A picture of the Egremont Sheela Na Gig
A picture of the Egremont Sheela Na Gig

A Lost Sheela 

This figure was discovered during the building of St Mary’s church Egremont in the 1800’s. While the current building dates from that period the old church was said to include elements of Norman and Early English architecture. The figure was documented by Dr C.A. Parker in his paper “Early Sculpted Stones at Gosforth, Ponsonby, St Bridget’s, Haile and Egremont” published in 1902. The photo to the right comes from this publication.  A comparison between this figure and the Donna Impudica figure in Milan was made by Richard N Bailey in his paper “Apotropaic Figures in Milan and North-West England” published in 1983 in Folklore vol. 94;i Both figures hold what appear to be shears and are in the act of cutting their pubic hair. In this article Baliey mentions that the figure was not mentioned in a later book by Parker in 1926 and states that the figure was already lost at that time.

However a recent online guide “Ghosts in the Lake District” written by Tony Walker ( mentions a sheela na gig at Egremont church.

“in the churchyard near the west door are fragments of sculpture. One of them is very interesting in that it is very old and looks very much like what, in Ireland, they call a Sheela na Gig. It’s difficult to make out, but it seems to be a barbaric carving of a female figure with both hands holding her vulva apart.”

Unfortunately this guide is no longer available online. It’s interesting that the above description does not exactly match the figure on the left with both hands holding the vulva apart.

I contacted Mr. Walker and tried to confirm that the  carving to the left was one of the ones mentioned but unfortunately he could not remember them as he had visited the church a number of years earlier. I also contacted the vicar of the church but unfortunately no further information was available. If anyone knows any more about these carvings then please let me know as it would be nice to re-discover this lost carving. For another lost sheela see the St Ives figure.

A Crude Carving

One of the more puzzling aspects of exhibitionist figures, especially sheela na gigs, is that the quality of carving can vary considerably. In the Egremont sheela we have an example of a fairly crude, “stick figure” representation. The usual explanation for this is that the figure is “ancient”  and that our predecessors lacked the skill of later artists. However we should be careful about equating crude with old. 12th century sculpture varied considerably in its quality. For example the sheelas at Lower Swell and Church Stretton are fairly crude when compared to Kilpeck or Holdgate however we can be fairly certain that they all date from around the same period i.e. the 12th century. Anthony Weir has put forward a “non sculptor sculptors” theory where the sculptor carving the figure was making it for ritual purposes (either apotropaic or linked to fertility) and was not a trained sculptor. Another more prosaic reason for the variable quality could be down to economic reasons i.e. highly trained sculptors were too expensive. There is some evidence to suggest that the reason for the crude quality of carving of the Church Stretton sheela is down to economic reasons rather than the carving being “ancient”.

If you have any information on this figure please  Email the Sheela Na Gig Project .