Sheela na Gig is the name given to a squat, ugly female figure found carved in Celtic stonework, and is most well-known for the fact that she is depicted with exposed and/or grotesquely large genitals, which are often held open with her hands.
Throughout the ages Sheela-na-gigs have been a common figure in the stone carvings of churches in Ireland, England, and various European countries.
She is often portrayed together with the Green Man.
There are various theories regarding the origin of the Sheela-na-Gig figure. The most popular of these are:
Pre-Christian pagan symbol
According to the second, and most widespread, school of thought the figure is one of the numerous surviving Celtic symbols from the ancient pre-Christian era. Many of the examples found in European medieval churches, in fact, appear to be much older than the structures housing them, as if taken from a pre-existing site.
In this context, Sheela-na-Gig is closely related to the symbol of the Goddess, or the Great Mother – or, more specifically, to the Crone aspect of her, as in Celtic tradition she is said to have a three-fold nature – Maiden, Mother and Crone.
The sexual nature of the Sheela suggests that she may be a symbol of fertility. There is much controversy over this, however, as the figure is almost always represented as an ugly, old crone and is never shown with a child or giving birth. Some scholars, such as Barbara Freitag, author of Sheela-Na-Gigs – Unravelling an Enigma, however, suggest that the figure was a folk deity whose main role was to aid women in childbirth.
Symbol of protection against evil
Another valid theory is that the Sheela figure had a similar role to that of the gargoyles that were placed on the outside of churches to ward off the Devil. In folk tradition, in fact, genital display is a powerful charm against the ‘evil eye’, and the Devil is said to flee from the sight of a woman’s sex.
The figure is believed by many to date back to medieval times and is thought to represent a warning against the sinful, lustful nature of women.This was the period, in fact, in which the Church struggled to establish its power over the populations and waged war against paganism in all its forms. The natural world thus became the enemy of Christian spirituality, and the instinctive affinity of woman with nature (and, therefore, sexuality) caused her to be seen as a threat to the authority of the Christian Church and to male power generally.
It is interesting to note, in fact, that the blatant and somewhat aggressive displaying of Sheela-na-Gig’s oversized vulva has widely been discussed in a psychological context in relation to male fear-fantasies of the ‘devouring mother’.