Dublin.  As I had come to Dublin as part of the World Archaeology Conference, my request to see them was granted.  My friend Naomi and I were left alone with seven Sheelas not on loan at the time of our visit for nearly an hour.

I had a kind of mystical experience in the shadowy depths of the basement of the museum with the Sheela-na-gigs:  I suddenly noticed that some of them seemed to be dancing.  The Burgesbeg Sheela seems to be leaping or jumping: her toes are pointed and her feet do not touch the ground.

The Ballylarkin Sheela—whose pose is usually described as “sitting on her hunkers”—seemed to be about to spring up into the leap of the Burgesbeg Sheela or to have just landed.

As my vision continued, I saw old women on dark nights at holy wells, sacred trees, and graveyards joyously leaping and jumping while displaying their vulvas.  They were warning the Christians: “Don’t forget the Mother.”  Christians who had forgotten the female Source of Life might have viewed such women as frightening, disgusting, or mad.  But those who had not forgotten would, I imagined, have smiled and given them a wink.

Was my vision far-fetched?  Barbara Freitag cites an early twentieth century report of a ritual dance at a holy well.  “The women, with garments fastened right up under their arms and with hands joined, were dancing in a circle round the well. An aged crone sat in their midst, and dipping a small vessel in the water, kept sprinkling them.  They were married women who had proved childless and had come to the well to experience its fertilizing virtues.”

I do not believe that Christians created the Sheelas as images of the sin of lust, as is often argued.  The Sheelas are too powerful in their own right for that to be true.  Some priests may have removed Sheelas from pagan holy places and set them above the doors rural churches as warnings against rituals they hoped to eradicate.  To them, the Sheelas might have symbolized the sin of Eve.  But the Irish love a good joke.  I like to think of them thumbing their noses at the priests as they walked under the Sheelas silently affirming: “We will not forget.”

Originally published in slightly different form in two parts on the now disappeared Women of Wisdom blog in 2009.  Photos by Naomi Goldenberg.

For information on Ireland’s Sheelas see

Also see Starr Goode’s recently published Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power.

For a wider perspective, see Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor Mair, Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures.

* * *

a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover designCarol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete.
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Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger



Categories: Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Folklore, General, Goddess

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24 replies

  1. We have in our country Serbia archaeological cite Vinca, dated to the period 5700–4500 BC, the famous figures, especially anthropomorphic figurines found in Vinca’s cite resembles these Sheelas you described.


  2. “The seeming contradiction between the life and death images is resolved once it is understood that in pre-Christian religions birth, death, and renewal were understood to be parts of a single process.”

    Carol, I think this split between life and death, dark and light, happens to be the most destructive aspect of Christianity that I can think of. This remarkable essay re-weaves that broken thread effortlessly because you are such a good writer, and because in addition to being a scholar you are also open to the mystical aspects of our experiences and are therefore able to bridge the gap between the two.

    Like you, I believe these powerful figures do represent the “old woman” as both death and doorway to new life. And perhaps more importantly, their images model for us how such figures can help return us to that Mother of us all – in life, and death.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article.I love SHEELA-NA-GIG! We have a SHEELA-NA-GIG over our front door. I feel very comforted by her.


  4. “As my vision continued, I saw old women on dark nights at holy wells, sacred trees, and graveyards joyously leaping and jumping while displaying their vulvas. They were warning the Christians: “Don’t forget the Mother.” Christians who had forgotten the female Source of Life might have viewed such women as frightening, disgusting, or mad. But those who had not forgotten would, I imagined, have smiled and given them a wink.”

    I’m picturing the invading (in one way or another) Christians, as men. Men of their time they would “own” the women they lived with. Then I picture the crones, and their warning to us all: “Don’t forget the Mother”. Makes me want to have another Women’s March! I carry these images through the day, with a big smile and a “kick-ass” attitude.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I always considered the Sheela nagigs to be related
    To an invitation to cross the boundaries of reason and enter into visionary and journey experiences that are found in the state of openness and receptivity that
    Is the entry to the divine feminine where our greater selves can be accessed. I wonder if it’s related to
    Spiritual practices which have helped people through out history access the power of the answer that lies within.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for this fascinating post, Carol. It makes sense that the Sheela-na-gigs would be about the Mother, and about life and death. I love it that they have been incorporated in churches and I do think it was because the people refused to give them up. The same thing happened with some of the churches in Mexico, according to a professor of Mexican history, Dr. Julian Nava. I wish I’d seen the Sheela-na-gigs when I went to Ireland, but I wouldn’t have understood them then, so the experience would have been lost on me, sadly.


  7. Delightul! I love your vision of the sheela-na-gigs dancing! I am reminded of Baubo lifting her skirt and flashing her vulva to make the bereft Demeter smile.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I had never heard of these before and found even the images of them quite moving, almost to tears. Birth, death and renewal as a single process. Now that I’m of a certain age, this idea appeals to me all the more. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Carol, Thank you! I named my daughter, Sheela Jane to signify a number of different hopes/traditions: her Indian ancestry, her female identity, a love of music, and God’s blessings. This is the first time I have seen “Sheela” spelt with a double e instead of the more common “Sheila.” Love the new layers of history and meaning. I have shared your post on Twitter with her.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Carol — This is a lovely little post! It reminded me of my time in the Irish National Museum. I had come there to see the Sheela-na-gigs, but didn’t know that I needed to write ahead for permission to see those that were in the basement. As I was trying to plead my case with a person at the desk, another woman came up and told me that she had obtained permission to see the Sheelas and I could accompany her. What a wonderful synchronicity! We sat in the basement looking them all over and discussing the origins of patriarchy and how we would overturn it. The post also reminded me of a book that I’ve only just begun by Star Goode entitled Sheela-na-gigs, and published last October. She looks at all the literature about these figures, and comes to similar conclusions to those of Barbara Freitag.


  11. The medieval Sheelas are indeed wondrous. From Paleolithic vulvas, to the Neolithic Frog Goddess, and the classical figures of Baubo and the Gorgon Medusa, to the Celtic Goddesses, the image of the Sheela na gig is rooted in the soil of Europe. To call them images of lust demonstrates an ignorance of history, let alone a misogynistic view of the female body. For millennia, the human imagination has been devoted to the Goddess, so it is hardly a surprise to find images of divine females like a Sheela na gigs adorning medieval buildings as part of an indigenous pagan religion. Christianity is just a thin veneer over these earlier traditions.

    Sheela na gigs are a mysterious convergence of opposites. A Sheela clearly offers up her ripe sex—an open invitation to cross a numinous threshold, pulling us towards her. Her vulva is tumescent, ripe and fertile. Indeed some Sheelas look pregnant or even hold a baby.

    Yet, she emanates a menace. Her expression is fierce, powerful. Her vulva is centered in the dry body of a crone. She has emaciated ribs, often is bald, with a skull of death. Marija Gimbutas observes that in the imagery of Old Europe, the archeological record shows that the Life Giver and Death Wielder are one deity. In this sense, Gimbutas says, “the Great Goddess is the magician-mother. Thus, the antinomies present in the Sheela’s body are part of a long tradition of the conjunction of seeming opposites creating a unity.

    The essence of a Sheela is the bold display of her female powers. This is the one quality that makes a Sheela a Sheela: an aggressive exhibition of her exaggerated vulva. Clearly, she is no ordinary woman. To my mind, from that sexual center comes her greatest power: she guards over boundaries. Sheelas are often placed by doors to protect entrances. As you point out Carol, one stunning example is the solitary Sheela defending the entrance on the south wall at the Killinaboy Church in County Clare. She draws in those who must pass through the power of her parted legs just as she has been doing for over 800 years ago.

    The apotropaic faculties of the Sheela na gigs were also employed by medieval masons by setting her next to windows on churches and castles. Some Sheelas, known as Hags of the Castle, were placed high on castle towers, sometimes sideways. From her perch, she watches over the land, a guardian of territorial boundaries.

    Yes, Carol, devotion to the Sheelas and belief in her healing powers of her vulva continues to this day. The Castlemanger, Ballyvourney, and Kilsarkin Sheelas bear the evidence of centuries of being rubbed, of receiving human caresses to bring good luck. The stone dust from her vulva is thought to have “curative powers.” The Behy Sheela, on a private farm, whose owners have witnessed an abiding belief in the many powers of the figure. They report that to this day many people come pray for fertility and well being and bring gifts such as candles or money. These are but to name a few examples.

    Finally, it is important to know that the startling image of a female displaying her sex manifests as a reoccurring theme across time and space all over the planet. All are archetypal expressions (or universal patterns of energy) of the yoni of the Great Goddess and her never ending manifestations of new forms of sacred art. She can be found in the visual arts of India, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania and Europe.

    Sheela na gigs are not just historical artifacts. The image of the Sheela is alive today to disrupt the lethal dominance of the narrative of patriarchy when She asserts in the boldest manner, the sanctity of the vulva.
    Starr Goode, author of Sheela na gig, the Dark Goddess of Sacred Power.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loved your book and highly recommend it!

      I do view the Sheelas as bold, but at least concerning the ones I saw, I did not feel they were firece or fearsome. Maybe they feel fiece to those who do not feel or accept the sacredness of the vulva. I found them more whimsical (see Demeter’s laugh) or even sweet in their own ways. I of course view them from the prior standpoint of revering the Source of Life as Goddess and accepting death as the natural ending of my life.

      I have not seen anywhere near as many as you have. I did see about 5 in situ in and around Shropshire, the ones in the Dublin Museum, and the one in the Killinaboy church.


      • Thank you Carol. Yes, it depends on the viewer. I have never felt afraid of them but have always loved them from first sight. They radiate a different kind of beauty.


  12. Thank you for this eloquent post. It’s timely, too — only this past week, I was listening to a podcast (Women In-Depth by Lourdes Viado) and her guest were the authors of a new hospice book “Living With Dying” (an interest of mine as I’ve been a hospice volunteer in the past and plan to do so again in the future) … anyway, one thing that particularly caught my ear, in respect to what you’ve written, is how they refer to the “labor” of dying, and relate dying to birthing as both are a process rather than a momentary event. Marion Woodman also, I believe, referred to dying as entering the “death canal” as related to the “birth canal” so, perhaps its possible that the Sheela-na-gigs are specific to the rituals of dying?


    • The connection of the womb and the tomb is very ancient. This can be viewed in two ways: as horrible or terrifying as patriarchal writers often do; or as just the way of things as ancient people must have done. I personally believe that at the moment of my death, I will go back into the arms or womb of the Great Mother and that will be the end of me and I think that is just fine.


  13. Fascinating, Carol! I hadn’t thought of the Sheelas as representing the cycle of life and death.





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