St. Patrick, St. Sheelah and the Spring Equinox

Before the Spring Equinox approaches in Ireland, St. Sheelah’s Day is celebrated after St. Patrick’s Day. St. Sheelah was supposedly St.Patrick’s wife, but just as Brigid was changed from goddess to saint, so Sheelah was the original honoured at the Spring Equinox as Sheela-na-gig. Figures of this Celtic fertility Goddess who clutches her vulva with both hands, were widespread on Irish churches before the 16th century, such was her popularity in the ancient Celtic world. These figures represent the life giving powers of our Earth mother.

6th century St. Clements Church, Hebrides, Scotland. The stone carving incorporated into the building is thought to be much older and of pagan Celtic origin.

“Sheela-na-gig immodest maid, a symbol of fertility.
Although the Christian church forbade, she still appears quite frequently.
Her effigies protected by stern laws and heavy penalties.
The old beliefs refuse to die to no one but the priests surprise.
Sheela-na-gig with legs apart displays her femininity.
Some think her crude but she’s a part of Irelands ancient history.
If to your eye she appears lewd I must conclude you are a prude.”

Poem by Richard E Hogg

It is probably no coincidence that Mothering Sunday (often confused with the modern Mother’s Day) occurs on the fourth Sunday in Lent, around the time of the Equinox. For Christians it was originally about recognising the role of the Mother Church. However, it probably has much more ancient origins and the semi fictional characters of St Patrick and St Sheelah probably have an older Celtic origin.

The 16th, 17th (St Patrick’s Day) and 18th March: Erskine Nicol’s painting of the Irish celebration that included Sheelah’s Day. Photograph courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland

For hundreds of years Ireland has had an icon of womanhood and a compelling symbol of all things female, yet few people know her name. The forgotten goddess is none other than Sheelah, once widely celebrated on March 18th, both in Ireland and among the diaspora, yet now all but disappeared, but still celebrated by the Irish diaspora in Canada and Australia.

It’s interesting that both their days happen before the Spring Equinox, which marks the middle of Spring when the land is fertile and seeds are planted. It is about masculine and feminine fertility of the land. A time when things begin to Spring to life, a time of mating and birthing for many mammals.

So this Spring Equinox recognise our Earth Mother and Father. The Father is often represented by the tall established tree and The Mother by the well of life giving waters. Both are dependent on each other. So today, plant seeds, whether they are physical, or by sharing the importance of looking after the Earth.

Persephone Awakening (c) Jesper Alvermark October 29, 2012 “Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god-king of the underworld. The myth of her abduction represents her function as the personification of vegetation which shoots forth in spring and withdraws into the earth after harvest; hence she is associated with spring.”

Wherever you are and whether it is Spring or Autumn, may you have a blessed Equinox. Today’s Equinox takes place at 9:37 GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), about 2 hours from now.

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