It is haunting to stand before the ruins of an Irish church and look up above the rounded doorway to discover the stone Sheela na gig half-hidden in a cartouche of ivy. She has reigned from her perch on the south wall for over eight hundred years, the guardian of the entrance and sovereign of all the land she surveys. Her inescapable presence overwhelmed me when at long last I finally made it to Ireland, to see before me what I had previously only read about.
The first time I saw an image of a Sheela was over twenty-five years ago. A friend showed me a photocopy of a book by a Danish art historian, Jørgen Andersen, titled The Witch on the Wall: Erotic Figures in Medieval Sculpture. She turned to a picture of the Kilpeck Sheela and said to me, "You'll be interested in this." From her copy of the book I made my own, and thus 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 a figure exist at such a time and 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 ensuing years it was my sacred pleasure to make many voyages to the British Isles, and to Ireland, to see more of her kind. I used the taxonomy of all the known Sheelas in Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland from Andersenʼs research. This list was my guide to the Sheelas of those northern isles, as I searched for them on rural churches, through fields of grazing cattle, on remote islands, and in graveyards. A whole day could be spent tracking down one Sheela.
Nothing represents the necessity of reimagining the female in Western culture more than the startling Sheela na gig. The power of her image signifies a wholeness that can never be completely understood. But standing in the green countryside among the gray stones, meeting her in person, was a beginning.