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Irish Spirituality


Jack Roberts and Joanne McMahon Since the time of the Reformation in Ireland, Sheela-na-Gigs have been regarded as obscene objects to be hidden away. To this day, they are not available for viewing even though the Irish National Museum has a large collection. However, during the medieval period and even earlier, they were placed in prominent places on churches and castles and quite clearly played an important role in the religious iconography of the time.
Sheela-na-Gigs are carvings of female images depicted as naked and posing in a manner which accentuated that most powerfully evocative symbol ñ the vulva.

They were erected on many churches of the medieval period and were almost invariably placed in a very prominent position such as over the main entrance door or a window. In Ireland, where the practice continued into the later middle ages, they are found on castles and some other important structures.

The Sheela-na-Gigs are primarily sacred religious symbols but their very nature has tended to work against them and historians have been reluctant to treat them seriously. They are generally referred to as protective talismans, good luck symbols, and more recently the suggestion that they were put on the churches as ëwarnings against sin and lustí has found favour. But tradition does not support this view and all references to them indicate that they were highly regarded, revered images that evidently held an exalted position within the religious iconography of the earlier church.

The practice of carving Sheela-na-Gigs began sometime in the Early Christian era but for various reasons the use of the image spread rapidly during the medieval period, the llth-15th centuries. The later medieval period is an era known for its ëCeltic revivalismí when many Sheelas traditionally said to have come from older churches were reused on castles.
The carving of Sheela-na-Gigs continued into the late 1500ís but ended abruptly at the beginnlng of the 17th century. This corresponds with the Reformation or the heavy puritanical take-over of the religious system and the final collapse of almost all vestiges of the traditional Celtic/Irish church. The Sheela-na-Gigs began to disappear, discreetly removed and hidden away, or cast down along with other heretical images.
Ireland has by far the greatest number of Sheela-na-Gigs which is due to the later practice of placing them on castles and a continuity of tradition which has preserved a greater quantity of all types of monuments in Ireland .
The relatively low number of known British figures may reflect their original distribution but we may never know how many were removed from the earlier churches. The British Sheela-na-Gigs have however been largely neglected and they are often not included in inventories of church ornamennt.
Many of the Sheelas have been damaged in some way, and others have been hidden, buried, or totally destroyed. A number of those recorded in the last century cannot now be found and those carvings that are still in their original positions are still a very endangered part of our heritage.
The first official record of the folk term Sheela-na-Gig was in a description of the figure on Kiltinane Church by John OíDonovan in his Ordnance Survey ìLettersî of 1840. At around the same time the name was also recorded in relation to the Rochestown figure. Both of these figures are now missing.
The Irish rendering is usually Sile na gCioch. Sheela or Sile means femininity but it also means a special kind of woman, a Hag or Spiritual Woman and also relates to the word for a Spirit or Fairy in Irish, the Sidhe (pronounced Shee). The word Gig is usually interpreted as gCioch or Giob meaning the breasts or the buttocks, but it could equally be related to such words as Gui, to pray. The figures were also known by the names of saints or were commonly referred to as the ëHagí or ëCailleachí (meaning both old woman and nun) or the ëIdolí.
Sheela-na-Gigs are carved in a tradition of symbolic rather than representational or realistic form. They are arcane figures wherein every aspect of the carvings, the eyes, the ears, tattooing, head-dresses, the position of their arms and legs, let alone the great variety of ways in which the genital organs are featured, have a meaning.
It was common to depict the Celtic Gods and Goddesses as non-human or even ugly in order ëto impress mortals with their powerî. Such symbolism as the one-legged stance and the staring eyes are thought to be the ìstance of the magicianî.
The vulva has been revered as the central and most powerful symbol for virtually all older cultures since remote antiquity. Unlike the ëfertilityí or Mother Goddess image where the breasts and belly are overtly emphasised, direct reference to the genitals usually symbolises death, life and regeneration.


Tradition and Folklore
Many of the figures were, and in some instances still are, considered to have an ëapotropaicí function that is the ability to ëturn the evil eyeí. It has been suggested that their usage on Irish castles may relate to warding off attack from the nearest border of the tuath. This alone implies that the figures were regarded as being invested with great power.
A letter to the Irish Times in 1977 relates how a faction fight in 1913 was averted when ëthe bean-a-tighe lifted her skirts displaying naked genitalsí. Margaret Killop, in The Folklore of the Isle of Man, states that at the ceremonial bonfires ìwomen used to stride over the fire, exposing their vulva to the beneficial influence of the flame, and blessing it with their powerî, since the female genitals were believed to have magical powers to avert evil and misfortune.
Johann Kohl, a German traveller to Ireland in the 1840ís, recorded that the figures of displayed women on churches had something to do with the ancient custom of averting ill luck. An afflicted man might turn to a certain class of females, known as ìShila na Gighî, who would display themselves in order to avert evil and bring about good luck. In 1936, Edith Guest records a meeting with a woman from the Macroom district, who understood the word sheela-na-gig as being an old woman.
The images of the goddess in her hag form occur frequently in mythology and they are generally regarded as a grotesque older woman possessed of supernatural powers. In the story of Da Dergaís Hostel, the hag curses the king who refuses her entry by ìstanding on one leg with one hand held up in the airî, a stance taken by a number of Sheela such as Kiltinane and Fiddington. In another translation she is described as the woman ìwhose pudenda hangs down to her kneesî.
A number of Sheela-na-Gigs are still regarded as being actual images of the saints and in each instance these are Christianised Pagan Goddesses whose worship goes back far beyond the Christian era. The figure over the doorway to Killinaboy is known as Innan Buidhe or St Buidhe and the Sheela at Clonlaragh was also known by the name Peadar Taigdhe Buidhe.
The Ballyvourney Sheela-na-Gig is known as an image of St Gobnait, who is regarded as one and the same person as St Brigit, the mythological goddess Brigid of pre-Christian times. The figure from the old mill, at Rosnaree, was also remembered by its former owner as being the image of an original Goddess.
The old clans or families had a strong attachment to the figures on their churches and castles and it may well be that they represented certain familiars or ruling spirits relating to the particular area or tribe. The figure from Cullahill was called Sheela na Guira and said to be Gillian OíDwyer, head of the OíGara Clan. The figure on Moycarkey Castle was known as Cathleen Owen, (Catherine ñ the Hag, Owen ñ the River).
The dust from rubbing the vulva was also thought to have a magical fertility or healing power and this can be seen on many Sheelas such as Castlemagner and Kilsarkan.

Pagan and Christian Origins

Christianity formed a thin veil over pre-Christian thought especially in societies like Ireland which were slow to change. Although both Ireland and Britain were nominally Christian from the 5th-6th century onwards, the symbolism of early Christianity was largely absorbed from the earlier pagan religions. The ancient pagan Goddesses became the new Christian saints.
Stone images of pagan origin such as the Janus figure from Boa Island precede the medieval Sheela and show the descent of the motif from pagan to Christian settings. Earlier predecessors of the Sheelas were carved in wood, as the few surviving wooden idols share the same archaic art form.
The surprisingly late date of the Sheelas (12th - 15th c.) in no way reflects the antiquity of the ideas they embody. Sheela-na-Gigs are virtually the only surviving element of one of the most important aspects of the native Celtic tradition, its feminine orientation or belief in the ultimate deity as symbolised in the Cailleach or Hag, the Goddess or the image of female spiritual power. D

Taken from ëThe Sheela-na-Gigs of Britain and Irelandí,an illustrated Map and Guide by Jack Roberts and Joanne McMahon. Bandia Publishing, Ireland, 1997. ISBN 19010 83 25 X.