On Vaginas, Votives, & Gwyneth Paltrow’s Validation

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Autumn Trees-The Maple 1924 Oil on canvas. Photograph: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

This week, the morning newsfeed revealed that a young woman, an actress from one of the Hollywood families of celebrity children, all grown up now with a family, a career, a company named goop, and a product called the, THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA CANDLE, was able to cleverly eradicate what a man, a Victorian, and a member of the team of nineteenth century field researchers that included scholars, writers and painters once painfully described as, “the grossest idea of immorality and licentiousness …being in its way a direct opposition to the sentiment of… people professing the Christian faith.” There should be an international award for such things.

The Victorian researcher was referring to Sheela Na’ Gigs in Ireland, the stone relief carvings with locations documented on over one hundred medieval Christian churches throughout the Irish landscape that present a woman displaying her vulva, and/or vagina, her figure most commonly depicted in a seated position with her legs spread open wide. First recognized in Ireland in the nineteenth century, they have been subsequently researched and studied by various twentieth and twenty-first century professionals that include anthropologists, historians, photographers, and even psychologists.

Some discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions about Sheela Na’ Gigs have been included in scholarly papers, or articles, popular books, and guides, as well as, modern day web sites on the Internet. The process regarding the research and study of Sheela Na’ Gigs, however, follows a historical timeline which exemplifies a traditional model that began in androcentric and patriarchal academia, but which now includes essential applications of feminist research and study that provides more accurate scholarship.  

According to most sources throughout the history of research on these relief carvings, there are many accounts for the origin of names assigned to what are now referred to and spelled as, “Sheela Na’ Gigs.”  No final conclusion as to the origin of their name is shared by more than any one researcher.  Some accept that the word, “Sile,” is in reference to a specific woman or goddess of Irish legend and folklore, while others contend that it is a mythological reference to women in general.  “Ghig” is a term which some maintain describes the position or action of the woman’s body in the relief carving, while others describe it as a reference to a holy and sacred opening or fluid from the supernatural to the natural world.  “Ni’” is usually described as meaning “of the”.  

The use of naming and translation is of some consequence, as it guides the context of the description of these relief carvings in ways that are either derogatory or dignified, depending upon the perspective of the viewer who assigns an interpretation to the figures themselves.  This is significant in the argument for or against translations that might lead to multiple interpretations and final conclusions regarding the focus of scholarly work. Documented inquires regarding the naming of these relief sculptures and the name that was provided for them at the time, often embedded in local legend, reveals the name which has followed throughout research and study into modern day. For the sake of abbreviation, the name, “Sheela,” is a preferred reference.

A Sheela was first discovered in County Tipperary Ireland on a medieval church in Kiltinane in 1840, and as Victorian male scholars became increasingly aware of the existence of Sheelas, each offered descriptions about them that included language which was neither objective, nor dispassionate.  They also avoided any specific reference to female genitalia. Word choices in describing Sheelas included “repulsive”, “grotesque”, “hideous”, “ugly”, and “obscene”.  One antiquarian stated that, “The subject is…not an agreeable topic to touch with pencil or with pen; yet, nevertheless, it is to be hoped that some antiquary, skilled in the idiosyncrasy of our medieval architects…will present the archeological world with a publication bearing at length upon the purport of these very often repulsive, and at present unintelligible carvings.”

Men exploring the reasoning for the locations of Sheelas suggested a connection to occult beliefs that predated Christianity in Ireland, offering the conclusion that Sheelas were incorporated into medieval church architecture and design for the protection against evil.  This was the earliest interpretation of the Sheela relief carvings as sacred symbols that might have been relevant to the study of the development of early Christianity in Ireland, but no further investigation was to be forthcoming due to the delicacy of the obvious necessity in addressing the subject of vulvas and/or vaginas displayed so prominently in Christian churches.  Even so, their use of language in describing Sheelas did not change.  

As new discoveries of Sheelas continued, and as an awareness of their existence became heightened, interpretations and subsequent conclusions about the function and form of Sheelas was still taking place during the Victorian era and most of the focus in research and study involved an attempt to ascertain dates, locations, and meanings of Sheelas outside the context of Christian iconography and symbology.  The questions immediately avoided were those regarding the relationship between these relief carvings and the churches upon which they were found. Inquiries were made quietly by men for almost sixty years, during a time in Victorian culture and society when the discussion of such feminine depictions in art and architecture were thought to be too base and uncivilized for public discussion.

The pervasive nineteenth and twentieth century androcentric and patriarchal view in academic research and study may have reinforced a contemporary shame upon human sexuality in general, and upon female sexuality in particular, in relation to the study of Sheelas at that time.  It might also have been a reflection of Victorian culture and society, which regarded women as “angels in the house”.  Or, it was perhaps, a continuation of the standard of scholarship set forth from a prior academic history of male dominance during the times of antiquity, and continuing through to the emerging values in the formation of the early Christian church.  Whatever the impetus, the result was that the mysterious and symbolic message of the Sheelas became silenced for many decades to follow.

One researcher and archeologist, a female and male team, illustrated and published a comprehensive map of Irish Sheelas. Together, they make reference to the early part of the twentieth century, when archeological scholars began the work of orderly taxonomy into the research and study of Sheelas.  This invaluable effort established the first documented account of the classification of differences among Irish Sheelas that provided more information for possible interpretations of their meaning.  Shedding some clear light on the subject of dating and cultural context, they dragged the Sheelas out of the darkness of pre-history and placed them firmly into the light of the Christian world. This confirmed the worst fears of male Victorian researchers.  Sheelas had to be accepted as Christian icons, as Christian as the Madonna and Child, and often found in exactly the same position on a church that a later, more acceptable form of the Sacred Female would occupy.  This raised even more questions, which few scholars wished to answer.

Found in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as in Ireland, the greater concentration of Sheelas are in medieval Irish church architecture.  It is important to consider the arrival of early Christianity in Ireland before the fifth and sixth centuries, and also the renaissance of Irish art and architecture in culture and society during the eleventh century.  These periods in Irish history are well written and accounted for, and while it is impossible to carbon date the stone; the earliest dates assigned to Sheela relief carvings on Christian church structures in Ireland are prior to the fourth century, well before the Norman Conquest of Ireland.  One historian and psychologist explored evidence of sacred feminine aspects of spirituality and religion, which predates Christianity in Ireland, and uncovered details of symbology in Sheela relief carving content.  This included references to daily existence, pregnancy, healing arts, midwifery, and the crone stages in the lives of women.  

As male researchers failed to include necessary evidence required to make final conclusions, Sheelas were demonized through their research and study.  In most cases they dismissed and excluded the evidence of sacred feminine aspects of spirituality and religion that is both documented and dated in Ireland before the development of the early Christian church.  Sheelas display all the characteristics of women that were most feared, reviled and rejected by society, because they portray characteristics which make women independent, strong and powerful.  Physical beauty and sexual allure are insignificant when a woman is giving birth, expressing her wildness, her fearlessness, or dealing with death.  

The origin of Sheela relief carvings is firmly rooted in sacred feminine aspects of spirituality that were documented and preserved through nearly two thousand years of Christian history in Ireland. Sheelas survived because they were deeply embedded in the collective psyche of the Irish religious tradition throughout invasion, war, famine, poverty, disease, and death.  The Sheela Na’ Gigs of Ireland were preserved in reverence and awe, but also in fear and superstition, relative to the transformations in the Irish culture and society throughout time.  These relief carvings are sacred to the Irish experience as a whole, and their inclusion in the Irish religious tradition throughout the Irish history helped to preserve what remains of the collective Irish national integrity.  

Sheelas, then, are the holy and sacred women of the early Christian church, not in the divided parts of their feminine characteristics, but in the whole of their unique feminine aspects and identity.  The research and study of Ireland’s Sheela Na’ Gigs begun by men in the middle of the nineteenth century has continued on into the early twenty-first century and has included relevant work by women.  Scholarship that appears to have been rooted in androcentric and patriarchal perspective has continued on with the incorporation of feminist research and study regarding the discovery, interpretation, and conclusions about these extraordinary relief carvings that bear the form of a woman in full nudity, her vagina open and offered, and which adorn the sacred spaces of Christian churches in Ireland.  

It is impossible to document the certainty of any final conclusion regarding Sheela Na’ Gigs, but it is essential that their study and research be carried out in ways that are gender neutral and which reflect a respectful consideration of female influence on their form and function.  Their location on Christian churches is an indication of the importance of the representation of women in the history of early Christianity in Ireland.  It is hopeful that the continuation of essential discovery, interpretation, and conclusions about Sheela Na’ Gigs of Ireland will develop further, as new relief carvings are found in Ireland each year, and that the cooperative efforts of both male and female scholarship will illuminate their meaning for the Christian church in a modern age.

Meanwhile, the profane commodification of all that is sacred has been practiced since humankind first managed to communicate. So too, went public criticism, and the practice of women throwing other women under. It followed then, that Gwyneth Paltrow’s new product, the, THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA CANDLE, was quickly deflowered by Hadley Freeman in the Monday, January 13th edition of The Guardian, through a scathing article in which she writes, “Goop is a quasi-religion in itself, from its messianic head figure, its deluded self-belief, its ludicrous claims and its overflowing bank account accrued from the desperate and vulnerable, estimated to exceed $250m.”  Will other women never learn? At a time when #MeToo and other movements have risen to strengthen and protect human rights, and as courageous women have stepped forward to expose the likes of Epsteins, and Weinsteins; the, THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA CANDLE comes as a flicker of light in the dim expanse of more than two hundred years of misogynistic commercialism.

At a cost of $75 US dollars, the, THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA CANDLE, is described as follows: “With a funny, gorgeous, sexy, and beautifully unexpected scent, this candle is made with geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed to put us in mind of fantasy, seduction, and a sophisticated warmth.” It sold out almost as quickly as it was listed on the goop website shop, and yes, Gwyneth and her vagina are smiling all the way to the bank. Good for them. Scribbling women everywhere should take up pen and paper to make lists of descriptive ingredients that might reflect their own vaginas. goop’s use of language is much preferred to that of the Victorian male voyeurs, who once described vaginas as, “repulsive”, “grotesque”, “hideous”, “ugly”, and “obscene.” At this time in history, the notion of a great number of men reading the description of such an item as the, THIS SMELLS LIKE MY VAGINA CANDLE, is deeply satisfying. Gwyneth Paltrow has validated us all. Let us make good use of that strength.

On Vaginas, Votives, & Gwyneth Paltrow’s Validation, by Robin Whitham McCrady. Copyright 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch. 


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