Sheela Na Gig Book Review

sheela na gig book

Right before the historic Women’s Marches, I’m thrilled to be celebrating women both present and past, both sacred and “profane,” and through our shared physical selves and our shared sacred heritage. Today, I offer my review of the new book, Sheela Na Gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode. In Sheela Na Gig, Goode offers an exuberant, well-written, and in-depth study of the peculiar naked sacred female figures as seen above and below. These figures, well-known in the British Isles—especially Ireland, are generally called sheela na gig, Síle Ni Ghig, Sighle na gCioch, or other variants.

Rodil Sheela Na Gig,Scotland. Russel Wills. 5/2002. CC-SA 3
Rodil Sheela Na Gig, St. Clement’s Church, Scotland. Russel Wills. 5/2002.CC-SA 3

Sheela na gig figures plainly and boldly display not only their nudity, but their vulva (typically held open with the sheela na gig’s hands). Indeed, the most common attributes of these figures are that they are 1) female, 2) naked, and 3) have prominent vulvas which are closed, slightly open, or widely parted with the woman’s hands. The fact that these figures adorn churches, temples, castles, doorways, window lintels, grave markers, boundary markers, along with other sacred and communal areas demonstrates not only their divine and earthly importance, but also their celebration of women and female powers.

The females depicted as the sheela show a lovely range of women’s  physical and emotional forms: old, young, middle-aged, beautiful, alluring, plain, haggard, fierce, placid, joyful, menacing, pregnant, voluptuous, emaciated or simply scrawny. Refreshingly, none of these figures are “exhibitionist,” “bawdy,” or appear to ever have been made for the patriarchal sexualized gaze. Rather they are iconic, striking, and eminently arresting.

Interestingly, sheela na gigs, both medieval as well as ancient are rendered mainly as sculptures, engravings, or bas-reliefs; less often, as paintings. Goode notes that there some rare examples of wooden sheela na gigs, but the majority of them are created on or out of stone. Clearly, sheela na gigs were meant to last throughout centuries!

sheela-na-gig, Church Stretton, above the north doorway. Anthony Vosper CC-SA2.
Sheela-na-gig, Stretton Church, the north doorway. Anthony Vosper CC-SA 2.

Thank goodness that Goode has long been fascinated with sheela na gigs; we now benefit from her comprehensive scholarly journey into their history, symbolism, and sacred associations. While Ireland can boast of retaining the most medieval sheela na gigs of any country, these “sacred display” female figures are quite ancient in other cultures and countries. Goode pictorially and textually traces this section of divine female history from the deep past to the present by presenting the continuum of similar figures (mythological, archaeological, artistic, textual, and symbolic).

The book is very accessible for a general audience with perhaps little to no knowledge of sacred female figures or the ancient history of the divine female. It also offers plenty of juicy detail for readers interested in mythology, archaeology, and goddesses who want to dive further in. Although I would have appreciated a few maps to further orient me on all the locations that sheela na gig figures have been found or still exist as the genius loci, that is a minor quibble. The wealth of photographs and illustrations greatly add to the richness of this book. Divided into three main parts—history, journeys, and image—Goode deftly steers the reader through passages of time, meaning, and locale toward the abundant riches of our shared divine female heritage. Sheela Na Gig is a savory delight from start to finish!

I have the honor of interviewing Starr Goode about Sheela Na Gig next week!  Please do look forward to the post of that interview coming soon after.  As always , thank-you so much for reading as well as offering your comments either here or on FB.

Sheela Na Gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2016. Hardcover $35.00 ISBN: 978-1-62055-595-8. Available in libraries, all fine bookstores, at Amazon, and Inner Traditions.