Sheela na Gig and Sacred Space (1)
© Kathryn Price
Trickster Hag, laughing and
Then veiled in the mist, silent as stone.
Gateway and gatekeeper,
Guide and challenger,
Liminal-dwelling paradoxical crone.
You stand upon a cliff, high above the sea, in a misty grove of silver birch trees. The waves crash and scatter on the rocks below, an eternal sigh of white noise rising. The grey mist swirls around you, cutting off familiar sights and sounds. Nothing is as it was. Nothing is as it seems.
Up ahead and above you in the mist, above the hole in the stone, The Hag of Birth and Death gazes down upon you. Welcoming and challenging, silently waiting, she opens the door to rebirth.
In the shifting realm of liminal space, she reveals to you the gateway the vulva of woman through which every one of us entered this world,(2) through which all of our foremothers entered this world. Each one emerging from the one before her, all down the line, open archway after archway, reaching back through time, like a vaulted corridor leading directly back to First Woman.(2a)
Wise guardian, who knows these roads so well, who has trod these paths for countless generations. Oldest ancestor, who gave birth to us all, whose blood runs through our veins. Her cryptic smile hints at secret knowledge She can look every challenge in the face without flinching; She can meet all changes head-on and laugh. In your mind you hear her whisper her name: Síla (SHEE-luh).
You bend low and touch the earth, offering a prayer for guidance as you approach this threshold. Out of the corners of your eyes you sense the mist swirling; spiral patterns form and dissolve around you, hinting at mysteries, sparking a distant memory, somewhere beyond your conscious grasp.
You suddenly notice a heron, Síle na bPortach (SHEE-luh nah BORT-uckh), keeping still, silent vigil nearby. How long has she been there, watching you? ... You acknowledge her, and her role as guardian of the gate. You open yourself to her, and you can feel her looking into you, judging you, deciding whether or not she will let you in. You open without fear (or despite fear) and join with her stillness. You feel the silvery-white energy of the birch trees entering you. You breathe in their purifying, focusing, clean and clearing energy... Opening your heart and stilling your mind. You chant their ancient name, Beithe (BAY-huh). You feel the powers of land, sky, and sea come together and focus within you. You take a deep breath, and climb through.
You had the
calling and died wonderingwho is it that calls.
We were all calling. Down from the centuries beseeching you
to release from stone unparalleled beauty and in doing so
chipping away the stone encasing hearts.
you were called
you remembered us the future
We were calling you and I am calling you now. (3)
It started with the birch tree
My personal altar (in a household full of altars) faces a window, looking out over the trees and the lake. There is a birch tree, one of many, who lives right on the other side of the glass, her boughs sweeping into my line of sight whenever Im at my altar. Sometimes when Im sitting there, Ill open my eyes to see chickadees or catbirds fluttering in her leaves, or through her branches Ill see herons wading in the shallows, or otters splashing and playing out where the waters run deep. The crows and other wildlife come and go, adding their own emphases and omens to my rituals. And with the curtains open, as they always are, the rays of the sun, moon and stars light my work.
On this misty, grey day I was on the other side of the window outside on the rocky slope, meditating with this familiar tree. I was asking her about symbols: What symbol, or goddess, or animal, works best with the energy of Birch? I had made my offerings of menstrual blood and breast milk, and I sat waiting, opening, huddled in my cloak in the shade on this cold morning in early spring.
Suddenly, I received a very strong and clear image of a Sheela na Gig -type figure. She was sitting in a grove of birch trees, with her knees drawn up, displaying her signature wide-open vulva, and a huge, almost maniacal grin on her face. She was laughing.
I have to confess, I was startled. Im a bit ashamed to admit it, but the Sheela images had always freaked me out a bit. Much to my relief, this discomfort was eventually worn away, thanks to Síla herself, and also because I cant stand feeling inhibited or uptight about well, about much of anything, really. And I certainly wasnt going to tolerate feeling squeamish about something related to a vision or a Goddess image. I mean, I was the one who had started this dialogue I had asked for the information, and now it was my job to figure out what to do with it. I figured Id better start working with this Sheela who had popped into my life. After all, I didnt want to be rude.
Sheela na Gig - St. Catherine's Church, Tugford, England.
If you look closely, she's sticking her tongue out (!).
Picture courtesy of John Harding and Megalithica.
Just who is this mysterious figure, the Sheela na Gig? Is she a representation of the Cailleach the Hag of Winter, the Old Woman who lives in the stones? Is she a goddess at all, or rather some lesser form of otherworldly being? Or were these images merely intended to be grotesques carved on medieval churches to shame women about their bodies, their sexuality, and their power to bring forth life?
When I began looking into her origins, I encountered this range of questions and opinions among various polytheists and scholars. At that time, little research had been done on these images, and even less on the individual being or beings whom they were intended to represent. (4)
For the moment, I decided not to worry about these conflicting theories. I felt a deep need to still the mental voices of the opinions of others and approach her one-to-one, on a spiritual level. As an experiment, I decided to give her the respect due a goddess or revered spirit woman, whether she was one or not. I decided to open to her in the way I would approach a deity, honoured ancestor or nature spirit, and see what she had to say about it, what she had to show me.
Over the next five years, I experimented with her (and it seems she experimented with me as well). I did lots of dreamwork and ceremony;(4a) I invited her in ritual and prayer, to see if she brought through power, and if so, what kind. As I got a clearer understanding of her, I became more open to seeing when she was appropriate to invite into more formal ceremonies which I learned largely from noticing when she would simply show up on her own.
She gradually moved into my household. She now lives
over our ancestor altar and our household altar. Surrounded by heron feathers,
cowrie shells, juniper from our garden, and a small forest of twigs from the
silver birch who guards our ritual site, she now dwells on the window ledge
over my personal altar as well framed by the moving, growing branches of
that same birch tree who seems to have brought us together.
The Kiltinan Castle Sheela
Photo courtesy of Joe Kenny and The Fethard Historical Society - Co. Tipperary, Ireland.
Síla of the Paradox
If you hold opposites together
in your mind, you will suspend
your normal thinking process and allow an intelligence beyond rational
thought to create a new form. (5)
In some of the Scottish lore the year is ruled alternately by the Hag of Winter (the Cailleach) and the young goddess of Summer (sometimes considered to be the goddess Brigid).(6) Síla is clearly a manifestation of the Cailleach as Creator, yet she also embodies a paradox. In some ways Síla is a third face of this well-known duality: the manifestation of the usually-hidden doorway that emerges when these forces are balanced or in flux. She holds the doorway which opens in the liminal-times: the days of Bealtaine and Samhain, the twilight of sunrise or sunset, and when the mists arise where the land and the sky meet the waters.(7) She is both and neither, an otherworldly force that refuses to fit into either/or categories.
She appears when opposing energies meet, and she is also found when the energies of the Three Realms come together. She opens and holds the center of sacred space the doorway which opens when we connect with the powers of Land, Sky and Sea and balance them within ourselves, opening to the Spirit that flows throughout and unites all three.
I feel her presence in ceremony, when we enter that stillness, on the edge between this world and the next. I feel her when I center, when I still myself and find the quiet place of prayer, the silence from which the voices of spirits can emerge. I feel her protection, her guarding of the gateway, when the voices of the spirits get to be too much and she kindly offers her protection the calm and stillness in the center of the whirlwind. As the Storm Hags, the Cailleachan, dance around us, Síla is the crux point around whom the world spins. She is the silence that enfolds us, the moment as we poise on the edge before diving into a new realm. Her shining, silver-white energy washes us clean. She opens our eyes and gives us the strength and courage to begin anew.
She is the saining smoke rising, the blank paper waiting, the silence in the singers head from which the music is born.
Dance me through to
to the point where the motion begins.
Dance me through to the silence
to the edge where the world begins. (8)
Old Woman of the Stones: Historical Sheela
In appearance, the Sheela na Gigs most strongly resemble the Cailleach our most ancient Celtic ancestor, the Old Woman, the Winter Hag. Many simplistically refer to her as a fertility figure.(8a) However, her image combines aspects of fertility and infertility: her plump vulva, suggestive of youth and sexuality, is stretched wide-open as if in childbirth, yet in most depictions she has no breasts. In other images, when she is depicted with breasts they are almost always the drooping, long and flat breasts of a post-menopausal woman. At times her chest is scarred, with skeletal ribs, a fierce grimace, and the bald head of either a newborn or an extremely aged hag. If we take full breasts and bellies to be symbols of nurturance and material abundance, this is not a nurturing figure. She seems a creature of paradox and contradiction representing the primal extremes of birth and death: the edge-times, the dangerous times.
Stepaside Sheela, Co. Dublin, Ireland.
This Sheela may be guarding the entrance to a crypt.
photo copyright ©2000 Tara McLoughlin.
The earliest known sheela-type images have generally been believed to have been carved in the late eleventh century, on medieval churches in south-western France, and then later in England and Ireland from the twelfth through the sixteenth century. However, these images from Continental Europe, to my eye, do not much resemble the sheelas of the Insular Celtic lands, aside from being nude females (or, mostly female. -ish.). While the Continental images I've seen are more likely to resemble human women, many of the insular sheelas tend to have the characteristic flat-topped, large, vaguely triangular head and emphasised eyes of much older Celtic carvings.(8b) The Insular sheelas are also much more likely to have the wonderfully weird, otherworldly, androgynous quality which I explore in this article.
The prevailing opinion among scholars, at least at the time of the first publication of this article, was that the sheelas are a Christian invention, and that there was no firm evidence of sheelas at ancient pagan sites.(9) However, I believe this theory could have been due to incomplete research; more recently I have become aware of two or three very old figures on standing stones in Ireland. They are very weathered, but I believe they could very well be sheelas, or at least precursors to the sheelas. As far as I'm aware, there has been no official dating of these first two carvings, though some researchers believe at least one of them to be pre-Christian. A figure that received a lot of publicity in the summer of 2003 is most definitely pre-Christian, but we're still determining whether it is in fact a sheela (I think it is). (9a)
Lusty More figure copyright ©2004 Shae Clancy
Another fascinating find is the wooden Ralaghan Figure: Found in the Ralaghan Bog at the foot of the Taghart Mountain near Shercock in 1908, this figure is of great significance as is its find site. It has been radio carbon dated to between 1098 BCE / 906 BCE placing its use towards the end of the Bronze Age. The fact that the figure was carved of yew was significant as the yew tree was considered sacred and was believed to have been endowed with regenerative properties. Taghart Mountain was a hilltop festival site of Lunasa. This site was used as a place of worship by the late Bronze Age people, by the Iron Age Celts and into early Medieval times. The Sexuality of the figure is ambiguous. Quartz grains were found in the pubic hole indicating the possible insertion of a phallus - from the info on the museum card. The figure pictured below is a replica of the original, which is on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. While this figure lacks many of the characteristics of the later, stone sheelas, I believe it could possibly be an early precursor to those figures. And it makes one wonder what carvings did not survive. That the carving is of yew is very significant, I believe. In the cycle of the ogham letters, birch is the first letter (associated with birth) and yew is the last (associated with death, and with the spirit that survives beyond death). When we place the letters in a circle, yew and birch are next to each other, illustrating that death in one world is birth into the next.
Ralaghan proto-sheela. photo copyright ©2003 Gay Cannon
So for now, the question of their date of origin is still open. We may never know for certain, as the oldest-appearing images - on standing stones in graveyards - have also been heavily worn by exposure to the elements, while the ones in churches are more likely to have been protected (if they weren't defaced by human hands, as has happened in all too many cases). Ultimately, the question of whether the Insular sheelas are of pagan or Christian origin may be irrelevant, as early Celtic Christianity was not all that different from the Celtic paganism that preceded it.
Tara Hill Sheela-na-gig, Co. Meath, Ireland.
photo copyright ©2000 Tara McLoughlin.
When the sheela images began to become widespread in Irish churches (12th - 16th cent. ce), the Irish people adopted them enthusiastically, and also began carving them on secular buildings such as castles and mills. The term sheela na gig is said to have been adopted by folklorists as simply the common Irish Gaelic expression for an immodest woman.(10) The reason for the adoption of sheelas on secular buildings has been attributed to the Irish seeing them as a protective force, as noted by nineteenth-century researchers who were told by local Irish people that sheelas were intended to ward off evil.(11) This is reported along with a fascinating claim from a traveler in Ireland in the 1840s that, in order to lift a curse of bad luck, the afflicted should persuade a loose woman to expose herself to him(!).(12) Here we see the vulva as holding the power to bless and protect.
A delicious irony in this
history of the sheelas is that, even if they were introduced into the Celtic
lands as a Christian attack on women, it seems wise to suggest that the
device of the sheela
was absorbed there into a native belief in powerful
female protectors. These carvings upon the later medieval buildings of Ireland
may, then, have been a last manifestation of the old tutelary goddesses.
Kilsarkan Sheela, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
Photo from Tara's Sheela na Gig Page.
In Christian times, She survived
Dwelling over church doorways, reminding those with the ability to see that entering sacred space is to enter the womb of the goddess the cauldron of death and rebirth, where we are taken apart and rebuilt where we find challenge, dissolution; and then rest, renewal and change. Reminding people that She is the gateway we all entered the world through the womb of a woman. We remained here and grew strong, our spirits rooting and becoming one with our bodies, through the protection of a woman: she who in those early days held the life-and-death power of a goddess over our tiny, fragile forms. No wonder many people find these images intimidating, frightening, or grotesque.
And She is also the devourer, who takes us back in at the end of this life dismembering us, stripping away the inessentials, until we are pure spirit transforming us and readying us for our next turn on the wheel.
When we approach the doorway to sacred space, or the gateway to life and death, we go with openness and acceptance of the Mystery: No one truly knows what awaits us on the other side. Will the goddess who greets you be hideous and challenging? Or will she welcome you with love and open arms? Are you sure she will even be there at all? And which of these challenges is truly the hardest for you to face at this point on your souls journey?
The Watergate Sheela.
Photo courtesy of Joe Kenny and The Fethard Historical Society - Co. Tipperary, Ireland.
Word Magic: Etymological Síla
I initially assumed that sheela was a phonetic spelling of the popular Irish name Síle.(14) But the question remains if Sheela (na Gig) was simply the common Irish Gaelic expression for an immodest woman, and even applied to prostitutes, why on earth would people choose the name for their daughters?(15) I have to wonder: could traits which came to be described as immodest have earlier been seen as free, fierce, or bold traits which were once highly valued in Celtic cultures before the advent of Christianity? Could this name have been applied to rebellious, independent women who refused to be limited by patriarchal laws that treat women as property? What were the origins of this name? Why did the Irish start calling these images Sheela?
In tracing Irish words back to their roots, priority is given to the sound of the words, not the spelling. Many sounds in Irish can only be approximated in English; variant spellings in the manuscripts are due to different authors imperfect attempts at capturing the sounds of spoken Irish.(16) The spelling variations which follow are all pronounced basically the same.
Possible meanings to be explored for Sheela/Síle include: to shelter or shield; the seed which is planted and the ground in which it grows; offspring, race or descendants of; raining; an effeminate person; to think, to consider, to have respect for; and, perhaps my favorite possibility: cause or origin.
In Scotland, we find the word sheiling a shelter, and sheal to shelter. Both are derived from the Icelandic root word for shield.(17) These words are a product of the Northern influence on Gaelic languages and cultures, and meaning certainly fit with the protective function of the sheelas.
P.W. Joyce gives the root Shee as a corruption of the Irish Sidh a fairy hill.(18) While this is probably too fragmentary to be the sole answer, it is still an interesting and appropriate association, especially as the mounds can be seen as both the tombs of the dead and the belly from which new life emerges. While originally only a word for the mounds, in later usage sidh also came to be applied to any otherworldly spirit or creature who might be associated with these places.
The Old Irish root word síl, or siol (both pronounced sheel), seems to be the strongest possibility. It is from this root that we get the rest of the above-cited words that could be related to Sheela/Síle: síl seed, offspring, race, descendants. silad act of disseminating, spreading, to make known. sílaid either the seed, etc., which is sown or the earth, etc., which is sown with it; causes, brings about, produces; generates, multiplies, spreads.(19)
It was while digging through the Early Irish quotations in tiny print under síl and sílaidthat I found something that really made me sit up and take notice: sila has been used to mean cause or origin.(20) And it is pronounced the same as "Sheela" and "Síle." I felt a chill of recognition. This resonated so strongly with the intuitive impressions Id been receiving in my work with her.
Ever since that moment Ive found myself thinking of her as Síla (SHEE-luh), First Woman, Eldest of the Ancestors.(21) This idea of Síla as the origin aligns with my sense of her strong connection to the ancestors, and the tales of the Cailleach as the mother of many tribes of humans, whose husbands have all died of old age, one after another.(21a) I have generally continued to use this variation in the name, both to distinguish her from the more common personal name, Síle, in reference to the manuscript where this spelling was found, and to commemorate that sense of rightness that hit me when I found it. However, many prefer to use the more common spelling, Síle, and I sometimes do as well. In many ways Síle (Hag) may be the more appropritate variation, depending on which meaning one is leaning towards.
In some areas of Ireland, old women have been called Síle.(22) In more contemporary Irish, we also find Síle defined as an effeminate person, sissy(23) or a girlish young man.(24) This brings up an interesting connection to the Hag, as Cailleach the well-known Gaelic word for hag, old woman, or veiled one is also used to refer to effeminate men. In the second definition of Síle, we find the mention of youth. Here we have twice the paradox: youth and age, and now the suggestion of gender variance or androgyny. Gender variance is also seen in Sílaid meaning the seed and the ground in which it is planted, (emphasis mine) and in the gynandrous appearance (no breasts, no hair) of most of the sheelas.
Gender variance is also suggested in Fiona Marrons experience with the Seirkiernan Sheela: when Fiona touched her, she felt two small holes atop this sheelas head, much like those found on some continental Celtic Cernunnos figures that feature removable horns. Fiona received a strong impression that, for certain ceremonial purposes, the stag kings horns may have been placed upon this sheelas head.(25) This would also parallel the Scottish associations between the Cailleach and her herds of deer. The Ralaghan Figure, with its pelvic hole and possible removable phallus, shows even stronger gynandrous characteristics.
In these situations and others we see a suggestion of Síla being in between the two polar points of gender, or as encompassing both. In many ancient (and some contemporary) cultures, gender-variant people are seen as embodying particularly powerful magic. They are seen as holding the paradox-energy that lent them special abilities usually the power to cross over into unseen realms and to have particularly strong connections with the Spirits.(26)
The herons and the double spiral gate.
From a design by George Bain. This version ©1999 kpn
In Irish we also find Síle na bPortach (SHEE-luh nah BURT-uckh) the heron.(27) The heron is a liminal-dweller, living in the misty wetlands of marshes and swamps, and at the edges of rivers, lakes and oceans. They are sacred creatures who travel in all three realms: Land, Sea, and Sky. Herons like to nest in tall pine trees, a sacred tree that is associated with rebirth in the crann ogham. Portach means bog. Port means place of refuge, haven, center; fortified place, stronghold.(28) Again, we have themes of protection and a hag who guards the sacred space.
Herons are often interchangeable with cranes and storks in Celtic mythology, language and iconography. The word Corr, usually translated as crane, has been used interchangeably for these three similar birds.(29) There are many references to cranes in Celtic mythology as female guardians of Underworld sacred sites Cranes were clearly associated with the world of the dead, and with beings who seemed to bridge the worlds of the dead and the living with their insight particularly old women.(30)
In European folklore we find the image of the Stork carrying infants to their birth parents (a tale which has probably survived due to adults discomfort at answering the childrens question, Where do babies come from?). I believe The Stork could be a surviving reference to the magical role of these liminal birds: guides and guardians who carry spirits from the Land of the Dead (in Gaelic mythology found on islands across the western sea), carrying them over the waters and into this earth-realm, enabling the spirits to (re-)incarnate.(31)
Gig is much more obscure, and has been interpreted in a variety of ways by different researchers. Among many writers, the most commonly-repeated, yet highly questionable, theory is that the name was originally from one of two possible Irish phrases, Sighle na gCíoch(sheela of the breasts) or Síle-ina-Giob (sheela on her hunkers). While the construction Sighle na gCíoch is phonetically somewhat similar to Sheela na Gig, we've also seen that so few of the sheelas actually have breasts. And the few that do... well, their haggish breasts are really not the most, er, prominent of their features. While Síle-ina-Giob better fits the physical appearance of a number of the sheelas, I just don't see the word ina-giob migrating to the words na gig, in either pronunciation or spelling, during the time period in question. So I have never found either of these speculations to be credible. They both seem to me to have been arrived at by the same type of process I have followed in preparing this article -- an attempt at reconstructing a meaning in retrospect, rather than discovering a phrase that was actually gathered in the field during the time periods in question. (31a)
One theory that is worth consideration is that Gig could be based on the contemporary Irish and English slang term for vulva or vagina: Gigh (Gee pronounced with a hard G as in the English go, but also heard in some areas with a soft g, as in the English gesture or the American gee whiz). While this is an obvious candidate, more research needs to be done to determine how old this term is, and whether it is of Irish or English origins. 31b
Gig could be related to the Gaelic word gìog (geeg), meaning crouch or to sneak a peek at.(32) Sheela is crouching in many of the images, and she is giving people a peek at what is normally private. Or perhaps it came from the Middle English/Old Norse word gigge whirligig or spinning top, from which we get gig to reproduce another of the same sort (hmm, parthenogenesis?) and gig a small boat.(33) Many boats are in the shape of a vulva, and this again brings to mind the function of crossing over crossing over the waters, whether in physical birth, or in the spiritual journey to and from the Otherworld islands of the dead.
Something I believe to also be worth consideration is Nigheag - another name for the Washer at the Ford. Nigheag nan Allt, the washing-nymph of the streams is an otherworldly Hag, often connected with the giving and breaking of geasa, with prophecy and punishment and the granting of wishes. Because of the Ni sound, and the g being lenited, it wouldn't be pronouned the same as na gig. It sounds more like NEE-yuhk. But visually the two are very similar. As Sile and Nigheag nan Allt both refer to otherwoldly hags, I think this is a notable connection.(33a)
I had basically finished writing this article, and was putting away my reference books. As I picked up the Gaelic dictionary, it slipped from my hand and literally fell open to: geug (gayg) a branch, a sapling, a young female, a nymph.(34) In Irish, the word is spelled géag (same pronunciation, basically) and can mean Genealogical branch (of a family tree) or Image of a girl (made for festival).(35) Both words come from the Early Irish word géc or gég a branch, a bough, a respected person.(36) In both Gaelic and Irish, the genitive form is géige (gayg-e).(36a)
In entry #385 of the Carmina Gadelica, we have an autumn waulking song with the curious line, But mayest thou sow them and Géige reap them.(36b) Could this also show a connection to the harvest Maiden and Cailleach customs (an image of a young girl, made for festival), with the Hag as the reaper and/or the corn that is being harvested? Or be yet another connection to the Nigheag nan Allt as a death figure? In Gaelic folklore, Géigean (which, paradoxically, can also be seen as a diminutive form of géige) is a wild man or gruagach type figure depicted as fierce and hairy, with connections to death revels, and the festival of Samhain.(36c) Some women in childbed, with no knowledge of Sheelas or Gaelic Hag folklore, have perceived a Hag spirit accompanied by a heron, connected with birth and death, who is covered in hair like the wild man figures.(36d) Tapestrys and old drawings depict both male and female wild men. These Gruagach figures are often tricksters in the folklore and, like the Cailleach, are also associated with herds of deer. In traditional rhymes and tales, the name of this figure varies, and has been recorded as Géige, Gìgean, Guaigean, Céigean, Cìogan, Cìgean, and Cuaigean. Dwelly gives ceigean as diminutive and unhandsome person.... clumsily formed and of low stature.(36e)
Could the older words for Sheela na Gig have originally meant something like Origin of our Branch of the Family, Origin of the People, Origin of the Tribe, Image of the Hag-Spirit Who is Also the Spring Maiden (literally, Hag of the Maiden), or Wild Hag Trickster Spirit, Who Rules Over Birth and Death''? Or perhaps any number of variations on these concepts? After all, the Gaelic mind has always loved puns and multi-leveled meanings.
Síla of the branches, Origin of
Síla of the nymphs, Origins of Womankind;
Eldest of the Ancestors, gynandrous crone and fertile youth,
Hag and Maiden and in between; seed and ground and truth;
Síla of the bloodlines, Síla of the trees,
Síla na Géige
Sheela na Gig
Buckland Sheela - All Saints Church, Buckinhamshire, England.
Picture courtesy of John Harding and Megalithica
wise with age and the androgyny
the ageless perfect center(38)
Síla is the Otherworldly gate of Mystery, The gateway of All Possibility, but also the power to focus to reach into the sea of possibility(39) and draw something into manifestation in this world of forms (seize the possibility).(40)
My sense is that she controls whether the gate is open or shut, and that, through aligning with her, she may confer some of this ability and wisdom upon her allies.
When present in ritual, the sacred space Síla creates gives me the distinct feeling of being between the worlds not yet completely in the Otherworld, and no longer fully in this world, but in a liminal, charged, basically neutral space from which one can then choose a direction or destination. Síla seems to specialize in this liminal zone, the doorway, the center and the edge, where one can pause and center oneself before fully crossing over. Or she can help build a protected space in which one can stay and invite other spirits to enter. Some of this energy and perception, Im sure, is based on the power of the birch trees, and how closely I was working with them when I began this piece.
The Rochester Cathedral Sheela, Kent, England.
Picture courtesy of John Harding and Megalithica
Síla of the Trees
Saining with the smoldering juniper,
our prayers rise with the smoke dancing and
spiraling into the sky. Bathing ourselves in the scented, energy-filled clouds,
opening ourselves to the cleansing wind blowing in from the sea.
Am goeth i muir I am a wind on the sea.
In the Irish ogham lore Birch is associated with birth, beginnings, cleansing and purification, and the type of healing that comes from these energies. Cradles were made of birch to keep fragile newborns safe from unfriendly spirits. An early ogham tale also speaks of birch as a protector: it was used to protect a woman from being abducted into the Otherworld.
Like Síla, birch is both a guardian and a gateway. In my experience, they work together synergistically. Part of birchs protection if she grants it to you is that she doesnt so much banish spirits as set limits and create a breathing space of peace and clarity, from which one can then choose where to go or who to let in or keep out. The energy of birch and Síla, like juniper smoke, will clear away bad vibes and create a clean and sacred space from which to begin your spiritual work.
Birch can also be a helpful ally for those with mediumistic tendencies. Sometimes the presence of the spirits can become overwhelming. A reliable method of setting respectful limits with the spirits is essential. Those dealing with this gift/predicament need to create firm structure to keep sane keeping altars for the spirits and making clear to them that the altar is where they stay, not in your head. Giving the spirits a defined place to hang out, and working out a schedule of rituals regular times for you to check in with them and do your work together are ways to prevent them from overwhelming you at inappropriate times.(40a) And when you do your spirit work, birch helps to create a safe space within which you can selectively open.
In my experience this protection from spirits function also extends to dealing with alcoholism. Birch and Síla have an energy Ive found helpful to those in recovery, especially to those in the early stages of getting clean and sober. Their white, clean, Obatala-type(41) energy can be very stabilizing to those stepping through the doorway into a new life of sobriety. Ive also considered that Síla and birch might be helpful in dealing with schizophrenia, but have not been in an appropriate situation to test this theory.
The Llandrindod Sheela, Powys Mid Wales
Picture courtesy of John Harding and Megalithica
Síla, Sheela, and Sacred Space
In the twilight of dawns light
She stirs the mist
From the Edge and the Center
The energy shifts
(from the edge and the center)
(the world shifts)
I see sacred space as having at least two meanings. First, in the more mundane and political sense: The Earth, our bodies, and all the Earths lifeforms are, in one sense or another, sacred. And second, the way many ceremonial people use the term: A space that is particularly charged with spiritual forces and the presence of powerful spirits, and which perhaps contains entrances to the spirit worlds. Earth is always sacred in the first sense; and she also has sacred sites, which are sacred in the second sense, whether or not humans ever pray or hold ceremony there.
So part of what makes sacred space sacred is that it is energetically and spiritually different from other spaces. It may be safer, it may be more dangerous, but it deals with different levels of reality than we access in ordinary consensus reality. Though the sacred and the mundane certainly flow into and inform one another - and are particularly known to be interwoven in the Gaelic traditions - for those who are sensitive there has to be some boundary between them. Otherwise, you can lose yourself in the mist, and you can lose your ability to be fully in either realm. This is a hazard many spiritually sensitive people deal with, with varying degrees of success and failure. My work with Síla and birch is one of the more successful ways Ive dealt with this challenge.
When my work with Síla first began, I connected overwhelmingly with her spiritual gateway function and her role in establishing and protecting sacred space. I was working with her primarily in ceremony; in deeply altered states of consciousness. At that time, putting Síla over the doorway to our house would have felt like I was asking that the entire time I am in this house I should be in an altered, extremely deepened state, completely focused on communing with the Spirits. I've tried living that way, and it's not very practical. So for the first few years, she stayed over the altars.
But after working with her for about twenty years now, Ive gotten better at mediating the difference between simply having a Sheela na Gig image present, and actively asking Síla to open the gateway. So much so that it's now a subconscious (or at time unconscious) way of how I am in the world, all the time. Now that I've had some time to integrate and ground the energies she brought into my life, I've become more aware, and appreciative of, her more general and mundane protective powers, and how she is the rightful guardian of liminal places like doorways. Learning to balance the interwoven nature of the spiritual and the physical is one of the prime challenges and gifts of Gaelic Polytheism, and now that my life is more fully reflective of that, and that I've had more decades to mature into that role, her multiplicity of roles makes more sense to me as well. So, in the tradition of other Gaelic protective charms, like rowan crosses, she not only lives above the altars here, but a certain sheela now guards the doorway to our house, as well.
The Holdgate Sheela - Shropshire, Tugford, England
Picture courtesy of John Harding and Megalithica
So Who is Sheela/Síla Goddess, Grotesque, or Otherworldly Power? Well, these things are not always clear-cut in Gaelic matters Powers and Beings can flow, shift, change and have agendas of their own, and Síla is no exception. The Otherworldly Being Ive contacted through my work with Sheela na Gigs and the birch trees, Whom I call Síla, is a trickster and shapeshifter; she is one of the sacred Hags (Cailleachan), and probably a face of the Hag herself. Shes a primal force, older than human speech. I believe she is our most ancient Gaelic ancestor, and the closest thing we have to a Creator. Her story can be found in the tales of the Cailleach, most notably the ones where she creates the lochs and mountain ranges of Scotland, or guards the gateway to the Otherworld of the Western Irish Sea. She is also seen in the sovereignty of the land, and when she herds her deer down by the shore. (42) Her face is seen in the shifting shape of the land.
In ceremony she arrives as a distinct energy and presence, who speaks through shifting energies and granting visions, and rarely if ever speaks in any human language. She is older than human language. Her language is the shifting of the stones, the sighing in the branches of the trees, the waters crashing on the shore below the cliffs, the gale howling over the turbulent sea.
When this style proves too vague for our limited minds, she tends to send more recent ancestors, via vivid dreams, to articulate the specifics.
Like the many individual and unique sheelas found throughout the Celtic lands, the face Síla reveals to you may vary drastically, depending upon the land where she is invited, the situation regarding the sovereignty of that land, the particular relationship you and your ancestors have with her, and upon your relationship with the land and the otherworlds in general.
We have no way of knowing for certain if my conclusions about Síla resemble the specifics of what our distant ancestors believed about the carvings. Though the tales of the Cailleach are solid and unwavering, and live in the Gaelic cultures up to the present day, not every researcher who has looked into the sheela carvings has concluded they are votive figures of the Cailleach. For our recent Ancestors, it certainly seems that many of the sheelas were not initially commisioned as figures of veneration, and that any spiritual powers and beings that have come to be attached to these images emerged at a later date after they took root in Ireland, and more recently in the more polytheistic pockets of the Celtic Nations and the diaspora. However, especially given the most ancient carvings, it is also possible that the earliest sheelas were created by our more distant, polytheistic ancestors, or that they had images that were so similar to the sheelas that the two streams of iconography merged. Whichever theory one believes whether it's due to their pagan, or despite their Christian, origins it seems clear that the images are now Spirit-suffused: that older spirits, goddesses even, have seen fit to influence the artists and come through the sheelas to attach themselves to the images and dwell amongst us today.
This is simply one spiritual worker's account of how Síla has manifested in my personal work and among the ever-widening group of people with whom Ive shared these ideas and related ceremonies. One of my reasons for publishing this article, and now maintaining this website, is to see how others resonate with this information. And, well... She was getting on my back about putting it out there.
All praises to Síla of the Paradox:
The boundary, the border,
the edge and the center;
The sunset and sunrise,
She of the sly grin, She of the wide eyes;
Grimacing crone, Life-giving hag,
the heron, the crane, and the stork with her bag.
Spinning and laughing, Paradoxical Crone,
Opener of the Way, Old Woman of the Stones.
Dancing in dawns light
Capering in twilight
The Hag of the Stones
Sends rays of light piercing
Deep in your heart
Deep into your bones
|Kathryn Price NicDhàna
is living by the Hags' Brook in the Northeastern Forest,
hanging out with the Spirits, listening to the trees,
and writing it all down.
She serves on the governing councils of CAORANN and Gaol Naofa, and can be reached via her blog or twitter
The original version of this article appeared as Síla of the Trees in the Sacred Spaces, Sacred Places issue of Sagewoman Magazine (Winter '98/'99).
It has been substantially revised and expanded for the web.
Notes on updates can be found on the front page.
This article is copyright ©1998, 2006, 2012 and may not be reprinted without the express, written permission of the author.
First revision: ThornBlossom Moon, 2006
Latest version: SamhainTide, 2012
(1) Language Note: The phonetic spelling sheela indicates the sheela na Gig images. The Early Irish spelling Síla indicates the Otherworldly Being or Goddess whom I believe the images may represent. Both are pronounced the same. All pronunciations are approximate the Celtic languages contain sounds not found in English, and pronunciation varies regionally. (back)
(2) For those born by C-Section - who exited their mother's body through the belly, not the vulva - this may be merely symbolic. Yet note how wide-open the passageway is, and how it goes all the way up into her belly - even the largest of newborns could fit through that gate. (back)
(2a) A fabulous new find: The Woman Sculpture Site has a cool sculpture illustrating this concept. (back)
(3) Patti Smith, Early Work (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), p. 169. (back)
(4) Notable recent exceptions in the US: Lori DeMarre,
sheela na Gig (Interview with Irish Artist Fiona Marron), The Beltane
Papers Issn 4 (Samhain, 1993), pp. 4-11. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan
Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge U.S.:
Blackwell, 1995), pp. 308, 310-15.
¶ (Update, 2/4/00): A caveat about Hutton - While he was one of the only scholarly sources available in the US when I began this article, I've since realized how incomplete some of his research is. While his books are generally excellent studies of history in relation to Neopaganism, his research on sheelas is superficial at best. He has neglected to mention the sheelas that contradict his theories. Whether this is due to incomplete research or other factors, I cannot say. However, I apologize for my former high reccomendation of this book. I still think it's worth reading as a general work, but in my opinion it should be approached with the same amount of critical thought with which one approaches the feminist scholars of whom Hutton is so critical.
¶ On a much more positive note, thanks to the internet, many scholars are now in touch with one another and great progress is being made in investigating the sheelas - they are no longer being totally neglected. See our sheela Links section for some of these fabulous resources. (back)
(4a) Traditional Gaelic and Celtic Reconstructionist methods of opening to vision include praying with traditional poetry in the Gaelic languages, making offerings to the spirits, listening to the spirits, and other techniques of fisidecht, such as those practiced by the fili or fáith. In Gaelic cultures, these visionary abilities are something one is born with, and usually the person is also born into a family with a long history of these gifts. While it is possible for people born with these gifts to learn to better control and utilize them, people who have inherited these abilities are almost always recognized in childhood or at least by adolescence. Some who are promoting offensive ideas of "Celtic Shamanism" have expressed interest in the work I discuss in this article. But when I speak of visionary and ceremonial work, I am in no way referring to any of the appropriative neo-shamanic traditions out there, including those who claim to be Celtic. See the CAORANN site for more on my views of "shamanism." (back)
(5) Niels Bohr, physicist, quoted in The Art of Genius, The Utne Reader Issn 8750-0256 (August 1998), p 76. (back)
(6) The Spring Maiden is sometimes seen the goddess Brigid. In some of the Scottish lore, the year is divided into halves - Winter: Samhuinn to Bealltainn (ruled by the Hag); and Summer: Bealltainn to Samhuinn (ruled by the Spring Maiden or Brigid). Samhuinn and Bealltainn are the Scottish Gaelic names for Halloween and May Day. This duality is also seen in Ireland with the summer ruled by the goddess Áine, and the winter by her sister Grian. This video from beautifully illustrates some of her stories.(back)
(7)In the pre-Celtic stoneworks of Ireland and Scotland, there are equinox alignments associated with the Hag, such as at Loughcrew/Sliabh na Caillí, where both the spring and fall equinox sunrise illuminates the back of the chamber, which is covered with symbolic carvings. For some it's the equinox that feels more like her time. As the Cailleach may well be based on a pre-Celtic spirit woman, native to the isles of Scotland and Ireland, perhaps the equinox is more her time than the Celtic liminal festivals. (back)
(8) From dance me through, darkmoon song cycle ©1989 kpn/katharsis ink. (back)
(8a) Fertility Figure usually being 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. (back)
(8b) Almost any well-illustrated Celtic Art book with Celtic stonecarvings will illustrate this point, but here are a few references I've compiled in the Illustration Notes. (back)
(9) The exception being the Pagan sacred sites where churches were later built and the sheelas carved over their doorways. However, many who have observed the sheelas in situ have noted that some appear to be much older, more worn, and sometimes of different stone than the surrounding structures on which they are mounted. Some believe this could indicate that the carvings of the sheelas existed before the churches were built. (back)
(9a) For two Irish sheelas on standing stones, see
Stepaside sheela, Co. Dublin and
Tara Hill sheela-na-gig, Co. Meath. Photographs and
commentary by Tara McLoughlin, on her fabulous
Tara's sheela-na-gig Website.
¶ In the summer of 2003, announcements went out in the media that a new figure had been found that may predate all of these: Historic stone carving uncovered in Co Fermanagh. However, it was a figure already fairly well-known, at least to locals and those in Celtic studies. To those of us looking at the photos, this carved stone image, originally from a graveyard on nearby Lusty More Island, [which] has possible links to the renowned Janus figure at Caldragh Cemetery on Boa Island sure looks like a possible in situ sheela to us. The Boa Island figures areestimated to be around 2,000 to 3,000 years old. These two-faced Janus figures' possible connection to the gatekeeper function also seems very significant. If you look at the photos, she also has coins and flowers at her feet - offerings from those who visit her.
¶ Ironically, this new find, is in a picture on plate 22 of John Sharkey's Celtic Mysteries - The ancient religion(New York: Thames and Hudson, 1975)(back)
(10) Hutton (1995), p.311. Australian slang usage seems to also support this meaning: as their white population began as a British prison colony, perhaps the word was imported with Irish prisoners. (back)
(11) _____, p.314 (back)
(12) Ibid. (back)
(13) Ibid. (back)
(14) Alternate spellings of Síle include Sheila, sheela and sheelagh. Síle is also used to translate Julia and Cecilia. (back)
(15) Perhaps to honor St. Cecilia, patron of music, or St. Julian, patron of travellers and boaters? Actually, the quote, simply the common Irish Gaelic expression for an immodest woman comes from Hutton (1995), p. 311. As we've had so much trouble finding any Irish Gaelic meaning for Sheela na Gig, let alone a common one, I have to question Hutton's research here. Sadly, I wouldn't be surprised to hear he has no Gaeilge. (back)
(16) P.W. Joyce, Irish Place Names in Ronan Coghlan, Ida Grehan, & P.W. Joyce, The Book of Irish Names (New York: Sterling Publishing, 1989), p.85. (back)
(17) Websters Unabridged Dictionary, 2 vols. (U.S.: William Collins & World Publishing, 1975), pp.1671, 1669. (back)
(18) P.W. Joyce (1989), p.114. (back)
(19) The Royal Irish Academy, Dictionary of the Irish Language (Antrim, N.Ireland: Greystone Press, 1990), pp.542-3. Malcolm MacLennan, A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language (Edinburgh: Acair/Aberdeen University Press, 1991), pp. 299-301. Niall Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla (Éireann: Mount Salus Press, 1992), p.1092. (back)
(20) The Royal Irish Academy (1990), pp.542-3. See also the online version, eDIL, under both sila and síla. Whether fadas are used in manuscripts from this time period can be a bit hit and miss, so we have to take both the accented and unacceted spellings into account. (back)
(21) When I speak of Síla as the Eldest of the Ancestors, Im invoking the oldest Spirit Woman native to the Insular Celtic lands. I am also including the fada in the spelling as this gives a clearer representation of the pronunciation, and because I belive it is probably the original spelling (in transcription errors, it is usually for more common to find that a fada has been forgotten where needed rather than added without cause}.(back)
(21a) Though this association has not persisted as strongly as that of her connection with the land, she may have some ties to the sea as well. In Scotland, the Cailleach herds her deer down by the sea shore, and in Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher (Ceann Caillí - Hag's Head) read out into the Western Sea, across which the dead journey on their way to the afterlife. I later came across the The Rochester sheela na Gig, who holds a fish in each hand and strongly resembles the Celtic double-tailed mermaids found on standing stones and manuscripts. The Kildare sheela is in a similar posture, as is The Glendalough sheela and the merperson from the Meigle, Perthshire standing stone in George Bain's Celtic Art (New York: Dover, 1973) p.120, plate V. An image I've seen, said to be of the Norse Goddess Freya, is also very similar, but I don't know the background or veractiy of this design (had a link but the page is gone now).(back)
(22) DeMarre (1993), used to describe old women in County Cork. (back)
(23) Ó Dónaill (1992), p.1092. (back)
(24) Tomás De Bhaldraithe, English-Irish Dictionary (Éireann: Criterion Press, 1992), p. 297. See also Who is Sheila? by Dymphna Lonergan on use of the word to describe effeminate men in both Ireland and Australia.(back)
(25) DeMarre (1993). Seirkiernan sheela, County Offaly, Ireland, 13th-16th cent. C.E. (back)
(26) Judy Grahn, Another Mother Tongue (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990). Randy Connor, Blossom of Bone (New York: HarperCollins, 1993). (back)
(27) ODonail (1992), p.1092. (back)
(28) ________p. 965. (back)
(29) De Bhaldraithe (1992), pp. 336, 157, 711. MacLennan (1991), p. 101. (back)
(30) Alexei Kondratiev, More on Saint Patricks Snakes and Other Irish Critters, Our Pagan Times Vol. 4, No. 4 (April, 1994), p. 19. See also: Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), pp. 57-60, on the Cailleach as a guardian of animals and wells, and how on the Isle of Man, where She is known as Caillagh ny Groamagh, or the Old Woman of Gloominess....She is said to have been seen on St. Bride's day in the form of a gigantic bird [emphasis mine], carrying sticks in her beak.(back)
(31) The species of marsh-bird fulfilling this role seems to vary regionally, depending on which is found on the land in question. (So, does this mean that in tropical realms Sílas bird form is the Pink Flamingo(!)?) (back)
(31a) It is unclear where these two theories originated. It is likely they were first published by Dr Jørgen Andersen in his 1977 publication, The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles. Eamonn P. Kelly also mentions them in his 1996 publication, sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions. I have been very surprised at how few have been willing to question those guesses.(back)
(31b) For more on this see Gay Cannon's fabulous site: Ireland's Síle na Gigs. There was also a discussion on the problems with the theory on Old-Irish-L.(back)
(32) MacLennan (1991), p.180. (back)
(33) Websters Unabridged Dictionary (1975), p. 770. (back)
(33a) Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, (Hudson, New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1992), p526. Text notes to entry #536.(back)
(34) MacLennan (1991), p. 179. (back)
(35) ODonail (1992), pp. 616-17. (back)
(36) The Royal Irish Academy (1990), p. 357. (back)
(36a) The genitive form is the possessive. So, for example, when coupled with na or nan, it means Síla of the branch or Origin of the Tribes instead of just Síla branch or Origin Tribes. In the pronunciation of géige - GAYG-uh or GAYK-uh the final e should really be a schwa (but I couldn't figure out how to make one in any of the available fonts). And depending on dialect, the final e may or may not be voiced. Na Géige is the genitive singular. The genitive plural is more commonly written nan geug, but with a bit of poetic license it could also be written nan géigean - it's a pun on an obscure word from Cormac's glossary: gigean , geigean - master at death revels (Carm.) found also in McBain's online dictionary. With Síla's doorway between the world of the living and the world of the dead connections, I particularly like this pun, even if most people won't get it. Gigean, a dwarf; said too of a naked child. (MacLennan, p. 180) - The sheelas don't really resemble children, but they are small and naked. (back)
(36b) Carmichael (1992), p526. Entry #385, Verses
made at the waulking frame: Thou girl over there, may the sun be
against thee! / Thou hast taken from me my autumn carrot, / My Michaelmas
carrot from my pillow, / My procreant buck from among the goats. // But if thou
hast, it was not without help, / But with the black cunning of the dun women; /
Thou art the little she-goat that lifted the bleaching, / I am the little
gentle cow that gave no milking. // Stone in shoe be thy bed for thee, / Husk
in tooth be thy sleep for thee, / Prickle in eye be thy life for thee, /
Restless watching by night and by day. // May no little slumberer be seen on
thy pillow, / May no eyes be seen upon thy shoulder, / But mayest thou sow them
and Géige reap them, / And Morc garner them to the green
¶ For a wealth of info on the Michaelmas and other harvest traditions, including info on the Cailleach and those grain and carrot rituals, see: F. Marian McNeill, The Silver Bough - Vol. Two - A Calendar of Scottish National Festivals - Candlemas to Harvest Home(Glasgow: William MacLellan, 1959).(back)
(36c) Ronald Black (ed), John Gregorson Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005), p.457. (back)
(36d) Private correspondence and conversations with author. (back)
(36e)Black (2005), p. 457. (back)
(37) Sheri S. Tepper, Gibbons Decline and Fall (New York: Bantam, 1997), p. 452. (back)
(38) Smith (1994), p. 155. (back)
(39) Patti Smith, Land, Horses (New York: Arista Records, 1975). I hold the key to the sea / of possibilities...(back)
(40) Ibid. (back)
(40a) Modupue (many thanks) to Teish for teaching me this survival skill. (back)
(41) Orisha Obatala is the Yoruba (African) androgynous Creator Deity of the sky, the white cloth, and the elderly. His/Her children do not drink alcohol. (back)
(42) For some tales of The Cailleach as Creator, see
the "Theological Questions" section of the
FAQ, this lovely film by The Film Board of Ireland,
An Cailleach Bheara and this article on Wikipedia:
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©1998, 2007, 2012 Kathryn Price NicDhàna, all rights
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Text partially revised 5.20.06. Third revision SamhainTide 2012
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