The Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck in the English county of Herefordshire is famous for its Norman carvings of writhing snakes and mysterious beasts. But the most extraordinary of all is that of a sheela-na-gig.
Sheela-na-gigs are medieval stone figures of a naked woman spreading her legs. She is shown using her hands to pull open and proudly display her exaggerated genitals. What makes these figures so puzzling is the fact that they occur predominantly in medieval religious buildings, such as churches and monastic sites. They are not something you would expect to see in a church. But a sizable number of them have also been found in castles, holy wells, bridges, culverts, and pillars. These figures usually occur in isolation, unattached and freed from any background that could establish their provenance. Their origin and significance remain a mystery.
A sheela-na-gig at the Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck. Photo credit: Poliphilo/Wikimedia
When these bizarre carvings first came to scientific attention some two centuries ago, they were considered too vulgar, lewd, and repulsive for serious study. Embarrassed clergymen pried them out of church walls. Archeologists ignored them while museums locked them away out of public eyes. It was only in the last few decades that academics have turned their interests to these curious carvings.
While the sheela-na-gigs appear to be erotic in nature, they are most likely pagan symbols of fertility or warnings against lust. They might also have been used as protection against evil, and hence their positions over entranceways. In the Romanesque art of the mediaeval period, lust was often portrayed as a naked woman with snakes and toads eating her breasts and genitals. Church buildings along many pilgrimage routes depicted a range of exhibitionist figures, both male and female, to alert the faithful to the dangers of the sin of lust. The emphasis was always on the genitalia, which were made disproportionately larger. These Romanesque female exhibitionist carvings might have given rise to sheela-na-gigs.
The origin of the name, sheela-na-gigs, is also a mystery. According to Jorgen Andersen—whose book The Witch on the Wall , published in 1977, was the first serious book on sheela-na-gigs—the name comes from the Irish phrase Sighle na gCíoch, meaning “the old hag of the breasts”. But some scholars have expressed doubt on the connection since very few sheela-na-gigs are shown with breasts. One scholar, Barbara Freitag, discovered that “gig” was actually a Northern English slang word for a woman’s genitals.
Sheela-na-gigs can be found all over western and central Europe, but Ireland and Britain have the highest number of surviving sheela-na-gig carvings. The Heritage Council of Ireland has identified at least a hundred examples across the island. There are also about forty-five carvings in Britain.
Sheela-Na-Gig at the Romsey Abbey in Romsey, England. Photo credit: Jim Champion/Flickr
A Sheela-Na-Gig at Royston cave in Royston, England. Photo credit: picturetalk321/Flickr
Left: A sheela-na-gig on town wall in Fethard, County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo credit: Mairead/Flickr
Right: A sheela-na-gig at a museum. Photo credit: Bart Maguire/Flickr
A Sheela-Na-Gig in Rodel, Scotland. Photo credit: theilr/Flickr
Sources: Britannica / Wikipedia / Barbara Freitag / Nicola McDonald