From Ancient Iconography to Modern Day Controversies: The Evolution of Sheela Na Gig
Updated: Mar 29
For centuries, the image of the Sheela Na Gig has intrigued and fascinated people around the world. This ancient iconography, depicting a naked woman squatting and exposing her genitals, can be found throughout Europe, particularly in Ireland and England. Though the origin and meaning of the Sheela Na Gig remain shrouded in mystery, the image has sparked countless debates and controversies over the years. Some view it as a symbol of fertility and abundance, while others see it as a depiction of sin and shame. In modern times, the Sheela Na Gig has become a subject of interest for scholars, artists, and feminists alike. Join us as we explore the rich history and evolution of this enigmatic figure, from its ancient roots to the present day controversies that continue to surround it.
Historical origins of Sheela Na Gig
The origins of the Sheela Na Gig remain a mystery, but the earliest known examples can be found in medieval Irish churches, castles, and other buildings. The name "Sheela Na Gig" is thought to come from the Irish language, with "Sheela" possibly being a derivative of the word "síle," meaning "hag" or "old woman," and "Na Gig" possibly meaning "of the vagina." The earliest known examples of Sheela Na Gig date back to the 12th century, but it is believed that the iconography existed long before then.
Some historians speculate that the Sheela Na Gig may be a remnant of pre-Christian goddess worship, as similar images have been found throughout Europe and the Middle East, often associated with fertility and childbirth. Others believe that the Sheela Na Gig may have been a warning against lust and sin, as the exposed genitalia could be interpreted as a symbol of female temptation.
The study of the Sheela-na-gig is a multi-disciplinary field that encompasses a wide range of scholars and experts from various academic disciplines, including archaeology, art history, folklore, anthropology, and religious studies.
Some notable scholars who have studied the Sheela-na-gig include Jack Roberts, an Irish archaeologist who wrote the book "The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts"; Barbara Freitag, a German scholar who has published several articles and books on the Sheela-na-gig; and Joanne McMahon, an American scholar who has written extensively on the subject of gender and sexuality in medieval Ireland.
Other prominent scholars who have contributed to the study of the Sheela-na-gig include Patricia Cox Miller, a religious studies scholar who has explored the religious and cultural significance of the Sheela-na-gig; Elizabeth Shee Twohig, an Irish archaeologist who has conducted extensive research on the Sheela-na-gigs found in Ireland; and Ruth Illingworth, a British art historian who has analyzed the Sheela-na-gigs from an art historical perspective.
Despite the mystery surrounding the origins and meaning of the Sheela Na Gig, the image has continued to fascinate and inspire artists, scholars, and feminists for centuries.
Interpretations of Sheela Na Gig in ancient times
The interpretation of the Sheela Na Gig in ancient times is a subject of debate among scholars. Some believe that the image was used as a talisman to promote fertility and safe childbirth. Others argue that the Sheela Na Gig was a representation of the ancient Irish goddess Brigid, who was associated with fertility and abundance.
Another theory is that the Sheela Na Gig was a warning against sinful behavior, as the exposed genitals could be interpreted as a symbol of female temptation. This interpretation is supported by the fact that many early examples of the Sheela Na Gig can be found in churches and other religious buildings.
Regardless of its original purpose, the Sheela Na Gig has continued to captivate the imagination of artists and scholars throughout the centuries.
Sheela Na Gig in Christian iconography
During the Christianization of Ireland in the 5th century, many pagan symbols and practices were incorporated into Christian iconography. The Sheela Na Gig is no exception. Many examples of the Sheela Na Gig can be found in Christian churches and other religious buildings, often located near entrances or doorways.
Some scholars believe that the Sheela Na Gig was used as a talisman to protect against evil spirits, while others argue that it was a warning against sin and temptation.
Despite its incorporation into Christian iconography, the Sheela Na Gig remains a controversial symbol to this day.
The controversy surrounding Sheela Na Gig in modern times
In modern times, the Sheela Na Gig has become a subject of controversy and debate. Some view it as a symbol of female empowerment and liberation, while others see it as a depiction of shame and degradation.
Feminist scholars have argued that the Sheela Na Gig represents a pre-Christian goddess of fertility and abundance, and that the image was co-opted by the Christian church as a means of suppressing women's sexuality.
Others argue that the Sheela Na Gig is a symbol of female empowerment, as it represents a woman who is unashamed of her body and sexuality.
The controversy surrounding the Sheela Na Gig continues to this day, with some calling for its removal from churches and other religious buildings.
Feminist interpretations of Sheela Na Gig
In recent years, the Sheela Na Gig has been embraced by feminist scholars and artists as a symbol of female empowerment and liberation. Many argue that the Sheela Na Gig represents a pre-Christian goddess of fertility and abundance, and that the image was co-opted by the Christian church as a means of suppressing women's sexuality.
Feminist interpretations of the Sheela Na Gig emphasize the importance of embracing female sexuality and rejecting patriarchal norms that seek to shame and control women's bodies.
The Sheela Na Gig has become a symbol of resistance against misogyny and sexism, and continues to inspire feminist artists and scholars around the world.
The role of Sheela Na Gig in modern-day art and literature
The Sheela Na Gig has inspired artists and writers for centuries, and continues to be a subject of interest in modern times. Many contemporary artists have created works that incorporate the Sheela Na Gig, either as a direct representation or as a symbol of female empowerment and liberation.
In literature, the Sheela Na Gig has been used as a symbol of female sexuality and empowerment in works by feminist writers such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.
The Sheela Na Gig has also been the subject of academic research, with scholars exploring the origins and meanings of the iconography, as well as its significance in contemporary feminist discourse.
Preservation efforts for Sheela Na Gig
As the controversy surrounding the Sheela Na Gig continues, efforts have been made to preserve and protect examples of the iconography. In Ireland, the Sheela Na Gig Project was established in 1997 to document and protect the remaining examples of the iconography.
In England, the Friends of Friendless Churches organization has been working to restore and preserve examples of the Sheela Na Gig found in medieval churches.
Efforts to preserve and protect the Sheela Na Gig reflect the ongoing interest and fascination with this enigmatic figure.
Sheela Na Gig in popular culture
The Sheela Na Gig has also made its way into popular culture, appearing in music, film, and television. In the 1990s, the band PJ Harvey released a song titled "Sheela Na Gig," which referenced the iconography and its significance in feminist discourse.
In the horror film "The Witch" (2015), the Sheela Na Gig appears as a haunting symbol of female power and sexuality.
The Sheela Na Gig has also appeared in the popular television series "Game of Thrones," further cementing its place in popular culture.
The Sheela Na Gig remains a mysterious and enigmatic symbol, with its origins and meaning shrouded in mystery. Despite the controversy and debate surrounding the iconography, it continues to inspire and captivate artists, scholars, and feminists alike.
From its ancient origins to its role in contemporary feminist discourse, the Sheela Na Gig has evolved and transformed over the centuries, becoming a symbol of female empowerment and liberation.
As we continue to explore the rich history and evolution of this enigmatic figure, we are reminded of the importance of embracing female sexuality and rejecting patriarchal norms that seek to shame and control women's bodies. The Sheela Na Gig serves as a powerful symbol of resistance against misogyny and sexism, and will continue to inspire and captivate us for generations to come.