Sheela na gig
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Sheela na Gigs (or 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 Church of St Mary and St David, Kilpeck in Herefordshire, England.
Ireland has the greatest number of known Sheela na Gig carvings: in The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts cite 101 examples in Ireland against 45 all over Britain. Such carvings are said to ward off death and evil (Andersen; Weir and Jerman). 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 (see apotropaic magic). They are often positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.
Origin of the Sheela na Gig motif
There is controversy regarding the source of the figures. One perspective, by James Jerman and Anthony Weir, is that the Sheelas 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 Jørgen Andersen, who wrote The Witch on the Wall, the first serious book on Sheela na Gigs (1977). Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, draws attention in his book Sheela Na Gigs: Origins and Functions to the distribution of Sheelas in Ireland to support Weir and Jerman's theory; almost all of the surviving in situ Sheelas are found in areas of Anglo-Norman conquest (12th century), while the areas which remained "native Irish" boast only a few Sheelas. Weir and Jerman also argue in Images of Lust 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 Sheelas 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 Sheelas, 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.
The origin of the name Sheela na Gig
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 controversy regarding 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". Dineen also gives Síle na gCíoċ, stating it is "a stone fetish representing a woman, supposed to give fertility, gnly thought to have been introduced by the Normans". Other researchers have questioned these interpretations; few Sheelas 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 (Freitag).
Barbara Freitag devotes a whole 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 British Royal Navy and a dance called the Sheela na gig from the 1700's. 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". She also discovered that "gig" was a Northern English slang word for a woman's genitals. A similar word in modern Irish slang "Gigh" (pronounced "Gee" with a hard "g" as in the English "go") 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 in The Witch on the Wall 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 1800s) "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.
Much of the controversy surrounding the figures is based on determining exactly what they are meant to represent. These can be broadly broken up into the following categories. None of the theories covers all the figures and there are problems with each of them
A survival of a pagan goddess
This is by far the most popular theory, but it is not widely accepted by academics. The goddess in question is usually identified as Celtic, namely the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology. This theory was originally put forward by the likes of Margaret Murray and 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. Compare "King Henry" (Child #32), which has been recorded by Steeleye Span).
Andersen in The Witch on the Wall devotes a chapter to this theory, entitled "Pagan or Medieval", and while he suggests possible pagan influences on Irish sheelas, 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...." (The Witch on the Wall page 95).
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" (Images of Lust page 114).
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." (Sheela na gigs: Unravelling an Enigma page 41). Despite the rejection of a pagan origin by academics, this theory is still widely held and sometimes even vociferously defended by its supporters.
A fertility figure
This theory is usually used in conjunction with the above "Goddess" explanation for the figures. Barbara Freitag in Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma 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 Sheelas being used in this manner, with the figures being loaned out to women in labor (Freitag). 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 (Margaret Murray, a "Female Fertility Figures", Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. LXIV 1934). This theory however does not cover all the figures: some are thin with their ribs showing and thin breasts evident (Fethard); 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 (Andersen). So, while this seems the most obvious interpretation, a closer look at the figures reveals features which sit uneasily with a fertility function.
A warning against lust
This theory was put forward by Anthony Weir and James Jerman in Images of Lust. 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. Jørgen 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 in The Witch on the Wall and Weir and Jerman in Images of Lust. 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 of the figures
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, with the publication of the Witch on the Wall and Images of Lust 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. In The Sacred Whore 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 (list derived from those included in the Witch on the Wall, Images of Lust and Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma):
- Czech Republic and/or Slovak Republic
A significant number of the figures are found in Romanesque contexts (Images of Lust) especially in France, Spain, Britain and Norway. In Ireland figures are commonly found in areas of Norman influence (E. Kelly).
The Encyclopedia of Religion in its article on yoni, notes the similarity between the positioning of many Sheelas 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.
The Sheela na Gig in modern culture
Though the sheela na gig is a romanesque motif it has found some popularity in modern culture.
- The Ballykissangel episode "Rock Bottom" was based around the discovery of a Sheela na Gig and peoples' reactions to it.
- Seamus Heaney has written a poem entitled "Sheela na Gig."
- UK alternative rock artist PJ Harvey's 1992 album, Dry, has a song titled "Sheela Na Gig," which features the line: "He said, 'Sheela Na Gig... You exhibitionist.'"
- New York artist Nancy Spero uses the Sheela na Gig as a motif in her work.
- The town of Sheila na Gigh is featured in Robert Rankin's book The Book of Ultimate Truths.
- The Sheela na Gig of St Brides Church, Bridelow in the English Peak District, features prominently as a plot device in Phil Rickman's novel The Man in the Moss.
- Canadian poet Molly Peacock refers to the Sheela na Gig in her poem "Gargoyle" (The Second Blush (W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2008).
Books about Sheela Na Gigs
- Dr Jørgen Andersen, The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles 1977
- Anthony Weir & James Jerman, Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches 1986, Routledge; New Ed edition (5 May 1993)
- Eamonn P. Kelly, Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions Town House 1996
- Dr Barbara Freitag, Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma 2004
- Dr Maureen Concannon, The Sacred Whore: Sheela Goddess of the Celts The Collins Press 2004
- Joanne McMahon & Jack Roberts, The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide Mercier Press Ltd. Jul 2000
- James O'Connor, Sheela na gig 1991 Fethard Historical Society
- Dr Theresa Oakley and Dr Alex Woodcock The Romanesque Corbel Table at St John's, Devizes and its Sheela na gig (The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine Volume 99 2006)
- Margaret Murray. "Female Fertility Figures" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. LXIV 1934
- Starr Goode and Miriam Robbins Dexter. "Sexuality, the Sheela na gigs, and the Goddess in Ancient Ireland." ReVision, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Summer 2000): 38-48
- Miriam Robbins Dexter and Starr Goode. "The Sheela na gigs, Sexuality, and the Goddess in Ancient Ireland." Irish Journal of Feminist Studies 4 (2), Mary Condren, ed., 2002, 50-75.