(CNN) — On forgotten partitions of nation church buildings or crumbling castles all through Eire, the tiny figures squat unseen.
Misplaced in grey brickwork, obscured by ivy or moss, Sheela-na-gig stone carvings might be exhausting to identify within the wild — however these medieval creations are under no circumstances coy.
Usually bald-headed bare females, with hanging breasts and legs unfold large to show exaggerated vulvas, Sheela-na-gigs at first appear peculiarly misplaced within the prim environment of a Christian church.
Nevertheless, these envoys from an historical previous have rather a lot to show us about Irish and northern European historical past, and concerning the pagan roots of the worldwide pageant now generally known as St. Patrick’s Day.
Whereas in trendy instances it is a one-day celebration, it was as soon as a three-day carnival that completed on March 18 — Sheelah’s Day.
That is the story of Sheelah — who she was, why she was forgotten when St. Patrick was not, and what traces of her are left behind.
‘She’s all the time there’
Irish mythology is peopled with many feminine figures. Tales of warrior queens, deities, kingmakers and sacred hags have been handed down from era to era.
Nevertheless, an oral folks custom implies that names, characters and meanings morph over time — and are topic to the interpretative whims of adjusting societies.
“Sheelah is one folks manifestation of what we name feminine cosmic company,” says Shane Lehane, an archaeologist, folklorist and historian at Cork’s CSN Faculty of Additional Training who has been instrumental in reviving curiosity in Sheelah lately.
“Consider her because the consort of the male, that nice mythological custom of the king and the goddess. She represents the land.”
Whereas Sheela-na-gigs are medieval, and the determine of Sheelah first seems in newspaper and documentary accounts across the seventeenth century, tracing her historical past again to what’s believed to be her historical Celtic beginnings is a near-impossible activity.
“There’s a physique of perception amongst individuals who research mythology that each feminine determine in some form or type represents this entity,” says Lehane. “The actual fact she survives is attention-grabbing. She’s all the time there.”
‘That nice human concern’
There are Sheela-na-gig carvings round northern Europe — one of many most interesting examples is at Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, England — however there are 115 listed nationally in Eire, greater than anyplace else on the earth.
As they’ve usually been shifted from their authentic areas and positioned in new buildings, “it is fairly exhausting so far them, however the consensus is that they date between the twelfth and the fifteenth or sixteenth century,” says Matt Seaver, assistant keeper on the Nationwide Museum of Eire. The museum has one Sheela on show at its Dublin archeology museum whereas six extra are on mortgage to regional exhibitions.
There are two essential competing interpretations of Sheelas, explains Seaver. The older view is that they are “selling chaste residing, a taboo on sexuality within the Center Ages. The opposite concept that is developed, primarily because the Nineteen Thirties, sees them as symbols of fertility.”
Lehane, one in every of these revisionists, tells CNN Journey that, “Sheelah has been the topic of a powerful misogynistic perspective for a very long time. They had been seen as being symbols of evil, symbols of lust, symbols of eroticism.”
He argues that Sheela-na-gigs rejoice “the feminine who has custodianship over beginning and over demise. Sheelah is an icon of that nice human concern.”
Embrace the hag
The Hill of Tara is an historical archaeological web site and the standard seat of Eire’s Excessive Kings.
The Hill of Tara in County Meath is the traditional seat of Eire’s Excessive Kings, a web site for ceremony and burial that has been in use for greater than 5,000 years. Tour buses journey north from Dublin to go to Tara and close by Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb.
Tara’s Lia Fáil, a phallus-like standing stone, has a potent historical past, explains Lehane. “In case you had been going to be king you sat up on high of the Lia Fáil and also you symbolically mated with the land. In case you had been the fitting king, the Lia Fáil would screech.”
There are lots of examples in Celtic mythology of what are termed sovereignty goddesses — feminine deities who bestow kingly powers by copulation.
When a king falls out of line, the goddess who represents the land transforms right into a withered previous girl, just like the Sheela-na-gig, generally known as the Cailleach. “For the brand new king to come back alongside, he should embrace this harmful hag,” says Lehane, “and he or she reforms into this stunning, bountiful, sort determine once more.”
The Cailleach is discovered wherever land is barren and treacherous, and climate unforgiving. She’s given her identify to megalithic tomb, rocks at seas, and mountainous outcrops. You’ll be able to come head to head with the Cailleach on the Ceann na Caillí (Hag’s Head) on the Cliffs of Moher and the passage tomb atop Slieve Gullion mountain identified domestically as Calliagh Beara’s Home.
‘The primary story of Eire’
St. Patrick, the historic determine, was a former slave trafficked into Eire from Roman Britain within the fifth century. Completely among the many Irish saints, he wrote down his personal story, in two Latin works “Confessio” and “Epistola.”
“The one factor that only a few individuals disagree about is that there was somebody referred to as Patrick and he wrote what grew to become the primary story of Eire,” says Tim Campbell, director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down. “The historical past of Eire actually begins with him.”
Patrick makes reference to extra earthy Celtic custom when he writes of refusing to indicate subjugation to a different man by sucking his nipples. There are two preserved Iron Age our bodies on show within the Nationwide Museum of Eire which are testomony to this. They belong to 2 failed kings who’ve been ritually killed and their nipples reduce off, in order that nobody might pledge fealty.
Patrick’s legacy as a Christian missionary and bishop “was woven into the later legends of early medieval Eire,” says Campbell, and the legendary Patrick would take up the older legends too.
The god Lugh is the one most related to kingship in Eire, says Lehane. “He represents the proper male.”
When Christianity got here alongside, the legend of Patrick took over the cult of Lugh. And at his facet there was his consort, Sheelah — who was now known as Patrick’s spouse.
Many international locations have pre-Christian springtime festivals and Eire isn’t any totally different. The three-day celebration of Patrick and Sheelah — from March 16 to 18 — falls simply earlier than the spring equinox. The license to cavort and disrespect the strictures of Lent is Eire’s model of Carnival.
“You had been anticipated to go wild, to throw warning to the wind, to embrace chaos, as a result of that is the character of Carnival,” says Lehane. “It is an important Irish custom to acknowledge.”
Christian affect tamed the pageant’s licentiousness and Sheelah’s Day — recorded as being extensively celebrated by the Irish and Irish diaspora within the 18th and the nineteenth century — fell to the wayside. However Patrick was not left with out a feminine companion.
Three saints, one grave
Patrick stands out as the poster boy, however Eire has two different patron saints — Saint Brigid and Saint Colmcille. All three, due to the spectacular promotional efforts of Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, are reputed to be buried underneath the identical rock in Downpatrick, a holy web site to today.
“Through the medieval interval, all over the place was claiming to be a spot of pilgrimage. In case you may get the three main Irish saints all buried within the one place, you’d received the lottery,” laughs Lehane.
The Christian Saint Brigid shares many attributes of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid and the saint’s feast day — February 1 — was initially the pagan pageant of Imbolc, marking the primary day of spring.
Irish individuals nonetheless rejoice this springtime pageant by weaving St. Brigid’s crosses, produced from rushes, to set over doorways and home windows to guard the house from hurt.
Like many Irishwomen earlier than her, this author was taught by her mom the best way to collect rushes from marshy land and make St Brigid’s Crosses.
Saint Patrick, and Brigid too, are related to Eire’s holy wells, of which there are hundreds. These pure springs, reserved for healing functions, are discovered “in virtually each parish,” says Lehane.
Girls would restore to holy wells for reduction from gynecological issues, to hope for the safety of their virginity or to advertise fertility. And whereas Patrick is the wells’ most well-known patron, “the vast majority of the wells are devoted to feminine figures,” says Lehane.
As we speak, the few surviving Sheela-na-gigs can usually be discovered close to holy wells, whereas wells may also generally have a rag tree, upon which guests have fastened their tokens and their prayers.
“The Sheela-na-gigs symbolize a degree between life and demise,” says Lehane. Through the many centuries when being pregnant was a fragile stability between a fruitful new starting or a younger life reduce quick, girls turned to Sheelah — an icon of beginning — of their time of want.
The wells too supplied a feminine area of sanctuary and therapeutic in a typically hostile panorama.
Sheelah, the earth goddess, lives on in these quiet pockets of rural Eire, the place water flows under and the wind ruffles the grassy hills and the ribbons within the rag bushes.
In Irish mythology, the hag is withered, however she can also be ageless. She’ll outlive us all.