I have often searched for images of ancient goddesses. Raised Catholic, I internalized an obsession with the body — especially the female body, with all its sacred and sinful potential. Simply look up the Latin root of pudenda, the technical term for female genitalia, and you find that it comes from a Latin expression meaning “shameful parts” or just “shame.” So when I saw my first Sheela-na-gig image this past fall hanging above an entranceway in the West of Ireland, I was intrigued to find out more.
A Sheela-na-gig is an ancient stone-carved sculpture of a woman opening her vulva with her hands. There are more than 100 of them all over Ireland, many in situ on medieval castles, churches, and holy wells, though about a dozen are in museums, some of which have been hidden away in basements for years, rather than on display. In the past, these powerfully expressive sculptures have been relocated, stolen, destroyed, and even found buried in shallow graves, most likely put there by puritanical religious practitioners who were perturbed by the imagery.
No one can say for certain when, how, where, or why they originated. Currently there are no methods to properly date the sculptures, though most historians agree that they are from somewhere between the 11th and 17th centuries. Researchers are reliant on the figures’ location and context, and therein lies the challenge, as many of the medieval churches where the Sheela-na-gigs are located were built to replace former pagan sites of worship.
The sculptures vary greatly in design, style, and approach. Some are bony and skeletal, others more rounded. Typically their gaze is deep and intense, often with grimacing mouths (though a few have a slight smirk). They are usually bald, and many have protruding ribcages that seem to denote an aged nature. Their bodies tend to be disproportionately scaled, with a larger head and exaggerated vulva, emphasizing the focus on the explicit gesture of opening the vulva. The figures juxtapose barrenness and fertility, like life and death. But while there are some trends in their design, there is no “typical” Sheela.
Additionally, no one knows what they are meant to represent. There are a wide range of theories, seeing them as everything from fertility goddesses, to “evil eyes” warning against the sin of lust, to talismans protecting from evil, to manifestations of the Sídhe, or Irish faeries.
The Sheela-na-gig I saw was created by Irish researcher and publisher Jack Roberts, who has visited every single one of these figures throughout the Irish countryside and thoroughly documented them with hand-drawn illustrations and a map with descriptions. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard about the evocative and mysterious Sheela-na-gigs before. They weren’t included on any tourist or historical information I’ve seen. Happily, that’s changing.
This past April, the Heritage Council of Ireland released an interactive map that tracks the location of every Sheela-na-gig located throughout the island. It was made with assistance from the National Monument Service and data gathered by independent Sheela-na-gig researchers and enthusiasts. “While it may be a slight exaggeration,” Pat Reid, GIS Heritage Consultant for the Heritage Council, told me over the phone, “everyone in Ireland has a Sheela-na-gig within ten to fifteen miles from them.” He emphasized that the more people become aware of them, the more they will have pride in and look after them.
In a phone conversation with John Harding, a Welsh researcher who has tracked the sculptures in the UK and throughout Europe on his website The Sheela Na Gig Project since 1998, he told me, “if you try to nail down a Sheela-na-gig, they are slippery little buggers.” In short, if you say they are one thing, you will find examples to prove otherwise.
In fact, some researchers insist that the Sheelas are not Irish in origin at all. Harding believes they were a result of the Anglo-Norman Invasion, as there are similar sculptures in the UK and other parts of Europe decorating Romanesque medieval churches. His theory is that having a Sheela-na-gig posted atop your Irish castle wall was “a bling thing,” also pointing out that Sheela, or “Síle,” is the Irish form of the Anglo-Norman name Cecile or Cecilia.
On the other hand, University College Cork lecturer of Folklore and Ethnology Shane Lehane explained via email that the highly enigmatic name Sheelah has strong Irish roots and is historically attributed to “elderly women, at the latter end of life, who had experience of the world, were custodians of inherited knowledge, played significant roles in rites of passage in the human life cycle and the cycle of the year. They acted as midwives, corpse washers, and professional mourners; they advised on herbalism … and were central officers at vernacular assemblies.” He went on to draw the connection to the Cailleach, “the old wise-woman healer, a multifaceted personification of the female cosmic agency” with deep roots in Irish mythology as simultaneously life-giving and nurturing as well as hostile and destructive. He also cites new evidence that St. Patrick had a wife named Sheelah.
While the mystery remains, Reid is hopeful that the Heritage Council map will get more people visiting and thinking about the Sheelas, which in turn will open the dialogue regarding what they were and “what they are now to us.” Roberts insists that people should “stop seeing them as negative images. I’m trying to put the positivity back into them.” With the new map, one can expect that the often peaceful and secluded settings where these figures lay will start seeing more foot traffic, as curious travelers sojourn to meet the Sheela-na-gigs themselves and come up with their own meanings.
The Heritage Council of Ireland’s interactive map tracking the location of every Sheela-na-gig is available here.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.