The Goddess In the Museum Basement
Throughout my stay in Ireland I heard rumors about Sheela na Gig, Ireland’s one remaining life-and-death goddess. Her name means “Sheela of the breasts.” She is a brazen goddess who grins from a squatting position while holding her vagina open with both hands. One afternoon I stopped in a reggae record shop, needing to make contact with non-caucasians even if that contact was limited to posters on the walls and voices from the speakers. Ireland is monotonously homogeneous.
The owner chatted about his dream-come-true of owning a record shop. His friend Jeff arrived and we shifted topics to feminist theology. Jeff, a pagan, had studied pre-Christian Ireland. The Sheela na Gig image was carved into stone doorways, he said, offering protection and blessing to those who passed under her. Not easily eliminated in the transition from goddess to god, the Catholic Church found it necessary to incorporate her sculptures as gargoyles in its churches. Women, on their way out of Mass, reached up and touched the stone sculpture’s open vulva and proud belly as their fertility prayer.
In the 1950s the Catholic powers-that-be, embarrassed by Sheela na Gig’s genital-displaying tendencies, scoured the country for her remaining sculptures, confiscated them from their ancient resting places, and whisked them away to the basement of the National Museum in Dublin. As I listened to Sheela na Gig’s story, my new life mission crystallized: I would liberate Sheela from the basement!
A few days later, I walked into a specialty shop in Ennis to browse and told the clerk about my mission. She offered to mobilize Irish women for the adventure. We imagined wearing costumes and presenting performance pieces outside the Museum to draw attention to Sheela’s imprisonment, and to divert attention from our team of crack goddess-rescuers making their way to the basement.
“And by the way, she said matter-of-factly, “one of the few intact Sheela na Gig sculptures is ten miles outside town on the portal of a 1,000-year-old church.” She drew a map and I was on my way!
Because I chose to bus-it through Ireland, it was necessary for me to hire an accomplice. I was directed to a cab company and asked its one woman driver, “Will you take me on an adventure?” Intrigued, and grateful for the work, Carmel said yes and we were off. She drove us to the church and a university student on a similar quest led us to the squatting goddess, full of herself and her vulva.
“Wow,” I said as I touched the goddess. I stood in front of this powerful image with ancient flesh and open vagina, grateful for her tenacious presence in Ireland, requesting her support to love my changing body. Observing my antics from distance from a distance, Carmel was planning what she’d tell her family and friends about this once-in-a-lifetime escapade: “a crazy woman from California kidnapped me and took me to the goddess, that’s what I’ll tell them!”
Our next mission was to find the local author, PJ Morgan, who wrote a short story about Sheela na Gig and lived within a few country blocks of the church. We drove down a narrow road and found his home. He graciously answered my questions. He told us that after consigning the stone carvings to the basement, the museum staff put “nippies” on the Sheela na Gig stones.
“What are nippies?” I asked. He and Carmel laughed. “Diapers,” they said in unison. Embarrassed by her exposed vagina, the powers-that-be put diapers on the sculptures. Most secular Irish folks, PJ added, were actually mortified to imagine world-renown archaeologists and anthropologists arriving in Dublin to view these rare and treasured pre-Christian relics, being escorted to the basement to discover diapered Sheela na Gigs.
Back at home now, plans for the rescue have been postponed. I see Sheela often though, in my mind’s eye, and remember those silent moments standing in front of her powerful image. She grins at me, her ancient flesh, her yawning vagina, her boldness and freedom insisting that I emerge from the basement; that I refuse to cover the beauty of my changing body; and that, in this season, I embrace it all, regardless!
Patricia Lynn Reilly is an author, photographer, and founder of Imagine a Woman International and Open Window Gallery. If you’re ready to author your own self-understanding, body-acceptance, and amazing life, visit www.imagineawoman.com for inspiration, opportunities, and support.
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