In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day; I’m going to share some information about a particularly ancient symbol. Sheela na gigs are figurative carvings of naked women found on churches, castles, and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Great Britain.
Such carvings are said to ward off death and evil, like other grotesques, such as gargoyles and were frequently part of church decorations all over Europe. It is commonly said that their purpose was to keep evil spirits away. They often are positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.
Almost all of the surviving sheela na gigs (still attached to standing building) are found in areas of twelfth century Anglo-Norman conquest. The areas that remained "native Irish" have few sheela na gigs. Scholars Weir and Jerman argue that their location on churches and the grotesque features of the figures, by medieval standards, suggests that they represented female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.Another theory by scholars McMahon and Roberts, is that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion. They note what they claim are differences in materials and styles of some sheela na gigs from their surrounding structures, and noting that some are turned on their side, to support the idea that they were incorporated from previous structures into early Christian buildings.
Ireland has the greatest number of known sheela na gigs. At one time, they were mistakenly thought to be a uniquely Irish practice, however, scholars realized that the sheela na gig motif could be found all over western and central Europe. Accurate numbers of figures are difficult to reach, as the interpretation of what is a sheela na gig will vary among scholars.
There is no consensus about the origin and meaning of the name in Ireland, as it is not directly translatable into Irish. While the most common interpretation of a sheela na gig is "a pagan idol" there is little evidence for a pagan connection. The prevalence of sheelas in Ireland (far more so than anywhere else) suggests that even if the image originates on the continent the image has meaning for the Irish. However the pagan interpretation of sheelas is by far the most popular and generates most of the debate on the figures.For more information on Sheela-na-gigs, looks for links on our Facbeook page. For the Celtic Cultural Alliance, I’m Silagh White. Slainte.