by Jack Roberts
(originally published at Lughnasa 1995)
Sheela-na-Gigs are religious carvings of women, special women, the symbolical representation of femininity and/or actual female deities or Goddesses. They were placed on churches, castles and other important buildings of the medieval period and, until quite recently in some instances, they acted as dedicatory or protective symbols promoting good luck and fertility.
But their meaning goes much deeper and the fact that they were erected over the doorways of churches and castles and otherwise placed invery prominent positions suggests that they were a very potent and powerful image, obviously the primary religious belief of the people of that era of christianity.
Sheela-na-Gigs are directly related to earlier Goddess/Fertility figurines and the Goddess symbolism of the early pre-historic and Celtic periods. It is not certain how old the tradition may be or the precise age of some of the earliest examples but it appears that the Sheela-na-Gig as we know it made its appearance during the latter part of the Early Christian (or Celtic Christian) period and they were still being erected during the later Middle Ages. It is thought that the motif was still being used in its traditional form into the 1600s or even later. But by the 17th and 18th centuries the attitude towards them drastically altered in keeping with the new order of the post-reformation church which repeatedly castigated them from the pulpit until they were nearly all removed from their places of former glory.
It is known that there were over 140 Sheela-na-Gigs in Britain and Ireland, about 80 of which can be found still in their original locations, mostly on old churches or other religious structures. More than 20 are known to have gone missing since records were made of them and the rest are in various locations, mostly in museums. Many of the earliest Sheela-na-Gigs were erected upon churches and other religious buildings that were specifically related to women such as the Nuns Chapel at Clonmacnoise in Ireland and two churches dedicated to St Helen in Yorkshire. In Ireland it is common for the sacred name for woman Catherine/Cathleen to be associated with the Sheela-na-Gigs.
By the time that the first investigators began to take notice of them, in the early years of the last century, there were, in most areas, very few left to act as reminders of what the church had once stood for. The old churches on which they had been erected had themselves begun to fall down and only a vague memory of what they originally represented remained amongst the people. People began referring to them as 'ugly', 'grotesque', 'obscene' or, worse, they were derided and facile attempts were made to account for them and it was forgotten that originally they were placed right above the church doorway.
A great many of the Sheela-na-Gigs were defaced or deliberately damaged, some even in this century, and there is one example that was discovered after having been tossed into a river in Ireland only about 20 years ago.
One of the greater mysteries of the Sheelas is that whilst the negative aspects of their sexuality have been emphasised and the role of 'warning against the sins of the flesh' assigned to them, it seems very odd that people have gone to the trouble of removing or defacing them,for if their purpose is to warn us against sin then surely the most pious thing to do is to leave them alone.
Age, Origins and Distribution
Sheela-na-Gigs represent a late resurgence of Goddess imagery that blossomed during the relatively late and nominally christian era of the late Early Christian Period (5th - 11th or 12th centuries). This was the period when the British Isles were being taken over by the Normans, the 'Lords' of Normandy, the mercenaries of the church of Rome, who drastically restructured the old political and religious systems, ousted the old Gaelic/Celtic church and instituted the new order. The Normans however were quickly integrated into the British/Irish cultures and this was also a period known for its 'celtic revivalism'.
The Sheela-na-Gig is an ancient image which had been in use in various forms since pre-historic times. During the period up to the close of the Early Christian era it was used sparingly and specifically, then they suddenly they occur all over the place - first on churches and always in a totally religious context, and then later on castles and other structures of the supposedly 'christian' Normans.
This sudden outburst of imagery is one of the essential mysteries of the Sheela-na-Gigs, this flowering of a specifically Goddess-oriented art form during the time when the last vestiges of the ancient Goddess-oriented world were being eradicated, and all the pagan aspects of the earlier church were being heavily censored by the church authorities throughout Europe. Sheela-na-Gigs appear at this time as an emblem of the former position of women in the older systems, a last defiant image portrayed on the churches at the time when any power that women held within the old religious and political systems was being radically stolen away.
It is not known precisely when the practice of carving Sheela-na-Gigs began or of just how widespread it was in pre-christian and early christian times but for various reasons there was a resurgence of the art form at the beginning of the medieval period and the practice spread rapidly during the 11th-12th centuries. This was the period when Romanesque art and architecture flourished on the continent and spread to Britain and Ireland. Although, of course, it affected all religious architecture throughout the whole of the lands which came within the control of the new church empire, Romanesque art and architecture had its main expression on the continent in the areas from which it originated.
There are many more examples of Sheela-na-Gigs in Ireland than in the rest of the British Isles but we may never know how many were removed from the earlier churches of both countries or the exact distribution of the figures. It may well be that relatively few have managed to survive in their original situations, but of course it is unlikely that we will ever know the true extent of their original distribution.
In parts of Ireland, where today the greatest number of examples can be found, it is quite possible that nearly every building of importance may have once been adorned with a Sheela-na-Gig. The fact that so few survive in the northern areas of Ireland and that there are only three known examples in Scotland may be very relevant, for the record shows that out of the 11 examples listed for Ulster only 3 are known to be in their original situations.
In 1919 one of the most reknowned historians of the day, R A S Macalister, stated that Sheela-na-Gigs 'seem to be survivals into Christianity of a perverted representation of one of the most important gods of paganism'. Apart from wondering how he construed them to be male deities, it is however an important statement about the fundamental derivation of the Sheelas as they constitute survivals of postures, styles and most importantly symbolism, which was fundamental to the older religions.
Tradition and Folklore
There was probably a great deal of local folklore attached to the Sheela-na-Gigs, or at least those snippets of the former local lore recorded by early investigators show that, had they delved deeper, they would undoubtedly have encountered a great deal more than that which was reported. But even from that which was actually passed down to us we can ascertain that they were very highly regarded and the centre of a great deal of devotional attention. The figures were very often given names or were commonly referred to as the 'Hag' or the 'Idol' and were regarded with the utmost respect, if not awe. Many were considered to have powers of healing and, above all, perhaps the ability to turn the 'evil eye'.
As an instance of what we may have lost in relation to the lore of the Sheela-na-Gig one researcher, Anderson, cited the fact that the local name for a Sheela-na-Gig in the Macrocoom district of County Cork was directly related to the local wise woman, otherwise known as the 'Hag', who obviously carried on weaving her spells and doing her cures despite church intervention. In fact she exists even into the present day. Then he went right to the point by recording the fact that Johann Kohl, a German visitor with a keen eye for the mysterious who travelled around Ireland in the 1840s, had discovered that country people often went to the wise woman if they wanted to avert ill luck, a malady that still seriously afflicts country people to this day, and that one of her main methods of averting the 'evil eye' was apparently to expose herself to the victim.
It is easy to see why the early researchers did not delve too deeply into the mystery of the Sheela-na-Gigs, but the hushed reference to them was obviously necessary since at the time they were trying to get to the bottom of the subject the clergy and other pious people were busily removing these embarassments from their churches and holy places.
Andersen made a particular point of referencing several examples of rubbing clearly visible on Sheelas, particularly the figure at Castlemagner in Ireland, which is still being rubbed to the present day. This figure is unusual since it is not displaying the vagina very prominently but other figures express a very common practice of rubbing the sacred centre of ancient feminine power itself, the vulva, and it is probably that all such Sheelas, or those within reach of the pilgrims that is, would have been touched or rubbed in this way. The power of the actual dust from the figure was held to have special magical healing powers.
As dedicatory symbols bestowing good fortune or as 'good luck' charms Sheela-na-Gigs symbolise 'fertility and fecundity'. But this is only one aspect of their function and several factors suggest that there is something more to their symbology than just reproductivity.
The majority are shown either holding, touching or pulling apart the vagina, accentuating the focus on this part of the anatomy and when we look at what they are pointing to we are surprised to see that the sexual organs are often shown in rather startling detail. Sheela-na-Gigsare essentially symbolic representations, stylistic rather than representational, but researchers have often commented on this careful portrayal of the part of the genital anatomy not directly involved in reproduction at all, such as the clitoris and the structure of the labia, in some even the anus.
Goddess figurines throughout history seldom emphasise such features and most usually illustrate fertility by over-emphasising the main procreative features such as the belly and the breasts, leaving out the sexual organs entirely. Many Sheelas have sagging breasts or look so lean that their ribs are showing. In fact only a few look robust enough to be symbols of fertility but these are too rare to establish a context for the group as a whole. But according to Rutherford, a writer on the Sheelas, the gods and goddesses of the celtic world often looked ugly 'to impress mortals with their power' and he interprets such symbolism as the position of the legs, the 'jig' (or one-legged stance) and the staring eyes as being 'the stance of the magician'.
The vulva, the entrance to the womb, is a powerful and evocative symbol regarded with great reverence by virtually all ancient cultures and considered as having great power by some even in the present day. Folklore and tradition, especially in Ireland, is full of references to the power of women, and the power of woman in her nakedness is inherent throughout the myths. The great champion of Ulster, Cuchullain, had a geis (a taboo) that he could not lay his eyes on the sight of a naked woman and the folk-healer who averted the 'evil eye' by exposing herself was no doubt following a tradition which went back into pre-historic times. It would not be surprising if we found out that she also stood on one leg and looked fearsome when performing the ceremony.
Perhaps we will never quite be sure why the Sheela-na-Gigs are depicted as they are; after all if they represent an entire mythology about an individual deity each one could relate to a whole series of stories. In the Sheela-na-Gigs we can see many aspects of womanhood, and as Goddesses related to the traditional mythologies they too could have had many aspects, several personifications. Maybe some individual Sheelas might even depict them all?