Philobiblon: Meet Sheela Na Gig

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Meet Sheela Na Gig

Thanks to a tip from a member of my online reading group, I found out about an unexpected side to Norman churches, Sheela na gigs, carvings of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva.

One suggestion is that this is a survival of pagan imagery, particularly perhaps in Ireland where a Celtic goddess was shown in a similar way. Another theory is that they were medieval morality figures, another that they represent the passageway to and from the afterlife. There's a sensible summary of the theories here.

There's a feminist, Mary Daly-style, article about them here. It says: "The reason for the adoption of Sheelas on secular buildings has been attributed to the Irish seeing them as a protective force, as noted by nineteenth-century researchers who “were told by local Irish people that Sheelas were intended to ward off evil.” This is reported along with a fascinating claim from a traveler in Ireland in the 1840s that, in order to lift a curse of bad luck, the afflicted should “persuade a loose woman to expose herself to him”.

Curious that such a widespread image (the first website has a long list and is collecting more) should be so little known and its history so unclear - but then perhaps not. Can't imagine Victorian historians talking about them, at least not without lapsing into Latin.

You can even buy a modern pendant reproduction here. It would certainly be a talking point.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow - that is some amazing information. almost too bizarre to believe. your site finds some fascinating ideas to ponder.

12/11/2004 05:24:00 pm  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

I see in my latest list from Oxbow Books in Oxford - of course - "Sheela-na-gigs: unravelling an enigma" by Barbara Freitag. I am unlikely to buy it or read it, but I thought that if it was in your local library....

12/15/2004 11:02:00 am  
Blogger Queenie said...

There are hundreds of Sheela na Gigs on Irish Celtic churches. They are usually positioned above the front door. they are traditionally seen as a charm to ward off evil, although historians/ archaeologists believe they might have some 'crossover' use, to entice the followers of the original, matriarchal religions into the 'new' churches.

Whatever they are, they are great, and a good reminder that Irish women weren't always as sexually repressed as they have been recently.

Great blog - keep up the good work

Queenie, Dublin

3/22/2005 05:24:00 pm  
Anonymous Penny R said...

There's a sheela-na-gig important to the plot in Lindsay Clarke's _Chymical Romance_, and a PJ Harvey song called "Sheela-na-gig," too.

3/28/2005 11:43:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I'll have to look out for the book - thanks!

3/29/2005 01:19:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the sheelas are not that hard to work out... fertility


11/16/2006 12:54:00 am  

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