Shamangoddess at Callanish
Stones (oil, 1982)
The strange and barren island of Lewis of the Outer Hebrides, islands of Bridge or Brigid. No forests or trees exist here, a barren landscape full of lochs. Deep in the dark peat, cut by the islanders for fuel, there are signs of tree roots from ancient forests that once grew there. The sacred mountain, The Silver Maiden/Sleeping Beauty, dominates Lewis and can be seen from far afield. Here the Moon dances every eighteen to nineteen years, during the major lunar standstill, kissing the brows, belly and breasts of the mountain Maiden while turning back upon Herself and standing still, bathing the mountain in a silvery light. I was there in the summer of 1987, the time of the lunar standstill, visiting with the visionary artist and poet Jill Smith and her son Taliesin who lived there then. We waited amongst the Callanish stones, some of which look like hooded crones, for the September full moon to rise. The stones are graceful and delicately formed and are salmon coloured in streaks of pink, green and blue, so different from the large, unshaped, massive Avebury stones. There are around nine hundred stone circles on the British Isles. They have different functions but are lunar temples tracing the Moon Mother in Her changes.
The first time I travelled to Lewis was in 1982 to meet up with friends there over the Summer Solstice. The power of the sun was immense as She (in Sweden we always say She of the Sun) only disappeared for a few hours and there was nothing between Her and us except the sea, the stones and the barren land. A sense of primordial, in the beginning, times. The next day we made the very long trek and climbed up onto The Silver Maiden mountain. Three hours later we finally reached the cairns that form the nipples on her “breasts” and high above the world there was as if a processional walk …. a bit like on Glastonbury Tor but felt wider and more ancient. I felt ecstatic and eerie as well.
A legend on the island is that people had arrived by boat to Callanish, which is surrounded by sea on all sides, and were led by a winged black-faced priest – or was it priestess. Did an African people arrive to the islands bringing their magic and shamanism?
The painting belongs to Genevieve Vaughan in Texas and it has strange indwelling powers. For seven years it lived on Lewis in the barn where Jill Smith held a permanent show of art inspired by Callanish stones.
Corn Mother at New Grange
(oil on hardboard, 1982)
New Grange is a womb/tomb/temple of the Goddess, like West Kennet Long Barrow. It is situated in the Boyne river valley, named, as are most rivers, after a Goddess, in County Neath, north of Dublin, not far from Tara, the ancient centre of Ireland. It is contemporary with Silbury and with the magical and extremely powerful temples of the Goddess on Malta and Gozo, near the African coast, around 3000 BCE.
I visited New Grange for the first time in 1979 and had a sense of home-coming. It was the same feeling of recognition, of great joy, grief and awe, as I had at Silbury, Avebury and West Kennet Long Barrow and the Maltese temples. As an artist and a woman, I felt a sense of familiarity with the forms and symbols. They spoke directly to something deep in my awakening memories. They gave me a sense of joy at the beauty and the incredible love those people had for the Earth as they created their “cathedrals” of earth and stones in thanksgiving for the powers of life, consciousness and spirit that She had given them, and for taking them back into Her womb at death.
The mound has been reconstructed and excavated. It is covered in white quartz stones which give it the appearance of a gleaming egg and it is surrounded by a stone circle. The entrance into the internal womb chambers is via a twenty-foot stone passage. The passage walls appear to have a heartbeat and give the impression of being intestinal, fleshy, living and breathing. In front of the entrance to the passageway are enormous stones carved with multiple spirals and other symbols of the Goddess. Above the entrance there is a slit opening. On the dawn of the winter solstice each year a ray of the dying Sun enters here and travels the whole passage to touch a triple-carved spiral in the innermost chamber within the dark womb. Here the whole of the farming population could witness the death and the rebirth of the Sun from the womb of the Mother. This would also have been a time of Shamanic journeys to bring back powers of healing and of prophecy from the ancestors. This was of course long before patriarchal times when the Sun came to be seen as a conquering hero god who slays his own Mother and who neither dies nor is born. At the time of New Grange and of Silbury and the Maltese temples, there were no kings or male chieftains to impose their cruel and arbitrary edicts on the people. The cultures were led by collectives of women who believed in power with, not power over. In Scandinavia the sun was always female, a benevolent life-giving Mother.
Every ninth year the lunar beam travels the same path as the Sun into the womb at New Grange. In the old times the spiral, along with the labyrinth and the movements of the serpent, were seen to symbolise the life-giving and transformative powers of the Cosmic Mother. Spirit spiraling into matter and back again ….. matter and spirit being one and the same ….. all vibrant and dancing energies. Spirals are to be found everywhere from nebulas to water formations and in the very skin of our fingers.
In my painting I have envisaged the Corn or Harvest Mother as a peasant woman suckling her child. The sun and the moon are behind her on the walls of the mound.
Sheela Na Gig Creation
(oil on hardboard, 1978)
Sheela Na Gig is the Goddess as primordial power. She is portrayed as skull and bleached white bones. She holds wide her vagina from where all the blessings of mother-born life originate. I did this painting in 1978 soon after an initiatory and life-transforming experience of this ancient Mother Goddess at her most powerful and sacred neolithic centre in the northern world, at Silbury Mound, the pregnant womb of the Earth itself. In my painting Her vagina is shown as Silbury Mound, near Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, southern England. Her powerful and trance inducing presence can be felt there in the very land itself – in its stones and waters. Since that experience, the ancient and sacred sites of the Goddess have become my “teachers”, opening me up to the reality of communications with the ancestors, the spirits both of the land and the dead.
Stone-carved images of the Sheela Na Gig can be found on old churches, monasteries and castles in the Celtic world, especially in Ireland. Such images of the Goddess are also found in Indian Tantric art, over the doorways to sacred spaces in many parts of the tribal Shamanic world. The doorway represented Her vulva, and the sacred space Her womb, and people would enter between Her legs, touching Her vulva as they did so for protection and blessing. Such stone-carved images also stood by holy wells where people crawled between Her legs to drink of the waters. The well was in the old times seen as a vagina of the Earth Mother, and the waters as the menstrual flow from Her underground womb and blood arteries.
Pagan masons smuggled the image of the Goddess into the early churches for protection and luck. The very early Celtic Church was still enriched with Pagan and Druidic practices. To the later Catholic hierarchy – that tolerated no opposition to their own straight and narrow patriarchal stance and for three hundred years persecuted so-called heretics and witches (women and men of the Wise craft) throughout Europe for practising their ancient Goddess-given healing skills and for believing that the Earth is our living mother – the Sheela Na Gig was a monstrosity. She is indeed a powerful image of autonomous womanhood, with an active and dynamic sexuality – the very sexuality that the Church had declared taboo and out of bounds. Instead, it upheld the image of the non-sexual Virgin Mary, a passive vessel awaiting the command of a Fathergod, now seen as the real creator of life, who gives birth to their “saviour” without ever having experienced sexual pleasure. To the Goddess, however, all forms of non-harmful sexuality are sacred. Ecstatic sexual practices are integral to Her rites. A number of images of the Sheela Na Gig were hidden away over many years from public display in the basement of the National Museum in Dublin.
Women have only their
The Lovers (oil, 1975)
I helped found the Bristol Women’s Liberation Group in 1969 and during the whole of the 70s I was involved in feminist grassroots activism and campaigns, some of which I took the initiative, such campaigns as WACC (Women’s abortion and contraception campaign), working with unsupported mothers in the Claimants’ Union, Wages for Housework, the Gay Women’s Group as well as the Women’s arts movement and Matriarchy movement.
The first women artists show took place in London at the Woodstock Gallery in 1971 and around the same time I, together with Anne Berg, wrote a feminist arts manifesto and published newsletters on women’s art that I called “Towards a Revolutionary Feminist Art”. Many of my paintings from the 70s portray women’s struggle for liberation against oppression, women seeking justice, women working and women of different races. Women worldwide have systematically been deprived of our livelihoods and are barely able to survive with our children. We don’t own land even though we were the original farmers and cultivators. Everywhere the patriarchal religion centred around a male disembodied god-head who doesn’t indwell in creation and his celibate male priesthoods are used to justify the disempowennent and denigration of women. Women are profane and men sacred in such religions. To me, women’s spirituality and politics are not separate and “the personal is political”.
The understanding of ancient Goddess religion is a necessity as it reflects back to us an entirely different way of being and living, one of mutuality between women and men, one in which men were not warlike and aggressive and where women were proud and strong …. as mothers, as farmers, as oracles and shamankas, as healers, as creators of pottery, weaving, textiles and much else. Knowing that such cultures did exist gives me hope for the future as patriarchy is neither natural nor inevitable.
“Women have only their Chains to Lose” (1972) and “Lovers” (1975), both six feet high, were painted during this time of tremendous anger as well as joy and optimistic energies rising in women. Many women discovering their love for each other.
Are there Great Female Beings out there
waiting for us to be free? (mixed media, 1996)
And the answer is “Yes!” Ever since the late 60s when I started to do women and Goddess centred paintings, I have had a sense that ancient women were communicating with me in visions and dreams. It felt as if I was being used as a medium and that my paintings came from another, an archaic time. In 1973, in London during our Womanpower exhibition when God Giving Birth was nearly taken to Court, a zen-type, light-flooded dramatic moment occurred in which I “knew” that past, present and future coincide and therefore this ancient sisterhood is with us now and in the future. We are each other’s ancestors and descendants. While visiting Beneficio, the Rainbow tipi village in Andalucia in 1994, I experienced a crisis and great anger at the male dominance and presence of mainly male god images there and I cried and screamed. A woman healer, Fiona, gave me Reiki and I then “saw” surrounding me a Sisterhood of mainly older women of many races, wearing gowns and high headdresses. The one I saw close up was an old African woman with a large, wise face. Was she an ancestor of my young mixed-race son? During a visualisation-meditation with Bob Stewart (workshops on the Faery realm) I suddenly and equally dramatically “knew” that I am one of this sisterhood but had chosen to come back here. I felt great grief, sadness and loss at this. It also explained a lot. Are my paintings “portals” for them into this realm? If this sounds crazy .. so may it be.
The words I heard when I “saw” the sisterhood were “Are there great female beings out there waiting for us to be free?”.
Women’s Mysteries (oil, 1971)
This was my first attempt at using vibrant colours. I had for years been using mainly earth colours or even just black and white as I was learning my craft. Although both my parents were artists, I am mainly self taught and was therefore able to think my own thoughts and develop my medium as I saw fit, to express what until then had been inexpressible such as a woman-identified view of the sacred.
This painting is inspired by Egyptian imagery, of Isis or Hathor as the tree of life, the Sycamore or fig tree. Women were the cultivators of fruitbearing trees and brought fertility to nature. They were the early scientists and plant technologists and always worked with Nature the Mother and not against Her. Earth is our Mother …….
Mysteries of life and death as the child is born of the Mother tree while the dead are buried in the foetal position in great urns (pithoi) as on Crete, in Earth Mother’s dark and nourishing womb awaiting rebirth. Like the vegetation and grain, they are reborn with the spring after the long wintertime. The Earth eats us but She also grows us and that is the Mystery. The Greeks celebrated this at Eleusis in secret, ecstatic initiations to Demeter, the Corn Mother and Her daughter, Persephone/Kore who re-emerges from the Underworld with the turning of the year.
It was around the time when I did this painting in the early ’70s that I felt strongly the presence of the ancient women in my waking dreams.
God Giving Birth (oil, 1968)
The mysteries of life, birth and death
violence, love and beauty
Out of body – Tearing Blood Pain
Comes tenderness in a whisper-said love
For created being
Poem, Bristol, 1965
The painting was based on the natural home birth of my second son, Toivo in 1961, a birth that I experienced as a first initiation to the Great Mother who is both imminent and transcendent, both dark and light.
For the first time I experienced the enormous power of my woman’s body, both painful and cosmic and I “saw” in my mind’s eye great luminous masses of blackness and masses of radiant light coming and going. The Goddess of the Universe in her pure energy body. This birth changed my life and set me questioning the patriarchal culture we live in and its religions that deny the life-creating powers of the mothers and of the Greater Mother.
In ancient matrifocal cultures during the Neolithic, women gave birth in the sacred precincts of the Great Goddess where they were attended by shaman priestesses who were midwives, herbal healers and astrologers.
Birth was a sacrament and Vicki Noble once wrote that the original shaman is the birthing woman as she flies between the worlds bringing the spirits of the ancestors back into this realm, risking their own lives whilst doing so. We are spirit embodied.
I had given birth to my first son in a hospital in Stockholm and it had been a disaster for both of us. This home-birth, without medical and technical interventions, opened me up to the powers of the Great Mother.
In all patriarchies, women are de-sacralised and diminished and medicine and religion have been taken over by men who envy women’s creative sexual powers.
I wanted to create a painting that would express my emerging religious belief in the Great Mother as the Matrix of cosmic creation. I didn’t want Her to be a white woman. As a result of this work I was nearly taken to Court and my painting was censured many times during the 70s and 80s It was considered “ugly”, “obscene” and “blasphemous”. A modem day witch-hunt was carried out against me and my work. It was racist also. I didn’t know at the time I did the painting that the entire human race is thought to have originated from one or a handful of African women in the mists of time. This has been traced through the mitochondrial DNA which is only carried through the mothers/women. In 1968 there was also no women’s arts movement or a Goddess movement and I felt totally alone. I had a sense though that ancient women, who coincide with us in another time-space, were communicating with and through me. I was their medium and gateway into this world.
There are black stones or meteorites associated with Goddess sculptures worldwide such as Diana/Artemis at Ephesus. She is a Starmaiden and many legends tell of how the divine woman, such as Asht’art of the Phoenecians at Byblos in the Near East fell into a sacred lake from the sky as a flaming, whirling ball of light and fire. The “dark holes” in space might be entrances or gateways, the birth channel, to other universes. She is both the divine light and she is radiant and pulsating black light. She is infinite space. She is the She-serpent, Kundalini of invisible fire. I “saw” the radiant black light as my son was born and it changed my life forever.
Without the sense of being one in a long line of women active and surviving through the millennia, I would probably have gone out of my mind with anger and loneliness as well as grief at what we women of today have lost.
I spent two years in Sweden, 1965-67, working with the Vietnam movement, which brought me into working relationships with radical leftwing artists and black awareness artists, one of whom became the father of my young son born in 1970.
“God Giving Birth” was persecuted during the Arts Council sponsored arts festival in St. Ives in 1970 and then in London at Swiss Cottage library. In 1973 we had a pioneering collective women’s art show that we called “5 women artists – Images of Womanpower”. This was when I nearly ended up in Court on the charge of “obscenity and blasphemy”. It was fundamentalist Christians who instigated this. Many years later I had the satisfaction of carrying a black and white poster of my painting into Bristol cathedral as part of a women’s action. The year was 1993 and we were holding a national women’s conference in Bristol organised around opposing racism and to Break the Tabus/Breaking the silence and the chains that bind us. We were Ama Mawu, the Bristol women’s spirituality and Politics group. We had set the date for the end of Patriarchy and were intent on celebrating it on Silbury mound, Earth’s pregnant belly, in the Lammas August full moon. We believed in making our dreams become realities.
In fact I had for thirty years harboured a waking dream that I wished to walk into a cathedral or church during mass to tell the priest or bishop that he and the church blasphemes against the Mother and to remind the congregation of the three hundred years of witch-hunts that took place in Europe not so long ago. Neither the Catholic nor the Protestant churches have ever apologised in public for their genocide of women, the wise women of old. Well… now years later there was a group of fifteen or so women from this conference who were unafraid and courageous and wanted to do the action with me. We walked into Bristol Cathedral during mass on Sunday and lined up in front of the high altar. After a debate between me and the Dean of Bristol, we insisted on singing all the verses of “Burning Times” to the congregation. It was extraordinary and cathartic and real and scary we broke a major taboo by what we did and we refused to remain silent. If I hadn’t done God Giving Birth, this action would not have happened.
The painting was bought in 1994 by the Women’s Arts Museum (Museum Anna Nordlander) in Skelleftea in the north of Sweden where it is an important part of their collection of women’s art.
We have gleaned a few more items over the years – please see the new menu titled “Extras” to the right of the page to visit …
The original Monica Sjöö Retrospective was held at the Hotbath Gallery, Bath, from 28 January to 25 February 2004. It was an amazing experience to visit this exhibition; I wanted to sit in the middle of the space and soak in all the colour, meaning and beauty for a long, long time.
I still remember the day back in the 1960s when, sitting in Father’s (forbidden) chair, reading his despised newspaper, I came across a shock-horror description of the painting God Giving Birth. It changed my life. I was about sixteen years old and had never considered the idea of God as anything other than male, white and bearded.
This website cannot in any way match seeing an exhibition in the flesh – how I wish I could devise a way to let you sit in the middle of such riches! – but we hope to offer a glimpse of the variety and beauty of Monica’s work.
To navigate the exhibition, use the “next” and “previous” links at the top and bottom of each page. You will find that most images will, if clicked on, show you a larger version. From a larger image simply click on the “return” link below the image.
Monica Sjöö, the great artist whose work is timeless, has presented us with images of ancestors and of the ancient world that nourish and sustain. Searching from within her own heart out into the heart of nature and of memory, sitting with the ruins and that which has been paved over, peering into the abyss and holy well, she has created masterpiece after masterpiece of the human and female soul. Her work is astonishing. Arresting. So moving that, usually, one finds, upon examining it, no need of speech. It has a completeness, in that sense, that much art lacks. We stand before her canvases, often quite large, as before a field of yellow sunflowers or green corn, or the sea.
I think it is because she is painting that which has been silenced, hidden, almost thoroughly. I believe many of the images she reintroduces to us were meant never to appear before female eyes again. It is as if she is reintroducing us to our lost passions. Passions about the earth, about nature, about true worship, about our own strength and power in the face of the mystery that we, as humans and women, inhabit.
Her gift to us is measureless as is her integrity and implacable dedication to the tending of earth and the psychic health of awakening human beings.