Sheela na gigs


Sheela na gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are found on churches, castles and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Britain, sometimes together with male figures. One of the best examples may be found in the Round Tower at Rattoo, in County Kerry, Ireland. A replica is located in the County Museum in Tralee town. Another well-known example can be seen at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, England.

Ireland has the greatest number of known sheela na gig carvings, McMahon and Roberts cite 101 examples in Ireland and a further 45 examples in Britain. Such carvings are said to ward off death and evil. Other grotesques such as gargoyles and hunky punks are frequently found on churches all over Europe and it is commonly said that they are there to keep evil spirits away. They are often positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.

Origin

There is disagreement about the source of the figures. One perspective, by James Jerman and Anthony Weir, is that the sheela na gigs were first carved in France and Spain in the 11th century; the motif eventually reached Britain and then Ireland in the 12th century. Jerman and Weir’s work was a continuation of the research started by Andersen, who wrote The Witch on the Wall, the first serious book on sheela na gigs in 1977. Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, draws attention to the distribution of sheela na gigs in Ireland to support Weir and Jerman’s theory; almost all of the surviving in situ sheela na gigs are found in areas of Anglo-Norman conquest (12th century), while the areas which remained “native Irish” boast only a few sheela na gigs  Weir and Jerman also that their location on churches, and their ugliness by mediæval standards, suggests that they were used to represent female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.

Another theory, espoused by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts is that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion. They point to what they claim are differences in materials and styles of some sheela na gigs from their surrounding structures, and that some are turned on their side, to support the idea that they were incorporated from previous structures into early Christian buildings. There are differences between typical continental exhibitionist figures and Irish sheela na gigs, including the scarcity of male figures in Ireland and the UK, while the continental carvings are more likely to involve male figures, and the more contortionist postures of continental figures.

Etymology

The name was first published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840-44, as a local name for a carving once present on a church gable wall in Rochestown, County Tipperary, Ireland; the name was also recorded in 1840 by John O’Donovan, an official of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, referring to a figure on a church in Kiltinane, County Tipperary. There is disagreement about the origin and meaning of the name, as the name is not directly translatable into Irish. Alternative spellings of “Sheela” may sometimes be encountered; they include Sheila, Síle and Síla. The name “Seán-na-Gig” was coined by Jack Roberts for the ithyphallic male counterpart of the Sheela which is fairly rare in Ireland but is much more common on the continent.

Jørgen Andersen writes that the name is an Irish phrase, originally either Sighle na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts”, or Síle ina Giob, meaning “Sheila (from the Irish Síle the Irish form of the Anglo-Norman name Cecile or Cecilia) on her hunkers”. Dinneen also gives Síle na gCíoċ, stating it is “a stone fetish representing a woman, supposed to give fertility, gnly[sic – abbreviation of generally] thought to have been introduced by the Normans”. Other researchers have questioned these interpretations; few sheela na gigs are shown with breasts, and there are doubts about the linguistic connection between ina Giob and na Gig. The phrase “sheela na gig” was also said to be a term for a hag or old woman.

Barbara Freitag devotes a chapter to the etymology of the name in her book Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, and comes up with some earlier references than 1840, including a ship called Sheela Na Gig in the Royal Navy and a dance called the Sheela na gig from the 18th century. An Irish slip jig, first published as The Irish Pot Stick (c.1758), appears as Shilling a Gig in Brysson’s A Curious Collection of Favourite Tunes (1791) and Sheela na Gigg in Hime’s 48 Original Irish Dances (c.1795). These are the oldest recorded references to the name, but do not apply to the figures. The name is explained in the Royal Navy’s records as an “Irish female sprite”. Freitag also discovered that “gig” was a Northern English slang word for a woman’s genitals. A similar word in modern Irish slang “Gigh” (pronounced [ɡʲiː]) also exists, further confusing the possible origin of the name.

Weir and Jerman use the name sheela, but only as it had entered popular usage; they also call figures of both sexes “exhibitionist”. They cite Andersen’s second chapter as a good discussion of the name. Andersen states in that chapter that there is no evidence that “sheela na gig” was ever a popular name for the figures and that it came out of a period (i.e. the mid-19th century) “where popular understanding of the characteristics of a sheela were vague and people were wary of its apparent rudeness”. An earlier reference to the dubious nature of the name is made by HC Lawlor in Man Vol.31, Jan 1931 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) where he says “The term “sheela-na-gig” has no etymological meaning and is an absurd name”. Andersen, Weir and Jerman and Freitag all dismiss the name as being modern and somewhat arbitrary.

The oldest recorded name for one of the figures is “The Idol” which relates to the Binstead figure on the Isle of Wight. This name was mentioned in 1781 in The History of the Isle of Wight by R. Worsley and mentioned again in 1795 by J. Albin in A New, Correct and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight (Andersen page 11). The name “The Idol” was also applied to a now lost figure in Lusk, Ireland and was recorded as being in use around 1783.

Theories

Much of the disagreement about the figures is based on determining exactly what they are meant to represent, but no theory explains all the figures and each has problems.

Survival of a pagan goddess

The idea that sheela na gigs represent a pagan goddess is a most popular theory with the public; it is, however, not generally accepted by academics.The goddess in question is usually identified as Celtic, the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology. This theory was originally put forward by Margaret Murray, and also by Anne Ross, who, in her essay entitled “The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts”, wrote “I would like to suggest that in their earliest iconographic form they do in fact portray the territorial or war-goddess in her hag-like aspect…”

Most recently the goddess theory has been put forward in the book The Sacred Whore: Sheela Goddess of the Celts by Maureen Concannon who associates the figures with the “mother goddess”.

The Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Mircea Eliade, published 1993 by Macmillan for the University of Chicago) draws parallels between the sheela na gig and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear as a lustful hag, and most men would refuse her advances, except for one man who accepted. When he slept with her, she was transformed into a beautiful maiden who would confer royalty onto him and bless his reign. There are additional variants of this common Northern European motif .

Andersen devotes a chapter to this theory, entitled “Pagan or Medieval”, and while he suggests possible pagan influences on Irish sheela na gigs, he firmly places them in a medieval context. Of Dr. Ross’s assertion above, he says about possible pagan origins “What can be said against it, is that it is less easily proved and can be less easily illustrated than the possible continental, French origin for the motif discussed in earlier chapters….”.

Weir and Jerman explore the possible influence of the Baubo figurine on the motif but admit that the link is tenuous, writing “It makes for very interesting speculation, but the amount of evidence is not large”.

Freitag explores possible Celtic pagan origins but again finds little to suggest a link “…in particular the notion of the divine hag being a portrayal of the Ur-Sheela has to be firmly dismissed as wayward conjecture.”. Despite the rejection of a pagan origin by academics, this theory is still widely held and sometimes even vociferously defended by its supporters.

Fertility figure

This theory is usually used in conjunction with the above “goddess” explanation for the figures. Barbara Freitag puts forward the theory that figures were used in a fertility context and associates them with “birthing stones”. There is folkloric evidence of at least some of the sheela na gigs being used in this manner, with the figures being loaned out to women in labour. Other figures have wedding traditions associated with them. According to Margaret Murray, the figure in Oxford at the church of St Michael at the North Gate has the tradition of being shown to brides on their wedding day. This theory however does not cover all the figures: some are thin with their ribs showing and thin breasts evident; however, others are plump and are shown in a sexual context with a partner (Whittlesford). A recent discovery of an exhibitionist pair at Devizes by Dr. Theresa Oakley and Dr. Alex Woodcock also lends weight to this theory. The faces of some figures are striated, indicating scarring or tattoos. So, while this seems the most obvious interpretation, a closer look at the figures reveals features which sit uneasily with a fertility function.

Warning against lust

The theory that sheela na gigs warn against lust was put forward by Weir and Jerman. It explains the figures as a religious warning against sins of the flesh. Exhibitionist figures of all types—male, female, and bestial—are frequently found in the company of images of beasts devouring people and other “hellish” images. These images, they argue, were used as a means of religious instruction to a largely illiterate populace. As part of this interpretation, they explore a continental origin for the figures. Andersen first suggested this origin, and Weir and Jerman continued and expanded this line of inquiry. They argue that the motif migrated from the continent via the pilgrim routes to and from Santiago de Compostella. (Freitag argues against this.) Pilgrim sculptors took notes of what they had seen on the route and ended up carving their own interpretations of the motifs they had seen. Eventually, the exhibitionist motif migrated to Ireland and Britain. This theory seems to fit well with a lot of the religious figures but sits less easily on some of the secular ones. Images which appear on castles would not seem to be serving a religious purpose. The figure at Haddon Hall resides on a stables (although this may have been moved from elsewhere). So while this theory does seem to have some credibility, it again does not cover all the figures.

Protection against evil

This theory is discussed by Andersen  and Weir and Jerman. It seems unlikely that figures on castles would be serving a religious purpose. The suggested theory is that they serve an apotropaic function and are designed to ward off evil. This is further borne out by the name “The Evil Eye Stones” given to some of the figures in Ireland. There is also some folkloric evidence that devils could be repelled by the sight of a woman’s sex. Andersen reproduces a plate from La Fontaine’s Nouveaux Contes (1674) where a demon is repulsed by the sight of a woman lifting her skirt. Weir and Jerman also relate a story from The Irish Times (23 September 1977) where a potentially violent incident involving several men was averted by a woman exposing her genitals to the attackers. However, they also cast some doubt on the veracity of this tale. Weir and Jerman go on to suggest that the apotropaic function seems to have been gradually ascribed to the figures over time. While this theory seems to fit most of the secular and some of the religious figures, again, it does not seem to apply to all of them.

Distribution

As noted above, Ireland has the greatest number of known sheela na gigs (so much so that they are often mistakenly thought of as a uniquely Irish phenomenon). However, it became increasingly obvious that the sheela na gig motif, far from being insular, could in fact be found all over Europe. Accurate numbers of figures are hard to come by as the interpretation of what is and is not a sheela na gig will vary from writer to writer, for example Freitag omits the Rochester figure from her list while Weir and Jerman include it. Concannon includes some worn figures that so far only she has identified as sheela na gigs. Previously unknown figures are still being identified.

So far the following countries are known to have (or have had) churches with female exhibitionist figures on them:

  • Ireland
  • France
  • Spain
  • Britain
  • England
  • Wales
  • Scotland
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • Czech Republic
  • Slovak Republic

A significant number of the figures are found in Romanesque contexts especially in France, Spain, Britain and Norway. In Ireland figures are commonly found in areas of Norman influence.

Parallels

The Encyclopedia of Religion, in its article on yoni, notes the similarity between the positioning of many sheela na gigs above doorways or windows and the wooden female figures carved over the doorways of chiefs’ houses (bai) in the Palauan archipelago. Called dilukai (or dilugai), they are typically shown with legs splayed, revealing a large, black, triangular pubic area; the hands rest upon the thighs. The writers of the encyclopedia article say:

These female figures protect the villagers’ health and ward off all evil spirits as well. They are constructed by ritual specialists according to strict rules, which if broken would result in the specialist’s as well as the chief’s death. It is not coincidental that each example of signs representing the female genitalia used as apotropaic devices are found on gates. The vulva is the primordial gate, the mysterious divide between nonlife and life.”

 

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One thought on “Sheela na gigs

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