From Goddess to Grotesque
Updated: Aug 5
We probably have a false impression when we think of the Irish Celtic pagan Goddess. If she originated with the Tuatha de Danann, who are popularly considered to comprise Ireland’s pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, then she must have been tall and beautiful, fair or red haired, blue eyed, pale skinned. Terrible and gorgeous, all at once.
Whilst a woman like this may appear desirable, if she were a fertility Goddess, you might expect that she would show signs of fecundity, the firm round belly of pregnancy at least. Maybe something like this…
You probably wouldn’t be expecting this…
This little charmer is an example of a sheelanagig, commonly thought to represent pagan fertility Goddesses. They are usually found on churches above doors or windows, although some have been found in the walls of buildings, possibly removed from their original location. This one was found somewhere in Co Cavan, and is now on display in the Co Cavan Museum.
The word ‘sheelanagig’ first appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840–44 with reference to a stone carving in Co Tipperary. The origins of the word are much debated, as it does not directly translate into Irish. Here are a couple of suggestions; Sighle na gCíoch, meaning ‘old hag of the breasts’, (although most sheelanagigs are not depicted with breasts); Síle ina Giob, meaning ‘Síle on her hunkers’. It is thought that the term may never have been used for the carvings when they were in use, but came into popular use during the nineteenth century.
It is popularly believed that the Goddess has a triple aspect, that is maid-mother-crone. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect it is a modern interpretation. In Irish mythology, the triune Goddess is usually represented by three sisters, such as the Morrigan composed of the sisterhood of Macha, Badb, and Nemain. Eriu, Banba and Fódhla are another example, who collectively represent Ireland’s sovereignty.
Brigid, most well-known and beloved of all the Irish Goddesses was said to have had two sisters also called Brigid, but the interesting thing about her triple aspect is that it represented her skills; poetic inspiration, the fire of the forge, and her healing power. Definitely not maid-mother-crone.
Just thinking logically for a minute… why would a fertility Goddess be represented by a dried up old crone? Surely she would be better represented by a nubile and fertile young maid, or the ripe swelling mother? In fact, if you look at the carving again, there is no suggestion of femininity other than the vulva. If she does represent a Goddess, I kinda get the feeling she’s been seriously demoted.
There are stories in the mythology, though, where an old hag demands kisses or sex of a young man, and if he obliges, she transforms into a beautiful young woman who bestows the sovereignty of Ireland upon him and his line. This is shape-shifting, however, not a representation of maid-mother-crone.
Foe example, when Niall and his brothers are out hunting one day, they stop at a well for a drink. The well is guarded by an ugly old hag who offers to exchange a cup of water for a kiss. The brothers refuse in disgust, but not Niall… he’s willing to sleep with her, he’s so desperate for a drink! She immediately transforms into a beautiful young woman, identifying herself as the sovereignty of Ireland, and confers the right of kingship upon him and his line.
This is a motif which often appears in the old stories, the deal usually sealed with the newly appointed king accepting a cup or drink from the Goddess. Perhaps it refers to an ancient half forgotten kingship ritual, but it does not explain the ugly old sheelanagig.
A more plausible interpretation is that these carvings were placed on churches to warn an illiterate congregation against the evils of female lust. It is thought the tradition was probably brought over from Europe by the Normans during the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the twelfth century. Sheelanagigs have been found not only in Ireland, but all over central and western Europe.
Whatever their intended meaning, we cannot now know. Personally, I don’t like them. To me, they are crude caricatures, parodies of the female. They make me shudder, and if anything, they seem to mock all that is woman, not glorify it.
From Goddess to Grotesque indeed.
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