Sheela na Gig

You find Sheela hanging around churchs. Over archways into cloisters. In cathedral misericords. Hanging high up on columns. She adorns the stone sarchophagus of an archbishop in Kildare Cathedral. She looks rudely pagan, but she appeared in medieval British and Irish Christian churches. Maybe she is a transitional figure, a goddess figure not quite vanquished until Mariolatry gained momentum. But you do find the Green Man on those medieval churches, too. (Indeed, that archbishop has a Green Man carved on his casket, as well as the Sheela, though both are discreetly on the underside. I had to lie flat on the stone floor slabs to get a photo.) Perhaps the stone masons were doing the double spiritual insurance policy;  the fertility of the land and good crops was life and death.

But the Sheela na Gig is always a woman past child bearing years. Her breasts are often withered. She is always depicted with her legs held wide and with larger than life sized labia. Some Sheelas almost grin lasciviously; each one has a unique mouth expression. All have  wide, enlarged eyes.  

Just as we can only speculate about the true function of the neolithic  megaliths, the purpose of the Sheela is also a mystery. Found in churches, we do reckon that she had religious and/or spiritual significance. Her wide open labia stand as a liminal space – the birth canal with the locks fully open so to speak. The graphically sexual stance is shocking to modern eyes, but it probably was not to our medieval ancestors. Indeed, perhaps they used Sheela’s labia as a metaphor for the  sacred space of life.  Perhaps Sheela was deliberately depicted as a woman past child- bearing as a way of challenging the viewer to not take this too literally.  New life can appear in all manner of ways.

The Sheela that inspires the Poetry Daily today is one seen in the Cavan County Museum. This Sheela looks quite fierce.  So I have imagined her as a kind of  feminist poster girl. Or as a prayer card.

Sheela: A Prayer Card for the Post-Menopausal Woman

I am grown old.

Now comfortable in 

The skin of my own speech

To finally speak.

I am grown old. 

Now confident enough

In the truth of my own eyesight

To finally see.

I am grown old.

Now no child will ever slide

Out from between my thighs.

I finally birth me.

Copyright 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved.



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