Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sheela-Na-Gig of Sumba*

Yesterday, I was about to admire the beautiful garden of my neighbor, when I stumbled upon a statue on the ground. It was standing right before the place appointed for home-grown vegetables. After I complimented my neighbor Angelo for his lovely tomatos and aubergines, I almost fell over the erected engraved stone planted into the earth. I looked closely and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The statue I had in front was exactly the same I had in mind for years. It was Sheela-Na-Gig! In the grip of enthusiasm for the unexpected discovery, I asked him where it came from. Without noticing my thrilled state, he said: “Sumba, I think”, and he carried on. Sumba is one of the many mysterious islands of Indonesia*. It is far, very far away from the home of the other statue I recalled.

The first time I heard about Sheela-Na-Gig (also spelled Sheila Na Gig), I was at the University of Bologna following the lectures of prof. Valerio Marchetti. I was so fascinated by his researches, that I took his classes of Modern History for three years in a raw and, at the end, I chose him to be the mentor for my theses on female mystical language. Prof. Marchetti was teaching the history “of the others”: women, deviants, heretics, mystics etc.

He spoke about an ancient cult of fertility in Ireland, the cult of Sheela-Na-Gig. Apparently, Irish women would address their prayers at a certain angle of the church where there was a peculiar statue of a woman showing her vulva wide open straight to the viewer. The statue was hidden, only the ones who knew about it where aware of its existence. My professor assumed they were the remains of female pagan fertility cults that were still alive in the ‘50s in some catholic churches in the Irish countryside. I was fascinated by the statue in first place, and then by the possibility that the ancient worship of mother goddess was still alive in our time.

(picture from The British Museum's website)

The statue’s features actually shocked me. I wasn’t familiar with ancient sculptures or with primitive art at that time. The explicit exposure of the genitals where only supposed to be pornographic in my naïve and ignorant mind. My communist upbringing, which was unsuccessfully trying to deny its Judeo-Christian origins, did not consider sexuality as part of the common discourse. It was something that, alas, existed, and it was sorted as primary needs. End of the story. Now, regarding fertility, women had the option to “take a pill”, and to have an abortion, if they wanted. Once they had babies, they had to quickly recover and go back to work, leaving their offspring to their grandparents, or public nurseries. Up until mid ‘70s they were discouraged to breastfeed. They were invited to use formula instead. The major national movie imagery was packed with sexual scenes depicting rude and often brutal sexual intercourses, where women would undergo the action, instead of enjoying it. If there was a dialog about love making in the movie, it was all about denigrating the beauty of the sexual act, where dry sarcasm would try to destroy any romanticism left in that recently proletarianized mob. I could not understand why in ancient times women would pray to a deity that was proudly showing her big vulva.

I came from the world that believed in the superiority of a New Man. We were the progress, the rotting capitalism was the hideous past, and the prehistory was not even worth mentioning. All those “primitive” peoples that still existed somewhere far away were isolated debris of the human evolution. Of course, I was critical upon communism at that stage of my life, but it’s hard to rewrite your whole early programming. The fact that some women in Ireland kept their ancient believes despite centuries of harsh Catholic methods of persuasion, was empowering me. No communist, no catholic woman was allowed to be proud of her genitals. Her extraordinary ability to create was downgraded to mare duty at the service of society. No beauty was seen in the act of procreating, only pain and misery. Only the Holy Mary, a virgin, was allowed to be blessed because of her child. But, I guess not even she could escape the pain of the delivery that all women earned as a response to the misbehavior of their first ancestor. Mary remained a virgin, though. Her vulva was intact (according to The Bible, of course), yet alone wide open and bulgy. If she lived today, every hospital could make that happen with a routine c-section. This makes me wonder if our modern society was actually trying to keep our genitals intact for the sake of a certain historical role model - a perfect ideal of woman, made of thin air and eternally adolescent, unprofaned.

At the time when I was at the university, I could vaguely think of any possible mother goddess that existed in the minds of my ancestors. The ancient Slavic populations had the Mother Earth, but it was somehow different, more patriotic. Yet, I could imagine it had its roots somewhere deeper, in the muddy waters of our past that left very little traces of its existence nowadays. During my pregnancy, I made a beautiful find, Marija Gimbutas“The Language of the Goddess”. This well respected archeologist spent her lifetime exploring the material rests of the prehistorical cults of the great Goddess in all her aspects, especially in Baltic and Balkan areas, where they seemed to be abundant. Many of the iconographic expressions we use today (in art and design) are the avatars of a very old believes, fears and worships that had the Goddess as their central point. The Goddess was everything. The woman was the epitome of the Goddess for her ability to create and generate. Therefore, she was worshipped as well. The creation was a mystery, not only because of the supposed unawareness of the “primitives” regarding the physiology of procreation and birth, but because of the respect for the complex and fascinating world they were part of. A pregnant woman is a sacred creature, she glows, and even the biggest skeptic can hardly pretend not to see it. Her womb is the origin of human being, try to deny it. Her vulva is the passage from darkness to light, in any sense you want to put it. How did we find ourselves in the position to ignore the mightiness of all that?

Despite scholars’ sterile discussions, Sheela-Na-Gig is there to point out to us where our strength is, what makes us similar to the divine, in case we forgot about it while running after a moody toddler or while figuring out how to match our rights with our duties. And it is not somewhere else, but right in between our legs. Isn’t that funny? In the mythology of ancient Greeks, Demeter, the goddess of the Earth, was comforted for the loss of her daughter by a funny lady called Baubo who showed her genitals to the goddess and made her laugh. The statue from Sumba found out in my neighbor’s garden was there to remind me that the Goddess has not disappeared, she’s hidden, but still there and she manifests herself in unexpected ways to the ones who are open to embrace her, as she is open to embrace us. I am not talking about religion of any kind, I’m talking about the power of symbolism that can reach our deepest archetypal self making us feel well with ourselves.

I want to go to Sumba* and ask the Sumba people* what they think about it.

* EDIT (7 November 2012): Actually, the statue appears to be from Sulawesi island in Indonesia, as I was to discover by receiving one in my own garden after long search. I am now a happy owned on one of the few left Sheela-na-gigs of Sulawesi, about 70 years old.
EDIT (8 jULY 2014) I still don't know if the statue is from Sumba or Sulawesi... Sorry, folks!


  1. Hi Elena, my name is Gaby and I found your blog while browsing some Baubo images in the internet. It is always so lovely to find blogs like yours and natural birth experiences filled with Mother earth and the divine feminine. I have mentioned in mine, I hope you have some time to check it out. In the meantime, I will be following your blog as I found it sooooo interesting and nice!