Sheela Na Gig:


'Kali Na Gig' by Amanda Reid

Recently, I’ve been working with the energy of Sheela Na Gig.  She is the Challenger Goddess, the Wise Woman, the Ego-Eater, the One from whose womb all things are born.  To me, She is a symbol for one of the ultimate, ultimate, most powerful and most ancient of all Goddess archetypes, because She is the original Creator Deity.

As would be expected for such a significant energetic Being, She can be found across cultures throughout the World.  She is Ishtar, Isis, Asherah, Innana..... 

However, the Goddess I personally connect most distinctly to the British Sheela is the all-powerful Indian Goddess, Kali.  Kali is the Hindu Goddess who removes the ego and liberates the soul from the cycle of birth and death.  Our egos are worn away by the constant challenges and life lessons She kindly puts in our path, for every adversity is an opportunity to grow in disguise. (Notice the pictures at the top and bottom of this page are entitled 'Kali Na Gig' not 'Sheela Na Gig' because I have incorporated features of the two figures into the image - these pictures were early drafts for my tattoo.)

‘Sheela’ is, in the Irish language, medieval slang for ‘woman’ and ‘Gig’ for ‘vagina’ so her name is simply a colloquial description of her appearance.  She is depicted as a thin, hag-like figure with sagging breasts and protruding ribs.  She is the original pre-male Creator of Everything with a capital E.  Her womb is the Void from which Light and All Things emerge.  Her womb is the Underworld.

We know that Sheela Na Gig first appeared in Britain as stone carvings during medieval times.  Stone masons were amongst the most travelled, learned and respected people of that time, their skills being highly prized and sought after.  The resulting power and influence of the Master Masons led to the Masonic movement. 

In medieval times, stone masons travelled across Europe to the Middle East and beyond, wherever great cathedrals and other magnificent buildings were being erected.  They saw and heard so much more than most other folk and were surely fascinated with and influenced by the stone carvings they saw in cultures such as Persia and India.  When I think of the remarkable similarities between Kali and Sheela Na Gig I find it easy to imagine that the masons who first carved Sheela in Europe and Britain had known the stories and symbolism of Ishtar and Kali and others and seen their representations in distant lands.  Imagine the pleasure of returning to one’s homeland with a new grotesque or stone figure and seeing the motif adopted by fellow masons.  Quite possibly, many images, maybe even the Green Man, came about through this means.  The Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, dated 1446, is richly carved by some of the most proficient masons of the time and it depicts some plants and animals that could never have been known by masons who did not travel far and wide. 

Sheela Na Gigs are presented as skeletal, either with sagging breasts or without them altogether.  Clearly, Sheela is not the rounded, fecund earth mother Goddess-figure symbolising fertility.  Additionally, a number of medieval Sheelas are carved with a protruding tongue, just like Kali.  The tongue is said by some to symbolise a cannibalistic bent, but from a spiritual perspective this implies that the Sheela/Kali Goddess-archetype does not eat people but their egos, in other words, she challenges us to break down our egos and helps us develop our spiritual energies further and further as we strive towards our highest potential.

In the ancient British/Welsh stories we see Arianrhod acting in this manner with Llew Llaw Gyffes and the Goddess Ceredwen doing the same in the story of Taliesin.  The challenges and aggression they show towards Llew and Taliesin enables the conditions for the males to rise above their egos and, in both cases, their story reveals that they attained a state of permanent enlightenment as a result. 

But, of course, Sheela’s dramatic presentation of her vagina as if it is a huge gaping cave is the biggest clue.  This makes her womb suggestive of the caves and chambered cairns used by Paleolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and even Bronze Age Shamans for altered state journeys and communication with the ancestors and the Goddess.  Such cavernous places are connected to The Womb of the Creator Goddess, the Void from which all Life flows.  By opening her labia she is inviting us into the Void, the place of mystery where, if we dare to go, our sense of Self is broken down and destroyed so that we ‘die’ and can be re-born anew.  Here is the Ego-eating theme again but now the genitals become the mouth; mouth of the cave, doorway and devouring orifice.  This idea of female genitals as a mouth is well documented and prevalent, especially in Eastern symbolism.

Ceredwen’s cauldron carries the same symbolic message, it is a large cave-like bowl that contains wisdom and inspiration.

The prevalence of entering deep dark places to attain wisdom and inspiration is cross-cultural.  In Delphi (the word ‘Delphi’ is from the root word for ‘womb’), the oracle’s sanctuary pre-dates it’s connection to Apollo as a site sacred to the Goddess Gaea.  The oracle/priestess sat on a three-legged seat over a great chasm stretching deep into the earth.  The oracle’s wisdom and insights thus came to her and were uttered.  Ceredwen’s cauldron makes a very good symbol for the relationship between the Goddess, the Underworld and the acquiring of wisdom and inspiration.  Sheela’s vagina is doing the same job.  It is not, as some may think, a doorway through which a baby exits into the world.  By pulling open her labia with her direct, challenging stare and wry smile she is saying “Come inside, if you dare!”  Here is a doorway through which Sheela Na Gig is inviting us to,symbolically, enter, so that we can, as it says above the temple doorway at Delphi, “Know Thyself” by entering the darkest, deepest recesses of the night to face our fears, face our Self.

So, how do we work with this Divine Challenger?  It is a very brave soul who goes looking for her!  But sometimes, she comes looking for us.

My own relationship with her started when rather strange and challenging changes occurred to my body.  I did not realise straight away but soon it was clear I had hit the menopause, or more precisely, the peri-menopause.  All of a sudden, Sheela Na Gig, her energies and insights, seemed to be the most pertinent of Goddess energies for me to work with during this process.  

The menopause, after all, is a natural bodily process and not the physical illness it feels like.  The body is going through a transition which causes all sorts of strange sensations and symptomology.  And it can occur, as it did for me, just at a time when everything seems more stable and ‘sorted’ than ever before in our lives.  We are feeling good about ourselves, we have got our life in a good place, all is going rather well, and then “Bam!” there we are struggling with all manner of difficulties affecting our health alongside our usual daily demands such as work, family, responsibilities and commitments.

I won’t pretend I managed my own changes serenely, those who know me know otherwise.  But who knows how tough it could have been without my spiritual filter to help me process and focus it?

One of my early actions was to get a tattoo.  My first and only (so far) and it is of Kali Na Gig, my version of the Sheela Na Gig that incorporates Kali's characteristics.  Not so very British, I know, but She is the Goddess that presented for me personally at that time.  I saw the tattoo as a distinct marking of the transformative process I was going through, a way of embracing Her protrusion into my life. 

Working with Kali Na Gig helps me to embrace the positive elements of the process of change, for, despite the chaos and the difficult symptoms, I also have very lucid moments of ‘awakeness’ and am sometimes more in touch with my inner knowing than ever before.  Although I can become significantly depressed or anxious due to the symptoms of (peri) menopause, I can also feel as awake, alive and empowered as never before.  What a roller-coaster this is!   

In the periphery of my inner vision I see Her there with me from time to time, smiling Her wry smile, staring straight into my soul with Her warm but testing eyes.  Actually, it’s not as scary as it sounds, more reassuring.  I trust Her not to give me more than I can take, even though She takes me right to the edge and sometimes even dangles me over it, shaking me to the bones at the same time!

She reminds me that nothing is forever, it will change, I will change.  She teaches me to see and live that another way; “I WILL change!” That is, I use my will to make things change.   

So, how do I work with Sheela or Kali Na Gig?  Well, it seems all I have to do is welcome her, embrace her and the rest just happens.

'Kali Na Gig sketch' by Amanda Reid