Sheela-na-gig at the church of Balvourney, Ireland.
Sheela-na-gigs are representational carvings of naked women that exhibit exaggerated vulvae that are found on churches, castles and other structures particularly in Ireland and Britain. As grotesque architectural features they are sculptured figures that represent squatting naked women “…with vacant facial expressions, emaciated bodies, ravaged breasts, and exposed female organs.” (Ettlinger, 1974). As a deity little is known about these effigies but in Ireland they adorned the doors of early convents. Such attachments were removed by irate churchmen because she was shown holding her vulva wide open. Indeed, there was the widespread belief “…that to expose the genitalia of either sex acts as a powerful apotropaic gesture.” (Ross, 1973). Today sheela-na-gigs are regarded by Celtic pagans as representing feminine power and a goddess of regeneration.
Sheela-na-gig in Britain is roughly translated to mean “Woman of the Castle” and is peculiar to the British Isles compared to the long-tailed mermaid which is found in France and mainland Europe (Murray, 1934).Also known as Sheila na Cioch ( Sile na gCioch) or Sheila of the Breasts. Examples from Ireland are always distorted, incongruous and ugly females that usually have their hands arranged to manipulate the “…organ of fertility.” (Lawlor, 1931). These effigies are always frontally presented with legs spread wide apart. The hands are always situated in order to draw attention to the genitalia which are exaggerated in both position and size. However, unlike the genitalia the breasts are barely indicated, never more than normal and occasionally omitted altogether (Murray, 1934). An example is the sheela-na-gig on the corbel-table outside the Norman period Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire.
The sheela-na-gig at Kilpeck Church.
In this example the entire emphasis refers to the genitalia which are exaggerated out of all proportion. The arms are also unduly long, which pass under the legs, and likewise there are no breasts. In many respects this example resembles the sheela-na-gig which was once located on the tower of St Michael in the Northgate in Oxford (Murray, 1929).
2. Origin and Etymology
Etymologically the term sheela-na-gig has no meaning and its origin are a matter of dispute and conjecture. One theory is that they reached Ireland and Britain during the 12th century from 11th century France and Spain. Those effigies that still exist in situ occur in the Anglo-Norman areas following the conquest of the 12th century. Because sheela-na-gig is not directly translatable into Irish many scholars challenge the meaning and origin of the term in Ireland. Alternatives include Sheila, Sila, and Sile (Freitag, 2004). The name was first published, in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in 1840-1844, as a local name with reference to a carving on a gable wall in Rochestown in Tipperary.
Sheela-na-gig at Rochestown, Tipperary.
Also in 1840 the name was recorded about a figure on Kiltanan Castle (Andersen, 1977). In Irish sheela-na-gig was either Sighla na gCioch or ‘the old hag of the breasts’, plus Sile ina Giob meaning ‘Sheila on her hunkers’. Therefore the term Sigla na gcfoch is anglicised to sheela-na-gig which means ‘Sheela of the breasts’ (Guest, 1937). It has been stated moreover that Sile na gCloi means a “…stone fetish representing a woman, supposed to give fertility…thought to have been introduced by the Normans.” (Dineen, 1927).
Sheela-na-gig at Kiltanan Castle, Tipperary.
3. Divine Hag or Pagan Goddess?
The divinity of the Sheela-na-gig is assumed, and her divinity is attributed because her effigies are invariably found on Christian churches (Murray, 1934), as well as in numbers greater than usually assumed. In popular terms the character and female role of the Sheela-na-gig has bee subjected to numerous interpretations, in including derivation from a powerful and fierce goddess (Ross, 1973).. The association with the mother-goddess is derived from the idea of the divine hag of the ancient pagan Celts (Concannon, 2004). The assumed Celtic identity or origin is associated with the hag-like persona of the Irish and Scottish mythological cailleach. The figure at Oaksey is built outside the north wall of the church some 9 feet from the ground. It has been suggested that the carvings are “…usually found in churches and are probably the remains of a fertility cult.” (Murray, 1925). At Oaksey the date of the earliest work within the church is from the second quarter of the 13th century. The figure is 13 inches tall and 6 inches wide having clearly marked ribs on its attenuated body. It is suggested that this sheela-na-gig is pre-Christian in origin though many carvings must date to the initial centuries of Christianity (Ross, 1973).
Sheela-na-gig at Oaksey, north Wiltshire.
However, for some scholars there is little to link the Sheela-na-gig to pagan origins or as a divine hag (Freistag, 2004), despite its continuing theoretical popularity. Questions have been raised concerning the Sheela-na-gig as an old woman, as a fertility goddess because few of them are shown with breasts (Dineen, 1927). Moreover, most Sheela-na-gigs are diametrically opposed to the usual ‘erotic ‘ images of fertility goddesses (Ettlinger, 1974). The carvings of the Sheela-na-gigs are neither erotic nor pornographic but show in reality an evil averting and fertility significance (Ross, 1973). This is certainly reflected carvings on churches of the post-pagan era. In the mythology of ancient Ireland the Sheela-na-gig parallels the goddess who bestowed the kingship on the supplicant hero. In this role she appears initially as a lustful hag and is thence transformed into a beautiful maiden when the hero succumbs (Andersen, 1977).
4. Folklore, Cult, and Warning.
Evidence from folklore provides evidence that Sheela-na-gigs may have functioned in a fertility ritual context. With regard to folklore and Sheela-na-gigs the traces “…attached to them in England are hard to find, but survivals of ancient faiths are less remote in Ireland.” (Guest, 1937). Some of the effigies were loaned out as part of wedding traditions, whereas some plumb sheela’s were seen as a sexual relation to a partner. In Oxford at the church of St Michael at the Northgate the Sheela-na-gig was shown to brides on their wedding day (Murray, 1934).
The Sheela-na-gig in the church of St Michel in the Northgate, Oxford.
The Oxford Sheela-na-gig was situated on the west side of the tower at the level of the third floor, at the church of St Michael at the Northgate. The effigy, now on view within the church, is 12 inches square and 5 inches deep. It is a crudely carved female figure which was originally sited over the gate, above the roof of the old Bocardo prison (Martin, 1929). Even so there is no known record of the carving, but the age of the tower which is disputed, has Saxon traces. The figure does have great age even though there was no Oxford settlement before the 8th century. According to Ross (1973) this Sheela-na-gig may date from Oxford during the Roman period.
Theoretically Sheela-na-gigs have been described as pre-Christian remnants of the mother-goddess religion (McMahon, 2000). It has been stated that the Sheela-na-gigs are “…fertility figures, and are all female, in spite of the superficial appearances to the contrary in a few cases.” (Guest, 1937). In addition, the Sheela-na-gigs have been described as surviving examples of an association with phallic cults (Lawlor, 1931). Such examples being located at the site of ancient churches. It is a fact that early Christian texts show no discoverable trace of phallic cults, even though older churches are the inheritors of pre-Christian pagan worship sites (Lawlor, 1931).
One interpretation of Sheela-na-gigs, because of their church locations, is that they are warnings against the ‘sins of the flesh’. In other words they supposedly symbolised the sinful corruption of female lust. It does appear in this context that many ‘Sheilas’ are warnings of immoral behaviour demonising local women of ill-repute (Ettlinger, 1974). As warnings against lust the figures are believed to be a means of religious instruction. Attached to this belief is the idea that the ‘sheela’ motif migrated continentally along the pilgrim routes.
Sheela-na-gig on the church ruin on White Island in Loch Erne, County Fermanagh.
With regard to the protection against evil is the explanation of the presence of sheela-na-gigs on castle walls. Three examples can be seen at Savage’s Castle at Kirkston in Conty Down, with three built into the wall of Tinnkill Castle and reputedly erected by Colla MacDonnell in 1550. In Ireland some such effigies are referred to as ‘Evil Eye Stones’. An ‘evil eye’ stone is known at the Round Tower of Cashel in County Tipperary. Such carvings in their role of warding off death and evil are thus often positioned above windows and doors (Andersen, 1977), and indicate belief in apopotropaic magic, and in this context the effigies have become seen as ‘luck stones’ set into castle and building walls (Guest, 1937). At Shane’s Castle in Antrim is to be found a Sheela-na-gig called the ‘Luck Stone of the O’Neills.” Sheela-na-gigs as apotropaic magical fertility figures (Ross, 1973) are those with the added reputation of having power to avert the evil influence or bad luck .
The Sheela-na-gig has been regarded as a primal Celtic earth mother whose depictions may have been borrowed from French carvings of the Romanesque period. Certainly she is one of the few sculptures of ancient Irish deities that have survived into the Christian era. Even today an accurate or accepted explanation of their meaning has not been agreed. Some suggest she is an echo of a primordial mother goddess who pre-dates Christianity which reinforces the suggestion that “…in their earliest iconographic form they do in fact portray the territorial or war goddess in her hag-like aspect…” (Ross, 1973).
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