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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, October 14, 2004
    Iona - no bypassing the Sheela
     


    Re... rejection
    Re... rejection
    Re... rejection

    Don't marry uh-huh-her
    Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her
    Don't marry uh-huh-her
    Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her

    The valley
    Is crying
    Don't ask me
    Why it's grieving

    Don't marry uh-huh-huh-her


    I am away this week, escaping from the parish where old ladies try to mother me, make me feel smothered; away to walk, eyes down, shamed beneath the gaze of the squatting old hag.


    Iona's Sheela-Na-Gig discomforts me. I don't understand why a nunnery wall would display a crone, carved in stone, legs open, revealing all. I can't know how or why this shocker was once idolised, a local object of worship or love. I don't have the linguistic skills to comprehend the depths of meaning in the ancient Scots word for her, Cailleach, 'the veiled and hidden one', who represented both fate and death. I just walk beneath her, the exhibitionist, the words of that and one other P.J. Harvey song burning my inner ear...

    I fill the sea
    All with my tears
    I drown the fields
    You will remember
    Remember me


    Beth's journal tells us that

    In her most mysterious aspect, the Cailleach was the 'dark mother' who knew what the future held for all men. She was known as the 'Mother of All' and was the life-death force which came from the earth itself. The Sheela figure, or the Cailleach, were both symbols of powerful Celtic Goddesses of life and death. They represented the hag or crone aspect of the Triple Goddess.

    The Sheela pointed to her vulva, the opening of her womb, which was the source of her power, the source of all life and of death. Her display of her genitals was not a seductive or a sexual gesture, but was understood as a talisman symbolic of the life-giving properties of nature herself. This was an ancient gesture believed to ward off evil and to bring good luck. Rubbing the genital area of the carved Sheela figures was thought to cure illness and provide protection. The 'living Sheela-Na-Gigs' tradition were old women who used the display of their genitals as a protective gesture against evil.


    This is too much information for me. On the road to Iona Village Hall I want to escape the hag's gaze; but I cannot. In the shadow of ancient rocks I want to wrestle the life-death force out of her hands into mine; but I cannot. Above the throbbing sea I want to gain freedom from the mothers; but I cannot.

    Polly Harvey's sentiments are Sheela-like: a mother's cry to an errant son. She sings it raw like a gender-bent Howling Wolf:

    The valley is crying
    The valley is grieving
    He's leaving
    The family and me

    Don't marry uh-huh-her...

    I fill the sea
    All with my tears
    I drown the fields
    You will remember
    Remember me


    There is something very primal in all this. The mother - the fields - the tears - the sea. The persistence of loss and continuity, the insistence of jealousy, pain, endless manipulation. Some people think going to Iona is some sort of holiday. It might be, but there can be no bypassing the Sheela.