(even the Rahara figure above) are quite different from the highly-sophisticated
and fine carvings that appear on misericords,
which very often are satires on people and morals: defecating
monks, talking donkeys, as well as depictions of fruit and vegetables
(even the humble turnip), foliate masks, labours of the months
and so on - but almost never genital exhibitionists. Crucially,
they were not for public view but commissioned (or gratuitously
carved) by men out of whimsy or out of a desire to make a comment
upon society, morals or the deacon who was to use the misericord.
In the very late Romanesque churches of Poitiers, exhibitionist
and other minatory carvings have moved to internal corbel-tables.
Then they disappeared altogether or translated to roof-bosses,
misericords and bench-ends, losing their instructive qualities
to become jeux d'esprits, satires and whimsies.
Anal exhibitionist misericord (male), Rodez
this carving is as near as misericords get to Romanesque exhibitionists.
Compare with a truly
Romanesque-inspired misericord at Saint-Léonard-de-Noblat
Female head-to-ears anal exhibitionist acrobat
on the Romanesque church at Montmoreau (Charente)
Sheela-na-gigs, however - apparently
carved by people who were not stonecarvers and perhaps not male,
but chosen for other (magical ?) reasons - inhabit another world
altogether: a world of whose ethos we can now only be dimly and
For example, some
Irish figures are, interestingly, placed sideways, on quoins (e.g.
above) and some Irish figures are on castles (e.g. Tullavin
Castle) - again, sometimes on quoins. The sideways placing
goes back to the 12th century, when a (non-exhibitionist, seated,
cloaked) figure from the 10th century was re-used in the church
on White Island, county Fermanagh, and another (a female exhibitionist)
was placed as if it were an abacus without a capital in the doorway
of Liathmore church,
county Tipperary. This symbolic position in Romanesque art indicated
vanquishment and humiliation, and it is quite possible that this
symbolism was consciously retained through the Middle Ages.
Cloghan[e] Castle (Roscommon)
photographed by Gabriel Cannon.
This figure is at a height of some 8 metres. Note the oval object
(or menstrual flux) between her legs,
and the protruding tongue.
Click for a larger
figures are above or beside doorways (e.g. Ballinderry
Castle), while others are from 5 metres (e.g. Ballynacarriga
Castle) to around 20 metres above ground level, as
at Garry Castle (below).
Other Irish figures
were carved on free-standing stones (as at Tara),
placed on old town walls, and, finally, incorporated into town-houses.
Drogheda (Louth) before removal to the town
In Britain the
figures are almost all on churches. On only one of those churches
- at Rodel on the Hebridean island of
Harris - is an exhibitionist figure placed sideways - but not
in the same manner as the Irish carvings, and not on a quoin -
and not female.
In both Britain
and Ireland many of them have obviously been crudely inserted
into pre-existing buildings, often being trimmed or cut away to
do so. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is at Whittlesford
in Cambridgeshire, where a stone panel has been refashioned to
form a window-top.
Whittlesford (Cambridgeshire). click
for a high-resolution enlargement.
were first noticed by the literate in Ireland (1840), and hence
have been thought of as Irish in inspiration and 'Celtic' in origin.
The term itself is shrouded in controversy, and a bogus Irish
etymology - Síle na gCíogh (pronounced 'sheela-na-ghee'
and meaning 'Sheela of the Paps') - was adduced. But the paps,
though obvious in some examples, are not present in many, and
the most obvious feature is the vulva. Gig or Geig
is actually dialectal Northern English for vulva - and, elsewhere,
for boat - so it is ironic - though typical - that an Irish origin
for the carvings as well as the name obsesses most people interested
in this bizarre subject.
When the first
example was described in 1840 (on Kiltinane
Church, county Tipperary) the term was already widely known
and used. But it was not applied to all figures - which had such
names as Síle ní Dhuibhir (Sheela O'Dwyer),
Sheela ní Gara, and (on Moycarkey
Castle) Cathleen Owen.
Recently, a credible
alternative - or complementary - origin has been suggested: Shee
(Sídhe in Irish,
meaning 'sprite' or 'goblin')
lena (meaning 'with
or female genitalia). Sheelenagig would be a much less
fraught term if it were to become current.
Freitag claims that
Sheela-na-gigg was also a jig-like dance which began in
Scotland in the 17th century, but did not get to Ireland until
the 18th. It was a kind of slip jig, and, though by then not a
dance (like the Volta of Elizabethan times and Waltz in its first
years) considered obscene by the polite, it may well have been
an Invitation to Lewdness amongst the peasantry, as it
was generally in Shakespeare's time. The first Irish exhibitionist
carving to be recorded - the figure on Kiltinane Church - is in
a pose reminiscent of Indian dance.
A more tangible
connection with India may consist in the mysterious objects and
ill-defined masses beneath the vulvas of several sheela-na-gigs
which resemble the menstrual flux of the goddess Kali
in many South Indian sculptures.
Note the spelling:
gigg. This indicates that the word was pronounced 'jig'
and was thus pronounced in Ireland, and almost certainly with
regard to the sheelas. But everyone pronounces the phrase with
a hard g or a gh. Now compare the phrase jiggery-pokery,
which was a word applied to rapid or desperate sexual liaisons.
Jig-a-jig is a term which survives to this day in West
Africa, from the sailors in days of yore and today.
In the 18th
century there was an Irish ship out of Cork known as the Shelanagig.
It later took part in naval action with the British West Indian
fleet during the American war of independence.
also of 'dirty postcards' (see page
Shelagh or Sheila
was also the folkloric "wife of St Patrick" - but of
course it was also used, as still in Australia, as a generic term
for 'woman'. Since the quaint term used to describe these carvings
does not yield up any information as to their origin or purposes,
we must consider the attributes of the figures themselves.
The most important
- indeed cataclysmic - social event between the dawn of the second
millennium and the religious wars which followed the Reformation
was the Black Death, the plague which in its various forms killed
a quarter of Europe's people. One of the results of the Black
Death was that the Christian god began to be mistrusted, for ordinary
people considered that the Church's doctrine that its teaching
would save believers (or even just those who entered the portals
of a church) was obviously false. Thus began the rise in importance
of the Devil (a figure deriving as much from Persian as from Greek
mythology) who could so easily become the ruler of the world in
an antinomian struggle recalling the beliefs of the Manichæan
Cathars who were wiped out in the terrible pogrom known as the
Albigensian Crusade at the beginning of the 13th century,
shortly before the infamous Fourth Lateran Council.
With the new belief
in the Devil came a belief in 'witchcraft', which could include
any folk-practices which seemed to by-pass or cock a snook at
the Church. So a decline in metaphysical awareness results, as
Eliade remarked (above) in an increase in superstition. This in
turn made the Church more hysterical in its fear of 'heresy'.
During the Black
Death a new motif became popular in European art: the Dance of
Death - most famously portrayed in our own day in Ingmar Bergman's
film The Seventh Seal.
Sheela-na-gigs are mostly
hags, often skull-headed, with ribs showing.
Only one is clothed,
and only the Whittlesford figure has an accompanying (not
obviously punishing) beast.
If some seem to be dancing,
most of them resemble to a greater or lesser degree the
skeletal figures of the Dance of Death so frequent in
church murals and frescoes.
Many of the skeletal
ones are, however, not dancing. And what about the huge vulvas
even of those which are dancing ? They have nothing to do with
the Dance of Death. On the one hand they derive directly from
Romanesque female exhibitionists. On the other hand, they seem
to be saying something about this life before death, perhaps life
after death, and female fecundity - perhaps social anxieties surrounding
female fecundity or the lack of it, or the high toll of still-births
and deaths in labour. Moreover, whereas the torsos are emaciated
or skeletal, some of the vulvas are anything but - though others
are merely slits, grooves or holes. The very large vulvas might
well indicate dilation prior to birth - in which case the figures
might be 'birthing-stones' resorted to in order to help in childbirth.
Right up to the twentieth century death of child and/or mother
during or just after parturition was a common occurrence. But
the question arises: when Romanesque exhibitionists occur all
over Europe from Sicily to Denmark and Ireland to Bohemia, why
do these late, crude figures hardly occur at all outside Britain
and Ireland ? And if the large vulvas and labia do indicate
pre-parturition dilation, this chimes with the Romanesque function
of images of Luxuria as warnings against consequences -
in this case unwanted pregnancy rather than Hellish torment.
The Cavan figure
(above) is one of only very few
to have an open mouth and a tongue reminiscent of Romanesque tongue-stickers
(which in turn recall Classical Gorgon/Medusa heads - see Ballintubber
Abbey, county Mayo - and Indian representations of Kali). More
germanely, it recalls the statue from Lusty More Island and the
female side of the double-sided male-and-female statue at Boa
Island not so far to the North.
Caldragh Graveyard, Boa Island (Fermanagh):
female side of double figure.
side of this statue is ithyphallic, and there is a certain indefinable
similarity between the Boa Island figure and the "Sky-Father/Earth-Mother"
carving at Whittlesford. People have seen a connection between
exhibitionist figures and this one - but it is more likely that
the crossed limbs are arms. A more apparent similarity is that
between the Boa Island figure and French Romanesque (12th century)
carvings, like one at Bussières-Badil
The genital area
of some accessible figures (but not those on Boa Island)
has been rubbed. But other figures have not been touched. Were
they carried about like statues of saints and shown to pregnant
or barren women, as were figurines, statuettes, magic sticks,
stones and pebbles ? Were the rubbed figures always rubbed, or
did they acquire a new or secondary quality ? Some rubbed figures
are not sexually exhibitionist but, like the Kilsarkan (Kerry)
figure below, have been listed among the sheela-na-gigs
in their many and lengthening inventories.
Kilsarkan Church (Kerry.
Several sheelas have small holes representing the anus. This is
a feature of many Romanesque corbels, especially those that might
be described as anal-exhibitionist acrobats or contortionists.
The sheela from Seir
Kieran (Offaly) has several holes into which the fingers of
one hand can be inserted.
A couple of carvings
(Lavey Old Church shown above, Copgrove in North Yorkshire, Church
Stretton in Shropshire) are holding circular objects which
could be 'birth-girdles' - instruments of sympathetic magic used
world-wide to help ease childbirth by being unloosed and/or removed
at the beginning of labour. Other figures (e.g. Ballinderry
Castle) have indefinable masses between their legs - which
have variously been interpreted as stools, phalluses, foetuses
and afterbirths, but which I have already proposed as menstrual
Figures high up
on walls could not, of course, be rubbed. Some cannot even be
seen clearly. These are not all later inserts, so they were intended
to be high up.
The church at Stanton St Quintin (Wiltshire),
whose sheela-na-gig on the tower
is indicated in this photo by John Harding.
apotropaic (evil- or danger-averting)
function has been suggested for such figures. But the tradition
of gorgon-heads, penises and vulvas as seriously apotropaic seems
to me to be more literary fancy than a reflection of actual practice,
despite the perhaps unique male example at Bolmir,
near Cervatos, who is making the "fig" gesture which
is both obscene and apotropaic. Whatever lucky charms might be
worn - or recited - few people could have imagined that a female
exhibitionist would make a cruciform church even more apotropaic,
or a castle less likely to be captured. And there is the simple
matter of rape: how apotropaic is the vulva when rape is the commonest
Clenagh Castle (Clare).
Some lower figures
were considered to have power to induce fertility. These include
the sheelas at Rosnaree and Ardcath
(Meath), Clenagh (above), and Holdgate in Shropshire. Cattle
used to be driven past the carving beside the door of the now-wrecked
in Kildare - just as cattle were driven between pairs of (male
and female) standing-stones. The Pennington figure in Cumbria
was locally known as Freya - the Norse goddess of fertility -
though this might have originated as an antiquarian's conceit.
Merovingian (7th century) bronze buckle-plate
from Picardy: a talisman or fertility-charm
- or machismo-enhancer ?
The obvious insertion
(and trimming) of some in churches has led people to suggest that
the local clergy had decided, in a long tradition going back to
Roman times, to incorporate them and their 'power' rather than
vainly to challenge or fight against whatever purpose(s) they
served against the Church's perceived interests. Worshipped wells
were christianised throughout Europe, and quite a few standing-stones,
too, especially in Brittany.
As already mentioned,
the sheelas adopt various stances and attitudes. Some have their
right hand to their right ear (Tullavin
Castle, Clonmacnois 2, Portnahinch Castle and the red-painted
figure from Behy Castle).
Behy Castle (Sligo) photographed
by Gabriel Cannon.
Some raise their
left arm to touch the left side of the head (Ballynaclogh Castle,
and Kirkwall in Orkney). Some raise their left arm to brandish
a slim object (Killeagh, Fiddington - and compare the fish brandished
in both raised hands at Rochester).
Some hold an object in an unraised left hand (Tugford, Seir
Kieran) or on their left arm (Lavey) or under their left arm
Small figure from Lixnaw (Kerry).
To try and categorise
them in the hope that something thereby will be revealed is pointless.
Categorisation was an obsession with Victorians and Edwardians,
and has merely lost the study of sheela-na-gigs in a maze of anomaly
and puzzlement - recently vitiated further by 'students' of 'Gender
Studies'. However they might be grouped (and the distribution
of the various types that people have assigned is remarkably even
across the British Isles), there are doubtful members and exceptions.
And if some might tentatively be designated as magical aids to
fertility or labour, others cannot - especially the remarkable
Whittlesford sculpture. But serious and significant they all were,
and had absolutely nothing to do with pleasing the eye.
Are they 'ugly
as sin' or 'help from beyond' - beyond the bounds of
ordinary experience, beyond the grave ? Or both ? Or more ?
Adam and Eve on a capital of the late 12th
of Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers (Vienne), France...
...and the well-known exhibitionist corbel
on the same church.
Adam and Eve
of similar date from Korcula off the Dalmatian coast.)
How do exhibitionist (and Luxuria) figures relate to images of
Eve, sometimes portrayed
as (modestly) indicating 'the source of her shame' - given that
(as I showed in Images of Lust
pp. 66-7) Luxuria suckling Snakes derives from classical depictions
of Terra (Earth) giving succour to her most-symbolic creature
? In the same publication I showed a female exhibitionist corbel
suckling snakes at Archingeay,
thus establishing the iconographic link between Terra, la femme
aux serpents, and sheela-na-gigs.
Click for more on Terra and snakes.
Gorgon at Corfu (Greece)
is also an iconographic connection between sheela-na-gigs and
snake-haired (or snake-girdled), tongue-protruding Gorgon-figures,
via such carvings as the Poitiers
(Saint-Hilaire) capital and a magnificent toothy snake-spewer
Abbey in county Mayo. At Chalais (Vienne) a feet-to-ears anal
and vulva-pulling exhibitionist acrobat is placed beside a capital
of two heads, one of which is spewing snakes.
of the damned person suckling (or in the case of males, having
his genitals attacked
by) snakes throughout eternity produced variations. Other 'unclean'
beasts appear on representations of the punishment of Luxuria:
In the Musée
Fenaille at Rodez (Aveyron) is a statue described as a Gallo-Roman
"Dancing Venus" which could date from any time between
the 5th century BC and the 5th century of the present era. She
wears clothes resembling those of a Roman matron and holds her
long tresses in the manner of many sheela-na-gigs and Romanesque
exhibitionists. To her left is a serpentine monster. On one of
the narrow sides of the stele or slab is an almost-effaced standing
male figure. Such a carving is a very likely source of inspiration
for Romanesque sculptors.
Given that a great deal of Romanesque sculpture is not grotesque
or anatomically distorted, realistic Classical models were, of
course, also available. In this late-Classical Coptic
ivory in Ravenna representing Apollo playing his lyre to Daphne
as she is turned into a tree, the mediæval mind (not
so very different to, though less corrupt than, that of Southern
Baptists and other puritan Protestant sects) would have seen
blatant nakedness (associated with the playing of an instrument
and elaborate hair-styles), a
pecking bird, and the ubiquitous Romanesque motif of the human
ensnared by vegetation.
a book-length discussion on the survival of Roman antiquities
SURVIVAL OF ROMAN ANTIQUITIES IN THE MIDDLE AGES",
by Michael Greenhalgh, who deplores these pages as "mere
smut" celebrating "egregious and assiduous
On the other hand, post-Classical,
"pagan" motifs were incorporated into Romanesque art,
especially North of the Alps. The Irish "Scripture Crosses"
borrow motifs from Norse mythology (as do the Pictish stones and
English crosses), and this can also be seen in such Romanesque
works as the tympanum of Parwich
and the remarkable capital at Payerne
in Switzerland which features both the infant Jesus and a Norse
hero vanquishing a dragon.
Any General Theory of Sheela-na-gigs must include
most of them - and it must explain why they are hardly
to be found outside the British Isles. No theory so far produced
can plausibly account for even a third of them. (Nor, for that
matter, why a few isolated and solitary, torso-less, mouth-pulling
heads are to be found in Ireland, one at least on a castle.)
Castletown Castle (Louth
So it must be concluded that the figures fulfilled different functions.
In Images of Lust I showed that some figures were remarkably
like Romanesque carvings to be seen on or close to the Pilgrim
Roads from Ireland and Britain to Santiago de Compostela, along
which thousands of pilgrims from the British Isles travelled.
Were these few figures like postcards in stone, put up on castles
to impress (or cow) the neighbours who might also be enemies ?
I have not mentioned
Deity theory fashionable among the fashionable Celtophiles of
the last 40 years of the 20th century. Needless to say, only a
few - and not even definitely exhibitionist - figures (on pillars
like those at Tara and from Swords) could possibly date from pre-Christian
times. This one has been interpreted as Lugh of the Long Arm.
click for a recent picture by Simon Dowling
Figure on standing-stone at Tara (Meath).
insist on an Old Religion surviving into mediæval times
complete with stone idols are not only unprovable, but, frankly,
ludicrous - since Celtic religion was very phallocentric, and
the landscapes of the British Isles which feature rounded hills
in the form of reclining women or their breasts are littered with
phallic rather than
cunnic or egg-shaped stones. (The Turoe
Stone in Galway has ornamental sperm undulating over it.)
Even holed stones are rare. And why would goddess images suddenly
appear out of nowhere, when the Catholic church had realised as
early as the 12th century that it was lacking in this respect,
and had instituted a rapid and successful campaign to make the
Virgin Mary into an all-powerful quasi-goddess, a direct intercessor
with God ?
Since human figures
in attitudes of sexual display occur world-wide in cultures ranging
from Neolithic Malta, the Neolithic Northern Balkans and the Baltic,
Classical Greece (the 'Baubo' figures) to mediæval
and modern India, SE Asia and modern Africa, these forerunners
and parallels are something of a red herring, and do nothing to
explain why they are so widespread in late-mediæval Britain
recent finds of small gold figurines at Smørenge on the
Baltic island of Bornholm bring the motif a little nearer. The
fragile object below is of pressed gold foil, and weighs only
the hands are significantly resting on the knees in a more or
less regal position, so it is highly likely to be a votive offering
or an amulet.
for another - but solid - gold object found close by, it seems
to be an item of jewellery, possibly a hair-clip, bearing little
relationship to the sheela-na-gigs of the British Isles.
Other finds at Smørenge include trousered male figurines
in pressed foil. All are thought to be from around 500 AD.
This web-page has simply summarised the problems associated with
any attempt to 'interpret' sheela-na-gigs - which are, perhaps,
to be compared with what used to be termed 'junk' DNA: an inexplicable
part of our inheritance.