Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: Sheela na gig, a book by Starr Goode

Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode, Inner Traditions 2016, 8” x 10”, 2.4 lbs., 384 pages. Also available as an ebook.

Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power is a large, beautiful book in which the author, Starr Goode, delves into the art, history, and mystery of one of the most sexually assertive and explicit figures honored by those who revere Goddesses and a subject studied by researchers of ancient artifacts. As you might guess from its dimensions, the book is illustration-intensive with a total of 151 excellent black and white illustrations—mostly images—of Sheelas or related deities, such as Baubo. The images come from various time periods (most recently dated back to at least 9600-800 BCE) and various cultures, and can still be seen on churches in the UK, including Ireland. In exploring them Goode, who teaches writing and literature at Santa Monica College and produced and moderated the cable TV series “The Goddess in Art,” travels back to the Neolithic and forward to art in our own time. The latter features contemporary interpretations of Sheela. A number of the photos were taken by the author, others are from the work of Marija Gimbutas and from other well-known sources. The seven chapters of Part I, “History,” contain 73 illustrations; the two chapters of Part II “Journeys,” 30 illustrations; and the four chapters of Part III, “Image,” 48 illustrations.
This scholarly book about the “displaying” (holding apart vulva lips) female figure begins with a historical overview that includes agreements and disagreements about Sheelas’ origins and significance. Today, there is apparently no agreement on the meaning of Sheela na gig’s name, nor her significance at various times in history, nor even when She first appeared historically. Goode discusses various theories of origin, such as Neolithic, early Pagan, Romanesque, and even later. She includes the role that Romanesque architecture played in the popularization of Sheela representation and the relationship of the transfer of Irish and other goddesses to Christian saints, which resulted in the probable transfer of symbolism that occurred when displaying Sheelas were placed on churches and castles—where many remain today.
In her discussion of Sheela symbolism Goode considers several possibilities, including as “a regenerative symbol for the cycle of life, representing fecundity, decay, and renewal.” She writes, “Certainly, the mysteries of sex, death, and rebirth, have accrued around the image of the vulva. It is an open invitation to sex, a birth canal, and, paradoxically, a symbolic return to Mother Earth following death.” In Christianity, Goode writes, the displaying figures became “a warning against lust.” Later their symbolism became more protective and powerful. One of the strongest and longest associations with Sheelas is “apotropaic” power, in which the displaying female genitals have the power to avert negative influences or bad luck. For example, people used Sheelas to guard against the “evil eye.” Related are various titles that have been given to Sheelas by different cultures, such as “Evil Eye Stone” and “the Witch.” Citing the German writer Georg Kohl, Goode also discusses “human Sheelas,” living women who, in Ireland, were and are still called “Shila na Gigh” and who help people’s luck to change from bad to good by “lifting their skirts to display their female nakedness.” Goode also discusses why and when stone Sheelas become less prominent in Ireland, including through their mutilation. Goode explains that in medieval times, Christian clergy considered Sheelas “the devil” and ordered them to be “burned as witches even though they were made of stone, not flesh….in later centuries and to this day, many are being recovered from where they were sometimes tossed into rivers or buried deep beneath castles. Other carvings had their vulvas hacked away....”

 In sections on the Sheela’s “forebears,” the author discusses the relationship of other figures to Sheela , such as Baubo (as in the Demeter-Persephone myth/Eleusinian Mysteries); Medusa; and the Frog Goddess. One of the sections that was especially interesting to me (because I was involved in Eastern European folk dance groups for many years and came to feel that many of them had Pagan and/or Goddess roots), is Goode’s discussion of a Bulgarian women’s ritual with dances related to the Frog Goddess. The dance, which is still done today, is a spring rain dance called Peperouda, While the dance is related to power of frogs, its name is translated “Butterfly” on You Tube videos (butterflies of course also have a springtime association.) I have placed three videos of different (though similar) versions of this ritual dance the end of this review.
Part I of the book also includes a section on “Male Interpretive Bias.” Part II looks more deeply into what Goode learned from her travels to Sheela sites, especially in Ireland and England. Part III focuses on images of Sheelas and deities that resemble Sheela, such as some versions of Kali, and includes contemporary artists’ Sheela interpretations. The back matter includes both Footenotes and Endnotes, plus a Bibiography.

Both the large number of excellent illustrations and the details and depth of Goode’s discussion make Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power an extremely valuable book that many Goddess folks and students of the mythology — as well as others — will treasure.
 Peperouda Videos

Full ritual with dance in the village of Tsar Samuil, municipality of Tutrakan in northeastern Bulgaria. Features “frog girl” surrounded by older women (The word in the You Tube link  “German” refers to another dance on the same video group, not the location of the ritual of this Peperouda ritual, which appears at the very beginning of the video):


Children in Radost Folk Ensemble with some adult women:

More choreographed version, Bulgarian women’s group, you can see similarities in waving of hands, and headdresses of 2 of  the women:


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At Tuesday, February 28, 2017 3:57:00 PM, Blogger Jacqueline Durban said...

Thank you so much for this review. It sounds like a valuable and inspiring book. I will definitely be putting it on my list!


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.