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|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.|
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
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.