Sheela na gigs are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are architectural grotesques found all over Europe on churches, castles, and other buildings. The highest concentrations can be found in Ireland, Great Britain, France and Spain, sometimes together with male figures. Ireland has the greatest number of surviving sheela na gig carvings; McMahon and Roberts cite 101 examples in Ireland and 45 examples in Britain. One of the best examples may be found in the Round Tower at Rattoo, in County Kerry, Ireland. There is a replica of the Round Tower sheela na gig in the County Museum in Tralee town. Another well-known example may be seen at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, England. The carvings may have been used to ward off death and evil. Other grotesques, such as gargoyles and hunky punks, were frequently part of church decorations all over Europe. It is commonly said that their purpose was to keep evil spirits away (see apotropaic magic). They often are positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.
Scholars disagree about the origins of the figures. James Jerman and Anthony Weir believe that the sheela na gigs were first carved in France and Spain in the 11th century; the motif eventually reached Britain and then Ireland in the 12th century. Jerman and Weir's work was a continuation of research begun by Jorgen Andersen, who wrote The Witch on the Wall (1977), the first serious book on sheela na gigs. Eamonn Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, draws attention to the distribution of sheela na gigs in Ireland to support Weir and Jerman's theory; almost all of the surviving in situ sheela na gigs are found in areas of Anglo-Norman conquest (12th century). The areas that remained "native Irish" have few sheela na gigs. Weir and Jerman also argue that their location on churches and the grotesque features of the figures, by medieval standards, suggests that they represented female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.
Another theory, espoused by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, is that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion. They note what they claim are differences in materials and styles of some sheela na gigs from their surrounding structures, and noting that some are turned on their side, to support the idea that they were incorporated from previous structures into early Christian buildings.
In addition, typical continental exhibitionist figures differ from those of Irish sheela na gigs. There is a scarcity of male figures in Ireland and the UK, while the continental carvings are more likely to involve male figures. Continental figures also are represented in more contortionist postures.
The name was first published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840–44, as a local name for a carving once present on a church gable wall in Rochestown, County Tipperary, Ireland; the name also was recorded in 1840 by John O'Donovan, an official of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, referring to a figure on Kiltinan Castle, County Tipperary. Scholars disagree about the origin and meaning of the name in Ireland, as it is not directly translatable into Irish. Alternative spellings of "Sheela" may sometimes be encountered; they include Sheila, Síle and Síla. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is derived from Irish, Síle na gcíoch, meaning "Julia of the breasts".
The name "Seán-na-Gig" was coined by Jack Roberts for the ithyphallic male counterpart of the Sheela. While rare in Ireland, it is much more common on the continent.
Jørgen Andersen writes that the name is an Irish phrase, originally either Sighle na gCíoch, meaning "the old hag of the breasts", or Síle ina Giob, meaning "Sheila (from the Irish Síle, the Irish form of the Anglo-Norman name Cecile or Cecilia) on her hunkers". Dinneen also gives Síle na gCíoċ, stating it is "a stone fetish representing a woman, supposed to give fertility, gnly [= generally] thought to have been introduced by the Normans." Other researchers have questioned these interpretations; few sheela na gigs are shown with breasts, and expressed doubt about the linguistic connection between ina Giob and na Gig. The phrase "sheela na gig" was said to be a term for a hag or old woman.
Barbara Freitag devotes a chapter to the etymology of the name in her book, Sheela-Na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma. She documents references earlier than 1840, including a Royal Navy ship, Sheela Na Gig, and an 18th-century dance called the Sheela na gig. Irish slip jig, first published as "The Irish Pot Stick" (c.1758), appears as "Shilling a Gig" in Brysson's A Curious Collection of Favourite Tunes (1791) and "Sheela na Gigg" in Hime's 48 Original Irish Dances (c.1795). These are the oldest recorded references to the name, but do not apply to the architectural figures. The Royal Navy's records indicate the name refers to an "Irish female sprite". Freitag discovered that "gig" was a Northern English slang word for a woman's genitals. A similar word in modern Irish slang "Gigh" (pronounced [ɡʲiː]) also exists, further confusing the possible origin of the name.
Weir and Jerman use the name sheela for the figure because it had entered popular usage; they also call figures of both sexes "exhibitionist". They cite Andersen's second chapter as a good discussion of the name. Andersen says there is no evidence that "sheela na gig" was ever a popular name for the figures when they were created. It arose during the mid-19th century "where popular understanding of the characteristics of a sheela were vague and people were wary of its apparent rudeness". An earlier reference to the dubious nature of the name is made by H.C. Lawlor in an article in Man Vol. 31, Jan 1931 (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland), in which he writes, "The term "sheela-na-gig" has no etymological meaning and is an absurd name." Andersen, Weir and Jerman, and Freitag all dismiss the name as being modern and somewhat arbitrary.
The oldest recorded name for one of the figures is "The Idol," which relates to the Binstead figure on the Isle of Wight. This name was mentioned by R. Worsley in his The History of the Isle of Wight (1781) and noted also by J. Albin in A New, Correct, and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight (1795) (Andersen page 11). The name "The Idol" also was applied to a now lost figure in Lusk, Ireland and was recorded as being in use around 1783.
Much of the disagreement among scholars about these figures focuses on determining exactly what they are meant to represent, and no theory explains all the figures.
A popular hypothesis is that sheela na gigs represent a pagan goddess, but academics believe the situation was more complex, with multiple interpretations and roles for the female character as spiritual traditions changed over time. The goddess in question usually is identified as Celtic, the hag-like Cailleach figure of Irish and Scottish mythology. Margaret Murray proposed this, as did Anne Ross, who wrote in her essay, "The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts", "I would like to suggest that in their earliest iconographic form they do in fact portray the territorial or war-goddess in her hag-like aspect..."
Mircea Eliade's The Encyclopedia of Religion (1993) draws parallels between the sheela na gig and the ancient Irish myth of the goddess who granted kingship. She would appear as a lustful hag, and most men would refuse her advances, except for one man who accepted. When he slept with her, she was transformed into a beautiful maiden who would confer royalty onto him and bless his reign. There are additional variants of this common Northern European motif (see "Loathly lady").
Andersen devotes a chapter to this theory, entitled "Pagan or Medieval." While suggesting possible pagan influences on Irish sheela na gigs, he firmly places them in a medieval context. He argues that pagan origins are less likely than influence from the continent during the medieval period: "What can be said against it, is that it is less easily proved and can be less easily illustrated than the possible continental, French origin for the motif discussed in earlier chapters...." (The Witch on the Wall, p. 95).
Weir and Jerman explore the possible influence of the Baubo figurine on the motif, but they acknowledge that the link is tenuous. They write, "It makes for very interesting speculation, but the amount of evidence is not large".
Freitag explores possible Celtic pagan origins, but finds little to suggest a link "...in particular the notion of the divine hag being a portrayal of the Ur-Sheela has to be firmly dismissed as wayward conjecture." (Sheela na gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, page 41). Although scholars have used evidence to reject the theory, it is popularly held.
This hypothesis usually is combined with the "goddess" explanation for the figures discussed above. Barbara Freitag suggests that the figures were used in a fertility context and associates them with "birthing stones". There is folkloric evidence of at least some of the sheela na gigs being used in this manner, with the figures being loaned out to women in labour. Other figures have wedding traditions associated with them. According to Margaret Murray, the figure in Oxford at the church of St Michael at the North Gate has an associated tradition of being shown to brides on their wedding day. This theory does not cover all the figures: some are thin with their ribs showing and thin breasts, which do not signal fertility. Others are plump and are shown in a sexual context with a partner (as at Whittlesford). Theresa Oakley and Alex Woodcock recently discovered an exhibitionist couple at Devizes, who seem to represent fertility. The faces of some figures are striated, indicating scarring or tattoos. Weir notes that a close examination of the figures reveals features that do not fit a fertility function.
Weir and Jerman suggested that the sheela na gigs served to warn against lust. They see the figures as a religious warning against sins of the flesh. Exhibitionist figures of all types—male, female, and bestial—are frequently found in the company of images of beasts devouring people and other hellish images. These images, they argue, were used as a means of religious instruction to a largely illiterate populace. As part of this interpretation, they explore a continental origin for the figures. Andersen first suggested this origin, and Weir and Jerman continued and expanded this line of inquiry. They argue that the motif migrated from the continent via the pilgrim routes to and from Santiago de Compostella. (Freitag argues against this.) Pilgrim sculptors took notes of what they had seen on the route and ended up carving their own interpretations of the motifs. Eventually, the exhibitionist motif was carried to Ireland and Britain. This theory seems to accommodate many of the religious figures but relates less well to some of the secular ones. Images carved on castles would not seem to be serving a religious purpose. The figure at Haddon Hall appears on a stable (although this may have been moved from elsewhere). The theory does not cover all the figures.
Andersen and Weir and Jerman think the figures may also have been used as protection against evil. This would cover the use of the figures on structures such as castles. They served an apotropaic function, designed to ward off evil. In Ireland, some of the figures were called "The Evil Eye Stones," which supported their theory. There is also some folkloric evidence of anasyrma being used by women lifting up their dresses to curse evil spirits. Andersen reproduces an 18th-century illustration by Charles Eisen from La Fontaine's Nouveaux Contes (1764) showing a demon being repulsed by the sight of a woman lifting her skirt to display her genitals. Weir and Jerman relate a story from The Irish Times (23 September 1977) in which a potentially violent incident involving several men was averted by a woman exposing her genitals to them. But, they also doubt if the story was true. Weir and Jerman go on to suggest that the apotropaic function seems to have been gradually ascribed to the figures over time. While this theory seems to fit most of the secular and some of the religious figures, it does not apply to all of them.
The rise of feminist scholarship has reinterpreted the concept of the Sheela-na-gig especially in terms of the image as evil or embodiment of sin. Feminists have adopted the image as an icon with feminist authors viewing the sexuality of the Sheela na gig in a more positive light, an empowering figure. Reverence for female sexuality and vulvas can be seen in the art of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party and The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler. In “Wide-open to Mirth and Wonder”, Luz Mar González-Arias argues that the creative re-imagining of this medieval female figure can “encourage contemporary women to stop perceiving their own corporeality as a heavy, awkward and shameful burden of guilt”. Irish writer Molly Mullin’s essay "Representations of History, Irish Feminism, and the Politics of Difference” makes the point that the image of the Sheela na gig has almost become emblematic of Irish feminism as a force for hope and change.” Scholar Georgia Rhoades argues that for many contemporary feminists the gesture of the Sheela's unapologetic sexual display is “a message about her body, its power and significance—a gesture of rebellion against misogyny, rather than an endorsement of it.”
Exhibitionist carving in Romanesque style, Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway (a modern replacement; original is in the Archbishop's Palace Museum, Trondheim)
A sheela-like figure in a non-architectural context, the "santuario rupestre" at Coirós, Province of A Coruña, Spain
As noted above, Ireland has the greatest number of known sheela na gigs. At one time, they were mistakenly thought to be a uniquely Irish practice, however, scholars realized that the sheela na gig motif could be found all over western and central Europe. Accurate numbers of figures are difficult to reach, as the interpretation of what is a sheela na gig will vary among scholars. For example, Freitag omits the Rochester figure from her list while Weir and Jerman include it. Concannon includes some worn figures that so far only she has identified as sheela na gigs. With renewed interest in the topic, scholars have recently identified previously unknown figures, so more could be discovered.
A significant number of the figures are found in Romanesque contexts, especially in France, northern Spain, Britain, and Norway. In Ireland figures commonly are found in areas of Norman influence.
The Encyclopedia of Religion, in its article on yoni, notes the similarity between the positioning of many sheela na gigs above doorways or windows and the wooden female figures carved over the doorways of chiefs' houses (bai) in the Palauan archipelago. Called dilukai (or dilugai), they are typically shown with legs splayed, revealing a large, black, triangular pubic area; the hands rest upon the thighs. The writers of the encyclopedia article say:
These female figures protect the villagers' health and ward off all evil spirits as well. They are constructed by ritual specialists according to strict rules, which if broken would result in the specialist's as well as the chief's death. It is not coincidental that each example of signs representing the female genitalia used as apotropaic devices are found on gates. The vulva is the primordial gate, the mysterious divide between nonlife and life.