Welcome to Voices of Ancient Europe, an interview series that amplifies the voices of European elders to strengthen and renew the indigenous wisdom traditions of the West.
The first guest is Jack Roberts of Galway, Ireland. Jack embodies the old Irish word Samhildánach, which means "equally skilled in many arts." He is an independent researcher, publisher, designer, artist, and author of Sheela-Na-Gigs of Ireland & Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts and The Sun Circles of Ireland. You can find his work at Bandia Design, where his books, illustrated maps, and jewelry are available for purchase.
This interview will focus on the Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland, as Jack explores the secrets of these powerful female stone figures, which are the topic of his forthcoming book, co-produced by Meghan Rice.
SHEELA-NA-GIGS: A Primer by Jack Roberts
Sheela-na-gigs are carvings of female images depicted as posing in a manner that accentuates that most powerfully evocative symbol the vulva. They are primarily a sacred religious object that was erected on many churches of the medieval period, invariably placed in a very prominent position such as over the main entrance door or a window. In Ireland where the practice continued into the later middle ages they are also found on castles and some other important structures such as old town walls.
Sheela-na-gigs are primarily sacred religious symbols, but their very nature has tended to work against them, and historians have been reluctant to treat them seriously. They are generally referred to as protective talismans, good luck symbols, and more recently the suggestion that they were put on the churches as 'warnings against sin and lust' has found favor. But tradition does not support this view, and all historical and traditional reference to them indicates that they were highly regarded, often revered images that evidently held a high position within the religious iconography of the earlier church.
Hi, Jack. Thank you for being the first guest in Voices of Ancient Europe. Let's start with an introduction of your heritage. What is your ancestry? How would you describe your ancestral connection to the megalithic landscapes of England and Ireland?
My parents were a mix of Celtic and Saxon English. A typical British mix, and typically they didn’t go into genealogy too much, so growing up I was totally unaware of my real ancestry, and it is still largely unclear.
But I grew up in an old historic town in the south of England, with an abbey, a classic medieval castle, loads of old historic houses whilst in the surrounding hills are ancient earthworks and barrows, and the famous hill figure the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’. But there is a total absence of megalithic structures and little evidence that there ever were any.
I was always drawn to the ancient barrows and hill forts and found a sense of peace amongst them, but didn’t find out why until I found myself in Ireland and found myself standing within an ancient megalithic landscape, which awakened in me an appreciation of the ancient world.
The ancient sites of Ireland are to a large extent still connected with the greater landscape both in the way that landscape retains many more archaeological features, but also through the cultural connections, the mythology and traditions related to them. Any appreciation of my ancestral connection to the British/European landscape has been nurtured by the sacred landscape of Ireland.
What was your first encounter with the Sheela-na-gigs like? What compelled you to make them such an integral subject to your life's work?
My first encounter was with one of the most important Sheelas in Ireland, the figure above the doorway to the old church of Killinaboy in the Burren of County Clare. I didn’t know much about them at that time, but was much impressed with the way one enters the church beneath her as if between her legs, as if entering the womb. At the time I was still being dazzled by the megalithic world of Ireland, and immediately connected the Sheela with the symbolism of the womb-like passage mounds.
SHEEL-NA-GIG, KILLINABOY, CO. CLARE by Jack Roberts
My initial compulsion to make a serious study of the Sheela-na-gigs was after I was given a good photograph of a figure on Ballinacarriga castle, which was only a few miles from where I lived in the southwest of Ireland. This Sheela is situated high up on the eastern wall of the castle and not easy to see clearly, but the photograph taken in good light in the early hours showed her in fine detail. For the first time I found myself surprised and fascinated by the strange symbolism in the figure.
SHEELA-NA-GIG, BALLINDERRY CASTLE, CO. CORK by Jack Roberts
Around the same time I started to discover just how many actually existed, which awoke in me the realization of how important a symbol they once were. Then a retired teacher introduced me to the figure above a window of the old church at Ballyvourney deep in the Gealtacht region of west Cork which still plays a role in the traditional veneration of the site.
That there was so little information about them served as a challenge, but also the fact that the little that had been published was often quite ill-informed and sometimes downright insulting to them was something that badly needed to be addressed. As the study progressed there came an understanding that the Sheela-na-gigs were clearly of Christian origin and therefore represent an important and still largely misunderstood aspect of Celtic Christianity and traditional spirituality.
You wrote the Sheela-Na-Gigs of Ireland & Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts. What inspired you to make changes to the original publication? Do you have a projected publication date for the new edition? (Or will it be a different book altogether?)
The Divine Hag was not what I had originally wanted to produce, and was in many ways a disappointment. My co-author Joanne McMahon and I spent a lot of time studying the Sheelas and making accurate illustrations of them, which we felt was a vital aspect of the project. The resulting book did not properly represent the figures as we had intended.
Primarily the issue for was one of visual presentation, since one of the aims was to simply reveal them, take them out of the closet and allow people see them. As researchers we knew only too well how so many and especially the finest examples, get hidden away in museum cellars, and how difficult it was to actually either see them or even get images of them.
Within six years of the publication of the Divine Hag I had been made aware of ten newly discovered figures in Ireland, and so after visiting most of them decided to update the situation by producing a map of Ireland with details of all the know figures. Meanwhile the research has continued in in the UK with the number of figures listed in the Divine Hag having now more than doubled. The great majority of the British figures are however more truly described as Romanesque Acrobatic Figures; true Sheela-na-gigs of the same genre, or contextually similar as the Irish figures, are still quite rare on the British mainland and confined mainly to the areas of Celtic influence. The name Sheela-na-gig is Irish and there is no generic name for them in English.
The aim still is to produce a book that suitably represents the Sheela-na-gigs fully and accurately with top quality illustrations/photographs and a clear unbiased résumé of the facts. But hopefully it will be much more. I have agreed a co-production with a friend, a woman called Meghan Rice, who has also been studying the Sheela-na-gigs and chose them as her subject in a degree course. I realized immediately after seeing her presentation at a Megalithomania Conference in Glastonbury that she has an unparalleled understanding and enthusiasm for them. Meanwhile just at that time my Irish publisher had decided to pull production of the Divine Hag. (It is now available only on Kindle.)
I immediately made an agreement to release the book through a publishing company based in Glastonbury run by a woman who has a long experience of the feminist movement. The publication date I have in my head is ASAP, but realistically next winter.
Meghan is a Doula and found her way to the Sheela-na-gigs through her work in child birthing, so began her journey of discovery already understanding the potency of the image. One of the aims of the new book is to pull the Sheela-na-gigs out of their historical closest and present them as progressively positive images for the women of today and into the future.
You have visited so many Sheela-na-gigs. Can you describe your personal experience of being with the Sheela stones? Have you found that they have different personalities?
Sometimes the personal experience is quite profound, especially when you come across certain figures for the first time. I might go looking for a figure that is new to me, not knowing what to expect and when you find her she is quite beyond what you were expecting. Shocking in a way. Other times the personal experience doesn’t come until I am back in my studio studying the figures.
It is the individual personalities that are probably the most important aspect of the figures. By getting to know about certain individual Sheelas it becomes clear that each one has a distinct personality, and it is only by understanding some of this individual personality that we can start to understand the whole phenomena. In real terms this means finding out as much as possible about the figures, getting as clear an image as possible, finding out about where they are or were placed, and if possible any traditions or folklore related to them or that place.
Have you had any dreams about the Sheela-na-gigs, which have informed your research or rapport?
Not Sheela-na-gigs exactly, but female figures that I feel are closely related to them. I think they have influenced my quest for the Sídhe, so by inference, the Sheelas, since I see them as one and the same and I acknowledge that there is something going on at a subliminal level even if it has not manifested as a dream.
In your book, you describe a possible class of women called Sheelas. Will you tell us more about them?
Our references come from a couple of 19th century antiquarian researchers working in county Cork who heard about special women known as Sheelas, who cured the sick by exposing themselves to the afflicted. They appear to have been healers and/or midwives, but the church and the authorities were on the lookout for such people at the time, and intent on their eradication, so such traditions were deeply hidden amongst the people, and so our knowledge of them is pretty limited. It is a great pity that we don't know more about that class of healer women called sheelas, for it is doubtlessly related to the essential meaning of the Sheela-na-gigs.
The interpretation of the Sheela-na-gigs as averting the evil eye through exposure of the female genitalia is no doubt closely connected to whatever those women were practicing, as well as the essential meaning of the Sheela-na-gigs.
The word Sheela has a very deep and broad meaning in old Irish both linguistically and culturally. Dineen's Irish Dictionary gives a long list of ways in which the word was used in old Irish culture. Dineen's dictionary is not a dictionary in the usual sense, but a compilation of phrases and sayings collected by the author over many years, which contextualises the meanings of the Irish words rather than giving straight stock meanings like a conventional dictionary. According to Dineen, Sheela was a name used to describe a whole range of human characteristics: a woman too fond of men, or women, even a man too fond of men, etc. There is no word for homosexual in Irish, and sexual deviancy is not strictly classified in Gaelic like it is in the Latin languages, which is in accord with most, if not all, earlier cultures who viewed sexual "deviancy" as being sacred and spiritual rather than wrong or evil.
Who these women called Sheelas were, we may never be quite sure, just that they appear to be dealing with the same power as the figures. My personal belief is that the women called Sheelas are the remnant of a women’s Bardic order of some kind.
SHEELA-NA-GIG ON OLD TOWN WALL, FETHARD, COUNTY TIPPERARY | THE ‘WITCH ON THE WALL’ by Jack Roberts
When I met you in the market in Galway, you mentioned that as a man, you can only take the subject of Sheela-na-gigs so far. Can you say more about this?
I always knew that as a man, my work with the Sheelas is restricted to some extent, and I carried out the research in the hope that it would encourage women to bring them alive again.
My work is mostly confined to the past, their history etc., and the task revealing them as honestly and accurately as possible to the modern world. It is up to women themselves to take on the challenge of the Sheelas, and take their message forward into the future. Women also understand things about the Sheela-na-gigs and connect with them in ways that are not so apparent to me as a man.
The subject of the Sheela-na-gigs is also one that requires discussion about the more intimate aspects of women’s anatomy, sexuality, etc., and as a man I am an outsider in these areas. My feelings about this were confirmed when I saw Meghan Rice give a presentation in Glastonbury, which dealt with the Sheela-na-gigs on a more personal and intimate level than I am capable of.
You have said that the Sheela-na-gigs are revealing themselves for the women of the world, that this is an important part of the re-emergence of the Sídhe. Who are the Sídhe? Will you explain the connection between the Sheela-na-gigs and the Sídhe?
The Sídhe are the spirit of the land, personified in Irish tradition as the faeries, and in mythology as the 'people of the goddess Danu,' the Tuatha Dé Dannan, who are said to dwell within the land. As the spirits of the land, the Sídhe are essentially feminine and wield the ultimate power of the land. For this reason ancient kingship was celebrated with the rite of sacred marriage, wherein the king ritually married the earth goddess, the land itself, and mythology is peppered with stories of female entities, the Cailleach or Morrigan, appearing at portentous times and sealing the fate of kings and warriors.
Belief in the power of the Sídhe is deeply ingrained in the Irish psyche, and was, indeed still is, closely intertwined with Christian beliefs. At the time when they were erected on the churches and castles, they were clearly a most potent symbol, coupled with which are extant poems and mythologies dating from as late as the 16th century in which the Sídhe in her various manifestations is an essential element.
Sheela-na-gigs are manifestation of the Sídhe, originating from the traditions and mythologies related to the Sídhe, and preserving a memory of the complex characteristics of these ancient earth spirits.
SHEELA-NA-GIG FROM COUNTY CAVAN by Jack Roberts
Will you elaborate about how you see your role in the liberation of women, Sheela-na-gigs, and the Sídhe?
I am basically just a researcher in the old antiquarian tradition dedicated to the preservation of our antiquities and respect for our ancient heritage. Yet in my exploration I have learnt something of the ancient wisdom inherent in these ancient sites that has shown me that many answers to our questions about our going forward at this crucial time in human history lie in our understanding of the past.
As an antiquarian respecting the wisdom of the ancients, revealing the Sheela-na-gigs is my way of helping women discover the path back to true liberation, their former position in society and spirituality.
It is said that the Sídhe will come out of the earth at crucial times to help us find our way back to a rightful way of living. The Sídhe, manifest in the image of the Sheela-na-gigs, represent a vital link back to a world that had not yet forgotten the power of the Sídhe and a time when women had far greater power and respect than they have had for the last 500 years. A better symbol for the spiritual and material liberation of women is hard to imagine than our challenging, uncompromising, and very Sacred Sheela-na-gigs.