By Joan Schweighardt
Bloomers Blazing is a regular feature at BLOOM, presenting interviews with (and stories about) people who found their life’s passion after the age of 40.
“May my work be a force to restore to women a history so much suppressed by patriarchal bias.”
It is preposterous that in this day and age, women around the world are still fighting for equal rights. We have been restrained for so long that we required a campaign like #MeToo just to bring the subject of sexual abuse to the surface. Women’s movements may abound, but according to the experts at the last World Economic Forum, it will take another 200-plus years just to close the gender pay gap.
In these dark times, Starr Goode’s Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power (Inner Traditions) is a beacon of feminist light. While the path to true empowerment may still lie ahead, Goode’s book reveals it is backlit by sheer magic from days past.
Starr Goode is a writer, teacher of writing and literature, producer/moderator of The Goddess in Art cable TV series, and a cultural commentator whose work has illuminated the pages of the L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and more.
Joan Schweighardt: What are Sheela na gigs?
Starr Goode: Sheela na gigs are 12th- to 17th-century stone carvings of supernatural females displaying their vulvas. They have been found in Ireland and the British Isles on both sacred and secular architecture, from medieval churches to castles, town walls, holy wells, and gravestones.
In some instances the vulvas in these carvings are immense, half the size of the rest of the body, confirming that the Sheela is no ordinary woman. She offers up her ripe sex yet emanates a repelling menace from the upper half of her hag-like body. She embodies the numinous power of the Dark Goddess over the mysteries of death and life. Some of her many functions are as an apotropaic guardian of doorways and castle walls and, to this day, a folk deity whose vulva is rubbed by locals for her healing powers.
JS: Were many Sheelas destroyed through time because they feature vulvas?
SG: Initially the Sheela’s powers of protection and renewal of life were part of a folk religion too intimately bound up with the welfare of peasant communities to be disregarded by the Christian church. But during the rising tide of Puritanism and the resulting Counter-Reformation of the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, the image of the Sheela lost its official sanction, which marked the end of her era. The church mutilated an untold number of works of sexual art, the Sheelas among them. Many had their vulvas hacked off. Others were buried, thrown in rivers, or burned as stone witches.
Alas, the disintegration of the Celtic way of life was initiated by various invasions of Ireland by the English. The Sheelas, which functioned as a symbol of the goddess of Irish sovereignty, were destroyed by a puritanical zeal to annihilate the culture.
JS: Despite the destruction, are Sheelas still being found?
SG: Dedicated Sheela hunters are discovering the figures on remote Romanesque churches as well as on castles in the countryside of Ireland and Great Britain. As contemporary consciousness stirs with a resurgence of interest, the eye begins to see what it could not see before.
Also, many figures were concealed. Some, having fallen from the natural erosion of buildings and been buried in the ground for centuries, are being recovered as well. (The image on the cover of my book is one such example.)
JS: How did you first learn about the Sheelas?
SG: In 1984 a friend showed me a Xeroxed copy of Jörgen Andersen’s book, The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles. This book, published in 1977, launched the modern study of the stone carvings. I made a copy from her copy and began my journey.
JS: What was it about them that impacted you?
SG: The beauty and power of the Sheela na gig is startling and stunning. “This is for me!” I thought. I fell in love. How could it be that this figure—clearly a female yet not human—displays her large pudendum without shame on a Christian church? How could such a piece of art exist at such a time in such a place? The medieval masons who created these sculptures left no texts of explanation.
JS: Where were you in your career when the Sheelas captivated you?
SG: This investigation was the deepening of a feminist path I’d been on all my adult life. The Sheelas took over my life; everything else became secondary. I had no idea where this passion would lead or what initiations lay before me. Back then I only knew I loved looking at pictures and wondering about their mysteries, and that it would be a great adventure to travel to Europe and stand before what I had previously only read about.
JS: How long did the project take and what did the research require?
SG: It was 32 years from my first introduction to the Sheela image in 1984 until my book was published in 2016. Research required many trips to Europe, sometimes twice annually. Once there, a whole day could be devoted to tracking down a single Sheela. I found them in the ruins of remote country churches, muddy fields with cows and bulls, obscure holy wells. My main reference map was an index of all known Sheelas compiled in 1935.
Andersen’s bibliography pointed the way to other material. Reading, trips to university libraries. I had to join the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin—an arduous process—to have access to their stacks of 19th-century antiquarian journals. I met with the Keeper of Antiquities of The Irish National Museum. I met with curators of smaller county museums.
As public interest in my work grew, I created lectures with slideshows to present at bookstores and universities. I begin to publish articles. For a visual topic like mine, I had to collect images from outside sources. I worked with museums like the Getty, the Metropolitan in New York, museums in Denmark, England, Ireland, and Switzerland. I contacted artists from all over the world.
Then, one miraculous day, my book proposal was accepted. Two years and ten months later, I had a 374-page manuscript with 151 illustrations.
JS: What is the difference between traveling to “sightsee” and traveling because you are obsessed with something specific?
SG: Seeking out the Sheelas was never a relaxing vacation. But it was almost always thrilling to come face to face with a new Sheela—a lot of work for a rare moment of deep satisfaction. And I had to see them for myself. I had to hear what the local people had to say about them.
JS: In one of your interviews for TV, archeologist Marija Gimbutas suggests a connection between the Sheelas to goddesses found in Neolithic art. Do you agree?
SG: Yes. The first part of my book, “History,” traces, through art and myth, the Sheelas’ origins back to Paleolithic cave art. A pervasive worship of the Great Goddess persisted for millennia, reflecting a religious history that began in the Paleolithic period.
Paleolithic cave art is grounded in the imaginative idea of caves as an embodiment of a universal creative womb. In parietal art, the image of the pubic triangle of the Great Mother symbolizes the source of life. Surely an image that has endured throughout history and is so prominent in the archeological record of prehistory speaks to a meaning essential in human perception and the understanding of the world.
As I read theories about their origins and functions and followed my intuition, I put together the pieces of the puzzle for myself. And through looking at similar figures of sexual display cross-culturally and considering how contemporary artists use the figure, I found a solid foundation for the potency and sacredness of the vulva.
The enigma of the Sheela made her more intriguing to me.
JS: How do the Sheelas speak to us today?
SG: Women are reclaiming the vulva as an icon of primal creative energy. Words like vulva, vagina, and now pussy are part of the zeitgeist of our culture, with all their potency to sanctify—not demonize—the female body: a pink pussy hat on a Time magazine cover; the New York Times bestseller Pussy: A Reclamation; The Vagina Monologues; The Dinner Party; and the modern florescence of the Sheela na gig.
The rebirth of the Sheela as a subject for contemporary artists is part of this new story, one based on the female body not as a submissive, fetishized object of male desire. Paraguayan American artist Faith Wilding speaks to the multitude of vulvas in the work of feminist artists: “We are inventing a new form of language radiating a female power which cannot be conveyed in any other way at this time.”
American artists like Nancy Spero, Marybeth Edelson, and Micol Hebron have given us new images of femaleness, connecting the bodies of contemporary women with ancient figures like Medusa, Baubo, and Sheela na gigs with photorealistic drawings of vulvas.
On the Sheelas’ native turf, scholar Molly Mullin makes the point that the image of the Sheela has almost become emblematic of Irish feminism as a force for hope and change from the traditional representations of Mother Ireland and the Virgin Mary. Artist Carmel Benson regards the dynamic range of energies of the Sheela as a necessary antidote to such passive images of the female. Painter Fiona Marron, in a visionary reimagining of the Sheela, wants to imbue them with a new life and voice to remind us of where we have come from and where we are going.
JS: What is the range of conjecture that historians have come up with regarding the Sheelas?
SG: Despite centuries of debate, Sheela na gigs remain a mystery. Arguments began in the 19th century when antiquarians, stirred by a passion for things of the past, started to catalogue the medieval figures. Might she be a regenerative symbol for the cycle of life’s fecundity, decay, and renewal? Does she embody the power of the Celtic goddesses, first conjured on pagan soil but linking to stone age divinities of ancient Europe? Or did she originate on the European continent as a decorative motif on medieval churches, depicting the sin of lust?
Continuing arguments abound in several recently published books. Art historians Anthony Weir and James Jerman in Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (1986) contend that the Sheela’s open display functions strictly as an image to warn against lust.
Recent works by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: the Divine Hag of the Christian Celts (2000), and by Maureen Concannon, The Sacred Whore: Sheela Goddess of the Celts (2004), regard the Sheelas as being native to Ireland and present long before the coming of Christianity with antecedents in Celtic sculpture and myth.
Barbara Freitag, in Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (2004), argues that these sculptures were seen by peasants as magical birthing stones, folk deities used to help women survive childbirth.
Others, like Gimbutas, in The Language of the Goddess (1989), trace the image back to the origins of art and religion in Neolithic and Upper Paleolithic Europe. Her prominent vulva links her to the old European Goddess of Death and Regeneration who as a personification of nature and cosmos ruled over all cycles of existence.
JS: How has your relationship to the Sheelas changed as you’ve studied them?
SG: Since I started working on these materials, so much has changed in the culture. I like to think my book appeared at just the right moment to be part of the heady spirit of these times. May my work be a force to restore to women a history so much suppressed by patriarchal bias. May it offer evidence of our natural heritage shown by the creation of the uncountable representations of the sanctity of the vulva around the world. That my book can make this contribution gives me immense fulfillment.
For me, the crowning achievement of my work is to see so clearly the thread of symbolism of the vulva throughout time—that its main theme is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, all life on Earth and the whole cosmos. Tracing these images backward to their origins in the Paleolithic, and forward to historic times, what struck me was not the change but the continuity.
This epiphany shapes how I navigate in the world.
Starr Goode’s website can be found at http://www.starrgoode.com/.
Joan Schweighardt is the author of Before We Died and other novels. Her first children’s book, No Time for Zebras, releases in October.
Book Cover photo credit: Rahara Sheela, courtesy of the County Roscommon History and Archeological Society. All other photos by Starr Goode.