Another Pagan History -- What's Really Old, and What Likely Ain't PART 12
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Article ID: 11349
Age Group: Adult
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Author: A.C. Fisher Aldag
Posted: February 4th. 2007
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In this installment, we'll take a look at some art which may be related to Goddess worship. Or it may not. Do the prehistoric Venus figurines really represent a goddess, or are they just art for art's sake? Are Sheila-na-Gigs symbolic of a goddess, or are they a Christian invention? Are they really old -- or not?
The Goddess in Art: As was mentioned in a previous essay, numerous examples of artwork showing a symbolic image of women were created during the Megalithic and Neolithic periods (middle and new stone ages) . Dr. Marija Gimbutas was the first archeologist to theorize that the small figurines of well-endowed ladies, now called “matrikas”, may have been objects of reverence. Although no one can say for certain that these female statuettes are representative of a goddess, signs point to their use as an image of worship. Several of the figurines were daubed with red ochre, a pigment made from iron ore which was often used to adorn bodies in elaborate burials. Other matrikas were found in places considered to be sacred, such as a hunting shrine or tomb. Many of the female images were interred with personal items, such as a dead hunter’s bows and arrows, or well-crafted jewelry.
Although one recent historian has claimed that no matrikas have ever been found in the British Isles, this is not true. Three spindle-shaped “goddess” figures with clearly delineated hips and breasts were carved from deer and horse bones, probably around 26, 000 B.C.E. These statuettes were discovered in the grave goods of a skeleton painted with red ochre in Goat’s Hole Cave, near Paviland on the Gower Peninsula of southern Wales. The body was mistakenly called the “Red Lady of Paviland” although it was actually a young male. He was decorated with seashell and bone necklaces, hunting tools, and other items giving evidence of reverential burial. The Paviland hunter is the oldest human remains found in Britain, and is probably the oldest ceremonial burial in western Europe. A “Venus” figure was found in Grimes Graves in Norfolk, England, possibly dating from the Neolithic (new stone age) period. This image, made of chalk, was discovered in a flint mine used by prehistoric hunters to make arrowheads and tools. The matrika was found on a stone altar with a phallic-shaped wand, also made of chalk. Although efforts to determine the statue’s date are inconclusive, some archeologists think the statue and wand are fakes. In Nab Head, Pembrokeshire, Wales, a figurine made of clay representing a squatting woman, possibly giving birth, was dated from the Mesolithic area. This matrika closely resembles other artifacts found throughout old Europe, and is considered to be authentic. There are also feminine images etched into cave walls and dolmens which may represent a goddess figure, including the Gran’meres of Guernsey. If you count all the “holey” standing stones, woman-shaped monoliths and carved spirals, this shows that the female form was an object of artistic worth throughout the British Isles.
A few modern writers have tried to explain away the matrikas and their possible use as sacred objects by saying that they were merely implements used for breaking a young woman’s hymen, or children’s dolls. Okay, I see a couple problems with this theory: 1.) If you’ve ever cared for a toddler, you’d know not to give them any small object they can swallow, or poke themselves in the eye with, or break into sharp pieces. Most of the “Venus” statues have sharp points, are made of substances like stone, clay or bone, and are small enough to become lodged in a toddler’s throat. Just as we do in our culture, pre-industrialized people gave their children soft, plushy stuffed toys to play with. Older children didn’t often use dolls, as they were involved in caring for their smaller siblings. 2.) If the matrikas are just prehistoric dildos, wouldn’t they be more, ahem, dildo-shaped? I can believe that the phallic wands were used for that purpose, but not small, sharp-edged bone or limestone statuettes. 3.) Many of the “goddess” figurines have holes drilled in them, probably to be used as jewelry or an amulet, and 4.) Several of the matrikas are carved into a wall, difficult to use for either doll or dildo.
Some historians believe that the female figurines weren’t intended for sacred purposes, but were simply “gynecological” implements, used as a ritual object during childbirth. Well, how much more sacred can you get than bringing forth life? Many pre-Christian cultures believe that giving birth is a holy experience, and have designed ceremonies, songs, lore, talismans and other reverential items used exclusively by mothers and midwives. This theory also doesn’t take into account the many matrikas discovered within hunting shrines, or found with stashes of grave goods including weapons and jewelry. Several of the female statuettes were deliberately broken and interred with male corpses. Some anthropologists believe that these “Venus” figurines may symbolize a ritual sacrifice, a return to the mother’s womb, or even a marriage in the afterworld. Breaking the matrikas may have been intended to release their spirit, or to render them useless to thieves. This pattern resembles the ritually sacrificed items of later periods, such as the swords and vessels of the Bronze Age, which were broken and cast into rivers and swamps or buried in the earth.
While I think we can rule out child’s doll or adult sex toy as a use for the ancient matrikas, we can’t unequivocally state that they are an image of the Great Mother Goddess, either. The artists who created them may have been representing a goddess, a lesser spirit being, an individual woman, an effigy of an ancestor, or a fishing lure, for all we know. However, there are enough of these figurines found throughout Europe, similar in appearance, to believe that they have a common purpose. We may never discover what that might be.
The Celts of the Bronze and Iron Ages did not usually depict their goddesses as physical entities. Instead, the Irish, Welsh and Britons composed poetry, songs and inspiring tales of holy women. (The ancient Celts did not create many images of the male gods, either.) Most Celtic goddesses that survive as carvings or statues were crafted after the Roman incursions. Of course, there are always exceptions. One Welsh goddess is shown carrying a load of stones in her apron, likely symbolic of a burden. A wooden statue of a female figure with a crystal stone placed in her vaginal area was discovered in a bog with other sacrificed items. Goddess images appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. Bronze castings of Brighid decorate a tablet and an ewer (water vessel) . These images pre-date the holy women shown on Roman statuary and later Romano-Celtic artwork, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps the most enigmatic female symbol found in the British Isles is the Sheila-na-Gig, (also spelled Sheela or Síle) . These stone carvings portray naked women with exposed genitalia, often holding their vulvas wide open, and are thus labeled “exhibitionist” figures. Many of the Sheilas have the blocky head and thin limbs associated with Romano-Celtic artwork. Yet most historians believe that the Sheila-na-Gigs weren’t created until long after the Celts were assimilated with Anglo-Saxon culture. There are hundreds of Sheila-na-Gigs surviving in Ireland, Britain, Wales, Scotland and on the continent. Others were destroyed, removed or defaced from the Reformation years to present times. Many are held in public museums or private collections. Around ten different Sheilas can be found in basement storage in the National Museum of England. Historians, artists, and anthropologists have debated whether the Sheilas depict a certain goddess, or if they represent scary old witches, beloved priestesses, or simply an intangible concept such as fertility. Some speculate that the carvings are a parody of womanhood. Others think that the exhibitionist figures are merely a generic protection symbol, placed on old buildings for good luck. Still others argue that the Sheila is a Christian image, a proscription against the sin of lust, because she is carved on so many Norman churches near male figures which possibly represent avarice.
In fact, most of the Sheila-na-Gigs can be found on small rural Catholic churches. With few exceptions, the Sheilas date to the Romanesque period of the Middle Ages, long after the Christianization of Britain and Ireland. Many resemble elderly women, with haggard features and grimacing expressions. This leads some scholars to believe that the Sheilas were created by Christian artisans, perhaps to represent a witch who was tried and executed at the church. Another theory is that the exhibitionist figures were intended to scare away the devil by displaying their womanly attributes. Some believe the elderly or anguished Sheilas are a warning against promiscuous behavior. A few exhibitionist figures are portrayed as young and beautiful. They are sometimes posed as acrobatic contortionists or smiling cheerfully, such as the Sheila-na-Gig on the Kilpeck Church in southwestern England. Some historians think these figures may symbolize a supernatural being. Others speculate that the carvings may represent the “sinful” nature of women, the theatre, and acrobats or other performers. And many suggest that the Sheilas may be a remnant of goddess worship, placed on the churches by hereditary Pagans.
After looking at hundreds of Sheila-na-Gigs, my conclusion is that she is a representation of an ancient holy woman or goddess, who predated the Christian religion and survived into the Middle Ages. Many of the Sheilas resemble similar figures of Kali and the Yoni found in temples in East India and Malaysia. They have also been compared to the “Baubo” figurines of old Europe. Although the Sheila appears most often on Catholic churches in the British Isles, she is also found in public buildings, castles, inns, and on outdoor pillars or freestanding stones. While some of the Sheilas are placed right over the front door of a church, others are hidden out of sight, high up on an exterior wall or indoors near the ceiling. Several of them were even concealed inside a wall. This fact negates the theory that the carvings represent a warning about witchcraft or a proscription against sinful lust, because the church congregation may not have been able to actually see them. Many Sheilas are composed of a different material than the stone and mortar surrounding them, and likely came from another location. Some of the exhibitionist figures are believed to be older than the buildings that contain them, and several may predate the Christian incursions. This evidence leads me to believe that the Sheila-na-Gigs were not originally a Christian symbol.
In the eighth century C.E., Pope Gregory ordered the construction of Catholic churches on the sites of older Pagan temples. Perhaps the Sheilas survived the transition, and they could have been transferred to church buildings in an effort to preserve them. Or perhaps artisans created new exhibitionist figures, based on images from the older shrines. Since many of the carvings are quite difficult to see, my theory is that Pagan craftsmen may have placed the Sheilas so the common people knew where to find them, so they could continue to worship their own deity while in church. The elderly Sheila may be a portrayal of the Cailleach, or the goddess in her crone aspect, ready to receive the souls of the dead for rebirth. The younger Sheila may represent life-affirming sexuality, or be a talisman to increase fertility, or she may just be “mooning” the patriarchal new religion. One theory that I found amusing: the exhibitionist figures may have originally represented the temple of a sacred prostitute. Perhaps they were placed on churches to rebuke the Christians for profaning the sexual nature of women.
There is quite a bit of folklore regarding the Sheila-na-Gig. In Ireland, women still rub the vulva of an exhibitionist statue or take rock dust from the vaginal opening with the intent of using it for healing magic or fertility energies. Many of the carvings are worn down from centuries of rubbing. Another folk custom is using the Sheila as a sympathetic figure for a painless childbirth. The exhibitionist carvings are also believed to bring good luck or scare away evil. Parallel traditions include the magical use of stone monuments which resemble female genitalia. Near Edinburgh, a monolith shaped like a vulva is called the Witches’ Stone. Young women slide down the rock with the intention of enhancing their fertility. Similar customs include passing a child through the center of the vagina-shaped Mean-an-Tol stone in Cornwall, with the goal of creating magic for good health, or women crawling through the opening to ensure conception. These practices may have pre-dated the Sheila figures.
The meaning of the name Sheila-na-Gig is lost to obscurity, but it likely comes from the old Gaelic language. It may mean “Sheila of the breasts”, although few of the carvings actually have discernable breasts. Another possible translation is “Sheila on her hunkers” because many appear to be squatting. “Gig” is pronounced “gee” in Gaelic, and may be a reference to a woman’s genitalia. In Australia, a “sheela” is a slang term for a woman. A British colloquialism for the sex act is “gigging”. Sheila is a common name for women in Ireland, England and America, as well as in East India, so it was very likely considered a positive word at one time – mothers probably did not name their daughters for an object of ridicule. Sheila may be a feminization of the word sidhe or shee, another name for the fairy folk of ancient Ireland.
In the next installment, we'll look at some sacred wells, several of which may have been ancient holy sites dedicated to a Goddess. We'll also discuss "water worship" or traditions related to the veneration of water.
There is LOTs of stuff online and in the library of any major city or university about Sheila-na-Gigs and matrikas. Check them out. Are they representations of the Goddess? You decide.
Copyright: Copyleft 2006 A.C. Aldag. Copy and distribute freely, however, please respect the nice people here at The Witches' Voice and wait until it's off their front page. Thank you!
A.C. Fisher Aldag
Location: Bangor, Michigan
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Bio: A.C. is kinda getting to resemble the Venus of Lespugue. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, when you consider that the matrika has survived for some 20K years.
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