Asking Her Blessing by Christine Irving

… if the carving is in reach of its admirers,

the yoni will often be polished to a shine

by the touching fingers wishing to evoke

 the blessings of the Goddess.

~Adele Getty, Goddess: Mother of Living Nature

My book Sitting on the Hag Seat carries the blue cover I designed. Buried in the blue, riding the spiral Wheel of Return, stands a small Sheela-na-gig. The Sheela’ s origins remain unknown and controversial. It sometimes seem to me that the less explanation exists for a mysterious object or occasion, the more emotional attachment accrues to the opinions of diverging theorists. However, no matter what symbolism is ascribed to Sheela-na gig, her frequent placement above church doors or in the walls of cities, castles and watch towers, does seem to support a protective aspect not necessarily at odds with other attributions.

Sheela-na-gig. Cornerstone at Esker Castle, Irish

Whatever their origin, be it medieval or much older, the small female figures with bald heads and staring eyes still evoke a powerful response as they crouch, knees bent, arms akimbo, grasping a labial lip with each hand─ pulling them apart to reveal their gaping vulvas. Not the sort of thing one ascribes to ordinary Christian décor, and yet they appear in cathedrals, churches and chapels throughout western and central Europe.

Stonemasons sculpted them in the capitals of pillars, tucked into corners, or embedded ornamental friezes. Woodcarvers set her into the ornate undersides of folding choir seats, tucked her among extravaganzas of leafy foliage or abstract geometric designs.  As the priesthood gained in power and authority, becoming stuffy as starch, liturgies gained uniformity, strictures tightened, as did the meanings attributed to scriptures.

Church of St. Mary and St. David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire.

Sheela-na-gig went underground but failed to fade from common consciousness. Masons and carvers reduced her size even more and hid her in unlikely places. St. Brigit’ s cathedral in Kildare, Ireland displays a biskop’s marble sarcophagus.  To view his Sheela, tourists must get down on the floor and crane upwards to find her likeness on the underlip of his coffin. 

Sheela-na-gig’s body is wiry and spry. Sometimes her skin is smooth and firm, at others old and wrinkled. Ancient, numinous, feminine beings always come with the power to change their appearance, shifting aspects as circumstances warrant.  Whoever or whatever she represents, Sheela-na-gig speaks to the collective sub-conscious of humans in a profound and powerful way. Why else would she still exist, even in the face of repeated attempts to eradicate her? Something stubborn in the human psyche recognizes these figures as important and meaningful for the same reason farmers have for centuries continued to plow around the stone henges taking up valuable space in the midst of fertile fields. 

The sheelas I describe here are found in ten European countries, but various places around the world treasure similar images emphasizing female genitalia. These cultures sometimes carry remnants of myth that throw a little more light on the sheelas in my own lineage, affirming the supposed sheela link between life and death; childbirth– always a liminal line between these two states; protection; and, most strongly, fertility.

Dilukai from Caroline Islands, Belau

Ancient Egypt and Greece revered Heqet and Baubo, but in the Palauan archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean people still carve wooden figures called dilukai and place them above the doorways of their chiefs. According to The Encyclopedia of Religion:

These female figures protect the villagers’ health and ward off all evil spirits as well.  They are constructed by ritual specialists according to strict rules, which if broken would result in the specialist’s as well as the chief’s death. It is not coincidental that each example of signs representing the female genitalia used as apotropaic devices are found on gates. The vulva is the primordial gate, the mysterious divide between nonlife and life.

Sheela-na-gig at Oaksey in Wiltshire, England

It has been millennia since their meaning has passed from memory, yet ordinary people still respond to an atavistic impulse to visit and touch the Sheela. Hands still stretch to touch her sacred femininity, blurring the outline of a body whose sweet feet have sometimes been erased by brushing wrists and sleeves as fingers reach to rub the holy place where life enters to greet us anew.

We people feel the same way we always have, need the same things, want the same things. With a new beginning everything is possible- safety, fertility, comfort, love… all the things a mother directly represents. Whether or not one’ s biological mother supplied those things is irrelevant to the archetype blueprinted on our brains and possibly our souls, if these be different.

Abbey Church of Sainte Radegonte, Pointers, France,13th century

When I look at her, I see a creatrix- one who makes and fashions matter. Like her older sisters from 30,000 years ago she is humble, unmagnified, unadorned, fashioned from the matrix of this planet.  Something in me recognizes that this small, ridiculous, grotesque figure exudes the channeled energy of a much larger, more profound mystery.  It makes me reach out, touch the place so many other fingers have patted and polished into a smooth patina ashine with the promise of blessings.

The Sheela

She stares wide-eyed at strangers

knees akimbo, bony fingers

spreading labial lips

wide enough to birth a babe,

engulf a universe.

She is the Sheila-na-gig,

anonymous feminine,

gargolian creature

of mystery, annoying

as a fox-tail, irritating

as a grain of sand,

perching in churches

delicately carved,

deliberately placed,

origin, meaning, memory

lost in time.

Walking beneath her,

unseemly laughter bubbles

deep within my womb,

spirals round my spine,

pumps my diaphragm,

gurgles in my belly,

spews from my throat

and carries me

across this threshold

W(Holy) present,

I enter temenos

stripped clean

of ratiocination,

every single cell

open to sensation.

©2016 Christine Irving, Sitting on the Hag Seat

BIO: Christine Irving is ordained as a Priestess of Isis in both the Fellowship of Isis and the Gnostic Church of Saint Mary Magdalene.  She is an experienced ritualist, facilitator of women’s circles, and workshop leader.  Christine is an accomplished poet with seven books of poetry as well as one collaboration.  Her recent work Return to Inanna, revisits the myth of Inanna and explores its relevancy to the spiritual life of modern women.  She is also the author of Magdalene A.D., an historical novel about Mary Magdalene as she undertakes a parallel physical and spiritual quest many years after the crucifixion of Christ. Find her at her website:  or check out her blog

2 thoughts on “Asking Her Blessing by Christine Irving”

  1. I love these images, they are so varied and yet so universal. Sheela-na-gig is indeed a special goddess that speaks to us on so many levels. Its time to reclaim this power and this blessings. Thanks for the reminder.


  2. Thank you for this informative and fascinating post! I think you’ve touched on something very important – we don’t know exactly what they meant to their original creators, which gives us more opportunity to express what they mean to us, and you have done that beautifully!


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