On International Women’s Day I’d like to celebrate the gloriously unashamed Sheela-na-gig. These sculptures of women baring their vulvas are mostly found on churches dating back to medieval times. Once there would have been a lot more of them, but prudish churchmen had many of them destroyed over the centuries because of their vulgarity.
The Sheela I know best was one of the ‘lucky’ ones; she was removed from view, presumably because of her indecent appearance, but she was not broken up. Instead, she spent hundreds of years lying face down on the threshold of the old parish church in my hometown of Llandrindod Wells, Wales, until renovations in Victorian times uncovered her. This ignominious treatment served to preserve her features, which remain exceptionally sharp, whereas most Sheelas who remain in situ on exterior walls are weathered.
It is thought that our Sheela may be older than most other examples. She displays the hag-like features, with a huge bald head, and an obvious vulva which typical of the Sheela-na-gigs. I visited the Feminine Power exhibition at the British Museum last summer with my daughter and saw how similar our local Sheela is to the one they displayed there which came from Ireland. These are not comely maidens designed to drive men to lust, rather they are symbols of unabashed feminine power. Attention is deliberately drawn attention to the vulva, often they hold their vulva open with both hands in an explicit display.
The Sheelas are mostly found carved on medieval churches in Celtic lands. Surviving examples are mainly in the British Isles, especially in Ireland, but also in France and Spain. Their distribution suggests the continuity of Pagan Celtic beliefs and a melding of the old ways and new ways. Although some maintain the Sheela-na-gigs had similar roles to gargoyles in frightening away evil and keeping it outside the church walls, others see her in terms of Goddess worship. She oversees the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and it is through her birthing portal that Creation emanates.
Some Sheelas have been noticeably smoothed around their vulvas. It is thought this is a result of countless women stroking them, asking for the help of the Goddess, perhaps with fertility, childbirth, or women’s health issues.
My daughter works at a university library and she recently rescued a fabulous book for me which had been withdrawn from stock and was due to be thrown away. ‘The Witch on the Wall’ by Jorgen Anderson is a scholarly study from the 1970s. The author documented the whereabouts of scores of Sheelas. Some I was unaware of are within easy day trips of home, so I am looking forward to meeting some ‘new’ Sheela-na-gigs in the near future.
On International Women’s Day these enigmatic sculptures are potent expressions of feminine power. Project Sheela places modern clay Sheela plaques at sites where women have been attacked. It is a quiet, but defiant, reminder that we should counter misogyny and violence against women wherever it exists in our society.
I do love our own Sheela-na-gig, despite her somewhat grotesque appearance. You can visit her at the Radnorshire museum in the centre of town, where she enjoys a suitably honoured position and finally enjoys the respect owed to her after centuries of being forgotten and trampled over.