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Sheela-na-gig Theories

Sheela-na-gigs are female exhibitionist carvings found on walls, abbeys, convents, churches, pillars and other structures in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, as well as in other parts of Europe. They come in many different shapes and sizes, but all share the same characteristic of a prominent and often enlarged genitals, often held open by the figure's hands. Most date from the middle ages.

Unfortunately, no literature survives from medieval times to give us clues as to why these explicit figures were carved and why they were placed so often on religious edifices. We have only the musings of Victorian and modern scholars to guide us in deciphering sheela's mysteries.

The name "sheela-na-gig" was most likely derived from the Irish language. The two most common translations are "Sile na gCioch" ("sheela of the breasts") or "Sile-ina-Giob" ("sheela on her hunkers"). In the Encyclopedia of Sacred Sexuality, Rufus Camphausen notes that in Mesopotamia the term "nu-gug" ("the pure and immaculate ones") referred to the sacred temple harlots, and he postulates that the name may somehow have had its origins there. Kathryn Price Theatana outlines an interesting etymological study of the name on her website-- well worth a look.

Interpretations of the figures generally fall into four main categories: fertility icons, warnings against sins of the flesh, representations of a figure from the old Celtic goddess trinity, and protection from evil. I will touch very briefly on these theories below--for further reading please see Bibliography

Fertility

At first glance, it is easy to think that these figures, with their enlarged and prominent genitalia, are some type of fertility fetish. Most shorter blurbs, encyclopedia entries, and guidebooks refer to them simply as "fertility figures". As Kathryn Price Theatana so eloquently writes:

" 'Fertility Figure' (is usually) archaeological and anthropological shorthand for "we have no idea." Often applied dismissively to any female figurine about which insufficient research has been done. Or, to paraphrase Judy Grahn, 'Fertility [Figure]' is one of those generalized terms used to vaguely describe what is imprecisely understood.'"

Most fertility figures around the world conform to the "Willendorf model" ; with young, ample bodies, nurturing faces, and full (and often multiple) breasts. It is difficult to believe that these figures of crones, with their fearsome, haglike appearance, and scrawny (or nonexistent) breasts were meant to represent procreative forces.

But regardless of the reason these mysterious figures were erected by medieval people, I find it fascinating the uses sheela-na-gigs have been put to in the centuries since. There is no doubt that these figures have been used in fertility contexts. The shrine and rubbings around the Kilsarkan figure point to this. Monica Bates told me a story about an artist who was traveling around Ireland looking for sheela-na-gigs. When she came to one town, she was told that the local sheela was "in use". When she enquired what that meant, she was told that when the local women were giving birth, they would place the figure behind their shoulders to ensure an easy delivery!

Warning against the sin of lust

In Images of Lust, Weir and Jerman argue that "the female exhibitionist is...the fruit of an unbelievable misogyny" (22). They postulate that taken in the architectural and religious contexts of the Middle Ages, sheela-na-gigs were not used as fertility or apotropaic fetishes. Rather, they maintain that "sheela-na-gigs and related exhibitionists are arguably iconographic images whose purpose was to give visual support to the Church's moral teachings" (10). In effect, these figures were intended to put people off sex, and to show that eternal damnation awaited those who succumbed to the sin of lust. Weir and Jerman continue, "masons were directed to use whatever imagery seemed best fitted to combat the frailties of the human race, to depict human behaviour at its worst, and not to be too fastidious in their efforts to vilify Woman, the cause of the Fall of Man" (22).

It is indeed reasonable to assume that some female exhibitionist carvings, particularly those along medieval pilgrimage routes, were erected to warn good Catholics against sins of the flesh. This is particularly true of the figures found on churches with carvings that depict (often quite explicitly) other mortal sins (such as Kilpeck). For a fascinating and thorough look at such figures, particularly those in France and Spain, Weir and Jerman's book is a terrific resource.

However, although many of the sheelas may have been erected as a result of the "incredible misogyny" that Weir and Jerman describe, I find it interesting that in recent years, many modern women in Ireland and around the world have adopted sheela-na-gigs as a symbol of feminism and female power. In the Lammas 1996 issue of the Beltane Papers, artist Fiona Marron describes the essence of sheelas as "a celebration of womanhood and fertility in Life, Death, and Rebirth wrapped in the web of our ancient past." In Sheela-na-gigs: Their Origins and Functions Dr. Eamonn Kelly writes, "More recently the images have come to be regarded in a positive light. By some they are seen as a symbol of Irishness and by others, particularly Irish feminists, they are a symbol of active female power." And a women's bookshop named "Sheela-na-gig" served Galway's feminists for many years.

I find it deliciously ironic that modern women have gotten the "last word" on the interpretation of sheela-na-gigs. Despite the fact that the figures may have been created under the tyranny of medieval misogynistic Catholicism, modern women have reclaimed the figure as a symbol of strength and independence.

"Womb as tomb"

One of my favorite theories was shared with me by Sligo Artist Michael Quirke. He believes that the sheela image is the third in the Celtic goddess trinity of maiden-mother-crone. In her aspect as the crone, she invites the hero back into her womb to death. Through this stark figure, we are reminded that we are all born of Mother Earth, and we will all return to the earth in death (through the same "door"--the womb of the earth).

In this aspect, sheela-na-gig is very like the Indian deity Kali, goddess of death. Depictions of Kali are often even more fearsome than sheela-na-gigs. In addition to having withered breasts, fierce visages and visibly empty wombs, Kali figures often wear garlands of human skulls!

Protection from evil

Another theory holds that sheela-na-gig images were erected to provide protection from malevolent forces, such as the evil eye. In his entry on "Yoni Magic" in The Encyclopedia of Sacred Sexuality, Rufus Camphausen notes that the yoni (vagina) has ben held my many cultures around the world as "imbued with protective and healing energies" (255). He continues, "Not only was "flashing the yoni at the devil known as a fail-safe method to hinder his approach, but more generally it was seen as a means to avert evil forces such as the evil eye. The high esteem in which the ancients--on quite a universal scale--held this "yoni power" is well documented" (256).

Jorgen Anderson devotes the final chapter of The Witch on the Wall to the apotropaic powers of female exhibition, drawing on examples from India, Nepal, Ptolemaic Egypt, Palau, New Guinea, and Russia, as well as the writings of Sigmund Freud. In the first two chapters of the book, Anderson recounts several stories describing the belief of Irish country folk in the apotropaic powers of the display of female organs. He writes, "...the figures of displayed women on churches had something to do with an ancient custom of averting ill luck. A man afflicted by that might turn to a certain class of females, who would display themselves, in order to avert evil and bring about good luck" (23).

It seems likely that many sheelas were erected to ward off evil. This seems especially true for figures on walls, near doorways, on secular buildings, or high on castles out of sight of passersby (and therefore not likely to have been created to teach a moral lesson). Examples of such sheelas include Doon, Cashel, Fethard Abbey and Wall, and Ballynahinch.

I am of the opinion that ALL of the theories might be true. It is very difficult to lump all the different sheelas, often erected centuries apart, in nearly a dozen different countries, on many different types of structures, into one simple interpretation. It is certain that they will provide inspiration for art and arguments for centuries to come!


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copyright 2000 Tara McLoughlin