Some say the explicit medieval carvings were fertility symbols; others that the figures were meant to ward off evil. Now a group of Irish feminists are bringing them back – as a reminder of women’s struggles
Carved into stone, these women squat, naked, sometimes cackling, pulling open their enlarged labia: it’s no wonder Victorian clergymen attempted to destroy or hide the glorious, mysterious figures known as sheela na gigs.
The carvings are found on medieval churches, castles and even gateposts in Ireland, the UK and much of mainland Europe. They seem to have their origins in the 11th century; the oldest discovered in the British Isles so far dates back to the 12th century, the youngest to the 16th. Yet their beginnings are an enigma. Early theories from art historians claimed they were grotesque hag figures to warn against the sins of lust – a way of keeping the minds of churchgoers and monks pure. Others suggest they are a talisman against evil: the act of women flashing their genitals has been believed to scare off demons as far back as the ancient Greeks. More recently, researchers have leaned towards the idea that the sheela is a pre-Christian folk goddess and her exaggerated vulva a sign of life-giving powers and fertility. Even her name is an enigma – although one theory is that “sheela” could mean an old woman or crone, and “gig” was slang for genitals.
If there ever was such a thing as “big dick energy”, the sheela na gig is the embodiment of big vagina energy. She has long fascinated and inspired academics and artists alike – a PJ Harvey song is devoted to her: “You exhibitionist!” Harvey sings on her 1992 single Sheela-Na-Gig; Sarah Lucas has also incorporated them into her work.
And now, the sheela is being given another lease of life. In Dublin this week, new sheelas crafted in clay with 22-carat gold-lustred labia and beautifully glazed vulvas will be covertly placed in sites that are significant to women’s struggle.
“Irish feminists have reinterpreted the concept of the sheela,” says the ceramicist behind Project Sheela, who has asked to remain anonymous. “Some scholars thought the sheela was an image of evil, or the embodiment of sin, but we see the sexuality of the sheela as positive and empowering,” she says.
The sheela, she says, is an important “symbol against misogyny – one of unapologetic female empowerment and sexuality”. The two artists behind Project Sheela – one a ceramicist, the other a street artist – want the project to “be independent from us as artists”, hence their anonymity. Due to Covid, they have been confined to Dublin, but they want to spread the sheelas to other cities too.
Whatever its origins or meaning, there is something entrancing and alluring about the image of the sheela.