Wow! Holy Sacred Vulvas, Catwoman! It’s not even women’s history month yet, but as we know riches of women’s history are surfacing all over the place in January. Continuing on with the theme of sacred vulvas, I’m happy to offer the content of a phone interview with author Starr Goode that I had earlier in the week. She’s a blast to talk with and as you can see below, has a wealth of great information for women and girls.
MM: I have the pleasure of speaking to Starr Goode this morning. She is the author of the newly released book, Sheela Na Gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power. (See my review here.)
Hello Starr, so nice to talk to you this morning.
SG: And to you, too! It’s wonderful to hear your voice and be able to connect in this way.
MM: To start, I must say that I so enjoyed your book! I really feel that your book offers a crucial piece for both women’s historical heritage and women’s sacred heritage.
SG: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you saying that. When looking at your website, I felt we have so much in common in our interests of mythology, symbols, feminist spirituality, and restoring women’s sacred heritage. The range of your essays is quite impressive.
MM: Thank you! Yes, it’s wonderful to be working on that restoration. In order for others to understand why I say that your book gives us back part of our heritage, I want to ask initially, what exactly are sheela na gigs—how do you describe them?
SG: Sheela na gigs are supernatural females who display their vulvas on Medieval churches. What are they doing there? In the midst of misogynist Christian Europe that blamed females for the fall into sin and debated whether they even had souls? My book offers answers these questions. We must remember that Christianity is a thin veneer over millennia of goddess worship on the soil of Europe. So it is not surprising to find these stone carvings of supernatural female figures as part of an indigenous pagan religion. Sheelas adorn sacred, and then later, secular architecture in the British Isles and Ireland. Between the 12th and 17th centuries, she could be found on churches, castles, towers, town walls, holy wells, and tombstones. Such exhibitionist figures adorn a wide array of Romanesque-style buildings which became a popular architectural style of that time period along the Pilgrimage routes of Northern France and Spain and later to the British Isles and Ireland.
The essence of a Sheela is the bold display of her female powers. Her immense vulva might be half the size of her body, so clearly the Sheela is no ordinary woman. Her display is an invitation in, yet the rest of her body is usually that of a hag with emaciated ribs and sometimes a skull of death. So she embodies all the powers of life: creation and destruction. The Sheela na gigs, by emphasizing the vulva so dramatically, are showing us the importance of this foundational symbol whose quintessence is the ever-renewing life force.
MM: I’d love for you to explain your fascination with the Sheela na gigs or what led to you writing a book on them.
SG: In 1984, a friend of mine had a copy of Jörgen Andersen’s book, The Witch on the Wall, published in 1977. This book launched the modern study of Sheelas. When I first saw these figures, I was mesmerized. I thought: this is for me. In truth, I fell in love with the beauty and power of these arresting females. I felt an inner mandate to do this work which has been with me all these decades. And, of course, I still love the Rahara Sheela na gig—she’s featured on the cover of my book.
MM: Yes, she’s beautiful. It’s wonderful to hear the words that the Sheela na gigs “mesmerize” and are “arresting.” In fact, I also used the word “fascinating” in my question. No doubt that these figures are striking and do capture our attention even now.
SG: Yes, she simply cannot be ignored. In the 19th century, Irish antiquarians began cataloging the antiquities in their countryside. When John O’Donovan, a surveyor, encountered the Kiltinan Sheela na gig on the Kiltinan Church, in County Tipperary, he wondered why such a wanton figure should be placed at a house of public worship. Yet in all his years of travel around Ireland, he allotted more time to his comments on this Sheela than to any other single artifact. Like so many others, he could not stop looking. And now, during this current time, I think we can understand a bit more of the attraction of these figures as women just marched all over the world with pink “pussy” hats on their heads!
MM: Exactly! That is what we are doing. Your book is so timely, so perfect for this time.
SG: Well, I don’t use the word pussy in my book, but I certainly would have had the term entered in the zeitgeist as it has in the last several months since he-who-must-not-be-named made his infamous remark about his entitlement to “grab pussies.” I am deeply moved how women have reclaimed this word and their dominion over their own bodies. All done with such a creative spirit of play – the pink pussy power hats! It’s astonishing. One woman, when looking at the Rahara Sheela on the cover of my book, said, “I’d like to see him try to grab that pussy!” I like to think my book appeared at just the right time to be part of the spirit of the times to offer a scholarly foundation for the life-affirming sanctity of the vulva back to origins of culture and cross-culturally all over our planet.
MM: Yes, your book is tapping into our cultural zeitgeist in such a profound way. You also share the deep history that precedes the sheela na gig figures. But before we get to that, could you speak a bit about the emergence of the Sheela na gigs during medieval times in France and Spain, but more so in the British Isles?
SG: Yes. As you probably know, the Romans never invaded Ireland so they were able to keep a stronger connection to their own traditions and to their pantheon of goddesses such as the goddess of sovereignty. In my book, I point to many connections between the meaning and functions of the Sheelas and these Celtic divine females.
MM: Yes. I was so pleased personally to learn that from your book because part of my heritage is Irish. A few years ago I learned that my Irish ancestors came from County Tipperary.
SG: Tipperary? Oh, Tipperary has the largest concentration of Sheela’s in Ireland!
MM: Really? Oh that’s lovely to know. Lovely to recognize that my ancestors lived among the sheela’s and now to know that they lived in an area replete with these marvelous figures. It makes me feel that I come from good stock! Ancestors seeing and revering sheela’s . . .
SG: And possibly even making them as masons or worshipping them!
MM: Oh right! I’m sure the men held the same beliefs which is why they were created with such care.
SG: Even now, one can see Irish people dedicated to the Sheelas with a continuing belief in their powers. Many vulvas of some Sheelas are still rubbed for their healing powers, offerings are laid before them, and holy wells with Sheelas are still visited. The Castlemagner has a Brigit well with a Sheela. People have visited this holy well for centuries in a belief in its curative powers and still rub the Sheela. Some fellows from a local pub who helped me find this remote site, told me, “The lads and I, we’ve been coming to this well all our lives.”
MM: Thank-you for telling me all of that. Continuing with the emergence of these figures, it seems that Sheela na gig’s were created as an affirmation of the native people’s belief system on these new churches, castles, and towers as well as an apotropaic act to protect them.
SG: One the greatest powers of the sacred display of the vulva is its apotropaic power. Sheelas are often placed by doors and windows to guard the entrance. The vulva itself is an entrance, so we have a resonance of meanings. Sheelas were also placed high on castle towers to guard the sovereignty of the territory. The continuity of this power of the vulva is astonishing. It goes back to the vulvas found in Chauvet cave, You can see the images in my book and also in the documentary by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Considered the oldest images in that cave, they are 32,000 years old. Each vulva is by an entrance, each one!
MM: I appreciate that your book the reader offers so much ancient history linking sheela na gigs all the way to Paleolithic times.
SG: Yes, and more of this history keeps being discovered. That’s thousands of years of history that shows the importance of this image. It is one of the prominent and most enduring image in the archeological record. While some people may not be comfortable calling this image an archetype, I feel that that term applies here in the sense of an original, an arche, meaning first or from the beginning or source and typos meaning a model or pattern of energy. It arises spontaneously in the minds of people all over the world throughout time, and they make art from it. I feel that a woman’s vulva is a primary or even the primal image of the cosmological origins of the human imagination.
MM: Right, I agree that it is a primary or primal image, one that Judy Grahn would call a meta-form.
SG: Yes, that’s another great term for this image.
MM: Plus, now that we (meaning people around the world) now know that—thanks to archaeological research—much of prehistoric cave art was created by women makes these paintings and engravings of vulvas, women, and pregnant animals even more important to our shared female heritage.
SG: Yes, and this was just discovered in the last few years. No more Paleolithic men being the source of all creativity. The images of the female are the oldest art in the world. Besides the Berekhat Ram figurine in Israel, which may be show the oldest sculptural female, by hundreds of thousands of years, I’ve mentioned earlier images of the vulva in cave art that are nearly 40,000 years old!
MM:Yes, exactly. Women also have an incredibly ancient association with felines, and as you said, it is organically manifesting in a uniquely female way again with knitted, crocheted, and sewn pussy hats—protest art that melds women’s vulvas and cats. I also want to make the observation that Paleolithic cave art by women of women and animals, including pregnant animals, shows the deep understanding of the connections to a dark goddess representative of life and death.
SG: On the subject of the pussy hat, the connection between females and felines also goes back to the Upper Paleolithic. The magnificent black vulva in Chauvet Cave In France is flanked by a lion within the lioness section of the cave. The throne goddess of Çatalhöyük (who looks a little like Gertrude Stein) has felines flanking her, and the female figure at Gobekli Tepe guards the entrance to the lion shrine. So you see the continuity that leads to today when women and men just participated in worldwide marches wearing hats associated with both cats and vulvas!
MM:This leads to my next question about symbolism. I felt that you introduced the various types of symbols that sheela na gigs represent in a very thoughtful, easy to understand way. For readers who may not automatically think of symbols, or of the various layers of meaning that they contain, encountering a clearly metaphorical figure like the sheela na gigs might have been daunting. However, you lead the reader through the main meanings of female sexuality, generation of life, apotropaic powers (as in warding off or protecting from harm), and of female age (the hag appearance) and death. Would you unpack that a little more here?
SG: Well, to begin, one of the fundamental crises of our culture is a lack of connection to images that originate from the deepest, most transformative part of ourselves. Yet, ironically, we are bombarded with superficial images from our plugged-in lifestyle. We are entertaining ourselves to death. We are left adrift with a mass of empty images that do not function as images traditionally have done: to construct a bridge between this world and the immense inner world of the Beyond. The originality of symbolic thinking in images which sees beneath the surface into another world has declined. The general trend in education over the last several hundred years has been towards goal-oriented rational thinking which makes the understanding of chains of cause and effect the dominant way of looking at reality. We do not realize how much our rationalism has dehumanized us by destroying our ability to respond to numinous symbols and ideas. Reason has its place, but it alone can never connect to the forces of life.
MM: Thinking symbolically means to think metaphorically which gives you a concept or image that has layers of meaning and connections instead of just one. For me, the literalness that reason and analysis are often pressed into follows ideas or images that serve as signs. An example is a stop sign. A stop sign has just the one meaning—stop. After you take that action, there is a tendency in this type of thinking to just look for another sign or signs to follow with their surface meanings.
SG: Yes, which sidelines intuition and imaginative powers completely! To grasp that the Sheelas hold multiple, often opposite meanings, means you need to try to understand why the Sheela na gigs show both life and death, why they show sexuality, generation, and mortality, all in one figure. The sovereignty goddess of Celtic myth is often portrayed in a similar way, as an ugly old woman, but who turns into a beautiful young woman once the hero gives her her due. And of course, she was the land, the land was her.
MM: Another reason you give on why Sheela na gigs were placed on castles and towers—she has the vista of all the land associated with those structures, she sees and protects the borders and boundaries.
SG: Yes, she’s quite a liminal figure really. She stands at the threshold of so many things. Just as the vulva has a liminal function between inner and outer.
MM: I’d like to acknowledge your deep appreciation and knowledge of art as well. Your book is packed with images and you also feature contemporary art. There are several contemporary women artists carrying on this sacred art tradition. Additionally, the images show that this female vulvic art comes from all over the world. I especially liked that you showed the Oceanic people’s traditional figure called the dilukái at their homes and then a very modern one placed in Long Beach!
SG: Oh yes, I love that one! The Palau peoples place the dilukái woman on their ceremonial houses facing east with her legs spread and a prominent vulva. She also serves there as a protective figure. She greets the rising sun and watches over the fields. The dilukái in Long Beach is in a garden outside the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum, and she is enormous, a six-foot leg span and an impossible to miss clitoris! She’s really a sight to see. There’s a Catholic church behind her. Mothers love to bring their children to lunch at this peaceful spot.
MM: What your book showcases is the magnificent female history and heritage that we actually have. I think it’s a true gift in helping to restore our collective knowledge as women. We can see through all that you offer here on the sheela na gigs that there is so much potency contained there and also so much magic. And to then trace from Paleolithic times to the present day, you really show the amazing continuity and power of this primal female image—an image that is both mundane and sacred.
SG: Thank you so much. I am happy that my book has come out precisely at this time. Just as words like vagina, vulva, and now pussy are part of the spirit of the times—with all their potency and sacredness. As I mentioned earlier, I hope my book gives women a sense of the immense power in their bodies and its sacredness back to the origins of art and religion. I think it can restore to women so much that has been suppressed by patriarchal bias and that this such the image of the vulva is part of our true, natural heritage and is applicable to them now, today, right now, at this present moment.
MM: Yes! It’s truly perfect. Thank-you so much Starr for doing this interview with me. I really value the work that you’ve done here and I am so happy that I have been able to talk to you about it. It’s been a real joy.