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You’ll see them around Europe – sculptures of old women squatting down, sometimes gleeful, pulling open their exaggerated vulvas. It’s a brazen image that fascinates and shocks at the same time. These are the Sheela na gigs.
But what are they? Who made them? And what do they represent?
Who is Sheela Na Gig?
Most Sheela na gig figures that have been discovered come from Ireland, but many have also been found in other parts of mainland Europe, including Great Britain, France, and Spain. They appear to have their origins in the 11th century.
Some historians speculate that the sheela na gigs may have originated in France and Spain and spread to Britain and Ireland with the 12th-century Anglo-Norman conquest. But there is no consensus and no one really knows when and where these figures were first created.
What’s interesting, however, is that most of these naked female figures are found on or in Romanesque churches, with a few found in secular buildings. The sculptures themselves appear to be a lot older than the churches, as they’re more worn out compared to the rest of the building.
Sheela Na Gig and Christianity
So, what do these women with exposed genitalia have to do with churches, which have traditionally suppressed and controlled female sexuality, seeing it as dangerous and sinful? It’s likely that originally, they had nothing to do with churches. They were mainly found in rural areas and evidence exists that priests, especially in Ireland, tried to destroy them.
Perhaps the churches had been erected over older structures, and the local Sheela na gig figures were added to the buildings to make it easier for the locals to accept the new religious beliefs.
Again, we don’t really know.
Although the sculptures themselves are old, the first known mention of the name Sheela na gig in relation to the sculptures is as recent as 1840. But even the name is a mystery, as no one knows its origins and history.
Symbolism of Sheela na Gig
The Sheela na gig is overtly sexual, but she’s also exaggerated, grotesque and even comical.
In most of Ireland and Great Britain, she is a solitary figure, looking over windows and doorways.
Many researchers believe that the Sheela na gig is a part of Romanesque religious imagery, used as a warning against the sin of lust. This view is supported to some extent by the existence of a male counterpart also showing his genitalia. But some scholars find this explanation absurd, as the figures are placed so high up that it’s not easy to see them. If they were there to deter people from lust, wouldn’t they be placed in an easier to see location?
But there are other theories as to the Sheelas meaning.
The sculptures could also have been viewed as a talisman against evil, used to protect the churches and buildings they were placed at. The belief that a woman’s exposed genitals can scare off demons has existed since ancient times. It was common practice to carve the Sheelas above gates, doorways, windows, and other entrances.
Some believe that the Sheela na gig is a fertility symbol, with the exaggerated vulva a sign of life and fertility. Speculations exist that figurines of Sheela na gig were presented to expecting mothers and given to brides on the day of the wedding.
But if so, why does the upper body of the figures belong to a frail old woman who wouldn’t typically be associated with fertility? Scholars see this as a symbol of mortality, reminding us that life and death go hand in hand.
Others theorize that Sheela na gig represents a pre-Christian pagan deity. The hag-like characteristics of the figure have been attributed to the Celtic Pagan Goddess Cailleach. As a renowned character in Irish and Scottish mythology, she is said to be the Goddess of Winter, the sculptor of the Irish lands.
However, all these are theories only and we can’t say for sure what the figure means.
Sheela na Gig Today
Today, the Sheela na gig has had a resurgence in popularity and has become a positive symbol of female empowerment. Her confidence and flagrant display have been interpreted by modern feminists as an unapologetic symbol of femininity and strength. There’s even a song about her by the English singer PJ Harvey.
Whatever its origins and symbolism, there’s something intriguing and powerful about the Sheela na gig in her unashamed and proud display. The fact that we know so little about her adds to her mystery.