The History of the Sheela na Gig

Although the Sheela-na-Gig is technically the name applied to the carvings of women with exaggerated vulvas that have been found in Ireland and England, there’s a theory that the carvings are representative of a lost pre-Christian goddess. Typically, the sheela-na-gig adorns buildings in areas of Ireland that were part of the Anglo-Norman conquests in the 12th century. She is shown as a homely woman with a giant yoni, which is spread wide to accept the seed of the male.

St Mary and St David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Sheela na Gig image by Amanda Slater / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Folkloric evidence indicates a long-standing theory that the figures were part of a fertility rite, similar to “birthing stones,” which were used to bring on conception, but scholars have been questioning that lately.

Although traditionally the sheela has been regarded as a representation of a fertility goddess, John Harding, spokesman for the national Sheela na Gig Project, says, “the symbols are more likely to have originally been a warning against the sin of lust, before gradually mutating into a protective force against demons. In modern times, the sheela na gig has become a pagan symbol.” The figure is found all over the United Kingdom, as well as in France and Spain, and as far away as the Czech Republic.

From a sheer numbers standpoint, it is Ireland that the claims the most sheela na gig carvings, and the England-Wales border is the home of the best known carving, the sheela of Kilpeck Church. Experts say that during the Victorian era, many of the carvings were destroyed or altered, thanks to the repressive social mores of the time.

Eamonn P. Kelly suggests that etymologically, the sheelas may be connected to the second-century Saint Cecelia, who fiercely guarded her virginity and told her Roman Pagan husband that she was betrothed to an angel, and was therefore sexually unavailable. I’m not sure that line would hold water today, but at the time, it must have worked.

The Irish Gaelic name Sile is a derivative of the Roman Caecelia. Kelly goes on to point out that later Sile became associated with guardianship of the land, and the Sile na Gadra was a personification of Ireland itself. Kelly theorizes that “linguistic and folklore evidence suggests that sheela-na-gigs may have become associated with the protection and control of land and lordly status.” It’s entirely possible that the sheelas were not simply carvings of wanton and fertile women, or even of sin and lust, but guardians and protectors of the Irish people and the land upon which they lived.

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