The mystery of the “Sheela-na-gigs“
Indiscreet witnesses of medieval popular belief
The rigid morals of sexuality in Irish-catholic society have become established as a topos in modern Irish literature. How is it, then, that we find sculptures of female figures in seemingly rude exposed positions particularly on church buildings all over Ireland?
When the English biographer James Boswell visited Basel in 1764 on his Grand Tour, he made this note in his diary: „Wolleb showed me an old papist chapel at Pont du Rhin. Above the door there was a niche where you would have found a sculpture of the Virign Mary in earlier days, and below this niche there were carved as a decoration a woman’s wide open thighs, which exposed her nakedness entirely. She had such an offensive effect that people had mutilated her partly, but you could still recognize the ipsa rea very well.“
Is it possible that the observant English tourist came across one of those mysterious medieval stone sculptures which are today known as “Sheela-na-gigs“?
The female sculpture mentioned by Boswell seems not to exist anymore. This is in fact not an exception; many of the reliefs, which were certainly widely spread in earlier days, were mutilated out of prudishness or removed entirely from their original environment in the last one and a half centuries. Not withstanding there are more than 150 sculptures left, some of them on the continent, the majority on the British Isles, scattered over all regions. When in their original place, they are mostly found on old church ruins, occasionally on walls around cities, castles or graveyards, on fonts, gravestones or free-standing monuments and also near holy wells.
Vulgar or sacred?
In Ireland and Britain art-history and archaeology experts call these obscene sculptures “Sheela-na-gigs“. Sheela can be understood as a generic Irish female name. A typical Sheela is a naked, bareheaded woman in a crouching position, who reaches towards her vulva with one or both hands and exposes it to the observer. Strangely enough her pudenda with the strongly emphasised genitals contrasts sharply with her scraggy upper body and her huge bald head.
Like Boswell, the surprised observer might not be able to reconcile religious sense of shame with female figures who have exposed genitals - on Christian houses of God of all places, often well visible above door or window lintels, or sometimes nearly out of sight high up on corner stones or gables. After extensive research it seems the discrepancy between the vulgar work of art and its sacred location is often explained as being a Christian warning sign against carnal lust. It is said that - like the grotesque figures found on Romanesque churches in France - the stone sculpture wants to deliver a homily and was brought from France to the British Isles by pilgrims or during the invasion by the Normans in the 11th or 12th century.
Art historians and archaeologists who think along these lines usually emphasis the repellent effect of the sculpture which doesn’t only embody the evil with its accentuated sexuality (a disgrace which pillories the female sinfulness) but also scares off evil forces. On the other side feminist scientists understand the Sheela-na-gig as an embodied mighty Celtic goddess, which, from a cultural-historical point of view, was kept alive by the memories of the ancient matriarchy. In other pictures the closeness to Scandinavian, Oriental or African fertility godesses is stressed; this would make the Sheelas relicts of a pagan Mother-Earth-cult.
The hypothesis regarding the French origin and the function of the sculpture as a talisman becomes questionable after deeper research. Apart from the fact that in France, the alleged land of origin, there are only a handful of Sheelas – comparable stone figures only exist in groups, half devil, half animal or copulating – we should not forget that Irish Hiberno-Romanesque-style churches often were built on the foundations of older buildings, the remainders of which were used as building materials. Sheelas were always carved into single stone panels and accordingly they could be removed easily and set into walls. Often they are found in secluded rural areas and on simple churches in villages as the only decoration. Therefore there is no explanation why Irish stone carvers didn’t copy other French Christian icons.
Evidently the Sheelas weren’t only ornaments or emblems, but also ritual symbols. In fact while the genitals of some of the sculptures are mutilated out of outrage against their rudeness, they are worn down on others – a hint that female church-goers or female inhabitants of the castle might have touched the distinctive genitals while entering through the portal.
Protector of pregnant women
The Sheelas which expose themselves in an ambivalent pose and character are a mystery: Are they sirens or old women, witches or healers, sacred or profane females? The characteristic discrepancy of the figures between enormous vulva and exhausted body proves that it cannot only be about erotic lasziviousness or fertility. What seems to be provocative and disgraceful at first sight turns out to be a realistic portrayal of a birth process. Not only the wide open vulva refers to this, but also – on some of the sculptures – an egg-shaped object which falls out of the body.
In view of the plentiful risks regarding pregnancy and birth, a high child mortality and poor knowledge about gynaecology, many women in the middle-ages relied on handed-down rituals in their hour of need – amongst them magic spells, magic stones, charms, officinal herbs, burning of incense sticks, which were all aiming to speed up the confinement. There is evidence until the 18th century of the use of belts written with blessings, which were wrapped around the body of the pregnant woman; the “symbolic“ delivery was supposed to facilitate the birth process. In fact there are some Sheela-na-gigs wearing such a belt.
But why the ugly head and the exhausted body? All over Europe pregnant women made figures of tutelary spirits or popular deities, whose names can be translated as “spiritual forbear“, “grandmother“, “bareheaded old woman“ or “old Mother Earth“. The incantation of the forebear indicates a dialogue with preceding generations, from whom the delivering woman was expecting support. Today the second part of the German word for mid-wife, “Heb-amme“, still reminds one of the German word for forbear, “-ahne“. With its division into “life-giving“ lower body and “dying“ upper body the Sheela symbolizes exactly this dialogue; not without reason she often overlooks a graveyard from her position up on the church wall. Even though the church in the Middle Ages would have undoubtedly prefered if the pregnant woman, like in Pont du Rhin, had prayed to the Mother of God, for a long time they failed to eliminate the deep-rooted popular belief and the linked popular customs. So they tolerated the Sheela-na-gigs in sacred locations, to get the rural population attached to the Christian church.
Article from „Die Zeit“, 28th November 2000
Original text by Barbara Freitag and Hans-Christian Oeser
Translation by Sandra Schmid, firstname.lastname@example.org