Yesterday, March 17th, was St Patrick’s Day, which honours a Christian saint who amongst other things drove the snakes out of Ireland (more on this later). Today, the 18th of March is Sheelagh’s Day: another Irish celebration though shared by other Celtic and North Eastern Atlantic peoples.
Sheelagh’s Day, or the Day of the Hag, is associated with the last days of the Cailleach and falls a full week before Lady’s Day, or Day of the Auld Wife (the last honouring of the Cailleach, though she can linger into Beltain on May 1st). Most often nowadays associated with weather, Sheelagh’s Day traditionally heralds the last storms of winter on both sides of the North Atlantic. In Newfoundland snow falls from Sheelagh’s Brush while fishermen and farmers make offerings to stormy seas: fishermen to calm the waves, and farmers to give thanks for the bounty of seaweed. The winds that sweep Scotland in March are named for different aspects of the Cailleach: the sweeper, the whistler, the sharp-billed one and A Chailleach herself. Interestingly in France, the last days of March and first days of April also have weather named for the Cailleach.
These weather traditions relate to the Cailleach as the Old Woman of Winter who takes over between Samhain (November 1st) and – depending – Imbolc (February 1st) or Beltain (May 1st). The Cailleach is a much more complex figure than just Winter, but for now we’ll let her throw her staff below the holly bush and rest.
Sheelagh, who perhaps was one of the Cailleach’s sacred bringers of storms and thunder, can also be seen in her own right as bringer of Spring. The Sheela-na-gigs found in Western and Northern Europe typically depict an old naked woman holding open her enlarged vulva. This symbolism relates to renewal, birth, regeneration: the time for Spring and new growth to erupt from the sleeping earth (the Cailleach herself?). Such symbolism dates back to Neolithic times when female figures with enlarged vulvas could be found across Europe. Now Sheela-na-gigs are associated with 12th to 17th century Christian Churches in Western and Northern Europe. While some of these stone figures had been taken from older shrines at well heads or springs, many had been carved by the masons building the churches. Many are found directly above the entrance to the church – indicative of the much older idea of the place of worship being in a womb like setting or tomb. To enter the church would, for many of the folk belief holding congregation, represent the older belief of renewal and regeneration through return to the womb of the earth or great mother. The Catholic Church’s appropriation of the Sheela-na-gig was an acknowledgement of the strength of the continuing ancient beliefs. The later idea that the Sheela-na-gigs were a warning against the sin of lust indicates the falling away of the old beliefs and understandings. In this same vein, Sheelagh herself later came to be known as the wife of St Patrick.
March 25th is the festival of Ascension in the Christian Church. How appropriate that the date of the Immaculate Conception – of renewal, birth, new life, falls on Lady’s Day which celebrates the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring.