Recently I received a gift of a Sheela na Gig dish towel. It is one of my favourite things ever. I received it on a day when I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. It was a day when I felt under appreciated for some very hard (and might I add very good) work that I had done. It made my week. It is beautifully designed and features more exposed vulvas than an incognito search in google.
It got me thinking about the Sheela na Gigs of the world and their prominence in Christian architecture. For those of you who are suitably confused about that last paragraph, here is a little run down on the Sheela na Gig.
Sheela na Gigs are architectural carvings, like gargoyles, that are found in ancient buildings throughout Europe (with the largest surviving number in Ireland). They are typically found over doorways and windows and some believe that, much like gargoyles, they were used to ward off evil. Oh, and they are grotesque representations of women with exaggerated, exposed vulvas.
Like I said above, some say they were intended to ward off evil, however, the truth is we don’t really know what they symbolise or what their purpose was. Here are a few theories on what they could mean.
Pagan idol or a grotesque symbol of feminine lust?
Sheela na Gigs origins are hotly disputed. There are theories about them of course, but no real concrete proof of where or what their origin lies. They are found all throughout Europe but especially in the British Isles and, as I’ve already mentioned, the Ireland has the highest number of surviving representations (in fact, my home county of Clare boasts 9 of them.) http://www.irelands-sheelanagigs.org/map-of-ireland/
Some theorise that they are a remnant of our pagan and druid ancestors; that they are a representative of fertility, and their inclusion in religious buildings was a demand from the pagan converts that some of their old idols be represented by the new church. Often found in doorways or above windows, which are very common examples of liminal spaces, i.e. a transitional space or a space-between-spaces. Liminal spaces are also symbolic spaces used to denote transition or the passage from one state to another. Perhaps Sheela na Gigs point to the notion that the vagina is too a liminal space, where we transform from pre-existence to existence? (In this context, surely the vagina is the ultimate liminal space.)
The theory that Sheela na Gigs represent Fertility Goddesses is often disputed due to the fact that there is no evidence of childbirth on these figures so how could they possibly represent fertility? Here I shall direct you to Priapus, the Greek God of Fertility who is depicted in art with a massive dong. IF this is the criteria for Gods of Fertility, why can’t a large, (perhaps widened in childbirth?) vagina equally represent fertility? Despite the naysayers, even today women hoping to conceive may be convinced to give Sheela a rub to increase their chances of fertility.
Another theory about Sheela is that she might even have been an apotropaic symbol, a representation of female or male genitals displayed to ward off evil spirits. Apotropaic representations are found in civilisations across the world including Greece, Italy, Turkey, India and Palau. Depending on where you were in the world, it was believed that female genitalia could not only ward off evil but they could be used to calm the seas (like in Catalonia) or scare off bears (like in Russia).
According to authors Anthony Weir & James Jerman in their book, Images of Lust, carvings of a sexual nature on churches were put there as a warning against lust for the illiterate of the peasant class. Almost like, “Let this be a warning for ye!”. Given that I am a woman of the 21st Century, it is a difficult one for me to understand how that would actually work… Surely someone would need to be standing beside them at all times going, “Hey look at that grotesque representation of a woman - that’s a lesson in promiscuity for ya”. However, I do not claim to be a historian so why would you listen to me? In saying that, it was common for artwork and carvings in churches to display lessons for the illiterate members of their church so I am by no means discounting this theory. Perhaps the fact that the images were grotesque in nature were meant to induce disgust in the mind of the populace when faced with a woman’s (or indeed their own) genitalia?
Release the power of the feminine
In recent times, Sheela na Gigs have been repurposed as a feminist icon - an unapologetic display of woman hood and the sacred feminine. According to Molly Mullin in her paper,
“Representation of History, Irish Feminism and the Politics of Difference”, “Almost emblematic of Irish feminism, sheelas [na gigs] have appeared on newsletters, books covers and announcements,” Mullin states that by embracing them as a symbol of feminism we can essentially rewrite “the physical marks of otherness,” and that using vagina-like imagery is a celebration of “a female heritage or tradition.” According to multimedia artist Judy Chicago,
“the woman artist seeing herself as loathed takes the very mark of her otherness and by asserting it as the hallmark of her iconography, establishes a vehicle by which to state the truth and beauty of her identity.”
Like I said, the arrival of the Sheela na Gig tea towel to my apartment in NYC the week before Christmas, on a solidly crappy day, was exactly what I needed. I’ve recently been looking for work in this enormous city. It hasn’t been fruitful. As I trawled through a famous job site, I came across a listing that requested a unique cover letter that showed them who you were. They didn’t want a copy and paste cover letter. The job was also for an unpaid internship. Personally I felt it was a bit cheeky to demand such individualism from an unpaid internship but I decided to check out their work. And maybe it was the fact I was feeling so broken down and this was my attempt to build myself up again, or maybe because it was an unpaid internship or maybe it was the power of the many exposed vulvas beside my teapot, but if they wanted a cover letter to explain who I was? Well then they’d get it.
So here is the cover letter they got. I’ll update you all if I get a call back, but unlike the Sheela na Gigs holding their vulvas open, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
*Redacted content to maintain privacy and to help ensure self preservation.
Since writing this article the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes has come out. This is a slight addendum.
Over the past few days I have been coming to terms with the hatred that humans have towards women. The treatment of women over the last few millennia has riled up in me an anger for my fellow women. In Ireland a report was released this week about the Mother & Baby “Homes” (they weren’t homes - they were prisons, they were hells.).
As horrific as the report's finding was, was anyone really surprised? We know how women and girls have been treated by this country. Why should be we surprised at the hatred shown to them when it is still an issue?
As human beings, what had they done to deserve such treatment? A blind eye was turned to these prisons by a religious institute that preached “do onto others”, by a society who thought, what? That they got pregnant by themselves? That the men involved are above reproach? Like Eve, those women were blamed for their “sin”. It disgusts me to my core. It disgusts me on a visceral level. The women of Ireland were so hated, so despised… a country who forgot her children while singing laments for Michael Collins, The Boys of Wexford, or Father Murphy at Boola-fucking-vogue? Who sings songs to the Sean Bhean Bhocht* but sure as hell didn’t treat her daughters as equals.
Let us sing songs to the women who survived - those who survived with grace and dignity and those who couldn’t. Too long we were held under the thumb of the misogynistic church. There is no equality there. I would be a second class citizen in their eyes if they had their way and I won’t accept it anymore. Shame on our country, shame on the Church. Shame on them. The beauty of women, has too long been suppressed and treated as vulgar and with the reclamation of Shelia na Gigs - we are taking it back.
*This is a basically a Gaeilge spin on the term “Mother Ireland” and translates to the Poor Old Woman. (It’s ironic that in song and poetry, Ireland is referred to primarily in the feminine given its misogynistic history.)
I have used the terms “woman” or “girls” throughout this piece because that is the language used in the report and was common parlance when these homes operated. I would like to make it clear that this does not preclude the experience that any trans or non-binary people may have experienced at the hands of church and state. I am still learning (and more than happy to do so), however, if I have inadvertently upset anyone or have gotten the information wrong, please do not hesitate to let me know. Here at The Uncurriculum we love our trans and non-binary readers and both myself & Alex want to reassure them that they are welcome here, they are accepted here and that they are supported here.
Reference - Mullin, Molly. “Representations of History, Irish Feminism, and the Politics of Difference.” Feminist Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 1991, pp. 29–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3178168. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.