The Sheela na Gig is another strange carving found in ecclesiastical buildings.
Sheela na Gig is probably a corrupt version of the Irish meaning 'old hag of the
breasts' or 'of the hunkers', referring to the figure's typical pose with bent legs.
Over one hundred carvings of these strange figures have been recorded in Ireland
and over forty in Britain, many were lost here after zealous clergy removed or
destroyed the statues.
It is unsure where and when these images originated, some believe that they were
first carved in Spain and France in the 11th century and then appeared in Britain
and Ireland in the 12th century.
This image is from Piacenza in Italy.
The images of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva is said to ward off
death and evil and are usually placed over doors or windows to protect the openings.
In Ireland the name of Sheela na Gig directly refers to the local wise women of the
time, otherwise known as the Hag. She would have carried on with her spell weaving
and cures despite the churches disapproval, and would have still been consulted by
the locals if they wanted to avert ill luck. Her main method of averting the evil eye
was to expose herself to the victim.
There is evidence in ancient folklore of anasyrma being used by women lifting up
their dresses to curse evil spirits. Anasyrma is the gesture of lifting the skirt or kilt
to expose the genitals. It has been used in connection with religious rituals,
eroticism and rude jokes.
Like the images of mermaids that can be found in churches, it is also thought that
Sheela na Gig images are a warning against female lust, while others believe that
she is a remnant of pre Christian fertility or mother goddess. This would explain
why there is evidence of the statues being rubbed by pilgrims, the power of the
dust from the carving was believed to have special healing powers.
The statue of the Sheela na Gig at Castlemagner in Ireland clearly shows this by
the wear on the figure, especially around the sacred centre of feminine power,
the vulva itself.
This example, one of the best preserved figures, is believed to have come from
the ruins of an 8th century church in Subulter which fell into disrepair in the 15th
century. This figure and another of St Michael can be found on either side of the
well which is dedicated to St Brigid.