Sometimes they are clothed, mostly they are naked. Sometimes their hair is coiled like Princess Leia’s. My first Sheela Na Gig appeared to be a bald hag, one of numerous corbels engirdling the 12thC round-bellied church of St Mary & St. David, in Kilpeck, Herefordshire, a religious site since at least Roman times. Amid a cavalcade of owl-men, groping lovers and fish swallowing their own tails, this Sheela flew astride an engorged vulva. Her eyes goggled, pulling herself open.
My friend Nina Lyon had written a book (Uprooted, On the Trail of The Green Man). We had come here in search of the Green Man, a shaggy-leafed, vine-bursting male head, claimed by some to be a Celtic fertility figure, carved on churches around our Welsh Marches. Skidding along country lanes, we’d been having a snappy, amused little row over myth, belief and idol worship. Now, my breath clouded in the icy sunlight as I gawped.
“She’s in a position of power,” Nina said. “She’s like: have a look.”
“She’s flying,” I observed. “Or has seriously itchy candida.”
In Ireland, over a hundred surviving Sheela Na Gigs have been honoured with their own Heritage Trail. Sheela Na Gigs are suggestive of the Cailleach of Irish and Scottish mythology, a divine hag, revered as a creator deity, watching, somewhat like Greek Hecate, over childbirth, death and the weather. Beside the figure of the hag stalks a counterpart in seduction and destruction, The White Goddess, who has survived in histories of the Celtic Bardic tradition (see Robert Grave’s The White Goddess). Similar to Goddesses in the East, she expresses both erotic and death instincts.
In the hamlets of our sleepy Welsh Marches, modest customs prevail. Even now, in the 21stC, a farmer would sooner look at another man’s cow than another man’s wife. So while Nina, who’d seen a few Sheelas, talked, I stood, astonished by this brash virago.
“The Church implies they were warning against sins of the flesh,” explained Nina, stepping into Kilpeck, “But since religious history was documented by the Christian Church, no one knows what they might mean. That’s part of their fascination – people are free to create belief around them.”
The Western Church’s assertion of religious ‘facts’, alongside a belief in good versus evil and human versus Nature, has pushed Sheela Na Gigs towards the occult and the ‘evil’. We know that witches consumed henbane via vaginal suppositories (possibly spawning the myth of flying on broomsticks). Henbane’s psychoactive properties induce hallucinations and feelings of flying. This may explain the Kilpeck Sheela’s wide-eyed flight. Since witches were associated with sexual looseness (sometimes killed, it’s been claimed, by stuffing their cats up their vaginas, clawed to death), Sheelas may also be a nasty warning.
The Irish Church expelled a number of Sheela Na Gigs in the 17thC. A certain Thomas O’Conor, confronted by one in Tipperary, in 1840, demanded why this “ill executed sculpture,” expressing the “grossest idea of immorality and licentiousness,” should be anywhere near a church. Why indeed, Tom? And why is she never depicted as receiving punishment? Why do several of these supposed harlots dwell within churches, as well as without? And why, as in Church Stretton, the respectable town for walkers and retired folk at the bottom of my hill, is there a Sheela presiding over the entrance to a church? The Church Stretton Sheela Na Gig has one side of her body crudely clothed; the other side is naked. She could be a mason’s striptease fantasy but she reminds me of the decay that sits like a seed within our fruiting bodies.
Such thoughts inevitably raise the question of what lies beyond death, or, as the East would have it, what remains when the body falls.
The post-Christian response to Sheela Na Gigs suggests that, unlike the East, where idolatry and symbols are understood as portals to deeper meditation, the cunt, or (Sanskrit) yoni has become fixed in ideas of sex, sin and porn. The hag, or aging woman is invariably caricatured as a bad-spirited creature, a harbinger of death and disease. If you’ve encountered the stone yonis and lingums (divine phalluses) or naked, headless bodies of Mother Goddesses in India, Nepal, or Sri Lanka, you will have witnessed an alternative attitude. Truck drivers jump down to roadside temples, piss behind a tree then, washing their hand at the temple pump, bow their heads before a yoni, the Divine Womb. If you regularly witnessed this, you might – possibly – escape the continuing shame and ‘bad’ lust surrounding the cunt and see our birth passage as a place where we let go of ourselves and enter the larger body of Creation. Or you could, without travelling so far, raise a cup of mental cheer, next time you encounter a Green Man or Sheela Na Gig. What began in Celtic times may, if we choose, be renewed. The cunt is a conflicted zone – but how we view the male and female within ourselves can be usefully challenged, by reacquainting ourselves with these ancient totems.
By Soma Ghosh