The ‘female Saint Patrick’: What history got wrong

(CNN) — On forgotten walls of nation churches or falling apart castles throughout Ireland, the small figures squat hidden.

Lost in gray brickwork, obscured by ivy or moss, Sheela-na-gig stone carvings can be tough to identify in the wild — however these middle ages developments remain in no other way coy.

Usually bald-headed naked women, with hanging breasts and legs spread out large to show overstated vulvas, Sheela-na-gigs initially appear peculiarly out of location in the prim environments of a Christian church.

Nevertheless, these envoys from an ancient past have a lot to teach us about Irish and northern European history, and about the pagan roots of the international celebration now referred to as St. Patrick’s Day.

While in modern-day times it’s a one-day event, it was when a three-day carnival that completed 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.

‘She’s constantly there’

Irish folklore is peopled with numerous female figures. Tales of warrior queens, divine beings, kingmakers and spiritual hags have actually been given from generation to generation.

Nevertheless, an oral folk custom indicates that names, characters and significances change in time — and go through the interpretative impulses of altering societies.

“Sheelah is one folk manifestation of what we call female cosmic agency,states Shane Lehane, an archaeologist, folklorist and historian at Cork’s CSN College of Additional Education who has actually contributed in restoring interest in Sheelah recently.

“Think of her as the consort of the male, that great mythological tradition of the king and the goddess. She represents the land.”

While Sheela-na-gigs are middle ages, and the figure of Sheelah initially appears in paper and documentary accounts around the 17th century, tracing her history back to what is thought to be her ancient Celtic starts is a near-impossible job.

“There is a body of belief amongst people who study mythology that every female figure in some shape or form represents this entity,” states Lehane. “The very fact she survives is interesting. She’s always there.”

‘That terrific human issue’

There are Sheela-na-gig carvings around northern Europe — among the finest examples is at Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, England — however there are 115 noted nationally in Ireland, more than anywhere else on the planet.

As they have actually typically been moved from their initial areas and put in brand-new structures, “it’s quite hard to date them, but the consensus is that they date between the 12th and the 15th or 16th century,” states Matt Seaver, assistant keeper at the National Museum of Ireland. The museum has one Sheela on screen at its Dublin archeology museum while 6 more are on loan to local exhibits.

There are 2 primary completing analyses of Sheelas, describes Seaver. The older view is that they’re “promoting chaste living, a taboo on sexuality in the Middle Ages. The other theory that’s developed, primarily since the 1930s, sees them as symbols of fertility.”

Lehane, among these deconstructionists, informs CNN Travel that, “Sheelah has been the subject of a strong misogynistic perspective for a long time. They were seen as being symbols of evil, symbols of lust, symbols of eroticism.”

He argues that Sheela-na-gigs commemorate “the female who has custodianship over birth and over death. Sheelah is an icon of that great human concern.”

Accept the hag

The Hill of Tara is an ancient archaeological site and the traditional seat of Ireland's High Kings.

The Hill of Tara is an ancient historical site and the conventional seat of Ireland’s High Kings.


The Hill of Tara in County Meath is the ancient seat of Ireland’s High Kings, a website for event and burial that has actually remained in usage for more than 5,000 years. Trip buses take a trip north from Dublin to check out Tara and neighboring Newgrange, a Stone Age passage burial place.

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

There are numerous examples in Celtic folklore of what are described sovereignty goddesses — female divine beings who bestow kingly powers through copulation.

When a king falls out of line, the goddess who represents the land changes into a withered old female, comparable to the Sheela-na-gig, referred to as the Cailleach. “For the new king to come along, he must embrace this dangerous hag,” states Lehane, “and she reforms into this beautiful, bountiful, kind figure again.”

The Cailleach is discovered any place land is barren and treacherous, and weather condition unforgiving. She’s offered her name to megalithic burial place, rocks at seas, and mountainous outcrops. You can come face to face with the Cailleach at the Ceann na Caillí (Hag’s Head) at the Cliffs of Moher and the passage burial place atop Slieve Gullion mountain understood in your area as Calliagh Beara’s Home.

‘The very first story of Ireland’

St. Patrick, the historic figure, was a previous servant trafficked into Ireland from Roman Britain in the 5th century. Specifically amongst the Irish saints, he made a note of his own story, in 2 Latin works “Confessio” and “Epistola.”

“The one thing that very few people disagree about is that there was someone called Patrick and he wrote what became the first story of Ireland,” states Tim Campbell, director of the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down. “The history of Ireland literally begins with him.”

Patrick refers to more earthy Celtic custom when he composes of declining to reveal subjugation to another guy by drawing his nipples. There are 2 maintained Iron Age bodies on screen in the National Museum of Ireland that are testimony to this. They come from 2 stopped working kings who have actually been ritually eliminated and their nipples cut off, so that nobody might promise fealty.

Patrick’s tradition as a Christian missionary and bishop “was woven into the later legends of early medieval Ireland,” states Campbell, and the legendary Patrick would take in the older legends too.

‘Embrace mayhem’

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

When Christianity occurred, the legend of Patrick took control of the cult of Lugh. And at his side there was his accompaniment, Sheelah — who was now described as Patrick’s spouse.

Numerous nations have pre-Christian spring celebrations and Ireland is no various. The three-day event of Patrick and Sheelah — from March 16 to 18 — falls right before the spring equinox. The license to cavort and overlook the strictures of Lent is Ireland’s variation of Carnival.

“You were expected to go wild, to throw caution to the wind, to embrace chaos, because that’s the nature of Carnival,” states Lehane. “It’s a very important Irish tradition to recognize.”

Christian impact tamed the celebration’s licentiousness and Sheelah’s Day — taped as being commonly commemorated by the Irish and Irish diaspora in the 18th and the 19th century — was up to the wayside. However Patrick was not left without a female buddy.

3 saints, one tomb

Patrick might be the poster young boy, however Ireland has 2 other tutelary saint — Saint Brigid and Saint Colmcille. All 3, thanks to the remarkable advertising efforts of Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy, are considered to be buried under the very same rock in Downpatrick, a holy website to this day.

“During the medieval period, everywhere was claiming to be a place of pilgrimage. If you could get the three major Irish saints all buried in the one place, you’d won the lottery,” chuckles Lehane.

The Christian Saint Brigid shares numerous qualities of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid and the saint’s banquet day — February 1 — was initially the pagan celebration of Imbolc, marking the very first day of spring.

Irish individuals still commemorate this spring celebration by weaving St. Brigid’s crosses, made from hurries, to set over entrances and windows to secure the house from damage.

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 numerous Irishwomen prior to her, this author was taught by her mom how to collect hurries from marshy land and make St Brigid’s Crosses.

Maureen O’Hare/CNN

Holy wells

Saint Patrick, and Brigid too, are associated with Ireland’s holy wells, of which there are thousands. These natural springs, booked for alleviative functions, are discovered “in practically every parish,” states Lehane.

Females would fix to holy wells for remedy for gynecological issues, to wish the security of their virginity or to promote fertility. And while Patrick is the wells’ most popular customer, “the majority of the wells are dedicated to female figures,” states Lehane.

“If the waters have sulfur in them, that’s good for skin conditions; if they contain magnesium that’s good for muscle function and the heart; if the well is iron-rich that’s good for people who are anaemic,” Celeste Ray, an American scholastic who is assembling a database mapping the websites of all Ireland’s holy wells, just recently informed the BBC.

Today, the couple of enduring Sheela-na-gigs can typically be discovered near holy wells, while wells will likewise typically have actually a rag tree, upon which visitors have repaired their tokens and their prayers.

“The Sheela-na-gigs represent a point between life and death,” states Lehane. Throughout the numerous centuries when pregnancy was a fragile balance in between a worthwhile clean slate or a young life cut short, ladies relied on Sheelah — an icon of birth — in their time of requirement.

The wells too supplied a female area of sanctuary and recovery in an in some cases hostile landscape.

Sheelah, the earth goddess, resides on in these peaceful pockets of rural Ireland, where water streams listed below and the wind ruffles the grassy hills and the ribbons in the rag trees.

In Irish folklore, the hag is withered, however she is likewise ageless. She’ll outlast all of us.

Digital Heritage Age’s Sheela-na-gig 3D job has actually produced 3D digital designs of the Sheelas in the National Museum of Ireland’s collection. All the holy wells mapped in the Republic of Ireland are here and Ireland’s sheela-na-gigs have actually been mapped by

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.