of sheela-na-gigs in Ireland curiously echoes the enigma of Irish
Sweathouses - which may hark back to the same period.
Sweathouse, Killadiskert (Leitrim)
are curiously concentrated in the area where counties Leitrim,
Cavan and Fermanagh meet, while the sheela-na-gig heartland
is the counties of Tipperary and Offaly. Scarcely any more is
known about the use of Irish Sweathouses than the meaning(s) or
function(s) of sheela-na-gigs. In both instances/phenomena,
the peripheral areas of Ireland have hardly any examples.
The re-use of
exhibitionist figures, sometimes cut or altered to fit another
building or another part of a chuch (e.g. Whittlesford
and many other insular carvings), echoes the re-use of
churches. These were stone sun-dials (dating from 1100 to the
late mediæval period) placed on the south sides of churches
to indicate when Mass should be said. Some have been placed -
like exhibitionists - the wrong way round or upside-down, and
others in porches or other places where the sun cannot reach.
The parallel with sheela-na-gigs is significant, and suggests
that exhibitionist figures might have been re-used without any
particular purpose at all.
In Britain, there
is a concentration of sheela-na-gigs around the Welsh Marches
- but not particularly in Wales. The distribution - of, it must
be remembered, surviving examples - does not chime with any of
the popular theories of their origins and functions. If some descendant
or form of the 'Celtic Hag Goddess', why are there so few in the
most 'Celtic' areas of the British Isles ? If they are apotropaic
figures to ward off danger and enemies, why are they not on castles
of the Welsh Marches, and why are they on so few castles of the
western and northern fringes of the Irish Pale, and on no really
important strongholds ? The distribution of the Western and Northern
Scottish figures suggests an Irish influence - but it could have
been the other way round, remembering that the 'Book of Kells'
was created on Iona,
where there are two female figures and a male, dating from the
thirteenth century. Two of the Iona figures are clearly warnings
of punishment in Hell for carnal pleasure in this life.
click for another view
If they were aids
to fertility or parturition, why are some so high up as to be
almost invisible, and why would they, in any case, be static figures
of stone on castles rather than more portable figures ? Female
exhibitionists are often cadaverous and look barren rather than
fertile. A very good example of a fertility amulet was found in
the Rhondda valley in Wales. The belly is obviously pregnant,
and the bored hole shows that it was worn round the neck. It is
probably not more than 200-250 years old.
As I have said
earlier, any theory must cover more than 50% of the known figures.
The apotropaic theory might be considered to do this - but it
is too vague and woolly an idea to be a real explanation. Who
exactly would need to be warned off a church or a castle by such
means ? People deemed to be evil or a serious threat are usually
definable: Protestants, foreigners, English-speakers, Irish-speakers,
Welsh-speakers, epileptics, syphilitics, lepers and other 'unclean'
beings... In which case, why not phallic carvings associated with
virility and uprightness ?
So the apotropaic
theory falls through lack of specificity. Another suggestion is
that they are tokens or badges or signs of solidarity - but again
one is at a loss to be more specific. Certainly there must be
some meta-Christian connection with the Pilgrimage to Santiago,
because the routes from England and Ireland (apart from a direct
and dangerous sea-crossing to the Asturian coast on the Bay of
Biscay) took pilgrims through lands in which Romanesque exhibitionists
were a noticeable feature on churches both great and small. The
snag with this theory is that while most Romanesque exhibitionists
were male, most later ones were female. And it does not explain
the insular distribution.
One might, however,
combine these two theories into the Insurance Theory: they
were signs that certain helpers were at hand if the castle or
the church were attacked by heresy or plague or a war-lord. In
other words, they were like the Fire Insurance plaques which were
placed on buildings before municipal Fire Services were set up,
to indicate that the owner could pay for the fire to be extinguished.
This theory has the merit of diverse application, and it would
explain why sheela-na-gigs do not appear on important strongholds
(though one is on the important abbey of Holy Cross) - but it
does not explain why most of the figures are crudely carved, by
If the non-sculptors
were men, the figures might be talismanic, or represent some kind
of Mystic Bride (or meta-Christian union with Mother Church) in
hag- or corpse-disguise. Could the church figures even represent
Mother Church ? In which case - what about the Irish castle-figures
If the virgin-sculptors
were women (intactæ or not - or midwives), some magical
apotropaic function would be certain. This would not be inconsistent
with the building of castles (beneath which the bones of ritually-slaughtered
oxen, horses or dogs might be buried, as still occurs for example
in certain French vineyards whose viticultors are followers of
Rudolf Steiner) but it is hard to see why women - or indeed any
non-mason - would be required to carve such figures for a church,
unless they were signs that Wise Women - sanctioned by priests
- lived locally.
On a visit to
Bunratty Castle by
sheela-na-gig hunter James Clancy, a guide averred that
touching the sheela inside the castle enhanced the chances
of a woman conceiving. On hearing this, an American turned to
his wife and said 'Don't even LOOK
at it, Mavis!'
on the Romanesque exhibitionists have put forward the theory of
Necesidad Reproductora: the Reconquest of Spain and the
Crusades left Western Europe short of males, so lewd carvings
were placed on churches in order to excite the passions of the
peasants in order to get them to reproduce. This theory is quite
simply silly. Exciting the passions of the peasantry would merely
increase rape and children born out of wedlock: something not
encouraged by Mater Ecclesia. But, more obviously, placing auto-fellating
males or exhibiting females or copulating
couples on the corbel-tables of churches is hardly going to
boost the population. Soft porn has not produced a baby-boom,
but the end of the Second World War did.
An exhibitionist female gropes the 'manhood'
of the man behind her, while he seems to grope her labia..
On the other hand, this could be a portrayal of sodomy,
which, in times when there were no contraceptives, was
very much more a hetero- than a homo-sexual act.
photo by Julianna Lees
are probably more male
than female exhibitionists on Romanesque churches - which could
well be because the male anatomy offered more scope for the sculptors.
Carvings cost money - a point that most commentators seem to overlook
- and were paid for by the yard. They weren't carved (except in
extremely poor areas) by local masons or handymen, but by the
equivalent of modern jet-setting I.T. specialists who were highly
paid, and who, in Spain, often upped and left the churches unfinished,
and/or the scaffolding holes unfilled because of some disgruntlement
or sheer pressure of demand. These guys were a kind of artisanal
élite, and as such, patrons, priests and Benedictine abbots
would have been begging, bribing or threatening them to come and
carve. So exhibitionists cannot reasonably be seen as merely rustic,
The keynote of
Romanesque figure carving is Iconic Metamorphosis. Motifs
morph into other motifs, partly because the motif-bank was not
very well controlled by the church, and partly because it is a
natural tendency. (Jurgis
Baltruaitis' books on the subject show this admirably.)
Pattern-books may not have been very common, and might even have
had only rough sketches open to misinterpretation. Sculptors sometimes
did not know the significance or symbolism of what they were carving,
sometimes they merged two motifs (e.g. drunkenness and licentiousness),
and sometimes they simply misinterpreted what they had seen elsewhere.
Whittlesford Church (Cambridgeshire) and
Kilkea Castle (Kildare)
Each of the British
islands has one particularly striking exhibitionist group:
Whittlesford (ithyphallic bearded male on all fours approaching
vulva-pulling female) and Kilkea (ithyphallic boar penetrating
a bearded male with helmet and quilted jacket). If the latter
- quite astounding - sculpture is indeed, as has been convincingly
shown by Dr Peter Harbison, The Temptation of St Anthony,
then there is no intrinsic problem in ascribing a meta-Christian
religious significance to sheela-na-gigs. In which case
something like Mater Ecclesia/Mother Church in some kind
of trial or torment (from the Reformation ?) is a possible interpretation,
and sheela-na-gigs are - far from being harkings-back to
a dubious Great Celtic Hag Goddess (Medbh, Banbha, Morrigán,
etc.) - obscure expressions of Catholic piety. Certainly there
is considerable circumstantial evidence for sheela-na-gigs
being Christian objects - to wit, their presence on churches dating
from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. There is no evidence
whatever either for the 'paganist' viewpoint which dates (like
so much of British and Irish 'tradition') from the death-of-God,
post-Romantic, latter half of the 19th century, or for a 'folkloric'
interpretation beyond the vaguely apotropaic.
it should be borne in mind that English churchyards were used
for many more events than burials right up to the end of the mediæval
period. What the Church of Rome could not discourage, 'England's
Saddam Hussain' - King Henry VIII - and his successors, as
heads of the Church of England, could stamp out at will.
Aghagower (Mayo) - photographed before it
In all cases the
question remains: why are there so few sheela-na-gigs elsewhere
in NW Europe (though one has been reported at the German North
Sea port of Marienhafe,
and one in Holland)
? And again, particularly with respect to the remarkable male
figure at Painswick
in Gloucestershire, why are there so few post-Romanesque male
exhibitionists, when males outnumber females on 12th century churches
? And why are so few churches and even fewer castles adorned with
figures, if they had a 'folk' function ?
Until 2007 I had
thought that there were no post-Romanesque exhibitionists in France
apart from one at Cleyrac
(which might even be Romanesque, though it doesn't look it), and
a pair at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val
on a 16th century window. However, my colleague Jacques Martin
sent me a photograph of a very fine male exhibitionist apparently
contemporaneous with the early 14th-century House of the Master
of Venery at Cordes-sur-Ciel
(Tarn) not far from Saint-Antonin. There may well be more: it
is simply a matter of continuing the assiduous search which Jørgen
Andersen initiated on the European mainland in the 1970s.
idea half-seriously suggested in my Images of Lust (1986)
was that they were a kind of Souvenir Dirty Postcard in Stone,
sketched on the Pilgrim
Roads, and reproduced on churches and castles. This idea is
greatly boosted by the female exhibitionist frieze-carving
on a corbel-table of the church at Saint-Vivien, south of Soulac-sur-Mer
(Gironde) on the tip of the Garonne Estuary, which was an important
point of disembarkation from and re-embarkation to the British
Isles. The (Romanesque) St-Vivien exhibitionist is 'classic sheela'
even down to the baldness and crudely-indicated rib-cage, and
if presented to anyone with a knowledge of the phenomenon would
be assumed to be post-Romanesque Irish.
photo © Julianna Lees, 2006.
to see the context of the figure at Saint-Vivien (Gironde)
It has been assumed
with no evidence at all that the post-Romanesque use of exhibitionist
female figures originated in Ireland. But there was only one period
in history that anything originated in Ireland and moved East:
the early megalithic period, when passage-tombs and large stone
circles originated around Sligo, then moved gradually Eastwards.
For the rest of history, Ireland has been something of an appendix,
colon or rectum of Europe where people, trends and things tend
to end up rather than originate. Considering the late Romanesque
figures at Whittlesford
I have an unsubstantiable feeling that the transformation of Romanesque
figure of sin to the sheela-na-gig occurred in Britain
- where Gig or Geig is actually dialectal Northern
English for vulva.
only does the earliest male
exhibitionist in a Christian context occur on a late 8th (or early
9th) century Anglo-Saxon manuscript, but the earliest depiction
in a Christian context of a damned female suckling (or trying
to remove) an 'unclean' beast throughout eternity is on an Anglo-Saxon
cross-shaft in Lincolnshire.
also spring to mind. Romanesque sculpture was brightly painted
like Greek and Roman sculpture and probably all sculpture before
the effeminate and dead hand of the Italian Renaissance sculptors
changed the concept of sculpture forever. (Imagine those superb
Greek statues of kings and heroes coloured in like a child's colouring-book!
Imagine those Satyrs with purple - or red - or green penises and
scrota in a contrasting colour!) Were the later sheela-na-gigs
also painted ? The Rosnaree
Mill figure has been almost obliterated by whitewash, but all
evidence of ancient paint would long since have been lost on other
carvings apart from a couple of indoor figures (Bunratty
Castle, Rattoo Round Tower) which, however, show no traces
Dunnaman Castle (Limerick)
It is possible
that the post-Romanesque sheelas had (at least originally) something
to do with the beginnings of the European 'witch-craze'.
The first trial for witchcraft in Europe - of Dame Alice Kyteler
- took place in Kilkenny in 1324, less than a century after the
last Romanesque churches were built. The case against her was prosecuted
by the Bishop of Ossory - the mediæval Irish diocese and pre-Norman
lordship (covering parts of counties Kilkenny, Tipperary and Offaly
or Queen's County) currently containing nearly a quarter of Irish
sheela-na-gigs. The case was a cause célèbre
involving at different stages the burghers of Kilkenny, the parliament
in Dublin and Edward III in London. Bishop Ledrede managed to browbeat
the Irish parliament and seized Alice Kyteler's and her family's
land and money. She was tried and found guilty, then managed to
escape to London, leaving behind her personal servant to be burned
in her stead. Edward III subsequently excommunicated the bishop
and persuaded the pope in Avignon to confirm his action. Ledrede
continued to fulminate against witchcraft, which he claimed the
Irish were practising wholesale. Female witches were, of course,
always accused of having sex with the devil: a favourite mediæval
Christian fantasy alongwith drinking (baptised) babies' blood. Similar
ridiculous and appalling calumnies were hurled at Cathars
and other heterodox Christians, Templars
Redwood Castle (Tipperary)
this was the sole and brief eruption of the witch-craze in Ireland,
the hysteria subsequently swept England and other parts of Europe
- and was as symbolic of the mind-set of the High Middle Ages
as ethnocide is of the present day. I am almost certain that exhibitionists
were signs rather than instruments, did not perform a function
but indicated that a job had been done. Could sheela-na-gigs
have assured rural people that they had in some (perhaps
murderous) way been protected from Witchcraft - a subject which
(along with the inter-penetrating subject of 'sex-orgies') "folk-talk"
even today (especially in the tabloid newspapers) is eager to
explore and exploit ? Such a link would account for their rarity
in Scotland (which largely escaped the witch-craze) and in France
- where the quickly-canonised Joan of Arc had been burned as a
witch by the English. This theory, however unsubstantiable, has
the great merit of being applicable to almost all the figures.
It also distinguishes the two kinds of function (signal and instrumental)
rather than discussing irrelevant and academic characteristics
of the figures themselves, such as the position of the feet or
the arms, the size of the ears or the vulva, the presence of hair
or breasts or belly-button.
a majority of Irish figures are on the same (south) walls of buildings
as the main doorways, suggesting that they were meant to be seen
by visitors rather than malevolent spirits.
an essay on a remarkable mediæval Italian exhibitionist
mural which, surprisingly, seems to be connected both with power-politics
and the propaganda of witchcraft, click here.)
The almost childish figure with characteristic
ribs below the testicular breasts at
Tullaroan (Kilkenny) photographed
by Gabriel Cannon
figure, however, there is a highly significant detail. The low-relief
quoin-carving at Balleen Little (Kilkenny) has a rope around its
neck and dangling down the left side of its torso - suggestive
of a ritual hanging.
excellent and charming booklet "Sheela na gig"
(a discussion of the Fethard and Kiltinan(e) figures published
in Fethard in 1991) James O'Connor recounts one local tale linking
sheela-na-gigs to female collaborators with Oliver Cromwell's
forces, and another linking the place-name of Kiltinan(e)
to a Father Tynan who hid from Cromwellians. Since puritan Oliver
ineluctably gets the blame for the excesses of Tudor Thomas in
both Britain and Ireland, there may just be a connection between
sheelas and Henry VIII. Could the witch-motif have been conveniently
adapted to represent Anne Boleyn, for example, the first 'heretic'
queen of England ?
above, there is a certain connection between the English figures
and the Hundred Years' War fought in the 13th and 14th centuries
over a large area of Aquitaine, where dozens of exhibitionists
survive, including the remarkably well-carved and well-preserved
corbel-carving below, which survives from an abbey almost certainly
seen by the English, and sacked in the 16th century by Protestants
during the Wars of Religion.
small window of speculation is opened by the fact that almost
all exhibitionists lack pubic hair. This was on the one hand a
sign of the upper-class whore, and on the other a fashion in courtly
circles - rather like the perverse shaving of armpits, legs (and
faces of men) is in European society generally today.
did the famous 16th century Swiss doctor Paracelsus
prescribe (and illustrate)
the engraving of a female exhibitionist upon one of his magical
tokens for the cure of gout ?
and suggestions could multiply like dragons' teeth or modern gadgets.
(Another red herring is the Gnostic "Fallen Sophia",
the Wisdom-that-is-God who ended up as a whore on the streets
of Tyre.) The sad fact is that there is no theory that explains
sheela-na-gigs convincingly - and, without startling new
evidence from a hitherto unsuspected source, any future books
claiming to interpret them will be exercises in futility. And
just as candles can also be dildoes, so any one sheela-na-gig
could have had a double or even triple significance.
When, in 1975,
I suggested the title THE WITCH ON THE WALL (London, Allen
and Unwin 1977) to Jørgen Andersen for his groundbreaking
study of the sheela-na-gig phenomenon (the first scholarly work
on the subject now long out of print but available expensively
I had no inkling that the castle figures might indeed plausibly
be witches...or, for that matter, could even be meaningless kitsch
borrowings like the huge fake-stone birds that adorn the gateposts
of modern Irish bungalows...
is no doubt, however, that the female exhibitionist image was
some kind of inspiration to visitors and pilgrims travelling in
Aquitaine, especially the area between Poitiers and the Pyrenees.
The fact that some post-Romanesque insular carvings are very close
copies of Romanesque carvings in such places as Saint-Vivien (Gironde),
suggests that the latter were sketched by pilgrims/travellers
(some of them at least being in holy orders) and later carved
by British and Irish sculptors of greater and lesser talent, probably
for apotropaic purposes
on churches and (in Ireland) on castles. In the latter case, they
were possibly a symbol of prestige.
view is enhanced by the unearthing in a Birmingham garden in 2006
of a modern (probably mid-twentieth century) copy, just 27 cms
high, of the Kilpeck
female exhibitionist. This repeats also the burying of "sheela-na-gigs"
in the past, especially in Ireland.
photo by courtesy of John Harding
An even more remarkable example of a modern use
of the motif is a pair of gateposts in county Donegal in north-west
Ireland. These are covered by cement rendering, into which were
incised - when wet - a male and a female exhibitionist figure
facing each other, and ogam script.
explanation, less fanciful than it might seem at first, and able
to account for both the Romanesque and most post-Romanesque figures,
is an anthropological one.
and justified worries about the loose morals of the rich account
for the scenes of licentiousness and concupiscence amongst other
sins on church capitals and tympana. Modern minds, however, find
it difficult to understand why the highly-exaggerated corbel-carvings
were put up on churches - pieces of sculpture sometimes far more
graphic than was doctrinally necessary.The
carving of an exhibitionist (male or female) or any daring or
dodgy motif on a corbel-table might well have been the culmination
of the apprenticeship of a sculptor, literally a licence granted
to him by his fellow-sculptors who certainly were an inspiration
for the Freemasons in their confraternity. Masons' marks occur
on churches all over Europe, and especially in Spain where the
Romanesque 'art movement' invaded with the Christian reconquistà.
today, masons and sculptors form exclusive teams and (like many
co-operative tradesmen who feel undervalued) perform scabrous
rites. In Romanesque times, to be a sculptor was as prestigious
as being an international architect today. It is possible that
sculptors were more powerful than priests on the ground, because
they could simply take off from a site and find employment elsewhere
without difficulty. So the carving at Girona (below) might
have a different meaning than that which I advanced earlier in
Images of Lust. The bishop may well not be overseeing the
sculptors like some kind of art commissar, but merely skulking.
The sculptors or masons take prominence in the scene, which might
be telling us not that nothing went up on a church without ecclesiastical
approval, but that what was sculpted went up on a church despite
in this theory, sculptors who met with the artistic approval of
their fellows, had the privilege of carving one or more startling
corbel - a kind of satire on the exhibition-piece which is required
of skilled craftsmen in wood and stone even today, which then
was either slipped past ecclesiastical approval or was placed
defiantly or by right and rite. Some (very few) might have had
to be placed very high or out of sight to avoid local trouble.
But it is pertinent to this theory that many churches in Spain
were not properly finished: unfilled scaffolding-holes abound,
so teams of masons could up and off with an impunity very similar
to the propensity for strike action enjoyed by trades unionists
in post-War France and Britain.
drawback of this hypothesis is that some Romanesque and most post-Romanesque
female exhibitionists are extremely crude efforts. So perhaps
a combination of factors can account globally for the Romanesque
and post-Romanesque figures: the "dirty postcard" and
the initiation-, prentice- or master-piece of a sculptor
fully received into his team, guild or confraternity.
capital, Girona (Spain) click
However, some extremely well-carved gargoyles and
other figures high up on church towers, out of sight except to
the keenest eyes (which were not so common in mediæval times)
are male exhibitionists, as at Ewerby
(Lincolnshire) and even on secular buildings, as at Bruniquel
(Tarn-et-Garonne). At Hecklington (Lincolnshire) - also quite
high up - is this carving of a panting devil with protruding tongue
pulling open a woman's vulva from behind.
Hecklington (Lincolnshire) click
to see the whole carving
only through binoculars (which of course did not exist in the
15th century), this remarkable carving is neither apotropaic (the
woman is being sexually assaulted by a devil, not performing 'a
lewd act' of her own volition) nor didactic (since it is hard
to make out in detail, hence unlikely to be any kind of warning
to the average parisioner or passer-by).
mystery of the sheelas is more sociological than magical. Though
some post-Romanesque ones (especially those on towers and by doorways)
are likely to be apotropaic
survivals from ancient times, the phenomenon was something
of a fashion or craze not dissimilar to the Tulip Fever which
much later hit the Netherlands - or as Double Glazing has done
recently in the British Isles. Whether or not there were numerous
wooden examples, some recall the Anglo-Saxon weoh.
Even those which resemble "dirty postcards" from the
de Compostela - a journey made by hundreds of thousands from the
British Isles alone - they were almost certainly
put up at different places for different reasons, and those reasons
were very likely local or particular, as with this powerful (and
relatively recent ?) carving in the catacombs of Paris.
photo by courtesy of Tom Smith-Vaniz
There were many historical, religious, art-historical and pornographic
strands, any, many or all of which could have fed into the exhibitionist
motif. As to the vogue that they peculiarly enjoyed in the lowlands
of the British Isles during the later Middle Ages, we may never
know the several reasons, and must remain content with a kaleidoscopically-informed
ignorance in this as in many aspects of social history.
North Porch, Hereford Cathedral