Unless you’re from Ireland the chances are that you’ve never even heard of Sheila-na-Gig, though come to think of it, even if you are from Ireland you quite possibily never heard of her either. Sheila-na-Gig is a very curious and decidedly unique personage, quite unlike anyone else in Irish Celtic mythology or folklore, both in the way she is depicted and how she came to be. She is clearly pagan in origin, or at least apparently so at first sight, since everything about her indicates her pre-Christian Celtic nature, the crude manner in which she is drawn, the overt sexuality that seems to establish a link to fertility goddesses, earth mothers and the like. But not only is the sexual depiction unlike that of other pagan images, it is never found on anything dating from that era, which is curious enough in itself, and even more so is the fact that not only is she seen exclusively well into Christian times, seemingly bursting into prominence a century after even the Norse peoples had accepted the new faith, but is most commonly found in or around churches, though there are those carved on castles, holy wells, manor houses and other buildings as well.
Her image, carved into stone or made into statues, is always much the same, a naked woman with an oversized round head like a balloon, sitting, sometimes dancing though more often sitting with legs apart, and holding her huge, exaggerated vulva open, usually with both hands. While the sexual aspects of women were frequent subjects in pre-Christian art going back to the Stone Age, enlarged breasts or pregnant bellies a common feature of fertility deities, the almost obscene image of the Sheila-na-Gig stands out from the rest in the extremity of its sexual imagery. But more surprising than the vulgarity of her image is her association with the Christian church.This example of a Shelia-na-Gig comes from a 13th century church in Ballylarkin, County Kilkenny, sitting but using only one hand to display herself, and she’s quite well known, having been frequently seen in various publications. At the moment she resides in the basement of the National Museum of Ireland. Credit: Gabriel Cannon
The early church borrowed a great deal from paganism, many of the Christian festivals were simply pagan ones given a Christian veneer, presumably to help with the conversation of pagans, who might more readily accept these festivals if they occurred at the same time as their own, one’s they were used to, the church adding Christian doctrines to them, conversion by the clever use of psychology you might say, a good example being the Celtic goddess Brigid, who became the Christian Saint Brigid. But at no time did the early church adopt the overt sexual imagery of pagan fertility deities, even the only mildly suggestive ones, and certainly nothing on the scale of the extreme stance of Sheila-na-Gig – except in her case, where they did and quite extensively.
Her name comes from the Irish Gaelic Sile ná gCioch, ‘Julia of the Breasts’, though there is no record of it in old writings, the name first published in an architectural context in the 1840’s in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1840-44, and apparently that was simply a local name for one of these grotesque figures that used to be carved on a gable wall of the church in Rochestown, County Tipperary. There was also a reference to it by one John O’Donovan, working for the Ordinance Survey of Ireland, and that referred to one at Kiltinan Castle, County Tipperary. [Andersen, Jørgen, ‘The Witch on the Wall’ Rosenkilde & Bagger ISBN 978-87-423-0182-1] (1)
Jørgen Andersen also suggested two Irish phrases as a possible earlier origin, An Sigile na gCioch, ‘The Old Hag of the Breasts’ or Sile ina Giob, ‘Sheila Crouching Down.’ It is also interesting to note that an old slang term for the vagina in the north of England was ‘Gig’, while an Irish slang term for it, common enough in Dublin where I live, though not one for use in polite company as it’s considered very vulgar, is Gigh, pronounced ‘Ghee,’ and an Irish slang for being drunk is ‘Gee-eyed’. In fact Sheila-na-Gig is pronounced as ‘Sheila-nah-Ghee’ in Dublin, so possibly the slang usage originated with her?
A crouching Shelia, almost obscured by ivy, to be found on the south facing wall of the 12th century Ballyfinboy Castle, County Tipperary. (You can purchase the castle, along with its Shelia, by the way, it’s up for sale at a mere 100,000 Euro) The local people call her ‘The Dancer’, though trying to dance with one’s hands holding the vulva from behind seems a tad awaked, to say the least. Many Shelia’s seem to be found on south-facing walls for some reason. Credit: Gabriel Cannon
The earliest use of the name that I was able to find was no further back in history than the 18th century, in 1758, a slip jig being listed with the title ‘The Sheela na Gig’. After that there’s another named the ‘Shilling a Gig’ in 1791, and a dance tune called Sheela na Gigg listed in a book from 1795 entitled ‘48 Original Irish Dances’ and, rather strangely, a British Royal Navy warship was named H.M.S. Sheela Na Gig, navy records describing the name as meaning an ‘Irish female sprite.’ (1) And I’ve recently received some very interesting information from Gabriel Cannon, who is an authority on the subject, and he told me about a pretty much unknown burletta, which was a sort of early musical entertainment, entitled ‘Midas: An English Burletta,’ written by a man called Kane O’Hara, 1714?-1782, first performed in Dublin in 1762 and in London, at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1764, and in that production was a song, to be sung to the tune ‘Sheelagh na Guig’. Yet another spelling, and clearly the tune was a known one. (I would recommend a visit to Mr. Cannon’s very interesting and informative website, ‘Ireland’s Síle na Gig: Documenting the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland’ which among other things contains the finest collection of Sheila-na-Gig photographs your likely to find anywhere. Some of them are reproduced with this article, with thanks to Mr. Cannon for their use.)
Her vivid representations are found most widely in Ireland, obviously I suppose since her name is Irish, as many as 101 of them recorded, County Tipperary having the largest concentration of them with 27, and there are some 45 in Britain, but they also appear in at least nine other countries of mainland Europe. [Freitag, Barbara, ‘Sheela-na-gig: Unravelling an Egnima’ ISBN 0-415-34552-9] [Andersen, Jørgen, ‘The Witch on the Wall’ (1977) Rosenkilde & Bagger ISBN 978-87-423-0182-1] [Weir, Anthony & Jerman, James, ‘Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches’ London, B. T. Basford Ltd. 1986]. (1) There are differences however between the Irish and the European ones, since in Ireland the female figure is almost always encountered, while elsewhere a male figure is quite common, as well as other differences, so that the Irish ones seem to form a unique group in themselves rather than being simply an extension of a European phenomenon.
It has been suggested that the figures were first carved in France or Spain during the 11th century, and only arrived in Ireland during the 12th century, which could well be the case since they are found almost exclusively in those areas of the country that were under Norman control after the so-called ‘Norman Conquest’ in the 12th century, while hardly any are seen in areas that remained under the control of the native Irish chieftains. [Kelly, Éamonn, ‘Shella Na Gigs: Origin and function’, County House, (1996) ISBN 978-0-946172-51-1] But where did the original influence for these Christian era yet seemingly pre-Christian pagan-style images come from, and what was their purpose, and why Ireland in particular?
Obviously a popular theory is that she represents a pagan fertility goddess, given her over emphasized sex organ, though few of them have breasts to any degree, certainly not the often very large, pendulous breasts traditionally seen on fertility figurines going back to the Stone Age, such as the little ‘Venus’ figures. Furthermore the Sheila-na-Gigs are not depicted either pregnant or with a baby, which one would expect to see frequently if fertility was the inspiration for them, the Goddess of Abundance for example is shown sitting in a similar position, but holding a heavily pregnant belly, representing the Earth, which the Shelia’s are not, so that seems an unlikely explanation.
Then there is the suggestion that she is that hag-like figure of Irish mythology, the Cailleach, which would tie in with the ‘Old Hag of the Breasts’ phrase. The Cailleach, which means ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’, was a seasonal spirit, ruling from the first day of winter, Samhainn, or the 1st of November, to Beailtainn, the 1st of May. (1) But going against the idea of the ancient Irish pagan tradition is the fact that the images seem to have started on mainland Europe and only come to Ireland later on, which would seem to be the wrong way around if indeed they were inspired by Irish paganism, plus the fact that no actual pagan examples exist. Of course Irish religious influence had always been strong across Europe, Irish monks travelled widely, so that is a possibility, they could have brought the image with them for some reason. But also arguing against that theory is the fact that not all seem to represent an old woman, some are clearly a young woman, they come in many forms in fact, old, young, fat and thin, some show their ribs as though in an advanced state of starvation, one even has long hair, all of which casts considerable doubt on the idea of the old hag.
Another explanation is that they are nothing more than a stonemason’s joke, something that is frequently trotted out to explain anything odd or hard to understand found on stone walls. If so then the joke was an international one, and surely would have some meaning even in that context which we would know about. Also whoever had hired the stonemason, be it priest or nobleman, might not have seen the humour of a vulgar image they hadn’t asked for and almost certainly didn’t want, clearly displayed on their building. I can only imagine the reaction of say the parish priest going to see how building work was progressing on his church and being confronted with a naked woman holding her vulva open, and some stonemason saying “Sure now isn’t that funny, Father?” While masons left marks often enough, a form of signature of their work in fact that can be found on many castles and monastic buildings, they were hardly going to leave anything that might get them kicked off the job, or worse, accused of promoting wicked pagan ideas. That sort of thing could have serious health-related issues in the Middle Ages, such as being burned at the stake, hung, drawn and quartered, or simply having one’s head removed.
Then there is the suggestion that they represent a last stand of paganism, people who still worshiped the old gods and these images were an attempt at preserving them, possibly putting them on churches as a sign of defiance to the new faith or some such. But in that case why only an overtly sexual image that doesn’t relate to any pagan deity that we know of and in a form that isn’t even found in pre-Christian times? Would they not have used the image of Morrigan or Lugh, Brigid or Aengus in Ireland, and perhaps Cernunnos, Agrona, Rhiannon or Arianrhod elsewhere rather than seemingly invent something? And it wasn’t quick and easy modern graffiti with a spray can, someone fitting a center stone in an archway or carving something in a wall with a hammer and chisel would have been rather noticeable. Yet another good way to become the main event at a public execution I should think. No, the ‘let’s keep the old gods alive’ idea doesn’t really make any sense.
Were they symbols of evil female lust, the corrupting threat of the female body as seen by the church? Hardly, since similar images are not found in other forms of religious art. Barbara Freitag suggested that they may have been used in a fertility context, as so-called ‘birthing stones’, given to women in labour, though again the absence of a baby or even a pregnant belly as a regular feature seems to make that unlikely. Another suggestion is that they were warnings against the sins of the flesh in any form, which could well fit in with them being found so often in and around churches and on holy wells, though their use on secular buildings such as castles and manor houses would seem rather doubtful in that context, and again the lack of a similar image in church art of the period rather goes against it. (1)
They may have been simply warnings to evil things, as suggested by Weir and Jerman, warding off evil in the manner of the monstrous gargoyles so typically found on churches throughout the Middle Ages, and one term for them in Ireland was ‘The Evil Eye Stones’, which could fit their used on non-religious buildings as well. (1) As evidence of that theory is the fact that many are found over doorways, protecting the building against the entrance of evil spirits, and there was a belief that the Devil couldn’t stand the sight of a woman’s sex organs. Good idea, but doesn’t really fit since many are found on walls or other places nowhere near an entry point, such as corbels high up under the roof, unless Satan had a habit of trying to slip in under the eaves.
There is a most interesting suggestion by Gabriel Cannon, which opens a line of thought I’d not considered. He suggested that some at least of the Sheilas could have been directed at prostitutes, marking places where they could, as he puts it, ‘show and tell’, to prove they were free of disease, and that perhaps this had been passed to the church, who would of course have made profit from it. As he says himself, that doesn’t tick all the boxes, it doesn’t explain those up under the eaves, or those in places where they couldn’t have been seen by anyone just walking down the street for example, but it could be the case for many on churches or even castles, since a noble lord might have been saying ‘you’re not coming into my castle unless your clean.’ It’s certainly a possibility regarding some of them, and I’m grateful to Mr. Cannon for it.
Some were seen in a pagan form, such as one recorded around 1783 in the little village of Lusk in County Dublin, now lost I’m afraid, supposedly buried on the orders of the local clergy, which according to Jørgen Andersen was known to the locals as ‘The Idol’, though strangely enough few seem to have struck people in that way, which one might have expected to be the case given their seemingly obvious pagan connection.
I suppose the truth of the matter is that we really have no idea how the mysterious Sheila-na-Gig originated, who or what she actually represents, nor what the intention was of those who carved her grotesque form in so many ways. Those I’ve seen include some simply carved quite crudely onto the stones in a wall, used as corbels, mounted into a wall as a separate plaque, used as the centre stone of an archway, protruding figures over doorways or freestanding figures. One adorns a stable, and another forms the base of the holy water font in the church at Gelsted, Denmark, and many of them are found on south-facing walls, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Sadly many were lost over the years, often destroyed by offended priests who saw them as disgusting, possibly evil pagan images, and others were hidden away, even museums tending to relegate them to the basement or a storage room, since they weren’t very ‘nice’. It’s only quite recently that even historians have taken any great interest in them, but they are now at least freed from the prudish suspicion and usual avoidance of them that existed previously. They have become ‘acceptable’ even if still mysterious, and there is one on display in the National Museum of Ireland.
Since we have not the faintest idea who she was supposed to be, what the purpose of her image use was, nor who came up with the idea in the first place, all we can really say is that she is what she is, or was – whatever that is, or was.
The well-known English alternative rock singer/composer P. J. Harvey recorded a song which she wrote herself called ‘Sheila-na-Gig’, which has some mildly explicit lyrics, and can be found on YouTube should you be interested.
1 www://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheela-na-gig. This page was last edited on 29 March 2018, at 04:36. (Accessed 9-10th April 2018).
‘Ireland’s Sile na Gig: Documenting the Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland’ by Gabriel Cannon, http://www.irelandssilenagigs.org/.
The main photo is the CLONMEL:
A typical Shelia, sitting with her vulva held open with both hands, this example discovered in the wall of a bank of all places, during renovations, in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. She is thought to have come from an old Dominican church just across the road. Credit: Gabriel Cannon