Oh ... Oh Sheela!
March 30, 2003 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Sheela Na Gigs are stone grotesques found decorating old churches in Europe. They are characterized by "[a] huge head, staring eyes and hands reaching down between [her] wide open legs to spread [her] swollen and oversized womanhood." While the posture implies prostitution, the Sheelas are said to be representations of the Great Mother, and they are said to keep evil away. There are even some male Sheelas, like this one at Lower Swell.
posted by jessamyn (24 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not to mention a great PJ Harvey song.
posted by gwint at 2:06 PM on March 30, 2003 [1 favorite]

Hey! The oldest building in Oxford (the Saxon-era St. Mary's at the Northgate)'s got a Sheela...

Which is nice.
posted by dash_slot- at 2:12 PM on March 30, 2003

This place is such a girlzone!

posted by dg at 2:37 PM on March 30, 2003

Aw, gwint, you beat me to it.

Gonna take my hips to a man who cares...
posted by jokeefe at 2:40 PM on March 30, 2003


St Michael's at the Northgate...

posted by dash_slot- at 2:43 PM on March 30, 2003

Sheila = woman, in Aussie slang.

I'm assuming there is a connection here(?)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:51 PM on March 30, 2003

It would be at Lower Swell, wouldn't it?

The same thing occured to me, uncanny. In the absence of languagehat, I'm going to speculate that sheela or a similar word meant "woman," and that the proper name Sheila came from that. It seems more likely to me that the Australian usage developed from the name, rather than directly from sheela.
posted by hippugeek at 3:02 PM on March 30, 2003

Sheila = woman, in Aussie slang.
I'm assuming there is a connection here(?)

I would have thought so too, but perhaps not
posted by dg at 3:04 PM on March 30, 2003

posted by dg at 3:05 PM on March 30, 2003

and here's some etymology of the word as used to describe these figures [scroll down].
posted by jessamyn at 3:11 PM on March 30, 2003

So okay does this mean pornography is really the oldest profession and not prostitution? ..I guess that might be the case if we ever find porn on any cave walls.

As for the Australian etymology of Sheila, I always assumed it referred to a woman who was a bit of a "tomboy," meaning a lass who liked to hang with the lads and play laddie games. A kind of 'perfect woman' who is attractive to the male but also makes a good friend and doesn't mind getting a little dirty working on cars or playing sports.

With that in mind, the link provided by DG is rather amusing, hinting that perhaps instead of it being a Christian name of a pure maiden, that "Sheila" actually has more homosexual origins.

Perhaps these Sheela na gigs were intended by elders of early pagan societies as a cautionary warning to younger generations. The conservative assumption of what such a woman would grow up to be: an old crone opening her womanhood to any passers by. If so, it's interesting to contemplate that like pornography and prostitution, the generation gap is something that has existed for ages.

How they got into church archetecture though is speculative, but based on some historical data. It's known that early Christian social structures built their structures after defeating surrounding pagan societies. The abandoned buildings of older pagan worshipping structures were no doubt salvaged and recycled into newer buildings. Unfortunately there were no Historical Societies or other organizations to preserve the past. Christians wanted to wipe paganism from history, and pretend it never existed.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:38 PM on March 30, 2003

Boy, I'm glad I didn't get here till now, because I would have given the standard explanation that the Aussie slang is from the Irish name (which, by the way, is the Irish equivalent of Cecily, having been borrowed in the early Middle Ages from Anglo-Norman Cecile). But dg's link (the Ummm... one) throws a monkey wrench into that, if it's true that there were no Irish immigrants named Sheila or the equivalent Julia. The trouble with the explanation based on the Irish slang word for 'effeminate/gay man' is that there's no direct evidence; the whole thing depends on plausible but unprovable conjectures (as is true for so many slang words). It's even possible, though unlikely, that the Irish slang word is from the Aussie one. Anyway, thanks, dg, for a very interesting etymological essay!

I'm afraid jessamyn's link is not worth much in etymological terms (I can't speak for its Goddess-value); it's the typical amateur rooting around in dictionaries looking for something vaguely similar that can be pressed into service and justified with "This resonated so strongly with the psychic impressions I’d been receiving..." Etymology is a lot harder than that.
posted by languagehat at 3:39 PM on March 30, 2003

interesting post, i'd never heard of sheela na gigs before. they seem similar to paleolithic venus figures such as here.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:40 PM on March 30, 2003

In the absence of languagehat, I'm going to speculate...

Up until the post at 3:39PM, I had concluded that languagehat.com must be some infallible English language site, and that you were presently having problems accessing it.

So, languagehat, are you The Dude when it comes to these types of discussions?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 3:50 PM on March 30, 2003

Great post, jessamyn. Thanks!
posted by homunculus at 4:46 PM on March 30, 2003

I'm The Dude, dude!
posted by languagehat at 5:33 PM on March 30, 2003

The Dude abides.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 6:52 PM on March 30, 2003

The etymology for Sheila na gig isn't known, and as Languagehat points out, rooting around in dictionaries isn't going to help.

That said, we do know at least something about the phrase; sheela and gig are most likely a noun and and adjective or a noun and a noun; na is the the feminine singular genitive definite article.

Personally, I can't help but wonder if there's a relation between "gig" and gig/gic, giglot, both used to refer to "loose women," but I've not found a good enough attestation in Irish yet to make the case.

I'm also completely unconvinced by daft "fertility" or "pagan" arguments. Most of the Sheelas occur at or around doorways and windows, and they bear a striking resemblance to pictures of female pudenda in medieval manuscripts in which hell mouth (the figurative doorway to hell) is deliberately made to look like a vagina gaping widely.

Bawdy carvings and illuminations are very very common in medieval art, particularly in otherwise sacred art, so the argument that sexual=pagan just doesn't work.

For those who are curious, Patrick Ford's Viator 19 article "Celtic Women: The Opposing Sex" in 1988 comes to mind (I'd link it, but it's not yet online). There are also a couple of books worth looking at--Jorgen Andersen The Witch on the Wall: Medieval Erotic Scuptures in The British Isles (Dublin, 1977) and Weir and Jerman;s Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (London: 1986).
posted by medievalist at 7:20 PM on March 30, 2003

The National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin sells the most delightful little replica's of a Sheela Na Gig. I've one on my mantelpiece at home.
posted by prolific at 11:12 PM on March 30, 2003

Great topic, great post jessamyn - thanks!

Tara's Sheela-na-gig website is another good resource. I found it through that wonderful Irish site Satan in the Groin which has a bit of info on sheela-na-gigs, but mainly focuses on phallic exhibitionist figures in medieval churches. It's a fun site, part of a larger site with lots of poetry, standing stones and other interesting things.
posted by madamjujujive at 11:26 PM on March 30, 2003

Can I mention that there is NOTHING on the 'What's New' page of Sheila E's website? It just seemed appropriate since you were talking about ancient stone carvings.... nevermind. Anyway, good post, jessamynner...
posted by wendell at 12:00 AM on March 31, 2003

Does anyone remember the PJ Harvey song off of "Rid of Me?"

...you exibitionist!

Damn, I miss old PJ.
posted by Pinwheel at 6:30 AM on March 31, 2003

Funny, it never would have occurred to me that a sheela na gig had anything to do with prostitution. Earth Mother seems obvious and is all that ever came to mind.
posted by Shane at 7:23 AM on March 31, 2003

Does anyone remember the PJ Harvey song off of "Rid of Me?"

It was on Dry. I miss her too, Pinwheel...
posted by mr_roboto at 10:01 AM on March 31, 2003

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