Friday, October 15, 2010

Sheela na Gig. or is it Sidhe Lena Gig???

Sheela Na Gig

Sheela-na-gigs are stone carvings of naked females that use one or both hands to direct the viewer's attention to their genital area. Although some were carved in the 12th century, they did not come to the attention of scholars until about 1840. There has been much debate about their origin, meaning and role since then. Ireland has the most by far of any other country. Some suggest they were brought here by the Anglo-Normans, some say they are Celtic in origin.

Although it is now a type-name to describe the figures, many had individual local names such as Evil Eye Stone, Hag of the Castle, Witch on the Wall, Julia the Giddy, and St Gobnait.

In 1676, two Irish Church regulations ordered the burning of obscene carvings of naked women and, even earlier in 1631, provincial statutes for Tuam, Co. Galway, ordered parish priests to hide away such carvings and 'take note of where they were hidden. Although the church regulations don't use the term, it is very possible that the figures referred to were those known today as Sheela-na-gigs. The order to 'burn' them suggests that some were made from combustible material, possibly wood.

One suggestion concerning the real meaning of the name Sheela Na Gig revolves around the fact that place names in Ireland are almost always corruptions of Gaelic words and you have to listen to the place name rather than read it in order to understand it. It is necessary to hear the name as our ancestors heard it. In Irish this could mean that Sheela Na Gig when spoken was Sidhe Lena Gig. Now if you follow this path then Sidhe is Irish for Fairy, Lena could mean ‘with her’ and Gig is Irish for sexual appendage. Put all together you arrive at Sidhe Lena Gig (Sheela na Gig) meaning Fairy with her sexual appendage. As I said, it is only one suggestion.

There are various interesting theories surrounding the Sheela na Gig and I include some of those here. There has even been a suggestion that there is evidence of a male version and yes it’s called Séan na Gig. However we will leave Séan for another day.

A fertility symbol.

When you first look at these figures with their prominent genitalia you may see them as some form of fertility symbol and most books would support this view but there may be other ways of interpreting them.

A warning against lust.

It has been suggested that the early Christian church used Sheela na Gig to support their moral teachings. They were used to put people off sex and to show that eternal damnation awaited those who succumbed to the sins of the flesh. To vilify women. Of course the Sheela na Gig pre-dates these frustrated eejits and there have been many suggestions why the Christian church had a problem with women but I won’t go into that here. It has a certain irony because in modern Ireland women have reclaimed the figure as a symbol of strength and independence.

A protection against the evil eye.

Another theory says that the Sheela na Gig figure was erected in order to give protection from malevolent forces such as the evil eye. The fact that many of the figures were placed high up on the walls of castles and churches out of sight of passersby could support this. An example of this is Ratoo round tower. Here the Sheela na Gig is inside the north window recess on the top of the tower.

Celtic goddess theory.

It has been suggested that the figure is the third in the Celtic goddess trinity of maiden –mother-crone. In her aspect as the crone. She is inviting the hero back into her womb to death. Through this figure we are reminded that we are all born of Mother Earth and we will all return to her in death. I suppose you could say “From the womb to the tomb”.

I like all the above theories as they all offer something to the pot.


  1. Sean na Gig

    The Winner:

    The hulk of a man with a beer in his hand looked like a drunken old fool,
    And I knew that if I hit him right, I could knock him off that stool.
    But everybody said, "Watch out -- that's Tiger Man O’Toole.
    He's had a whole lot of fights, and he always come out the winner.
    Yeah, he was a winner."

    But I'd had myself about five too many, and I walked up tall and proud,
    I faced his back and I faced the fact that he'd never stooped or bowed.
    I said, "Tiger Man, you're a pussycat," and a hush fell on the crowd,
    I said, "Let's you and me go outside and see who's the winner"

    Well, he gripped the bar with one big hairy hand and he braced against the wall,
    He slowly looked up from his beer -- my God, that man was tall.
    He said, "Boy, I see you're a scrapper, so just before you fall,
    I'm gonna tell you just a little about what it means to be a winner."

    He said, "You see these bright white smiling' teeth, you know they ain't my own.
    Mine rolled away like Chiclets down a street in Athlone.
    But I left that punk cursing', nursing' seven broken bones.
    And he only broke three of mine, and that makes me a winner."

    He said, "Behind this grin, I got a steel pin that holds my jaw in place.
    A trophy of my most successful motorcycle race.
    And every morning' when I wake and touch this scar across my face,
    It reminds me of all that I got by being a winner.

    Now my broken back was the dying' act of handsome Harry Clay
    That sticky Kilkenny night I stole his wife away.
    But that woman, she gets uglier and meaner every day.
    But I got her, boy, and that's what makes me a winner.

  2. Origin of Sheelas & Sean na Gigs

    Conventional wisdom suggests that Sheelas had their genesis in the exhibitionist carvings that adorn 11th and 12th century Romanesque churches on Continental Europe. Among the many exhibitionists that warn against the sins of the flesh are naked (often voluptuous) women in compromising situations, adulteresses, ithyphallic men, misers, musicians with bestial faces and contortionists with exposed anus. These sinners are usually in the company of others of their ilk in, for example, depictions of the Damned in Hell.
    Pilgrims to Compostella or Rome were confronted by these images at almost every stop on the journey, and wealthy English patrons had some of them incorporated in churches on their return from pilgrimage. There is general acceptance that these exhibitionist figures were then brought to Irish churches by the Normans.
    The earliest surviving carving of an Irish Romanesque exhibitionist is on the chancel arch of the Nun's Church. Although often described as a Sheela, it is an acrobat or contortionist and is not a Sheela. [8] However, its presence on a pre-Norman Irish structure casts some doubt on the conventional theory that the Normans introduced exhibitionists to Ireland.
    Irish Sheela-na-gigs, although undoubtedly exhibitionist, have characteristics that distinguish them from the sinners portrayed on Continental churches. Continental female exhibitionists are almost always in the company of other sinners, are anatomically correct, and most are inside churches. Insular Sheelas in their original location are always solitary and are often anatomically distorted. The heads of many are triangular with protruding eyes and ears, and grotesque mouths that display either an ugly array of teeth or a toothless grimace. Most are bald and some have deeply incised rib cages, features associated with aged hags. However, their arms and legs are often those of a young woman.