Visiting Shropshire's Sheela Na Gig's
A blustery, sunny, cold afternoon and my hubby and I set off to see the Sheela Na Gigs of Shropshire. Ive known about them pretty much since I arrived to live in Whitchurch, Shropshire 3 years ago. And today was the day I get to finally see them. And it was perfect timing…
Over this time she has been rising in my life strongly as the peri-menopause started to move deeper in towards the menopause. Her teaching, Her frequency becoming visible when a small painting I was working with revealed herself, and it was Her. Squat, legs open, holding her vulva. I felt myself initiated into Her sacred shelter as I painted how I felt Her inside of me.. She became and is my guide and teacher in this potent time in a woman’s life and this Gateway to new life.
My very first encounter with a Sheela Na Gig was in Ireland around 2012. I remember the overall sense I got was of one of a calling into the sacred space of the feminine. In 2013 when I ran a Winter Solstice retreat with a friend at New Grange in Ireland, I picked up a giant map of Her figures across Ireland from the shop there. Fascinated by her various poses, stances, and looks of the images Ive kept looking at it over the years. Each figure can look the the same yet they are different. With the different stances and poses and of course the artists imprint that I imagine would be born out of the connection to them of the Sheela Na Gig they were carving.
And today, I excitedly got all wrapped up for this cold February day and we visited our local Sheela Na Gigs in Shropshire. There are three main sites in Shropshire.
Church Stretton - Sheela Na Gig
This church of St Lawrence is a large 14th Century building with Norman architecture integrated into it. The Sheela Na Gig here is found on the north face of the building over a Norman doorway. This doorway is now blocked up from inside the church so its no longer in use. And its clear that this Sheela would have been in a different location as the stone is different aswell as being fairly weathered. However here She is, the Stretton Sheela.
What is a little sad is that someone has put a stone in the vulva to try and make her less ‘crude’ and more fitting for a church figure…. I felt like if I’d got some ladders I would have climbed right up there and taken it out…
The vulva represents the passage of Her powers of life and in balance death, as the doorway for the dead. So the image of the vulva functions as a dual image of the Giving of Life but also the Return to the Beyond.. Due to the dual function many Sheelas are found overlooking burial grounds.
This particular Sheela Na Gig does overlook the burial grounds. With a stone lodged in her vulva AND the old Norman doorway being blocked up from the inside. This doorway leads straight onto the burial grounds, and would have been the passage for bringing in and out the dead. It was actually known as the ‘corpse' doorway’. Just to the right of Sheela as you see here her in the photo is a Saxon grave so the burial ground itself goes back to the Saxon period between 410 and 1066.
With her vulva and the doorway being blocked I find it an interesting reflection about the times we live in. In the way our Western culture is divorced of the connection to death which does include to the passage of stages in life, celebrated in rites and rituals. As woman we can go through physiological stages and changes that call new life through a death of old. The initiation into menstruation, into motherhood, into menopause…
Tugford Sheela Na Gig
Around 10 miles from Church Stretton and a beautiful scenic drive are the location of the Tugford Sheela na Gigs. A pair of Sheelas inside the church of St Catherine, perched on either side of the entrance. We parked up the car on a lane and trudged over a field to get to the church. There is no road, or path access. We were wondering whether it would be open or not… and it was.
It was a delight to see these little beings….they are both small but they really touched me. One is very badly worn and lays on her side, seeming to have one hand touching her open mouth, and one behind her gripping her vulva. The other has her tongue sticking out, eyes wide open and arms passing under her leg, knees out s to hold her vulva. She feels very ‘active’ with the other one seeming to be more at rest, passive so to speak. They are both so different and the quality of the very weathered one invoked a felt sense of really deep care in me towards her.
These Sister Sheelas feel very sweet, and even unique in their portrayal as two. The fact there are two over a doorway, gesturing with their vulva, and mouths in two very different types of ‘communication’ is very intriguing. Certainly Kali, the dark Mother Goddess comes to mind with the one sticking her tongue out. Combined with the deep sense of ‘caring for’ I felt with the other one seems to bring contradictions together in a dual function as One.
Holdgate Sheela Na Gig
Just a mile or two from Tugford is the next Sheela Na Gig. A very small village, with just a few houses scattered about and again an old Norman church in a beautiful setting.
She isn’t obvious as you walk towards the church due to a large tree shading the wall she is on. However as you walk through into the burial ground you see her. Here Her knees are protruding out as she has her arms behind them as she reached down to display her vulva. She is squatted in a seeming magical birthing position. With a vulva that appears to have direct relationship to birthing as its wide open and so dilated you feel you can almost see into the interior of her body, a vast, black space.
She is very distinct as no Sheela Na Gig has a mouth like hers. Her mouth is as an infinity symbol, or a lemniscate in a mathematical context. a double 0 that makes an 8. The number 8 being the only number that can written over and over again without taking your pen of the paper…
She is a large Sheela, the largest of the those in Shropshire and is positioned in a way that seems to look out over the Shropshire Hills aswell as part of the burial grounds. Below her are the old gravestones, covered with ivy and grass growing over them.
It was such a beautiful, thought provoking pilgrimage into the Shropshire lands and into the mystery of these surviving figures on our local churches. Full of contradiction that just leaves your heart in wonderment at the significance to those that have carved them, made sure they were displayed and integrated into these old churches. The depths of ancient practice and honouring that has been given by artists to the Sacred Feminine, the Goddesses and Her powers of creation, destruction, life giving and life taking. The recognition that we are all born out of Her goes right back to the art of our ancestor artists in an unimaginable 37,000 years ago. Right back then they were carving vulvas on archaeologically discovered pieces of limestone as what are believed to be early representations of sacred feminine in art.