The Sheela Na Gig

The Sheela Na Gig

by Charles E. S. Fairey, 2014

The Sheela Na Gig

Sheela na gigs’ are representative stone carvings of a naked female figure which displays a woman’s genitals. They most often depict an old hag-like female figure squatting whilst holding her vulva apart with her hands, often an overtly sexual image, but with a grotesque or comical expression and form.

They are mostly found in Western and Central Europe, but especially in Ireland (which has the most examples), Britain, France and Spain. These carvings which are often classed as architectural grotesques, along with Green Men, are mostly found on religious edifices, but sometimes on other buildings, such as castles and houses.

They are most prevalent on Norman Romanesque buildings, as almost all of the surviving in situ examples exist in areas that have historic Anglo-Norman conquest, but they do sometimes appear on later buildings, often more heavily weathered than the surrounding stone, indicating that they have been rebuilt into the later structures, although there are a few examples that do post date the Anglo-Norman conquest.

Many scholars believe that these figures were popularised by pilgrims travelling on the pilgrimage routes in Continental Europe, and it is these travellers who brought these designs back with them to Britain and Ireland, and thus the design of these Continental forms made their way into the minds of the medieval masons, who re-created them, and thus spread them throughout Western and Central Europe.

A 12th Century ‘Sheela Na Gig’ at Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire (left) &

‘The Whore and Green Man of Kilpeck’ by Michael ‘Jarl’ Oakes 2012 (right)

The most widely known ‘Sheela na gig’ is that of Kilpeck Church in Herefordshire, which appears on the Southern external wall carved into a corbel or bracket below the roof, between the ornate Romanesque Doorway and the semi circular Chancel, mingling with many other ornately carved figures.

The name for these figures was first coined between 1840 and 1844 in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy’ from a local name for one such stone carved depiction at a Church in Rochestown in County Tipperary, Ireland. However there were many different local names for these figures, before modern scholars applied the name of ‘Sheela na gig’ to all of the similarly viewed examples, and hence the name has become popular since.

The original local names often revealed what the locals thought they represented, and their differing design aspects, for other examples across Ireland and Britain, were named ‘The Idol’, ‘The Witches Stone’, ‘The Nun on the Potty’, ‘The Whore of Kilpeck’, ‘The Devil Stone’, ‘The Hag of the Castle’, ‘The Clunch Stone’, ‘Freya’, and ‘St Inghean Bhaoith’, amongst many others.

There has also been much debate as to what is and isn’t a ‘Sheela na gig’, with scholars often arguing over the interpretation of different depictions.

Another modern term has been coined for these figures, although it just doesn’t have that same ring to it, as a ‘Sheela na gig’, so hasn’t caught on, which is the less musical, ‘exhibitionist motif’.

These carvings have inspired many theories as to why they appear on churches and other buildings at all, considering the inherited Victorian Puritan views of obscenity and rudeness, and the condemnation of anything which depicted the naked body, never mind the female and her genitalia.

There has been much argument about what they exactly represent and what they meant to medieval onlookers. Another problem complicates any one theory due to there being so many figures, all differing in detail and design aspect, which makes it very difficult to formulate one explanation for all of them.

In Cheshire, there are a few examples of ‘Sheela na gigs’, depicted upon carvings on historic church buildings. There are examples at St Edith’s Church at Shocklach, St Oswald’s Church at Malpas, St Margaret’s Church in Wrenbury, St James the Great’s Church at Gawsworth, and St Stephen’s Church at Macclesfield.

‘Sheela na gigs’ at St Edith’s, Shocklach; St Oswald’s, Malpas;

and St Margaret’s, Wrenbury

What Do They Represent?

The many theories for their existence, as well as some of my own inventions, are:-

  • that they are to ward off evil, like other grotesques upon the exterior of churches, and are often found near openings, thus protecting them from entering the House of God;

  • that they are remnants of pagan worship, and are fertile in nature representing the mother goddess, such as the Celtic goddess ‘Cailleach’, who is hag-like, carved by masons carrying on this tradition, (some of the figures have large pendulum like breasts, are plump, and have long flowing hair) or being reincorporated into Christian buildings from pagan origins, (however the latter seems unlikely considering their medieval architectural styles);

  • “that they warn the young unmarried girls or women against copulation and the making of a child, scaring them from illegitimate conception (a few example figures do appear opposite male figures)” – [C.E.S. Fairey 2014];

  • “or that they represent the fallen woman and therefore their banishment from the church, and warn them that they must give up their life of sin, or that even fallen women may find solace and forgiveness inside the church’s walls, convert to a life without sin, and its subsequent salvation, (possibly linking them with Mary of Egypt who was denied access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, until she served penance and was forgiven and gained entrance. She is often depicted as a tanned old emaciated woman with unkempt grey hair, like some ‘Sheela na gigs’ depicted with unkempt hair, or bald, with small or none existent breasts, exposed ribs and scars upon their faces)” - [C.E.S. Fairey 2014];

  • that they represent the exposing of a woman’s genitals to stop men fighting or to scare away devils, (in some folklore traditions it is said that the devil cannot bear the sight of a woman’s sexual organs);

  • that they are fertility symbols or birthing stones, which help the newly married woman conceive, or give birth through painful labour or to ease the pain of childbirth, respectively, (some ‘Sheela na gigs’ are still rubbed by women’s hands today, as in the past this superstition was used, to give them the luck to conceive);

  • or “that they are Christian fertile symbols, representing the miraculous birth of a son, Isaac, to Abraham by Sarah, who was old and barren and thought no longer able to conceive” – [C.E.S. Fairey 2014];

  • that they give a morality warning to people about the sins of lust, the sins of the flesh, and / or the sinful corruption of man by woman, i.e. the Adam and Eve Bible story, and humanity’s casting out, (this is evidenced by a church in Europe where the figure is surrounded by a depiction of hell, and the accompanying text “Let this be a warning to you”, and we must remember that the population was largely illiterate in the medieval period, and images within churches served as pictorial morality lessons, the services were often in Latin, which the majority of folk didn’t have literate access to);

  • they represent the vulva as the gateway and divide between the netherworld and world of life, (which may symbolise the Virgin and her immaculate conception, many stained glass windows depict Christ in front of a vulva shaped form);

  • that they are mason’s jokes, depicting vulgar and obscene creatures upon the outside and sometimes inside of religious buildings, some of which are ‘Sheela na gigs’, (however there are so many of these carvings across Western and Continental Europe that it seems improbable that they would create satirical images mocking Christianity, whilst working and being paid by the religious authorities, as well as believing in their work and the Christian ideal of life, to get away with such, that is so blatant, consistent and in large number, this explanation seems wholly improbable);

  • that they are the female counterpart to the ‘Green Man’, (however this explanation is not evidenced by any connections between the two different symbols, as all grotesques have many different forms and seldom do they occupy spaces together, and in a great number, to suggest such a link);

  • or that they are just the same as Grotesques and Gargoyles, to scare and intimidate evil spirits or those wishing the Church harm, (however this explanation seems incorrect, when many ‘Sheela na gigs’ are cheerful and smiling);

  • that they represent a spiritual continuity with the past, i.e. they were incorporated into the new religion and its buildings to incorporate Celtic deities and beliefs, and therefore convert the pagan peoples, and to adopt the spirituality essence of the place, or incorporate the pagan sanctity of the church site, and give a foundation to the new religion within the minds of the pagan, ready for conversion, (however this seems unlikely as they all mainly date to the Anglo-Norman Conquest period and their later dominance, and not in earlier structures);

  • that they are a continuation of the prehistoric ‘Baubo’ figurines, and thus the continuation of the worship of The Goddess, (this too, is rather unlikely due to the reverence to the triple aspect of the Goddess being a somewhat recent invention, and hangs on to a more poetic rather than an actual historic reality);

‘Baubo’ Type Figurines and other Representations of The Goddess

created by Clive Barrett (Greenman and Gatekeeper Shop, Forest of Dean)

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Nowadays they are thought as funny and cheeky, whereas in the medieval period they had a serious message, albeit lost to the mists of time, and have become a thing of fascination, much like the ‘Green Man’. As with the ‘Green Man’, there are so many theories about the ‘Sheela na gig’, some of which are outlined above, with not one theory being agreed by everyone to represent what these mysterious figures truly represent, leading to much conjecture and head scratching.

However in the past as well as in the modern age, they have been vandalised by pious clergy and the public, who view them as obscene depictions upon holy buildings, signifying that their true message has been forgotten, especially since the dissolution, outlawing of Catholicism, puritanical rule, and Victorian values inherited from the puritans. This has meant that the ‘Sheela na gig’ has given over to either harmless and humorous fascination to hateful persecution, forgetting that their original message must have been serious and part of the holy fabric of the teaching of the largely illiterate Christian congregations of medieval Europe, and thus should not be viewed with disdain, destroyed or thought to be comical, as our ancestors knew what they meant, and we should respect that and remember that it is us, who may have lost the true secret to which they allude.