SHEELA-NA-GIGS

an enigma largely explained

 

 

 

TEXT  BY ANTHONY WEIR

SUMMARY IN SIX BULLET-POINTS


1. The strange and sticky, off-the-cuff name might well have been pronounced sheela-na-JIG - like thingumajig.
It was originally spelled sheela-ny-gigg.
Several of them are dancing.

2. There are more of them in Britain than in Ireland.

3. They are almost all to be found on churches.

4. They are a genre of European exhibitionist sculpture which first emerged in France in the eleventh century,
and which are of two distinct kinds that can be divided absolutely by date: Romanesque and Post-Romanesque :

the Romanesque examples are essentially one element of a regular repertoire of sculptures
condemning acrobats and musicians and 'vulgar' or 'lewd' entertainers perceived to be in opposition to
the solemn rites and rituals of the Church;

the post-Romanesque ones, at least 200 years later, are, for the most part, magical, apotropaic
figures (possibly based on a misunderstanding of the earlier sculptures) intended to ward off Evil.

5. There are more male exhibitionists than female, especially in France.

6. Their function and significance varied according to place and time,
but they have nothing to do with either esoteric cults or modern Feminism.


NOW READ ON


I first came across these strange and often crude figures in 1973,
while following E.E. Evans' pioneering Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland - A Guide (1966).
For forty years I researched them in the field, in the bowels of the National Museum of Ireland
(where they were hidden out of Christian sight)
in museums at Drogheda and Athlone, in storehouses in Cardiff and Limerick,
on Irish castles and, most importantly,
on churches in England, France, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Much of my research was carried out before the days of Internet or cellphone.
Now, one can find hundreds of examples of male and female exhibitionists
by googling intelligently – e.g. "arte erotico romanico",
or going to specialist groups on FlickR etc.
https://www.flickr.com/groups/canecillos/pool/

This is the first one I saw, in 1973, at Rath Blathmaic in County Clare,
on a Romanesque (12th century) window-sill
inserted upside-down into the wall of a later church.



The impression given by this carving is that the exhibitionist figure,
assailed by evilly-whispering beasts with Scandinavian connections, is an adjunct, an add-on, a side-show.
And so these carvings were, until, after the Black Death and other events,
they became lone, forlorn figures...


...like the next one I saw, not far away, the better-known, crudely-carved roadside figure at Killinaboy.

I have never had a very good camera.

It wasn't until I saw two fine low-relief carvings in county Tipperary (equipped with a better camera)
that my interest was sufficiently aroused to pursue their origins and significance.
This quoin-carving, at Ballyfinboy Castle, was mentioned in the Ordnance Survey Letters of 1840...


as was this one, in another part of Tipperary, dancing on a quoin of the ruined church at Kiltinan[e].


It was not far away from Kiltinan[e] that the name arose in the mid-19th century, when a local man
was reportedly asked about a 'lewd figure' on a ruined church at Rochestown.
His mumbled reply to the antiquarian was recorded as: It's just an oul' sheela-na-gig.
He might equally have said: It's just an oul' thingumajig.



part of an index to John O'Donovan's Ordnance Survey Letters concerning county Tipperary.
the first recorded mention of a "Sheela Ny-Gigg (Sile ni Ghig)" - at Kiltinane.



There has been a bizarre, unscholarly and nationalistic reluctance on the part of those who have become familiar with the term
sheela-na-gig (or sheila-na-gig) to even mention the hundreds of preceding figures in Europe
as far east as Hungary, as far north as Norway and as far south as Sicily - and beyond to Jerusalem.

None of those who have pretended scholarship in books or Wikipedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica
has bothered to go to France where the first such figures were carved, let alone Spain or Corsica.
Nor have they properly examined the link between sheela predecessors
and the motifs of Luxuria and Terra.

 

 

Nearly fifty years later and over three decades after publishing a book on the subject, I have created this website.

IT IS NOT MEANT TO BE VIEWED BY SMARTPHONE.

It is in two main parts :

female exhibitionists
including sheela-na-gigs
and

 

There are also lists according to country and period :

 

site web SITE FRANCAIS français (1)


site web
SITE FRANCAIS français (2)

 


If one or more exhibitionist figures (male or female) had first been identified by antiquarians in France or even in England the early 19th century, instead of being ignored through puritan embarrassment or smashed as obscenæ by zealous priests, the whole exaggerated story around these 'grotesques' would never have arisen, and the crude Irish carvings would have assumed their proper place as an extension or carry-over of a European iconographic phenomenon in the midst of the usual cultural movement from West to East.

 

 


 

I am grateful to
Tina Negus  (http://www.flickr.com/photos/84265607@N00/sets/72157600159376057/)
,
John Harding    (www.sheelanagig.org),
Julianna Lees,
Sean Breadin, photographer
Joël Jalladeau and Jacques Martin,
for several important photos on these pages,
which have been hugely expanded from


 

'Prudery is the worst form of Avarice'
Stendhal
'La pruderie est une espèce d'avarice, la pire de toutes'

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"Absolutely wonderful !
Years ago I read Images of Lust and was delighted by this new world, strangely absent from many histories of eroticism, art and culture in general. This [website] is really illuminating and sets high standards for websites."

- Antonio Dominguez Leiva, Reader in comparative literature at the University of Burgundy, Dijon.

sheela-na-gigs

 

updated July 2022



 

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