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Sheela na gig

The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

Traces the origins of the Sheela na gig from Medieval times to Paleolithic cave art

• Reveals the sacred display of the vulva to be a universal archetype and the most enduring image of creativity throughout the world

• Provides meditations on the Sheelas the author encountered in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, allowing readers to commune with the power of these icons

• Includes more than 150 photographs and illustrations from around the world

For millennia, the human imagination has been devoted to the Goddess, so it is hardly a surprise to find images of supernatural females like Sheela na gigs adorning sacred and secular architecture throughout Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland. Appearing on rural churches, castles, bridges, holy wells, tombs, and standing stones, these powerful images of a figure fearlessly displaying her vulva embody the power of the Dark Goddess over the mysteries of sex, life, death, and rebirth.

Exploring the art and myth of the Sheela na gig from Celtic and Classical times back to Paleolithic cave art, Starr Goode shows how the Sheela embraces a conundrum of opposites: she clearly offers up her ripe sex yet emanates a repelling menace from the upper half of her hag-like body. Through more than 150 photographs, the author shows how the Sheela is a goddess with the power to renew, a folk deity used to help women survive childbirth, and, as a guardian of doorways and castle walls, a liminal entity representing the gateway to the divine. She explains how these powerful images survived eradication during the rise of Christianity and retained their preeminent positions on sacred sites, including medieval churches.

The author provides meditations on the individual Sheelas she encountered during her 25 years of research, allowing readers to commune with these icons and feel the power they emanate. Exploring comparable figures such as Baubo, Medusa, the Neolithic Frog Goddess, and vulva depictions in cave art, she reveals the female sacred display to be a universal archetype, the most enduring image of creativity throughout history, and illustrates how cultures from Africa and Ecuador to India and Australia possess similar images depicting goddesses parting their thighs to reveal sacred powers.

Explaining the role of the Sheela na gig in restoring the Divine Feminine, the author shows the Sheela to be an icon that makes visible the cycles of birth, death, and renewal all humans experience and a necessary antidote to centuries of suppression of the primal power of women, of nature, and of the imagination.



Secret of the Sheelas

Can an image still be alive if it hasn’t been created for over three hundred years? Did the energy behind the Sheelas die, or did it abide underground in a rhizome, waiting to break out into our current age of disconnection and despair? Can a seemingly dormant image be animated once again? How is the Sheela part of the psychic event of our era: the return of the Goddess? If she has returned--why, to what end? What can she offer us? Why do we need this image?

The image of the Sheela na gig embodies the numinous power of the Dark Goddess over the mysteries of life and death. These primal energies cannot be controlled. Such a representation challenges the efficient running of the machine of state. The Sheela symbolizes what terrifies patriarchal society with its increasing oppression under the guise of order--the chaos of nature and female sexuality. We, in the industrialized West, live in a culture that emphasizes goal-oriented linear thinking at the expense of symbolic thinking in images. The meaning of the displayed vulva of the Sheela cannot be safely contained by dry mental interpretations but must be felt through the web of associations from the dark richness of the unconscious.

One of the fundamental crises of our culture is a lack of connection to images that originate from the deepest, most transformative part of ourselves. Yet, ironically, we are bombarded with images from our plugged-in lifestyle. The shadow side of the Information Revolution is consumption of escapist images from a virtual reality that leaves us more disconnected from any grounding in our own creativity. We are left adrift with a mass of empty images that do not function as images traditionally have done: to construct a bridge between this world and the immense inner world of the Beyond. In a recent essay appearing in Parabola, “Imagination and the Void: To Be or Not To Be,” Patrick Laud takes on the issue of our contemporary way of relating to images:

One must wonder what may remain of the power of creative imagination when such a passive, hardly conscious relationship with images has settled in and become second nature.1

These media and virtual images construct a world of unreality to mesmerize and sedate us with entertainment. Such diversions, Laud states, mask “an industrialized world of tedious, mechanical, senseless activity.”2 Scholar Max Dashú believes this consumer culture has rendered our imaginal lives “bound, twisted, displaced, and appropriated” by media conglomerates.3 They feed us spectacles of illusion. How far this is from the imagination’s ability to connect us with the whole of reality and foster the feeling of being alive.

Another troubling problem has been named by Jungian analyst Theodor Abt. The general trend in education over the past several hundred years toward goal-oriented rational thinking makes “the understanding of chains of cause and effect the dominant way of looking at reality.”4 The originality of symbolic thinking in images which sees beneath the surface into another world has declined. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, innovative theater director Peter Sellars expresses his alarm at the devaluation of creativity in schools. Science is emphasized over the humanities, which have been “systematically removed from the menu of most Americans.”5 He believes this has resulted in a less compassionate civilization: “Right now we are in such deep, deep, deep waters, and the only solutions are going to be the creative ones.”6

An additional destructive notion is that creativity exists just for the gifted few. To the detriment of our fullness as people, this idea ignores our natural heritage. Inherent to the human personality is the desire to create images and to receive them from the psyche, then to discover their meaning. Countering this devaluation of the imagination in the classroom is an oftprinted essay written almost forty years ago, “Everyman with a Blue Guitar: Imagination, Creativity, Language” by English Professor James E. Miller. In it, he makes an impassioned cry for “a radical revision of the curriculum and classroom practice” to create enlivened classrooms where imaginative energies are available to every student.7 In his experience as a teacher, he does not see the world as divided into creative and uncreative people but rather that imagination and creativity are faculties and attributes of all.8 Finally, Miller turns to the work of biologist E. W. Sinnott who makes a singular point: it is not reason, but the great flight of imagination that has been nature’s greatest force in human evolution.9

What is the psychological cost of this separation from the creative center of ourselves? We think we are no longer part of nature but superior to it--that science has conquered nature. In truth, we are in the grip of a suicidal urge to make more efficient machines to poison every element that sustains life and to destroy the beauty of this planet. Jung, in his last writing on symbols completed ten days before his death, delivers a final warning. He cautions that we do not realize how much our rationalism has dehumanized us by destroying our ability to respond to numinous symbols and ideas:

Today, for instance, we talk of “matter.” We describe its physical properties . . . But the word “matter” remains a dry, inhuman, and purely intellectual concept, without any psychic significance for us. How different was the former image of matter--the Great Mother--that could encompass and express the profound emotional meaning of Mother Earth.10

When the sacred realm is split off from matter, we feel ourselves to be isolated in the cosmos, lost without a devotion to nature.

Cultural historian Thomas Berry asks: how, without roots in the earth and cosmos, are we to activate the psychic energy that is required to transform the major ecological issues confronting us?12 With spirit placed outside the natural world and rationalism displacing the inner world of imagination, how are we to experience a delight in life to sustain us through its vicissitudes?

About The Author

Starr Goode, MA, teaches writing and literature at Santa Monica College. An award winning writer, she has been profiled in the LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker. She was the producer and moderator for the cable TV series The Goddess in Art, the episodes of which are now housed in the permanent collection of the Getty Museum as well as available on YouTube. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (November 15, 2016)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620555965

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Raves and Reviews

“. . . an exciting book on the Sheela na gig, an iconic image Starr Goode has called ‘the perfect antidote to the war on women.’ History, travelogue, and an artist’s insightful ‘gaze’ make this a must-read and very accessible text.”

– Vicki Noble, author and co-creator of Motherpeace Tarot

“. . . groundbreaking, comprehensive, and fascinating. . . . No study of the feminine archetype is complete without the insight, knowledge, and extensive imagery presented in this book.”

– Anne Baring, author of The Dream of the Cosmos: A Quest for the Soul

“. . . an all-encompassing layered work where all the parts harmonize with the whole . . . a poetic paean to the Great Mother. The writing is clear and exquisite. I strongly recommend it not only to students and researchers on women’s spirituality but to the public at large.”

– Cristina Biaggi, Ph.D., author of Habitations of the Great Goddess

“Starr Goode has written a masterful work on the Sheela na gigs. She gives a solid historic and prehistoric foundation for the iconography of the Sheelas, beginning with the Aurignacian period of the Upper Paleolithic. Goode shares her wealth of knowledge, and she beautifully balances the scholarly with a deep sense of the spirituality which the Sheelas represent.”

– Miriam Robbins Dexter , author of Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book

“As Starr Goode tells us in this gorgeously illustrated book, Sheelas have for millennia adorned churches, castles, bridges, holy wells, tombs, and standing stones throughout the British Isles and in a few European sites. Highly Recommended.”

– Barbara Ardinger, SageWoman. Barbara Ardinger, SageWoman. Barbara Ardinger, SageWoman

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