DUBLIN, Ireland – Recently there have been a couple of mainstream news articles that are centered on the depictions of the Sheela-na-Gig.
CNN reported on the historical connection to Irish myth and lore, and the prevalence of the carvings throughout Europe, though the largest numbers of the sculptures are found in Ireland.
The original meaning of the Sheela may have been lost over time, as is the case with many beliefs that were oral traditions. Historians and folklorists have varying opinions.
Archaeologist, folklorist, and historian at Cork’s CSN College of Further Education, Shane Lehane told CNN, “Sheelah is one folk manifestation of what we call the female cosmic agency. Think of her as the consort of the male, that great mythological tradition of the king and the goddess. She represents the land.”
A competing theory, and one that seeks to explain why so many Sheelas are found on medieval churches and other religious structures, is that her depictions were put in place to warn against lascivious and sinful behavior, and the evils of women, in general.
Neither of these theories is mutually exclusive, and both could be true whether separately or in combination and over a long period of time as to the way the imagery of the Sheelas was interpreted.
Another bit of folklore could be viewed to suggest a connection of the Sheela to the Cailleach of Celtic mythology.
According to Heritage Ireland, the standing stone, Lia Fáil, which sits on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, and also referred to as the coronation stone, was the seat of the high kings of Ireland. Lehane explained, “If you were going to be king you sat up on top of the Lia Fáil and you symbolically mated with the land. If you were the right king, the Lia Fáil would screech.”
In contrast, should the king not properly honor his vows to the land, he would be confronted by the Cailleach. According to Lehane, “For the new king to come along, he must embrace this dangerous hag, and she reforms into this beautiful, bountiful, kind figure again.”
There is also folklore and historical data that shows St. Patrick’s Day was originally part of a three-day festival culminating on March 18 and celebrated as Sheelah’s Day, which preceded the Spring Equinox. Some accounts deem Sheelah as Patrick’s female counterpart or wife, and journal articles from the 1800s viewed it as a brief opportunity to skirt Lent prohibitions.
In recent years the Sheela has become associated with women’s rights and used as a symbol to reclaim and honor some of the places where women suffered, and recognize female leaders who have fought for women’s rights in Ireland.
Project Sheela describes itself as “a street art project founded by two Dublin-based artists to celebrate, commemorate and commiserate with the history of women’s rights and female sexuality in Ireland.”
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Since the project’s inception it has installed a number of sculptured plaques, like the one pictured above, at sites across Dublin, sixteen in 2020, and seven so far this year. Unfortunately, the plaque placed at the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) was removed within days of its placement.
Some of the plaques placed have been to commemorate horrible abuses, like Magdalene Laundries, which were institutions primarily operated by Roman Catholic orders for what they termed as “fallen women” which could be defined to represent anything from women who were outspoken, behaved contrary to what was deemed “proper,” or being unmarried and pregnant.
Rather than being places where women were helped or “rehabilitated,” they were more like asylums or prisons. Once a woman was placed there she was rarely allowed to leave, was forced to do hard labor with no pay, and subjected to horrendous abuses. Women who gave birth within their walls had their newborns taken away. A mass grave containing over 150 bodies was uncovered in 1993 beneath one of the “laundries.”
The last of these institutions, Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity on Sean MacDermott Street in Dublin, was finally shut down in October of 1996. Project Sheela installed one of their Sheelas outside the building to honor the thousands of women who were tortured and abused inside the walls of the building.
Other plaques placed by Project Sheela are connected to the 1916 Rising, like the one placed outside Kilmainham Gaol, Glasnevin Cemetery, and Rathmines to commemorate the women who helped to fight for Irish independence.
Still other plaque placements commemorate the institutions and organizations that continue to fight for women’s rights in Ireland like the National Women’s Council of Ireland, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Akina Dada wa Africa-AkiDwA.
A recent article in The Guardian titled “Big vagina energy: the return of the sheela na gig highlights the shift of some researchers to view Sheelas as more of a pre-Christian folk goddess, and the possible connection to sympathetic magic.
Dr. Barbara Freitag, author of the book, Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (2004), points out in The Guardian article how the images of the Sheelas could’ve been perceived when it came to childbirth, “In medieval times, there was such a high maternal mortality rate that you wanted a big vulva to ensure the child came out as quickly as possible because a long, protracted birth could well mean the death of the child and the mother.”
While Freitag was one of the first academics to endorse the idea of the Sheelas representing a goddess or being used as a talisman for fertility, Professor Georgia Rhoades echoed those ideas by also linking them to fertility and the cycles of life and death.
Rhoades points out in her article, Decoding the Sheela-na-gig in the journal Feminist Formations published in 2010 by Johns Hopkins University Press, that the imagery of Sheelas varies and bears a similarity to other goddesses like, “Baubo in the Middle East, and to Kali and other goddess figures in India and Southeast Asia.”
Rhoades also draws a direct connection between the Sheelas that are far older than the medieval sculptures, as being likely representations of the crone aspect of the goddess.
Whatever the origin, or how Sheela-na-Gig has been interpreted over time, once again her image is seeing a revival, this time by women who hold her image up as a sign of empowerment and equality.