What heritage got mistaken about the ‘female Saint Patrick’

(CNN) — On overlooked partitions of region church buildings or crumbling castles all through Eire, the very small figures squat unseen.

Missing in grey brickwork, obscured by ivy or moss, Sheela-na-gig stone carvings can be hard to place in the wild — but these medieval creations are in no way coy.

Generally bald-headed bare girls, with hanging breasts and legs distribute large to exhibit exaggerated vulvas, Sheela-na-gigs at initially look peculiarly out of spot in the prim surroundings of a Christian church.

On the other hand, these envoys from an historic earlier have a ton to instruct us about Irish and northern European historical past, and about the pagan roots of the world festival now known as St. Patrick’s Working day.

Though in modern day times it is really a one particular-day celebration, it was as soon as a 3-working day carnival that finished on March 18 — Sheelah’s Day.

This is the story of Sheelah — who she was, why she was forgotten when St. Patrick was not, and what traces of her are left driving.

‘She’s constantly there’

Irish mythology is peopled with many feminine figures. Tales of warrior queens, deities, kingmakers and sacred hags have been handed down from generation to generation.

Nonetheless, an oral folk tradition means that names, characters and meanings morph more than time — and are subject matter to the interpretative whims of transforming societies.

“Sheelah is just one people manifestation of what we connect with woman cosmic company,states Shane Lehane, an archaeologist, folklorist and historian at Cork’s CSN Higher education of Even more Instruction who has been instrumental in reviving desire in Sheelah in current many years.

“Assume of her as the consort of the male, that wonderful mythological custom of the king and the goddess. She signifies the land.”

While Sheela-na-gigs are medieval, and the determine of Sheelah first appears in newspaper and documentary accounts about the 17th century, tracing her historical past again to what is considered to be her historic Celtic beginnings is a in the vicinity of-unachievable process.

“There is a body of perception amongst people who review mythology that every woman figure in some condition or sort signifies this entity,” claims Lehane. “The very fact she survives is attention-grabbing. She’s generally there.”

‘That good human concern’

There are Sheela-na-gig carvings close to northern Europe — a single of the greatest examples is at Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, England — but there are 115 listed nationally in Eire, extra than any place else in the world.

As they’ve typically been shifted from their authentic spots and positioned in new buildings, “it truly is rather challenging to day them, but the consensus is that they day in between the 12th and the 15th or 16th century,” states Matt Seaver, assistant keeper at the Countrywide Museum of Eire. The museum has just one Sheela on display screen at its Dublin archeology museum while 6 much more are on personal loan to regional exhibitions.

There are two major competing interpretations of Sheelas, describes Seaver. The more mature perspective is that they are “advertising and marketing chaste residing, a taboo on sexuality in the Center Ages. The other concept that’s created, generally due to the fact the 1930s, sees them as symbols of fertility.”

Lehane, one particular of these revisionists, tells CNN Vacation that, “Sheelah has been the subject matter of a powerful misogynistic perspective for a very long time. They ended up found as currently being symbols of evil, symbols of lust, symbols of eroticism.”

He argues that Sheela-na-gigs celebrate “the woman who has custodianship about delivery and around dying. Sheelah is an icon of that fantastic human worry.”

Embrace the hag

The Hill of Tara is an historic archaeological website and the common seat of Ireland’s Higher Kings.


The Hill of Tara in County Meath is the historical seat of Ireland’s Large Kings, a internet site for ceremony and burial that has been in use for more than 5,000 several years. Tour buses vacation north from Dublin to check out Tara and nearby Newgrange, a Stone Age passage tomb.

Tara’s Lia Fáil, a phallus-like standing stone, has a powerful record, clarifies Lehane. “If you ended up heading to be king you sat up on major of the Lia Fáil and you symbolically mated with the land. If you were the right king, the Lia Fáil would screech.”

There are several illustrations in Celtic mythology of what are termed sovereignty goddesses — feminine deities who bestow kingly powers as a result of copulation.

When a king falls out of line, the goddess who represents the land transforms into a withered old lady, similar to the Sheela-na-gig, recognised as the Cailleach. “For the new king to arrive alongside, he should embrace this perilous hag,” claims Lehane, “and she reforms into this attractive, bountiful, type determine all over again.”

The Cailleach is uncovered where ever land is barren and treacherous, and weather conditions unforgiving. She’s provided her title to megalithic tomb, rocks at seas, and mountainous outcrops. You can come facial area to confront with the Cailleach at the Ceann na Caillí (Hag’s Head) at the Cliffs of Moher and the passage tomb atop Slieve Gullion mountain recognized locally as Calliagh Beara’s Home.

‘The initially tale of Ireland’

St. Patrick, the historic figure, was a former slave trafficked into Eire from Roman Britain in the fifth century. Completely among the Irish saints, he wrote down his individual story, in two Latin functions “Confessio” and “Epistola.”

“The one detail that quite several people today disagree about is that there was someone known as Patrick and he wrote what turned the initial story of Eire,” says Tim Campbell, director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down. “The background of Eire literally commences with him.”

Patrick will make reference to far more earthy Celtic custom when he writes of refusing to clearly show subjugation to another male by sucking his nipples. There are two preserved Iron Age bodies on show in the National Museum of Ireland that are testomony to this. They belong to two failed kings who have been ritually killed and their nipples slash off, so that no one particular 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 mythical Patrick would take in the older legends far too.

‘Embrace chaos’

The god Lugh is the just one most connected with kingship in Ireland, states Lehane. “He represents the best male.”

When Christianity arrived along, the legend of Patrick took about the cult of Lugh. And at his aspect there was his consort, Sheelah — who was now referred to as Patrick’s spouse.

Many countries have pre-Christian springtime festivals and Eire is no distinct. The three-day celebration of Patrick and Sheelah — from March 16 to 18 — falls just just before the spring equinox, The license to cavort and disregard the strictures of Lent is Ireland’s version of Carnival.

“You have been expected to go wild, to toss caution to the wind, to embrace chaos, simply because that’s the nature of Carnival,” states Lehane. “It is really a extremely vital Irish tradition to understand.”

Christian impact tamed the festival’s licentiousness and Sheelah’s Working day — recorded as getting greatly celebrated by the Irish and Irish diaspora in the 18th and the 19th century — fell to the wayside. But Patrick was not remaining with out a female companion.

Three saints, one particular grave

Patrick might be the poster boy, but Eire has two other patron saints — Saint Brigid and Saint Colmcille. All three, many thanks to the outstanding promotional endeavours of Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, are reputed to be buried under the exact rock in Downpatrick, a holy web site to this working day.

“All through the medieval interval, almost everywhere was boasting to be a place of pilgrimage. If you could get the 3 major Irish saints all buried in the just one spot, you’d gained the lottery,” laughs Lehane.

The Christian Saint Brigid shares a lot of characteristics of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid and the saint’s feast working day — February 1 — was originally the pagan festival of Imbolc, marking the to start with day of spring.

Irish people however rejoice this springtime pageant by weaving St. Brigid’s crosses, built from rushes, to set above doorways and windows to safeguard the house from harm.

Like many Irishwomen before her, this writer was taught by her mother how to gather rushes from marshy land and make St Brigid's Crosses.

Like quite a few Irishwomen right before her, this author was taught by her mom how to get rushes from marshy land and make St Brigid’s Crosses.

Maureen O’Hare/CNN

Holy wells

Saint Patrick, and Brigid way too, are linked with Ireland’s holy wells, of which there are hundreds. These organic springs, reserved for curative uses, are located “in nearly every single parish,” claims Lehane.

Girls would fix to holy wells for aid from gynecological challenges, to pray for the defense of their virginity or to promote fertility. And whilst Patrick is the wells’ most famed patron, “the bulk of the wells are devoted to woman figures,” says Lehane.

“If the waters have sulfur in them, that’s good for pores and skin conditions if they have magnesium which is excellent for muscle mass function and the coronary heart if the very well is iron-wealthy which is great for persons who are anaemic,” Celeste Ray, an American tutorial who is compiling a databases mapping the websites of all Ireland’s holy wells, recently told the BBC.

Right now, the few surviving Sheela-na-gigs can frequently be discovered near holy wells, while wells will also usually have a rag tree, on which readers have set their tokens and their prayers.

“The Sheela-na-gigs represent a point among everyday living and dying,” states Lehane. All through the many generations when being pregnant was a sensitive equilibrium between a fruitful new starting or a youthful existence reduce quick, girls turned to Sheelah — an icon of delivery — in their time of have to have.

The wells too provided a woman space of sanctuary and therapeutic in a from time to time hostile landscape.

Sheelah, the earth goddess, life on in these peaceful pockets of rural Ireland, where by h2o flows down below and the wind ruffles the grassy hills and the ribbons in the rag trees.

In Irish mythology, the hag is withered, but she is also ageless. She’ll outlive us all.

Digital Heritage Age’s Sheela-na-gig 3D undertaking has established 3D digital designs of the Sheelas in the National Museum of Ireland’s selection. All the holy wells mapped in the Republic of Ireland are in this article and Ireland’s sheela-na-gigs have been mapped by heritagemaps.ie.