Sheela na Gig Theories

If you are not familiar with sheela na gigs then these links will help you to get to know her.
What is a Sheela na Gig?

Sheela na gig myths
The many names of Sheela na Gig

Much has been written about these mysterious figures and what they mean. After all a woman brazenly showing her genitals is a strange thing to find in a church. There are a number of theories which have waxed and waned in popularity over the years. Here is a list of the theories and the pros and cons for each one. None of these are conclusive but some do seem to have more evidence to support them than others. They are:

A Celtic Pagan Survival
An Example of the Goddess
A Fertility Figure
A Warning Against Lust
Protection Against Evil

The truth is despite much conjecture and pondering we still do not really know what the sheela na gig is meant to represent.
What is a Sheela Na Gig?
A Sheela Na Gig is a carving of a woman with exposed and/or exaggerated genitalia, usually found on religious buildings.  Bearing this in mind, before we go onto to discuss the characteristics of a Sheela Na Gig, I will ask you a question. Which of the above is a Sheela Na Gig? If you think the last image is a sheela then top marks and go to the top of the class. However the truth of the matter is that at one time or another all of the above figures have been called Sheela Na Gigs. The first figure at Llanbadarn Fawr in Mid Wales is broken at the waist and lacks the exposed genitalila which would fit the definition. It is however referred to as a sheela in the church guide. A couple touring Ireland asked to see the Sheela Na Gigs housed in the Irish National Museum in Dublin. They had been touring the country looking at the figures however they were shocked to the core when they saw the figures in the basement. What they had actually been looking at on their travels were heads similar to the second figure from Kilpeck. The third figure is the male figure at Painswick. This and another figure from Margam have been referred to as Sheela Na Gigs even by people in academia. The truth of the matter is that male figures have no generic name like the female figures. Other examples of non sheela figures being called sheelas include hands in lap figures and monstrous exhibitionists. Ultimately though a Sheela Na Gig is a female exhibitionist figure although the name seems to be increasingly used for any sexual or anomalous figure on a church.
Sheela Na Gig Myths
1. Sheela na gigs are Irish
While Ireland has by far and away the most Sheela na gig figures, female exhibitionist figures are very much an international phenomenon. They can be found in the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium and in the former Czech republic. More are turning up all the time. The best known sheela na gig originates from the English/Welsh border in the UK (Kilpeck)

2. Sheela na gigs are "Masons Jokes"
This explanation for the figures is almost universally applied to any exhibitionist/anomalous figure appearing on a church. If they are a joke then its a remarkably consistent one. Saying that some figures seem to have satirical elements (Romsey)

3. Sheela na gigs are the female counterpart of the Green Man.
Where sheela na gigs and green men do exist on the same church there is no evidence to suggest that they are connected in any way. Centaurs, lions and cats heads are also fairly common motifs on Romanesque churches but no one suggests that they are connected. It would be safer to say that sheelas are the counterpart of the phallic males figures found in the same context. There is a theory that some of the missing corbels at Kilpeck, which were destroyed during the Victorian period, held phallic figures. Studland in Dorset holds both a damaged megaphallic male and a megavulvic female and St John in Devizes has a corbel which consists of a sheela na gig along side a masturbating male figure.  In addition to this many of the green men we see in churches today come from a much later period than the Romanesque. 

4.  Sheela na gigs are fierce, monstrous or intimidating
While this may be true for some figures, especially in Ireland, it in no way applies to the majority of the figures. A large number seem to be smiling and are quite cheerful looking (Kilpeck being a good example).

5. Sheela na gigs represent old hags
Again this does not apply to all of the figures. This may originate from the Irish epithet for some of the figures "The Hag of the Castle". For the vast majority of the figures they are represented in much the same way as other Romanesque figurative carvings. Several other of the corbels at Kilpeck are as bald as the sheela, at least one example in France clearly represents a young  woman, other examples are quite fat (Whittlesford) and at least one Irish example had long flowing hair. Calling the figures hags is very much an interpretation of the carving rather than an obvious feature.


Celtic Pagan Survival
By far and away this is definitely the most popular and widely held belief about the origin of sheelas. The figure is meant to represent a survival of pagan, usually Celtic beliefs which have been incorporated into the newcomer Christian church. There are a number of explanations given for how these figures came to be there. Disobedient artists/sculptors paying lip service to the old gods. Local populations insisting that their old goddess is included into the new church. The inclusion of a pagan idol from an older temple, perhaps as a way of nullifying its pagan power. Interestingly the pagan origin for the figures is the one most often referred to in church literature. So what evidence is there for these figures being pagan in origin? Given the widely held nature of this belief there is surprisingly little evidence to support it. It seems mainly to stem from the modern view that "How could anything this vulgar be Christian". This is probably a hangover from the uber puritanical values of the Victorian era. Basically we are painting an old statue with the modern colours of our own beliefs.
When we look at actual pagan statuary for a proto sheela, then more problems arise than solutions. British and Continental Celtic statuary tended towards the classical due to the Roman influence while Irish stone carving tended towards representations of the head and abstract patterns. In what little stone Celtic carving does exist we don't see the sheela na gig motif or anything that could have been a precursor to it. What wooden figures have survived from the Celtic era do not show any obvious relation to the sheela motif either. Some authors have tried to draw a parallel between some of the figures such as the one from Ballachulish in Scotland but the similarities seem contrived rather than blindingly obvious. Other authors have drawn a link between sheelas and Baubo figurines. Again there is little evidence to support a link but a recent discovery of a Baubo figurine in France may indicate that there might be more of a link than previously thought. A corollary to this is the inclusion of the sheela na gig into the pantheon of "Goddess" images which we will go onto next.
An Example of "The Goddess"
The goddess movement can be described loosely as a unstructured "religion"  based on gender feminist spiritual philosophies. Followers often cite the works of Marija Gimbutas who put forward the theory that prehistoric societies were matriarchal in character and as a result peaceful and civilised. Whatever the truth behind these beliefs, believers collect female goddess images as proof of this matriarchal religion. However these collections tend to pay scant attention to origin and era of the carvings mixing Prehistoric Venus figures from Europe with figures from Çatalhöyük in Turkey and our Sheela na gigs. Since sheelas are usually found European medieval churches and there are no obvious ancient precursors to the sheela then any connection between these figures and prehistoric ones would be based on a "poetic reality" than an actual one. 
When referred to as a goddess Sheelas are usually associated with the Crone aspect of the goddess in the Maiden, Mother, Crone triad as popularised by Robert Graves in the 20th century. Despite being associated with the infertile Crone aspect of the triad another theory holds that the figure is associated with fertility.
A Fertility Goddess
Due to the sexual nature of sheelas then the most obvious connection would be one of fertility. However as with the other theories this one does not sit easily on some figures. None of the figures are shown giving birth or are shown with a baby. Only one unequivocal birthing figure is known in the UK at present (There is another figure in Spain). This is at Romsey Abbey and is somewhat questionable because it is a modern reproduction. This figure is also completely unlike our sheela. When you try and pin down the characteristics of a sheela then you find that there is always an exception to any rules you come up with. Quite a few sheelas have ribs showing, small or non existent breasts, most are bald and some Irish sheelas are even scarred. None of these features would suggest a fertility function. However there are also sheelas which are plump, have large pendulous breasts, have hair and are even accompanied by male figures in a state of arousal. These do seem to suggest a fertility or at least sexual function. As we have seen before the sheela does not seem to have any direct unequivocal antecedents in pagan statuary. Where we do have symbols for fertility they more usually the cornucopia or Three Mothers figures in Romano Celtic art and representations of the penis in a other cultures. Despite this lack of evidence  the fertility function for sheelas is frequently quoted, usually in connection with the pagan goddess theory above. Sheelas are also often listed as the consort to the "green man". There is absolutely no evidence to support this with the majority of green men being carved at a later date than our sheelas. Where Sheelas and Green men exist in a Romanesque setting they are in no way connected. The Green Men and Sheela at Kilpeck being a good example of this.
However the Sheela na gig is associated with fertility in the modern mind. Barbara Freitag lists folklore associated with a number of figures in Ireland which do seem to have fertility associations with them. She also puts forward the theory that the figures are connected with birthing stones in her book Sheela Na Gigs Unraveling an Enigma. How old these traditions are is hard to tell but nevertheless sheelas are rubbed by women today wanting to conceive. In one case the sheela was said to be used to ease birth.  A modern reproduction of a sheela na gig was recently credited with fertility giving powers in an Irish newspaper.(Gay Cannon details the story here) If we are unsure of the original meaning of these figures then we can be at least sure they are serving a fertility function today.
A Romanesque Warning Against Lust
This theory was put forward by Anthony Weir and James Jerman in the book Images of Lust. It is widely accepted in academia as being the most believable though it is not without it's detractors or inconsistencies. Barbara Freitag in her book "Sheela Na Gigs, Unraveling an Enigma" attacks the basis of some the dating evidence in Images of Lust. The theory puts forward the idea that the figures were carved as warnings against the sin of lust for a populace which was generally illiterate. It places the figures firmly in the medieval era (11th - 12th centuries or the Romanesque era in art terms) and ascribes a continental origin for the figures stating that the motif came up from Spain and France along the pilgrim routes. It seems to have been forgotten that Jorgen Andersen was tending towards a continental origin for sheelas and in fact provided the impetus for the research behind the book. This theory has by far and away the most evidence to back it up. Sheela figures generally are found on Romanesque churches with some notable but younger exceptions in Ireland. Exhibitionist figures of both sexes can be found on churches in Spain, France, Britain and Ireland and many other countries. The Kilpeck sheela,  by far and away the most popular and the one most commonly referred to as pagan,  can be dated with some certainty to the 12th Century. In addition to this, the theory that carvings were used as a method of instruction is based on fact. On at least one church in Europe a Romanesque scene depicting hell is accompanied by an inscription the gist of which is "Let this be a warning to you".  There has even been a book written on the subject called "The Vilein's Bible" which documents how church sculpture was used to provide moral lessons to a largely illiterate population of poorly educated people.
Despite having the best supporting evidence it is by far and away the least popular in the public imagination, possibly because it "solves" the problem of sheelas and takes away the mystery. Saying that there are some problems with this theory. Some figures such as the one at Oxford were situated high on a tower and were not readily visible from the ground. If it was a warning against lust then why was it not displayed in a more visible location. Sheelas which reside on secular buildings do not fit easily into this theory. Many sheelas in Ireland are high up on towers and some are even "hidden" to some extent. These anomalies however can be explained to some degree by the portable nature of the carvings and the constant renewal of buildings over the ages and the resulting re-use of sculpture around the building. While this theory does seem reasonable it does not successfully explain all the figures. 
Protection against evil
This theory is put forward in both The Witch on the Wall and Images of Lust and for some figures at least it seems to hold true. It holds that sheelas were placed above windows and doors to prevent the devil/evil from entering. Jorgen Andersen devotes a whole chapter to this theory in the Witch on the Wall quoting an Irish custom where a woman of a "certain class" would expose herself to a man to ensure good luck for him. There is also a tradition that the devil cannot stand the sight of a woman's sex. Both of these customs lend weight to the protective or apotropaic function for sheelas. There are a number of examples which seem confirm this view. The small sheela of Oxford lay out of sight high on a tower which made up part of the North gate into the city. Not readily visible from the ground it nevertheless could have acted as a invisible talisman against evil entering the city. The sheela at Haddon Hall also seems to be serving a protective function. Many sheelas in Ireland also seem to confirm this theory as they are above doorways in castles and other buildings. However there are equally as many figures where the theory seems less likely. The Sheela at Kilpeck is part of corbel table and not directly above any door (It does lie near the priests door)  similarly the one a Stoke Sub Hamdon is also part of a corbel table. Ely Cathedral has two sheelas on the corbel table not associated with any doors or windows. Again while the protective theory does seem to have some merit it does not explain all the figures.
The many names of Sheela na gig. 
Although Sheela na gig has become the standard name for these figures this usage only dates from John O'Dononvan's  article in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840-44 and applies to a figure from Kiltinane church in Ireland. The Sheela part of the name is thought to derive from Sile which the is the Irish form of the Anglo Norman name Cecily or Cecile. There are also many other less well known names associated with figures : 
The Idol Associated with the Binstead figure in the Isle of Wight. This is the oldest recorded name for a figure being mentioned in 1781 in the History of the Isle of Wight by R. Worsley and mentioned again in 1795 by J.Albin in "A New, Correct and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight" (Andersen).
“The Idol” name was also applied to the sheela in Lusk, County Dublin in Ireland. The Lusk figure (now missing believed buried) was named as "a Danish Idol" by the 18th century antiquarian Austin Cooper in his diaries around 1783. For more information on this figure visit Gay Cannon's site Ireland's Sheela Na Gigs. (Andersen and Gay Cannon) 
The Saxon Idol Alternate local name for the Binstead sheela. In use in the 1950's. Reported by local resident Paul Sivell (SNGP). The Saxon epithet possibly derives from the 1781 articles which states "it is vulgarly called the Idol but probably was one of those strange figures which  Saxon or Norman architects commonly placed on keystones or frizes" (sic).
Julian the Giddy or Julia the Giddy Translation of Sheela na gig made by Thomas Wright in 1866 The translation to Julian or Julia is from the Irish Sile.  (Andersen)
Julie la Giddy d’Angleterre G.J. Witkowski in L’Art profane a l’eglise: ses licences symboliques stayriques et fantaisistes 1908 (Andersen)
Cathleen Owen Applied to a sheela at Moycarky Castle Co. Tipperary. Refers to a local legend. (Andersen)
St Gobonet or St Gobnat Ballvourney. An Irish female saint. The figure at Ballyvourney is included in a religious "pattern" made to venerate the saint. (Andersen)
St Inghean Bhaoith Killnaboy figure, County Clare (Freitag)
The Witches Stone Refers to a damaged figure from Newton Castle Ireland. (Andersen)
The Witch Cloghan Castle County Offaly (Freitag)
Peader Taidhg Buidhe or Peader Táille Bhuidhe Another unexplained name for the Newton Castle figure (Andersen recorded by Etienne Rynne)
The Nun on the Potty Applied to the Romsey abbey figure by local schoolchildren. (SNGP from a local resident)
The Whore of Kilpeck Naturally enough applies to the Kilpeck figure I am unable to find its original use but it seems to very much in use today. If anyone can shed any light on the origin please get in touch. (Roberts)
The Water God Applied to the Croft on Tees figure. Local legend also holds that the figure once adorned a bridge. (SNGP)
The Devil Stone Applied to the Copgrove figure. (Freitag, Weir and Jerman)
Evil eye stones Applied to various figures. (Freitag)
The Hag of the Castle Applied to various figures. JRSAI 1894 (Andersen, Freitag, Weir and Jerman)
The Girl of the Paps (Weir and Jerman)
Sheela of the Paps (Andersen)
St Shanahan Dowth County Meath figure (Weir and Jerman, Freitag)
Sheila O'Dwyer (Weir and Jerman)
The Clunch Stone Local name for the Easthorpe figure. Clunch refers to the material it is carved from. (Weir and Jerman, SNGP)
Freya Local name for the Pennington figure. The church also has 12th century runic inscriptions (Weir and Jerman). The name was told to Richard N. Bailey in 1979 by a local resident. It was then published a number of years later in his article "Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England" (Folklore vol 94;i 1983). This makes this one of the newer names and is probably associated with the runic inscriptions on the church tympanum.
The Dancer Local name for the Ballyfinboy sheela in Ireland. (Gay Cannon)
Sheela na gig Variants. 

Sheela na gig is just one spelling of a myriad of different forms with completely different meanings

Sheela(s) Truncation of Sheela na gig. In common usage today but was also recorded as being in use in 1894 (Freitag)                                                          
Sheela ny Gigg Initial spelling used by John O'Donovan or Thomas O’Conor (Andersen)
Síle (Sheela) Ni Ghig Alternate spelling usually attributed to John O'Donovan but actually on a letter signed by his colleague Thomas O’Conor. Both spellings were used (Freitag)
Shila na Gigh Used by Johan Georg Kohl in 1842 as a generic name for the figures (Freitag)
Shela na gig George Witt (Freitag)
Sheela na jig Simpson also appears in a French Journal 1877 (Freitag)
Seela of the jig Robert Craig MacLagan (Freitag)
Seela na gig Applied to the Pennington Sheela by Canon Kenworthy (Freitag)
Sheela na gich Used by Canon Kenworthy in relation to Irish sheelas which is a corruption of …… (Freitag)
Sela na geich Canon Kenworthy again giving his opinion of what the name originally meant i.e. “of the breasts” (Freitag)
Sheela na Guira Cullahill Castle, Co Laois. Refers to the head of the O'Gara family a reputed oppressor of the people. (Andersen)
Síle Ní Guíre or Síle Ní Dhuibhir Alternate spellings of the above (Freitag)
Sileadh na gCíoch “The shedding of liquid from the breasts” Bob Quinn in the Atlantean. Contrived translation (Freitag)
Sheelanagigg W.F. Wakeman in the JRSAI 1880 (Freitag)
Sheelanagyg William Borlase 1897 (Freitag)
Sheela na gyg William Borlase 1897 in the same article as above. Translated as “Image of the Giantess” where Gyg is a Norse name for a giantess (Freitag)
Síle (or Sighle) na gCíoch Sheela of the breasts (Andersen)
Síle na Giob Andersen’s suggested translation. Sheela on her hunkers (Andersen)
Shee Lena Gig This theory has been put forward by Ed O'Riordan which interprets the name as an aural mistranslation. In this interpretation Sheela becomes Shee or "Fairy", the la is added to Na becoming Lena meaning "with her" and Gig becomes Gee modern Irish slang for a woman's sex. This then translated to Fairy with her Vagina. This should be treated with caution though as Shee (Sidhe) meaning Fairy and Gee meaning genitals are in modern usage only.
The name in brackets refers to the authors who have mentioned the name. SNGP refers to original research done by the Sheela na gig Project.

 


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