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Images of Síla na Gig carvings in Ireland

On March 18th, celebrate your female sexuality and sensuality on Síle na Gig day.

Of course,  how you celebrate your sexuality / sensuality is a highly personal choice! And you can also celebrate Síle na Gig on your altar with pictures of Síle or vulva imagery (symbolic or otherwise), with items that are egg or dairy based (representing feminine power as these are produced only by females), a birth stone, and/or a red-coloured altar cloth or piece of fabric to symbolize women’s flow, blood mysteries, the blood of birth.

Gazing at an image of Síle na Gig is also a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and meditation on one’s own thoughts on sexuality, birth and sensuality . . .  and even on what you consider obscene or pornographic vs. sensual and female-affirming.

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Beaded vulva art by Brit Ellis, on Instagram as blu_hummingbird

Who is Sile na Gig?

For those not familiar with Síle na Gig (and there are so many spelling variants in her names), she is typically seen as a carved stone image (or painting) of a seated woman displaying her vulva (usually quite oversized).

Many of these carvings are very old, neolithic/pre-Christian era and found in many sacred sites, carved into outcroppings of rock . Curiously these images were often found on the south walls of churches, and even in graveyards, across Ireland also in the UK. There is some evidence that the majority of these church instances are strongly aligned with the Norman influence in Great Britain and Ireland. Some Síle na Gig imagery has also been found in Europe (France and Spain). Today, she is most strongly associated with Celtic culture.

Sadly in the last centuries, many of the Síle na Gig images were destroyed. A condemnation of “obscenity”? A patriarchal reaction to feminine power? A fear of celebrating women? A fear of our sexuality?

So let’s take her back! Let’s celebrate Sile na Gig and our own feminine sexuality, sensuality and power. Rise up!

Why March 18th?

Source: Thalia Took

Some say this is due to a more recent association between Síle and Saint Patrick, one of the patron saints of Ireland who is celebrated on March 17th. His wife (or possibly his mother!) was apparently called Sheela, so the 18th became her celebration in Ireland (and, interestingly, in Newfoundland, Canada.)

But if we look at Síle’s association with sexuality and birth (also very strongly associated with death in medieval times, with the high mortality rates of women and children in childbirth), is this not akin to the worldwide cultural celebrations of birth-death-renewal associated with Spring, which arrives around March 21st? Works for me!

Scholarly interpretations

In the early 19th century, scholars started to study and analyze the images from an etymology perspective (the roots of the words) and from the images themselves. The theories varied widely: everything from an ancient goddess (of fertility, childbirth, sexuality, death, even warrior) to a protection against evil to a good luck charm to a warning against lust and everything in between. In more recent times, scholars have brought in a more feminist perspective linked to the ancient spirituality of Ireland.

Needless to say, many in the clergy were upset by the scholarly “findings” and deemed the imagery offensive or obscene — even though the art had been an integral part of their churches’ original design and build! — and removed the images to museums (who often hidden away!) or destroyed them outright.

Even the origins of the name are somewhat lost in time, although most consider the name a variant of old Irish, such as:

  • Síle na gCíoch, meaning “Sheela of the breasts”
  • Sileadh na gCíoch, meaning “the shedding (of liquid) from the breast”
  • Síle-ina-Giob, meaning “Sheela on her hunkers”
  • Shila na Gigh, meaning “Cecily of the branch” (Síle being the Irish version of the Norman name Cecilia or Cecily, as well as the name Julia)
  • Síle na Gig, meaning “Hag of the branches” (did you know that stripped branches were also used as a fertility talisman?).

Ancient Origins

There is so little written about Síle na Gig and I wanted to learn more. I came across a fascinating book Sheela-na-Gigs: Unravelling an enigma by Barbara Freitag, a look at the scholarly interpretations and the cultural history of Síle imagery, along with maps of the existing locations, and an analysis of the images themselves.

Freitag suggests that

“the sculptures belong to folk art and a tradition, too important and too intimately bound up with the welfare of the common people to be disregarded by the Christian Church. Incorporated in a Christian context, but divorced from her roots in pre-Christian tradition, the Sheela-na-gig needs to be seen as some powerful manifestation of continuity with the past. The key to an understanding of her real meaning can thus only be found in a sympathetic appreciation of her medieval social context.”

Freitag goes on to explore some of the traditions associated with the imagery including those of fertility, birth, and mortality and suggests that

“Sheela-na-gig incarnates all those ideas connected with birth spirits formerly worshipped all over Europe. She is one of those ‘bald grandmothers’ invoked at birth. The deathlike upper part expresses fear and respect for the ancestral spirits, and the lower part suggests fertility and childbirth.”

One scholar, Eve Guest, visited many of the sites of Sile carving and found that there were many common items amongst them: the presence of a holy well (a link to Brighid?), an association with cows and other fertility symbols, bushes and — in some places — a rag or cloutie offering. She learned from local folklore of those places, that offerings for fertility took place at the sites. As reported by Freitag, “Women would take a piece of their clothing, perhaps after touching their private parts with it, dip it in the water of the well and then affix it to the bush beside it.”

UPDATE March 2019: Since posting this article last year, I came across another excellent book on “our Sheela”, by Starr Goode Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power. Highly recommended!

Your Síle na Gig

So on this day, whatever the original meaning, or the meanings over time, find your own meaning and connection to Síle na Gig.

Create your own ritual. Your own blessing.  Your own meditation.

And celebrate all aspects of you. 

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