Sheela na Gigs (or Sheela-na-Gigs) are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva pulled apart with their hands. They are found on churches, castles and other buildings in Ireland and Britain, sometimes together with male figures. A well-known example can be seen at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, England. 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 in Britain.
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. 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.
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. They are often positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.
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.
Eamonn Kelly 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". 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 still exists 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.
Ed O'Riordan has postulated that the name is a corruption of Gaelic words and one has to listen to the sound of the name rather than read it in order to understand it. A Gaelic speaker can hear the words 'Sheela na Gig' as being - in Gaelic - Sidhe Lena Gig. This is pronounced 'Shee Lena Gig'. Sidhe is the Gaelic for Fairy Woman. Lena is the Gaelic for 'with her' and Gig is the Gaelic for vagina. Sheela na Gig is thus 'Sidhe Lena Gig' and means 'Fairy Woman with her vagina.'
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.
List of variants
- Sheela ny Gigg
- Sile Ni Ghig
- Shila na Gigh
- Shela na gig
- Sheela na jig
- Seela of the jig
- Seela na gig
- Sheela na gich
- Sela na geich
- Sheela na Guira
- Sheela na gyg
- Sile na Giob
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 cover 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". 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). Frietag 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, "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 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. (Frietag 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 Anderson 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 the devil could be repelled by the sight of a woman's genitals. Andersen reproduces a plate from La Fontaine's Fables 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 where a potentialy 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.
A variation on the 'repelling evil spirits' theory is that the figures were carved and placed on the outside of buildings such as castles and churches to attract evil spirits away from the castle and church doors and thus prevent the evil spirits from entering the buildings.
There are also many other less well known names associated with the figures.
- The Idol Associated with the Binstead figure in the Isle of Wight. This is the oldest recorded name for a figure being 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). 'The Idol' name was also applied to the sheela in Lusk, County Dublin in Ireland. The Lusk figure (now missing, believed buried) was named as "a Danish Idol" by the 18th century antiquarian Austin Cooper in his diaries around 1783.
- The Saxon Idol Alternate local name for the Binstead sheela. The Saxon epithet possibly derives from the 1781 articles which states "it is vulgarly called the Idol but probably was one of those strange figures which Saxon or Norman architects commonly placed on keystones or friezes" .
- Julian the Giddy or Julia the Giddy Translation of Sheela na gig made by Thomas Wright in 1866. The translation to 'Julian' or 'Julia' is from the Irish 'Sile.'
- Julie la Giddy d'Angleterre Penned by G.J. Witkowski in L'Art profane a l'eglise: ses licences symboliques stayriques et fantaisistes (1908)
- Cathleen Owen Applied to a sheela at Moycarky Castle, Co. Tipperary. Refers to a local legend.
- St Gobonet or St Gobnat Ballvourney. An Irish female saint. The figure at Ballyvourney is included in a religious "pattern" made to venerate the saint.
- St Inghean Bhaoith Killnaboy figure, County Clare
- The Witches Stone Refers to a damaged figure from Newton Castle, Ireland.
- The Witch Cloghan Castle, County Offaly
- Peader Taidhg Buidhe or Peader T'ille Bhuidhe Another unexplained name for the Newton Castle figure
- The Nun on the Potty Applied to the Romsey abbey figure by local schoolchildren.
- The Whore of Kilpeck Applied to the Kilpeck figure
- The Water God Applied to the Croft on Tees figure. Local legend also holds that the figure once adorned a bridge.
- The Devil Stone Applied to the Copgrove figure.
- Evil eye stones Applied to various figures.
- The Hag of the Castle Applied to various figures.
- The Girl of the Paps
- Sheela of the Paps
- St Shanahan Dowth County Meath figure
- Sheila O'Dwyer
- The Clunch Stone Local name for the Easthorpe figure. Clunch refers to the material it is carved from.
- Freya Local name for the Pennington figure.
In contemporary culture
Sheelas have taken on a new meaning in modern popular culture and now represent liberated women. Sheela na Gigs are seen through modern eyes as being 'defiant' rather than 'deviant'.
- One of PJ Harvey's first song is called "Sheela Na Gig"
- Anthony Weir & James Jerman, Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches 1986
- Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles
- Joanne McMahon & Jack Roberts, The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide - contains comprehensive list of locations, and illustrations, of sheelas in Ireland and the U.K.
- Eamonn P. Kelly, Sheela-na-Gigs: Origins and Functions
- Dr Jørgen Andersen, The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Sculpture in the British Isles 1977
- Dr Maureen Concannon, The Sacred Whore Sheela Goddess of the Celts 2004
- Dr Barbara Freitag, Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma 2004
- James O'Connor, Sheela na gig 1991 Fethard Historical Society
- Margaret Murray. Female Fertility Figures. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. LXIV 1934
- Anne Ross. Pagan Celtic Britain 1967
- 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)
- SheelaNaGig.org - A guide to Sheela Na Gigs carvings and Sheela Na Gigs in the United Kingdom
- Goddess or Queen? - The enigmatic carving at Braunston-in-Rutland
- Ireland's Sheela Na Gigs A comprehensive guide to Irish Sheela Na Gigs
- Beyond the Pale by Anthony Weir A comprehensive guide to Sheela Na Gigs and male exhibitionist carvings by the co-author of "Images of Lust"
- Sheela Gallery
- "Sheela Na Gig" by PJ Harvey Lyrics to a song which mentions Sheela na Gig in the choruses.