A Sheela na Gig1 is a medieval stone carving of a naked woman with her legs spread wide. In more prudish days their descriptions were relegated to the footnotes of antiquarian journals, but they now attract general interest.
The Carvings and their Locations
The carved stones can range from 1/2 to 1 metre in height. The figure is of a naked woman with her legs spread wide, often holding her vulva open with her hands. The rest of the figure may be quite thin-looking, sometimes with the ribs clearly showing. The quality of the carving is often primitive, and centuries of weathering have obscured the detail on many of the surviving examples.
Most Sheela na Gigs are found in Ireland, set into the walls of churches (or occasionally castles). Their age is usually taken as that of the buildings in which they are found, dating from the 12th to the 16th Century, but it is possible that some of the carvings were older, and moved to these sites. There are a number at sites in Britain, and some more scattered examples in continental Europe, mostly along the old pilgrimage routes.
What about the Name?
The name Sheela na Gig appears to have first been used to describe one of these carvings in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in the 1840s. Two different derivations from the Irish language have been suggested. It may derive from the Irish Síle na gCioch ('old lady of the breasts') - the problem with this idea is that the breasts are rarely very obvious in the carving. A more likely origin is from Síle ina Ghuib ('old lady on her hunkers2'). It was probably originally a local name for one particular carving, but the term became widely used by antiquaries and archaeologists. Even the English examples are now known by this Irish name.
What Do they Mean?
There are a number of conflicting theories as to why the Sheela na Gigs were carved, and why they were usually placed in churches.
A Warning against Lust, or a Protection from Evil
The carvings may have been intended as a warning against lust, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This interpretation was favoured by many 19th Century writers, who considered the pose to be shameless and the women to be skinny old hags. One argument against this theory is the presence of these carvings on a number of Irish castles, as opposed to the churches where the ascetic monastic ideas held sway.
Other commentators, also impressed by the scary aspect of these skinny hags, thought that the Sheela na Gigs were a symbol to ward off evil. The obscure locations of some of the carvings, high up on church or castle walls, appeared to support this theory.
A Survival of a Pre-Christian Goddess
Other modern commentators believe that the Sheela na Gig is a surviving image of a strong pre-Christian goddess. In Ireland, a number of religious symbols were assimilated into the early Christian tradition. Local deities became Christian saints, and some sacred sites became 'holy wells' associated with these saints. It is possible that Sheela na Gigs are a similar assimilation. One argument against this is that in Ireland they are found in Norman churches, rather than the earlier Celtic Christian sites.
The graphic pose of a Sheela na Gig makes a striking contrast to the modest nude Eve of religious paintings, with her fig leaf and downcast eyes. A number of contemporary artists, including the Irish Fiona Marron, have used Sheela na Gig images to challenge traditional ideas of the female nude, and to emphasize female strength and independence.
To many people nowadays, the Sheela na Gig has a powerful significance as a goddess figure, a subject for meditation, or a symbol to be used on amulets.
In an ironic reflection of changing attitudes, the Sheela na Gig, once seen as scandalous, in Sligo town has become just another name for another Irish pub.
Some Places to See a Sheela na Gig
- The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin
- Cavan County Museum, Cavan, Ireland
- Fethard, County Tipperary, Ireland
- Bunratty Castle, County Clare, Ireland
- Church Stretton, Holdgate, and Tugford, Shropshire, UK
- Kilpeck, Herefordshire, UK