One of My Favorite Historic Symbols: The Vulva Flashing Sheela-Na-Gig
OK, I know — history-shmistory. What’s the point of resurrecting the past?
Well, for one, there’s all the stuff they didn’t teach you in school and believe me, I’m willing to bet that your peregrinations into world history did not include Baubo, the Black Madonna or even Salmacis — one of the only female rapists in the Greek pantheon. So let’s start off with one of my favorite symbols: the vulva-flashing sheela-na-gig of the British Isles.
Image of Sheela from Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire, England
So what are sheela-na-gigs all about?
These enigmatic stone carvings of females are typically depicted in a squatting position — sometimes shown with their thighs wide open, displaying their genitals. Their vulvas are often over-exaggerated — and their stance ranges from aggressive and fierce to comical and benign.
Sheela-na-gigs are found in Scotland, England and Wales, with the majority located in Ireland. Many sheelas can be found on the walls of medieval churches. One of the most extraordinary examples — located on the outside wall of a church in southwest England —shows a sheela-na-gig with an enormous vulva complete with clitoral hood. Yes — on the outside of a church!
(Image here of Oaksey Sheela)
So what does the term sheela-na-gig mean? There are two possible derivations from Gaelic, the Irish language. The first is Síle na gCioch (old lady of the breasts) or Síle ina Ghuib (old lady on her hunkers). The term is now widely used by both historians and archaeologists and applies to sheelas found elsewhere in the British Isles. Over one hundred figures have been recorded in Ireland and over forty in Britain.
Scholars can’t seem to agree about the meaning or function of these figures. The popular public perception is that the sheela-na- gig represents an ancient pagan symbol of sacred female power. This, however, is furiously disputed by academics.
The deeply sexual aspect of sheelas has fanned all sorts of fantasies and theories. Some “sheela-nistas” want to believe these figures represent an iconic pagan fertility goddess but sheelas are almost always represented as old crones with sagging breasts. Some historians believe them to be medieval warning symbols of the dangers of female lust.
Example of Studland sheela with big clit
This sheela-na-gig sports not only an exaggerated vulva but a very defined clit as well.
On the other hand, some sheelas can be found in prominent positions over windows and doorways, sometimes as the corner stone located near a main entrance — and seem to serve as protective figures assigned to ward off evil. Possibly, these mysterious female figures are remnants of a pre-Christian pagan past, re-used in later Christian buildings.
Example of Sheela in Kilsarkan, County Kerry, Ireland
By the 17th century, sheela na gigs not only disappeared from religious architecture but many were also destroyed.
Whether vestiges of a pagan past or a more recent sex-negative Christian symbol, the sheela-na-gig continues to resonate as a powerful and profound icon of female sex energy.
Example of Sheela, County Cavan, Ireland