Do you remember what I fondly refer to as “chick rock” from the 90s? If, like me, you were a fan of the hard edge of popular music by women of the time, you likely remember PJ Harvey’s song “Sheela Na Gig.” In it, Harvey sings:
“I’ve been trying to show you over and over / Look at these, my child-bearing hips / Look at these, my ruby-red ruby lips / Look at these, my work strong-arms and / You’ve got to see my bottle full of charm […] Sheela-na-gig, you exhibitionist!”
Like me, you probably had no idea what she was singing about, but it was a great song. So you put your head down and bobbed it along to the music while shuffling your feet. In a cool way. You know, like one does.
Well, holy shit, people. I just found out what that song is about.
Meet Sheela Na Gig.
She’s a talisman. Of something. Sheela Na Gigs are carvings of women with elderly upper bodies and faces, while with their lower halves are most often spreading apart their—very large—labia. Or, as Wikipedia puts it, their “exaggerated vulva[s].”
They appear all over Europe, but are concentrated mostly in the British Isles, especially Ireland. Labeled “architectural grotesques” because they’re often embedded in the walls of churches, castles, and other buildings, they’ve long been considered morally grotesque as well. After all, vulvas are scary.
As The Guardian notes, “Women flashing their genitals has been believed to scare off demons as far back as the ancient Greeks.” And, appearing as they do in the same places as gargoyles, it follows that these depictions of “hags” with gaping vaginas could serve a similar purposes.
Symbols of Power
But that doesn’t entirely make sense. Dr. Barbara Freitag, an intercultural studies scholar and author of the 2004 book Sheela Na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma, told The Guardian, “The prevailing theory…was that these were portraying the evil of lust—and that they were put up on churches as warnings.”
But she calls that idea absurd. “Because they’re so high up,” she said. “You’d almost need binoculars to see some of them!”
The Sheela Na Gig, rather than serving to scare off evil, may have instead been meant to protect that which it surveyed. If you ask me, their presence on churches and castles clearly suggests that the builders wanted to imbue their buildings with the protective properties these carvings carry with them. That, rather than being “scary,” these carvings are talismans of great protective power.
Further, many Sheela Na Gigs appear to have been taken from elsewhere and placed on the buildings they now adorn. This further implies that the carvings were perceived—by the people doing the building as well as the people who originally made them—as extremely powerful, thus worth the effort.
Pagan or Christian, or Both
Many of these buildings, moreover, were built in or shortly after the 12th century AD, a time when Catholicism was establishing itself as the supreme religion of the land. And Catholicism in the British Isles saw the best results by combining elements of Pagan traditions with Catholic practice. So it seems logical that this was a way of inserting older, long-revered pagan symbols of protection into the buildings most symbolic of Catholic power.
To further bolster the idea that these were pagan icons, there are some Sheela Na Gigs still in place near holy wells in Ireland. There, they oversee ancient fonts of wellness that people revered well before Christianity came along. Dr. Freitag told The Guardian that, in her opinion, Sheela Na Gigs are “obviously” pre-Christian in origin. “They were found predominantly in rural areas, and we have quite a lot of documents showing that people there guarded these sheelas with their lives against the priests, in particular here in Ireland, who were trying to destroy them—and did destroy them. There are various decrees from bishops saying they should be hacked off walls.”
Who Is Sheela Na Gig?
So, what did these possibly pagan symbols originally mean to the Celtic peoples of Europe? Nobody knows for certain. But theories abound. Shane Lehane, an archaeologist, folklorist and historian, told CNN that he believes they represented “the female who has custodianship over birth and over death. Sheelah is an icon of that great human concern.”
This interpretation could pair the Sheela Na Gig with a number of female deities/symbols in the British Isles during Celtic times. Most notably the god Lugh’s wife, Sheela. She was the focus of a three-day, pre-Christian springtime festival in Ireland, which modern historians call “Ireland’s version of Carnival,” according to Lehane. “You were expected to go wild, to throw caution to the wind, to embrace chaos.”
There’s also the three-faced Irish Celtic goddess, Brigid, who was so influential that the Catholics turned her into a saint. And those holy wells that many of Sheelas are found at? The Church dubbed them “St. Brigid’s Wells” long ago. That’s likely because they were already associated with Brigid, who in her various forms was seen as a goddess of creativity, blacksmithing, fertility, spring (and much more). Her early-spring celebration, Imbolc, is still celebrated. In fact, there’s a petition going around Ireland currently to make Imbolc a national holiday, bringing Ireland one step closer to its pagan roots.
Another female archetype that the Sheela Na Gigs might reference is the Cailleach, “a withered old woman” of enormous power who represented both the proximity of death and the possibility of rebirth. In ancient Ireland, it’s said that a would-be king had to “embrace the hag” in order to prove he was worthy of power. When he did, she would transform to a beautiful and fertile younger woman. In this way, she embodied both the wisdom and power of old age, and the life-bringing power of youth—just like the Sheela Na Gig.
In many rural communities that Dr. Freitag visited when she was researching Sheela Na Gigs, the icons were strongly associated with fertility. And Freitag believes that makes a lot of sense. “In medieval times, there was such a high maternal mortality rate that you wanted a big vulva to ensure the child came out as quickly as possible, because a long, protracted birth could well mean the death of the child and the mother,” she told The Guardian. In this context, the Sheelas were perceived as protectors.
Whatever their origins, Sheela Na Gigs are making a comeback. Modern feminists are reimagining them as symbols of female power rather than “grotesquery.” Starting with new Sheela Na Gigs!
Project Sheela—a street art project celebrating female sexuality, empowerment, and advocating for women’s rights—covertly placed Sheela Na Gigs around Dublin this spring. The Sheelas, crafted by contemporary feminist artists, found homes “in sites that are significant to women’s struggle,” said the project’s founders. Sites like historic boarding houses for “disgraced women”—where mass graves of women and children have been unearthed.
“Irish feminists have reinterpreted the concept of the sheela,” said the founders, who see the Sheela Na Gig as a “symbol against misogyny—one of unapologetic female empowerment and sexuality.”
That interpretation might not be so far off from their original meaning. Professor Georgia Rhoades, who published a paper on Sheela Na Gigs in 2010, told The Guardian, “I really hope that people are beginning to see the joy in some of them.”
Rhoades also pointed out that several carvings feature wide smiles and likely depict masturbation. “There is [a Sheela] in Oaksey in Wiltshire, and her vulva is right down to her knees and she’s grinning, like she’s celebrating something,” she said. “I like to think she’s celebrating female sexuality.”
That’s something our world can always use more of, if you ask me.
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