In architecture a grotesque refers to a mythical creature used in decoration. Often quite hideous and outlandish, they adorn early modern stone buildings such as local churches, cathedrals and castles.
Sheela na gigs are a form of grotesque but… well, they’re a bit of an odd phenomenon. Mainly located in Ireland and Great Britain (although some examples have been found in France and Spain) they are stone carvings, usually on churches, of a naked person displaying an exaggerated vulva.
Their date of their origin is debated. Weir and Jerman (1993) and Anderson (1977) believe they reached Britain and Ireland some time around the 12th century and are predominately a warning against lust. However, others state they are the remnants of pre-Christian fertility Goddess (Freitag 2004; McMahon & Roberts 2000). Murray (1934) and Ross (2004) both identify the figure as a version of Cailleach, although their existence in mainland European countries would suggest they would more likely be local interpretations of the hag archetype rather than a specific deity or figure.
My personal favourite possible explanation for the existence of Shella na gigs is as a form of apotropaic magic – magic used as a protection against evil. Anasyrma (literally ‘skirt-lifting’) has been recorded in folkloric contexts for centuries. Pliny the Elder wrote that a menstruating woman could scare away pests by roaming through a field naked, and according to northern Albanian folklore, women could halt flooding by simply lifting their skirts (thus scaring the Gods). Their prominent position over windows and doorways further supports this theory, suggesting they were protecting a building’s entrances. The vast majority of Sheela na gigs are found in rural areas and are often the only form of artistic imagery within the building (Freitag 2004). Their crude realism and poor workmanship are indicative of a local craftsperson rather than a skilled stonemason, suggesting they belong to local folk art rather than widespread tradition.
The etymology of Sheela na gig is also widely disputed, but it would likely make this post very long! If you’d like a deep dive post on the awesome phenomena that is Sheela na gig let me know in the comments.
Anderson, J. (1977) The Witch on the Wall. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger.
Freitag, B. (2004) Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma. London: Routledge. (This is excellent and a PDF of the whole book is available on Google Scholar)
Jerman, J. and Weir, A. (1993) Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches. London: Routledge.
McMahon, J. and Roberts, J. (2004) The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide. Cork: Mercier Press.
Ross, B. (2004) ‘The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts’ in The Witch Figure (ed. V Newall). London: Routledge.
Murray, M. (1934) ‘Female Fertility Figures’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol 64. pp 93 – 100.