top of page

Sisters in Antiquity - Sheela na Gig & Baubo

It seems that Sheila na Gig and Baubo share a growing number of connecting dots. As female figures, historians are not quite sure if they are symbols of warning or iconographic remains of goddess worship. I’d hazard a guess to say both and more.

Each of the carvings differs; Baubo to Baubo, Sheela to Sheela as well as Sheela na gig to Baubo. Similarities are hinted at almost as if stonemasons across the northern half of the glob are winking at each other. “I like what you’re doing, let’s put the cat among the pigeons and keep those idiots in the future scratching their heads”.

A Sheela na Gig carving is most often found in Ireland, but cannot solely be claimed as an Irish phenomenon as they have been found scattered around England, Scotland, Wales, Orkney and across Europe. It is a female-styled figure with hunched back, a wide grin and hands pulling apart the lips of her oversized vulva. It could be an invitation or a warning, or a show of strength; perhaps all three. The womb often symbolises a journey through a tunnel and into a cave where the traveller might find enlightenment. The vulva, therefore, symbolises the entrance or starting point for that journey. As a warning, on face value, it could be a symbol of lewd and/or sexually deviant behaviour. You know, the “no sex on my watch” kind of thing aimed at women throughout the centuries. Kind of crude though to be displayed in churches one would think, but hey, I’m a modern woman and these carvings are hundreds of years old – who knows really, what the church wardens were thinking in those days.

Photos above are taken of the Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode (scroll down for links)

Personally, I like the show of strength theory. One, it ties in neatly with the series of stories I’m currently writing, and two, it takes back power over our bodies and throws it back in the face of those who have so determinedly tried to strip it away.

Sheela na gigs can appear as half-starved figures, ribs stark, grimacing teeth-bearing scarred old women, or as lewd females grinning (laughing?) at everyone passing by. They have strong connections with the Romanesque period though they are rather at odds with the rest of the medieval architectural style of buildings they appear. There is a theory (there are loads of theories) that, as many of the churches are built in traditionally sacred spots, the carvings are much older and were re-used by builders of the day to connect old pagan ways with new Christian ones. I’ve also read that architects and builders in the Romanesque period had quite the sense of humour and that the Sheela na gigs are some kind of joke on parishioners.

The Priene Baubo - photo of Starr Goode's Sheela na Gig The Dark Goddess of Power

The Priene Baubo - photo of Starr Goode's Sheela na Gig The Dark Goddess of Power

The European Baubo carvings, on the other hand, are linked to Demeter who, on her failure to save her daughter Persephone from the clutches of Hades, fell into a deep depression that caused crops to fail and people to starve. When the Goddess of the Harvest is unhappy, these sorts of things tend to happen. An old woman in her entourage, known for her ribald humour, took it upon herself to tell Demeter rude jokes and stories until the Goddess cheered. She capped it all with a display of her genitalia, which sent Demeter into peals of laughter. The old woman’s name was Baubo.

While the myth has Baubo revealing her genitalia to Demeter, found figurines more often show her with her grinning face on her naked belly; less often with her hands opening her vulva. Prior to becoming Demeter’s servant, Baubo was probably an earlier Goddess figure “appropriated” or linked to the Greek myth as new cultures arrived.

Book: Sheela na Gig The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode

A great book to read if you're interested in the wider history of Sheela na Gig and "her sisters". (scroll down for links)

Looking for more dots, I dug a little deeper, scraping through the surface layer of online articles, and came across Sheela na Gig: the dark goddess of sacred power by Starr Goode. Goode has provided detailed and in-depth accounts of the various Sheela figures, and her sisters, found around the globe. Female exhibitionist figures are everywhere! Australian rock art, statues in Russia, carvings in Italy and Hawai’i, Palaeolithic figurines found across Europe. They are not all the same, as artistic and spiritual traditions from one region to the next may not be the same, but they share many similarities; mainly spread legs and bulging oversized vulva. They guard entrances, watch over passers-by and parishioners, have meaning to the faithful and the connected. And they are all many hundreds of years old.

First two photos above are from Sheela na gig The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power by Starr Goode and the third is a photo I took in 2008 during a visit to the Northern Territory. The Anbangbang Gallery and Shelter at Nourlangie (Burrungkuy) is an amazing place to visit.

Further reading also reveals that Sheela Na gigs are not only found on churches, but towers, castle walls, cemeteries, and peat bogs where the remains of shrines have also been found. This suggests (more than suggests to me) that the Sheela pre-dates Christianity, therefore, their link to Romanesque builders is more of a borrowed or re cycled affectation. Perhaps those long dead builders understood that Sheela watched over the people regardless of what the new church lore propounded.

The Lustymore Idol (foreground) and Janus Figure are located at Caldragh Cemetery, Country Fermanagh, Ireland. They are over 2,000 years old!

Sheela na gig The Dark Goddess of Power by Starr Goode

Sheela na Gig and Baubo appear to be sisters in origin, part of a faith that knows the power of the Yoni – the Great Mother. A grand family of deities guarding our travel through life and death, and beyond.

Sheela na Gig and Baubo - powerful symbols, still relevant today.

References for further reading:

Sheela na gig: the dark goddess of sacred power by Starr Goode. Published by Inner Traditions, Vermont

Image sources:

Baubo Illustration:Travels with Persephone

Sheela na gig pendant: Dark Pastures on Etsy

Sheela na gig: the dark goddess of sacred power by Starr Goode.

Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page