She has reigned from her perch on the south wall for over eight hundred years, guardian of the entrance and sovereign over all the land she surveys. Her inescapable presence overwhelmed me when at last, I had finally made it to Ireland to see before me what I had previously only read about.
The first image of a Sheela I ever saw was over twenty-five years ago. A friend showed me her xeroxed copy of the out of print doctoral thesis of a young Danish student, Jørgen Andersen’s The Witch on the Wall: Erotic Figures in Medieval Sculpture.
She turned to a picture of the Kilpeck Sheela with the words, “You’ll be interested in this.” From her copy, I made my own and began a journey.
I was stunned by this image—clearly a female—yet clearly not human, displaying her large pudendum with no shame on a Christian church. How could this be? How could such an figure exist at such a time in such a place? The medieval masons, the artists who created these sculptures left no texts of explanation. Her image would have to carry me where no words could.
Over the next years, it was my sacred pleasure to make many voyages to the British Isles and Ireland to see more of her kind. I used the taxonomy of all the known Sheelas in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland from Andersen’s book. This list was my guide to the Sheelas of those northern isles, to search for them on rural churches, through fields with cattle, on remote islands, and in graveyards. A whole day could be spent tracking down one Sheela.
Nothing represents the necessity of re-imagining the female in Western culture more than the startling Sheela na gig. The power of her image signifies a wholeness which can never be completely understood. But standing in the green countryside among the gray stones, meeting her in person, was a beginning.