Fiercely defending, bravely exploring Goddess and spiritual feminisms
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Review: Sheela na gig, a book by Starr Goode
Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred
Power by Starr Goode, Inner Traditions 2016, 8” x 10”, 2.4 lbs., 384 pages.
Also available as an ebook.
Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power is a large, beautiful book in which the author, Starr Goode, delves into the art, history, and mystery of one of the most sexually assertive and explicit figures honored by
those who revere Goddesses and a subject studied by researchers of ancient
artifacts. As you might guess from its dimensions, the book is
illustration-intensive with a total of 151 excellent black and white illustrations—mostly
images—of Sheelas or related deities, such as Baubo. The images come from
various time periods (most recently dated back to at least 9600-800 BCE) and
various cultures, and can still be seen on churches in the UK, including
Ireland. In exploring them Goode, who teaches writing and literature at Santa Monica College and produced and
moderated the cable TV series “The Goddess in Art,” travels back to the Neolithic and forward to
art in our own time. The latter features contemporary interpretations of Sheela.
A number of the photos were taken by the author, others are from the work of
Marija Gimbutas and from other well-known sources. The seven chapters of Part
I, “History,” contain 73 illustrations; the two chapters of Part II “Journeys,”
30 illustrations; and the four chapters of Part III, “Image,” 48 illustrations.
book about the “displaying” (holding apart vulva lips) female figure begins
with a historical overview that includes agreements and disagreements about
Sheelas’ origins and significance. Today, there is apparently no agreement on
the meaning of Sheela na gig’s name, nor her significance at various times in
history, nor even when She first appeared historically. Goode discusses various
theories of origin, such as Neolithic, early Pagan, Romanesque, and even later.
She includes the role that Romanesque architecture played in the popularization
of Sheela representation and the relationship of the transfer of Irish and
other goddesses to Christian saints, which resulted in the probable transfer of
symbolism that occurred when displaying Sheelas were placed on churches and
castles—where many remain today.
discussion of Sheela symbolism Goode considers several possibilities, including
as “a regenerative symbol for the cycle of life, representing fecundity, decay,
and renewal.” She writes, “Certainly, the mysteries of sex, death, and rebirth,
have accrued around the image of the vulva. It is an open invitation to sex, a
birth canal, and, paradoxically, a symbolic return to Mother Earth following
death.” In Christianity, Goode writes, the displaying figures became “a warning
against lust.” Later their symbolism became more protective and powerful. One
of the strongest and longest associations with Sheelas is “apotropaic” power,
in which the displaying female genitals have the power to avert negative influences
or bad luck. For example, people used Sheelas to guard against the “evil eye.”
Related are various titles that have been given to Sheelas by different
cultures, such as “Evil Eye Stone” and “the Witch.” Citing the German writer
Georg Kohl, Goode also discusses “human Sheelas,” living women who, in
Ireland, were and are still called “Shila na Gigh” and who help people’s luck
to change from bad to good by “lifting their skirts to display their female
nakedness.” Goode also discusses why and when stone Sheelas become less
prominent in Ireland, including through their mutilation. Goode explains that
in medieval times, Christian clergy considered Sheelas “the devil” and ordered
them to be “burned as witches even though they were made of stone, not flesh….in
later centuries and to this day, many are being recovered from where they were
sometimes tossed into rivers or buried deep beneath castles. Other carvings had
their vulvas hacked away....”
on the Sheela’s “forebears,” the author discusses the relationship of other
figures to Sheela , such as Baubo (as in the Demeter-Persephone myth/Eleusinian
Mysteries); Medusa; and the Frog Goddess. One of the sections that was
especially interesting to me (because I was involved in Eastern European folk
dance groups for many years and came to feel that many of them had Pagan and/or
Goddess roots), is Goode’s discussion of a Bulgarian women’s ritual with dances
related to the Frog Goddess. The dance, which is still done today, is a spring
rain dance called Peperouda, While
the dance is related to power of frogs, its name is translated “Butterfly” on
You Tube videos (butterflies of course also have a springtime association.) I have placed three videos of different (though similar) versions of this ritual dance
the end of this review.
Part I of
the book also includes a section on “Male Interpretive Bias.” Part II looks
more deeply into what Goode learned from her travels to Sheela sites,
especially in Ireland and England. Part III focuses on images of Sheelas and
deities that resemble Sheela, such as some versions of Kali, and includes
contemporary artists’ Sheela interpretations. The back matter includes both
Footenotes and Endnotes, plus a Bibiography.
large number of excellent illustrations and the details and depth of Goode’s
discussion make Sheela na gig: The Dark
Goddess of Sacred Power an extremely valuable book that many Goddess folks
and students of the mythology — as well as others — will treasure.
Full ritual with dance in the village of Tsar Samuil, municipality of
Tutrakan in northeastern Bulgaria.Features “frog girl” surrounded by older
women (The word in the You Tube link “German” refers to another dance on the same video group, not the location of the ritual of this Peperouda ritual, which appears at the very beginning of the video):
Children in Radost Folk Ensemble with some adult women:
More choreographed version, Bulgarian women’s group, you can see similarities in waving of hands, and headdresses of 2 of the women:
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