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Observe and Interact

Change is Now
Can we escape the reality that our lives have been dependent on fossil fuels for more than a century? Whether it is our deeply held religious / spiritual beliefs or our mounting distress at high gas and food prices, most of us are aware that radical, fast change is happening. And we all react to that differently.

At a recent herbal-medicine skill-share, I taught with a friend from the local permaculture guild. For almost 20 years, she’s made mostly futile efforts to organize around and teach our community about permaculture and sustainability. Now these subjects have become fashionable, and she says, “It’s like seeing all these people making love to an old lover of mine.”

Indeed, some of us are fascinated to see the hunger for this work and the convergence of many of our passions. Another permie friend and I quipped that the stuff we’ve done for 30-40 years now has a name and a following. I am excited to see the idealistic young folk mixing with us seasoned gardeners, foodies, and ecologists (and not coincidentally, a large contingent of Witches).

I think that we westerners are faced daily with the challenge of living even partially within those ethical principles. My decision last spring to purchase a hot tub for my back yard was born of considerable ethical struggle. We have ongoing jokes about my hot tub, Sheela-na-gig. It seems in so many ways to be a politically incorrect part of my life. As one of my more sarcastic friends said, it is so dominant culture — this massive bunch of plastic that will be on the planet forever hoards water, uses energy, and is used by only a select few.

No, Sheela was not a purchase I made lightly, yet I have deemed her worthy of her resource use for the great relief she has provided for my chronic pain condition and for her community building. When I was contemplating the purchase, a good friend asked what a hot tub could accomplish that my bathtub whirlpool could not. The answer, “Company,” was easy. Therein, I like to tell myself, is care for people and some measure of fair share. Sheela enables me to enjoy hot water therapy without driving to a gym, enables me to continue working, and lessens my dependence on medical intervention, so I hope that this in some way helps care for the earth.

A whimsical friend christened the hot tub Sheela-na-gig for reasons that those familiar with this Goddess can most likely construe. For readers unfamiliar with her, Sheela-na-gig is the name given to carvings of a hag holding open her exaggerated vulva. These carvings are found all over the world, especially Europe and particularly in Ireland and Britain. Many researchers have remarked on her facial expression — is it a wise, knowing look? A leer?

Hereford Sheela-Na-Gig is a Romanesque magical image of transformation. The gateway to life and death is the vulva. Hereford Romanesque Church, 14th CE.
Fabric Banner © 1999 Lydia Ruyle. All rights reserved.

Scottish Sheela-Na-Gig symbolizes the myriad winding pathways of transformation through the feminine. She holds snakes in her upraised arms. Meigle Perthshire Stone.
Fabric Banner © 1999 Lydia Ruyle. All rights reserved.

What do these figures mean?
Why are they so ubiquitous and found mostly on the doorways to churches in Europe? Tara's Sheela-na-gig website says that many have called the Sheela-na-gigs fertility figures:

“Fertility Figure” (is usually) archaeological and anthropological shorthand for “we have no idea.” Often applied dismissively to any female figurine about which insufficient research has been done. Or, to paraphrase Judy Grahn, “‘Fertility [Figure]’ is one of those generalized terms used to vaguely describe what is imprecisely understood.”[2]

The Wikipedia states several possible theories for the presence of the Sheelas[3]:

  • A survival of a pagan goddess
  • A fertility figure
  • A warning against lust
  • Protection against evil

How does the Sheela affect us?
Whatever their origin or purpose, these images are certain to elicit an emotional response. I remember an event my coven organized many years ago, where we placed numerous goddess images around the room while playing goddess music and attempting to raise consciousness and attract women to Goddess.

Though loving all the other goddess images, one of our participants had a viscerally negative reaction to Hrana Janto’s Sheela-na-gig.[4] She said that she could not imagine making herself so open and vulnerable.

Somehow to me, the openness and vulnerability are the whole point of the Sheela-na-gig and my “work” in her namesake hot tub. Quoting Patricia Monaghan’s The New Book of Goddesses and Heroines,“Her name means ‘hag’; her grinning face and genital display are complicated by the apparent ancientness of her flesh. Laughter and passion, birth and death, sex and age do not seem to have been so incompatible to the ancient Irish as they are to the modern world.”

As I move more and more into what even I will admit is cronedom, I contemplate the paradox of my aging body, lively rebellious spirit, searching mind, and the way that the modern world, indeed, wants to erase older women. By the time the Lammas issue of MatriFocus is published, I will be a first-time grandmother and I wonder how this will affect my time, commitments, and sense of myself.

Tara’s Sheela-na-gig website tells us that, contrary to the woman’s negative reaction to the Sheela in that long-ago Goddess event,

… in recent years, many modern women in Ireland and around the world have adopted sheela-na-gigs as a symbol of feminism and female power. In the Lammas 1996 issue of the Beltane Papers, artist Fiona Marron describes the essence of sheelas as “a celebration of womanhood and fertility in Life, Death, and Rebirth wrapped in the web of our ancient past.” In Sheela-na-gigs: Their Origins and Functions Dr. Eamonn Kelly writes, “More recently the images have come to be regarded in a positive light. By some they are seen as a symbol of Irishness and by others, particularly Irish feminists, they are a symbol of active female power.”[5]

Observe and interact
I work actively opening my body in Sheela’s loving warmth while at the same time opening to my little patch of ground. I have learned yet another blessing of Sheela-na-gig that fits permaculture principle number one: Observe and interact.

Because permaculture is systems thinking, we are urged to spend at least one year observing patterns before making changes.[6] Permaculturalists love to move dirt around and create structures, as is evidenced by the lovely herb spiral[7] that guild members helped me build this fall.

Herb spiral being built as a Garden Wheel project of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild.

In my neighborhood, I have achieved some fame as the first person on my block to ever get along with my next-door neighbor, about whom I was warned the very first day I lived in my house. Other neighborhood friends want to know my secret, and I swear I have done nothing special — listen closely, be friendly, bake cookies, keep the shades drawn, and be discreet.

This delicate balance between the misanthropic neighbors and me has been somewhat complicated and has involved some compromises, just as the purchase of a hot tub did. The next door neighbors decided a couple of years ago to stay in their house and took out a home equity loan for improvements, one of which was a new driveway. We share a long driveway that used to be beaten, eroding asphalt. I knew I would have to replace it at some point, and would have much preferred investigating various permeable surfaces (or digging it up entirely and planting a vegetable garden). However, the neighbors are very conventional, and when they came to me suggesting we all get concrete poured at once, I agreed.

Although the concrete driveway decision was magical in promoting neighborly relations, the immense resultant rainwater flowed right into my basement. No need to observe for a year on that one! I dug a swale in my yard to direct water to a low place where it can soak into the soil. Now I am slowly filling that low spot with water-loving plants.

Observing my yard is easy in the summer, when the weather is warm and I’m outside all the time. But how observant can one be when the snow flies? Ah, here is where Sheela comes in! In my nearly daily practice of stretching and soaking in hot water, I am enjoying the change of seasons. This winter has been harsh and it is not my favourite season, but it is fun to experience my magical yard from Sheela’s shelter. In the daytime, I can contemplate the fence and the garage and scheme on what plants may crawl on those vertical spaces. Here I have seen the raptors that surprisingly inhabit this neighborhood: red-tail hawk, Cooper's hawk, and falcon — and at dusk, owl. At night, I love what stars the urban sky will let me see and I have an even better opportunity to notice the winds.

The prevailing winds — they will affect the perennials planted back here. How does the snow blow around existing structures? What are the most sheltered spots? The most vulnerable? Where does the sun prevail? What microclimates may exist? For instance, how will the lavender planted by the water heater exhaust (and its heat) fare compared with the lavender planted near the fence?

Thanks to Sheela the hot tub, I have an unparalleled opportunity to observe what would otherwise not be seen.

The Quickening
This far north, we love the longer days and experience Imbolc with great joy. Although we are a long way from warm days, we still are intimately aware that the earth is awakening beneath the snow and ice. As we come to Imbolc, the permaculturalist contemplates starting seeds. I am blessed with south-facing windows and a warm office at work, so every year I germinate many seeds — especially unusual herbs and perennials. This year, I contemplate not only the seeds I will start this year, but the miracle of seeds in general.

My only daughter, who experienced serious gynecological problems last year, is expecting a baby the middle of July. A more loved and wanted child could not exist, and I am delighted. My not pagan child really likes the concept of the Earth quickening as she waits to experience quickening in her own belly.

Bendis describes quickening as:

… that magical moment that I first felt a slight stirring of movement within. Before that time, the idea that a child grew in me was a concept — believed and yet, still a bit remote.

But when I felt that small “twitch” I knew and was flooded with emotion I cannot really share verbally. That same “quickening” occurs in our Mother Earth. The slight twitching — creaking — warming — expanding while deep within, new life begins to feel Her warmth and come alive — not yet seen, but deep in Her belly — waiting.

I wish to lie on Her blessed ground, my heart feeling Her heart beating — my ear pressed to Her surface, listening for a small sound of stirring life. Her belly quickens.[8]

May all of us take the time to be still and observe in these times of great change. May we work lovingly with the Earth as she again begins to awaken. May we see the quickening of a new way of living with the Earth and community manifest itself beautifully.


  1. Permaculture Principles | Produce No Waste. 28 January 2009. <>
  2. McLoughlin, Tara. "Sheela-na-gig Theories." <>
  3. Wikipedia. "Sheela na Gig." 28 January 2009. <>
  4. Janto, Hrana. Goddess Oracle. "Sheila Na Gig." 28 January 2009. <>
  5. McLoughlin, Tara. "Sheela-na-gig Theories." <>
  6. Hemenway, Toby (2001) Gaia’s Garden – A guide to homescale permaculture. Chelsea Green: Vermont and Totnes.
  7. Ardron, Mitra. “How to Build a Herb Spiral.” 28 January 2009. <>
  8. Bendis. " Imbolc 2008 Issue." Global Goddess Oracle. 28 January 2009. < >

Graphics Credits

  • Fabric Banner: Hereford Sheela-Na-Gig, a Romanesque magical image of transformation. The gateway to life and death is the vulva. Hereford Romanesque Church, 14th CE. © 1999 Lydia Ruyle. All rights reserved. Used with permission from artist and scholar Lydia Ruyle. She told me in a recent email conversation that “Sheelas are found around the world! I have Goddess Banners of sheelas from Peru, Hawaii, Hereford in England, Scotland, Egypt, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Mexico, Russia. You can see some of them in my book Goddess Icons Spirit Banners of the Divine Feminine and on my website.”
  • Fabric Banner: Scottish Sheela-Na-Gig symbolizes the myriad winding pathways of transformation through the feminine. She holds snakes in her upraised arms. Meigle Perthshire Stone, © 1999 Lydia Ruyle. All rights reserved.
  • Herb spiral garden, photo courtesy of the author/gardener.
Copyright / Terms of Use: Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without the author's or artist's permission. Other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.

MatriFocus Cross-Quarterly
is a seasonal web journal (zine) for Goddess Women and others interested in Goddess Lore and Scholarship, Goddess Religion (ancient and contemporary), Feminist Spirituality, Women's Mysteries, Paganism and Neopaganism, Earth-based Religions, Witchcraft, Dianic Wicca and other Wiccan Traditions, the Priestess Path, Goddess Art, Women's Culture, Women's Health, Natural Healing, Mythology, Female Shamanism, Consciousness, Community, Cosmology, and Women's Creativity.

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