From Goddess to Grotesque

We probably have a false impression when we think of the Irish Celtic pagan Goddess. If she originated with the Tuatha de Danann, who are popularly considered to comprise Ireland’s pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, then she must have been tall and beautiful, fair or red haired, blue eyed, pale skinned. Terrible and gorgeous, all at once.



Whilst a woman like this may appear desirable, if she were a fertility Goddess, you might expect that she would show signs of fecundity, the firm round belly of pregnancy at least. Maybe something like this…



You probably wouldn’t be expecting this…


sheelanagig


This little charmer is an example of a sheelanagig,  commonly thought to represent pagan fertility Goddesses. They are usually found on churches above doors or windows, although some have been found in the walls of buildings, possibly removed from their original location. This one was found somewhere in Co Cavan, and is now on display in the Co Cavan Museum.

The word ‘sheelanagig’ first appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840–44 with reference to a stone carving in Co Tipperary. The origins of the word are much debated, as it does not directly translate into Irish. Here are a couple of suggestions; Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘old hag of the breasts’, (although most sheelanagigs are not depicted with breasts); Síle ina Giob, meaning ‘Síle on her hunkers’. It is thought that the term may never have been used for the carvings when they were in use, but came into popular use during the nineteenth century.

It is popularly believed that the Goddess has a triple aspect, that is maid-mother-crone. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect it is a modern interpretation. In Irish mythology, the triune Goddess is usually represented by three sisters, such as the Morrigan composed of the sisterhood of Macha, Badb, and Nemain. Eriu, Banba and Fódhla are another example, who collectively represent Ireland’s sovereignty.

Brigid, most well-known and beloved of all the Irish Goddesses was said to have had two sisters also called Brigid, but the interesting thing about her triple aspect is that it represented her skills; poetic inspiration, the fire of the forge, and her healing power. Definitely not maid-mother-crone.

Just thinking logically for a minute… why would a fertility Goddess be represented by a dried up old crone? Surely she would be better represented by a nubile and fertile young maid, or the ripe swelling mother? In fact, if you look at the carving again, there is no suggestion of femininity other than the vulva. If she does represent a Goddess, I kinda get the feeling she’s been seriously demoted.

There are stories in the mythology, though, where an old hag demands kisses or sex of a young man, and if he obliges, she transforms into a beautiful young woman who bestows the sovereignty of Ireland upon him and his line.  This is shape-shifting, however, not a representation of maid-mother-crone.

Foe example, when Niall and his brothers are out hunting one day, they stop at a well for a drink. The well is guarded by an ugly old hag who offers to exchange a cup of water for a kiss. The brothers refuse in disgust, but not Niall… he’s willing to sleep with her, he’s so desperate for a drink! She immediately transforms into a beautiful young woman, identifying herself as the sovereignty of Ireland, and confers the right of kingship upon him and his line.

This is a motif which often appears in the old stories, the deal usually sealed with the newly appointed king accepting a cup or drink from the Goddess. Perhaps it refers to an ancient half forgotten kingship ritual, but it does not explain the ugly old sheelanagig.

A more plausible interpretation is that these carvings were placed on churches to warn an illiterate congregation against the evils of female lust. It is thought the tradition was probably brought over from Europe by the Normans during the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. Sheelanagigs have been found not only in Ireland, but all over central and western Europe.

Whatever their intended meaning, we cannot now know. Personally, I don’t like them. To me, they are crude caricatures, parodies of the female. They make me shudder, and if anything, they seem to mock all that is woman, not glorify it.

From Goddess to Grotesque indeed.


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32 Comments on “From Goddess to Grotesque

  1. I have never heard of sheelanagigs, so this was an especially intriguing post. It sounds as though men may have a twisted idea about women. Are these meant to warn others of the lust of women or perhaps in a primitive way depict their own lust. Thanks for this fascinating post, Ali.

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  2. This post and the comments by readers inspired me to do a little online research on the sheela-na-gigs. There appears to be a great deal of speculation and controversy surrounding these figures. Interesting post, Ali.

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    • Thanks, Rachele. Yes, lots of controversy and speculation and very little fact, but that’s what makes them so fascinating! 😊

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  3. sigh. Clearly a need for a few more feminists in their day. Such a shame that women are portrayed like this when we are the ones that grow life. But then people do attack the things they fear the most.

    Interesting post – even more interesting carving!! lol

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    • Yeah… its quite amazing in real. Bigger than you might think. It kind of draws you close then pushes you away at the same time. It is on display with some very interesting stone heads.

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  4. It is a pity you don’t know much about our marvellous Sheela-na-gigs. You are not supposed to ‘like’ the image and your comments are basically ill informed. Read Barbara Frietag’s book or the one myself and Joanne McMahon wrote. The ‘Images of Lust’ argument is truly defunct and most informed researchers agree that they are more clearly sacred religious images. I’m writing a second one just now. Be informed please before passing judgment.

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    • Hi Jack, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry my thoughts offended you, but it’s my opinion and how they strike me, and I surely have a right to express that, particularly on my own blog. I have not studied them to the level where I could write a book on them, as you have, nor do I claim to be an expert in any way. I am simply stating my thoughts and feelings. Thanks for your recommendations re further reading material. You are welcome to share your knowledge here if you wish to. All the best to you.

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  5. If you will permit me to get Freudian for a moment… Although I can’t comment on the historical relevance of the Sheela, I think it is a very powerful symbolic representation of a common mytho-poetical ideal. I’ve always interpreted it as a representation of the feminized form of the Nurturer/Destroyer duality. Dealing specifically with the feminine example, we can all agree that there are some women who kill the things they love. A mother who refuses to let her children go, keeping them close and smothering them, rendering incapable of self-actualization and independence. As we all emerge into this world from out of the darkness of the vagina, it is a powerful symbol of birth and fertility and nurturing. But the Sheela is a grotesque representation of this powerful and positive symbol, thus it represents the destructive aspect of the feminine.

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    • Well that is certainly one interpretation of the symbolism of the Sheelanagig, that I can’t deny, and I can’t pretend to know otherwise. 😄 You are most welcome to go all Freudian on this blog whenever you like! And yes, I have met plenty of mothers like that, for sure. Most Irish mammies, for a start! So perhaps you are closer to the truth than you realise! Thanks for joining in the conversation… I love a good debate!

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  6. I agree, they are very unattractive, Ali. More like something you’d see in a horror movie. The old hag being turned into a beautiful young woman after being kissed by a young male reminded me a little of the Fairytale The Princess and The Frog – only with the roles reversed.

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  7. Religion always finds a way to make what they consider to be sinful, horrendously grotesque as a way of putting people off… It’s really no different to what the gov/nhs do to put folks off smoking etc. Same psychology. However, I do feel and have to agree with what you say about the womanhood part.

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  8. I agree, that’s a most unattractive carving, to say the least! I think it all part of the Christian notion that sin lay with women, all in order to push their patriarchal vision of religion. Women used to hold so much more power as priestesses and healers – a carving like that reduces them to one very unpleasant thing. Hopefully the wheel is turning slowly back to equality once more.

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  9. I agree that they’re unattractive, Ali, and it seems odd that they’d be on churches except to warn against female lust and sexual seducers. Poor women got blamed for the male libido then and still are 2000+ years later. Ugh.

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  10. They are certainly offputting and enigmatic. There’s one on a castle near us and I’ve seen one on a barn wall, but mostly they do seem to be on churches. In Ballyvourney, there’s one on St Gobnait’s church and one of the stations on the rounds involves reaching up through a wondow to touch the Sheelanagig, Very strange.

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  11. Fascinating stuff but I note , as always , the experts disagree. My theory is it is an early form of crude pornography hence the link with lust and not love.

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  12. The sheelanagigs are strange, but the mystery of their origin has intrigued me for years. Ireland has the most of them -123, if memory serves me. Thanks for writing about them, Ali.

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    • Ireland does have a greater concentration of them. I did read it somewhere, but I don’t remember how many. I’m sure you’re right. They are an intriguing little puzzle. Many Irish churches seem to have been rebuilt or replaced during the 1800s so it’s hard to find a medieval church which still has one. The stone we looked at at Tara may well depict the remains of a sheelanagig from the old church, but it’s so well worn, its hard to say, isn’t it?

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  13. You have to feel that a combination of Church and prudish Victorians had some say in the crone idea which does conflict with logic of fertility. As for the carving, well, I’m glad my granny didn’t visit that particular Church!

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  14. You never disappoint Ali. I always learn something. I’ve been confused on the maiden, mother, crone and the triple aspects of the Ireland’s goddesses and appreciate the clarification of which I’m in total agreement from my readings of the myths.

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    • Well that is just my opinion from reading the old stories, and I know it goes against what is popularly believed, but if you feel the same as me, there must be something in it. 😁

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  15. Have they been dated? And are they found only in church architecture? If they predate Christianity there has to be another explanation, but like as not they are as you say, in the same vein as the medieval depictions of female lust in scenes of hell.

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    • I think they are dated only in so far as the buildings they are found on and the style of the artwork itself. Otherwise its hard to date a lump of rock! Of course, theres nothing to say they arent copies of something more ancient, but if thats so, why have none survived in any ancient pagan context? And why is there no mention of them prior to 1800s? Not even in the medieval texts? Its intriguing.

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  16. I enjoyed learning more about sheelanagigs. I first heard of them a few months ago in posts by (I think) Inese of the Making Memories blog and Sue Vincent of the Daily Echo blog. I remember being a little stunned at how such carvings could appear on, say, church walls despite being so, um, straightforward in nature.

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  17. I agree, very objectifying. And I’ve wondered like you about the origin of the word sheelanagig because it’s definitely not from Irish in a traceable way. So I like your conjecture about the church spreading the image, to put it in a way… to warn people and promote a far more limited and harmful conception of women and what it means to be female. My intuition is that there is no individual, mythical or otherwise, corresponding to the image… and I’m really hoping I am right! 🙂 Off now for real… I really should be sleeping soon, and also there’s chocolate that needs eating before that. 🙂

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