Secret of the Sheelas
Can an image still be alive if it hasn’t been created for over three hundred years? Did the energy behind the Sheelas die, or did it abide underground in a rhizome, waiting to break out into our current age of disconnection and despair? Can a seemingly dormant image be animated once again? How is the Sheela part of the psychic event of our era: the return of the Goddess? If she has returned--why, to what end? What can she offer us? Why do we need this image?
The image of the Sheela na gig embodies the numinous power of the Dark Goddess over the mysteries of life and death. These primal energies cannot be controlled. Such a representation challenges the efficient running of the machine of state. The Sheela symbolizes what terrifies patriarchal society with its increasing oppression under the guise of order--the chaos of nature and female sexuality. We, in the industrialized West, live in a culture that emphasizes goal-oriented linear thinking at the expense of symbolic thinking in images. The meaning of the displayed vulva of the Sheela cannot be safely contained by dry mental interpretations but must be felt through the web of associations from the dark richness of the unconscious.
One of the fundamental crises of our culture is a lack of connection to images that originate from the deepest, most transformative part of ourselves. Yet, ironically, we are bombarded with images from our plugged-in lifestyle. The shadow side of the Information Revolution is consumption of escapist images from a virtual reality that leaves us more disconnected from any grounding in our own creativity. We are left adrift with a mass of empty images that do not function as images traditionally have done: to construct a bridge between this world and the immense inner world of the Beyond. In a recent essay appearing in Parabola, “Imagination and the Void: To Be or Not To Be,” Patrick Laud takes on the issue of our contemporary way of relating to images:
One must wonder what may remain of the power of creative imagination when such a passive, hardly conscious relationship with images has settled in and become second nature.1
These media and virtual images construct a world of unreality to mesmerize and sedate us with entertainment. Such diversions, Laud states, mask “an industrialized world of tedious, mechanical, senseless activity.”2 Scholar Max Dashú believes this consumer culture has rendered our imaginal lives “bound, twisted, displaced, and appropriated” by media conglomerates.3 They feed us spectacles of illusion. How far this is from the imagination’s ability to connect us with the whole of reality and foster the feeling of being alive.
Another troubling problem has been named by Jungian analyst Theodor Abt. The general trend in education over the past several hundred years toward goal-oriented rational thinking makes “the understanding of chains of cause and effect the dominant way of looking at reality.”4 The originality of symbolic thinking in images which sees beneath the surface into another world has declined. In a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, innovative theater director Peter Sellars expresses his alarm at the devaluation of creativity in schools. Science is emphasized over the humanities, which have been “systematically removed from the menu of most Americans.”5 He believes this has resulted in a less compassionate civilization: “Right now we are in such deep, deep, deep waters, and the only solutions are going to be the creative ones.”6
An additional destructive notion is that creativity exists just for the gifted few. To the detriment of our fullness as people, this idea ignores our natural heritage. Inherent to the human personality is the desire to create images and to receive them from the psyche, then to discover their meaning. Countering this devaluation of the imagination in the classroom is an oftprinted essay written almost forty years ago, “Everyman with a Blue Guitar: Imagination, Creativity, Language” by English Professor James E. Miller. In it, he makes an impassioned cry for “a radical revision of the curriculum and classroom practice” to create enlivened classrooms where imaginative energies are available to every student.7 In his experience as a teacher, he does not see the world as divided into creative and uncreative people but rather that imagination and creativity are faculties and attributes of all.8 Finally, Miller turns to the work of biologist E. W. Sinnott who makes a singular point: it is not reason, but the great flight of imagination that has been nature’s greatest force in human evolution.9
What is the psychological cost of this separation from the creative center of ourselves? We think we are no longer part of nature but superior to it--that science has conquered nature. In truth, we are in the grip of a suicidal urge to make more efficient machines to poison every element that sustains life and to destroy the beauty of this planet. Jung, in his last writing on symbols completed ten days before his death, delivers a final warning. He cautions that we do not realize how much our rationalism has dehumanized us by destroying our ability to respond to numinous symbols and ideas:
Today, for instance, we talk of “matter.” We describe its physical properties . . . But the word “matter” remains a dry, inhuman, and purely intellectual concept, without any psychic significance for us. How different was the former image of matter--the Great Mother--that could encompass and express the profound emotional meaning of Mother Earth.10
When the sacred realm is split off from matter, we feel ourselves to be isolated in the cosmos, lost without a devotion to nature.
Cultural historian Thomas Berry asks: how, without roots in the earth and cosmos, are we to activate the psychic energy that is required to transform the major ecological issues confronting us?12 With spirit placed outside the natural world and rationalism displacing the inner world of imagination, how are we to experience a delight in life to sustain us through its vicissitudes?