Why Are There Carvings of Women Flashing Their Genitals on Churches Across Europe?
The last place one would expect to see an image of a woman flashing her genitals is a church wall, but across Europe, most notably Ireland and Britain, there are dozens of them. Most are old women demonstrating rather exaggerated features. Sheela na gigs are a type of architectural grotesque (in this context, a carved stone figure), which were once deemed too indecent to merit any scholarly attention. In recent times, however, this stigma has disappeared, and sheela na gigs have become a subject of academic interest. In particular, scholars are puzzled by the function of these carvings. Whilst several theories have been put forward, a consensus has yet been achieved regarding the purpose of these peculiar architectural features.
A Sheela na gig in Cavan County Museum, Ireland (Gerard Lovett / flickr)
Hag of the Breasts?
Whilst it is clear that the name ‘sheela na gig’ comes from the Irish language, its exact meaning is something of a mystery. According to one source, for example, this word may be translated to mean ‘the old hag of the breasts’, or ‘the old woman on her hunkers’. Others have interpreted this name to mean ‘castle hag’ or ‘supernatural river goddess’. Yet others have speculated that ‘sheela’ is the Irish form of the name Cecile / Cecilia. There is even a claim that the patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick, was married, and that his wife was named Sheela.
Sheela na gigs may be found across Europe. Whilst many of them are located in Ireland and Great Britain, their presence has also been reported in other parts of Europe, including such countries as France, Spain, Italy, and even Norway.
A Sheela na gig at the Château de Caen, France (CC by SA 3.0)
From Churches to Fortifications
Most of the known sheela na gigs are found either on churches or castles, especially Romanesque ones, though other structures possessing this architectural feature include holy wells, tower houses and defensive structures, such as the walls of a settlement. One theory is that sheela na gigs are not an Irish phenomenon, but that they came to the country on the heels of the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12 th century. This may serve to explain the presence of these grotesques in various parts of Europe. Moreover, it has been pointed out that the areas in Ireland where sheela na gigs are found are those where the invasion took place.
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This is a close-up of the Sheela na gig on the side of Dunaman Castle, Ireland (CC by SA)
What is more intriguing is undoubtedly the purpose of the sheela na gigs. Various theories have been provided in an attempt to answer this question. One of the more traditional explanations is that these sculptures were meant to warn people against lust, which is regarded as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Another traditional interpretation suggests that the sheela na gigs have a protective function. It has been speculated that these grotesques may have been used to avert the evil eye and to keep evil spirits at bay. Alternatively, it has been argued that these objects served as good luck charms, or charms to ensure that women would undergo childbirth safely. Yet another interpretation of the sheela na gigs is that they were pagan idols or folk deities. This point of view suggests that the sculptures were meant to be an embodiment of the natural aspects of life, fertility (of the natural, agricultural and human realms) and death. Whilst this is the most popular interpretation of the sheela na gigs, and the one that has generated the most debate, it has been pointed out that there is little concrete evidence to connect these sculptures with paganism.
Sheela na gig at the site of the old Watergate near to Court Castle, Ireland (CC by SA)
The sheela na gigs are indeed an enigmatic architectural feature whose purpose is not known for certain. It is likely that people will continue to speculate on this issue, and we may perhaps never reach a definitive conclusion as to what they were meant to represent. Nevertheless, as more data is collected by scholars about these grotesques, we may achieve a better understanding of the enigmatic sheela na gigs.
Top image: A Sheela na gig carving on a church in Kilpeck, England (CC by SA 1.0)
By Wu Mingren
Corcoran, L., 2017. Sheela na Gigs: where to find them in Ireland and abroad. [Online]
Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/travel/sheela-na-gigs-where-to-find-them-in-ireland-and-abroad-1.3220870
Gabriel, 2017. Ireland’s Síle na Giġ. [Online]
Available at: http://www.irelands-sheelanagigs.org/
Giaimo, C., 2017. Mapping Ireland’s Mysterious Carvings of Old Women Exposing Their Genitals. [Online]
Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sheelanagig-map-ireland
The BBC, 2017. Sheela-na-Gigs: Ireland's mysterious genital sculptures. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-39705545
The Sheela Na Gig Project, 2017. The Sheela Na Gig Project. [Online]
Available at: http://www.sheelanagig.org/wordpress/
Weir, A., 2017. Satan in the Groin: Exhibitionist Figures on Mediæval Churches. [Online]
Available at: http://www.beyond-the-pale.org.uk/