by Frank Schnittger
Mon Apr 22nd, 2019 at 05:04:22 PM EST
The inclusion of often sexually explicit iconography in the architecture of ancient churches, cathedrals, castles and public buildings has often struck me as odd, given the predominance of the puritan paradigm in so much of religion today. The grotesques, chimeras and gargoyles of Notre Dame are variously supposed to have been intended to ward off evil spirits, with gargoyles also fulfilling the practical function of redirecting rainwater away from the stone masonry to reduce the erosion of the mortar from the walls.
However the Sheela na gigs, found over much of Europe, but most frequently in Ireland, were often sexually explicit mostly female figures whose purpose is the subject of some dispute. Various hypotheses have been put forward ranging from that they represent the survival of a pre-Christian pagan goddess, a fertility figure, a warning against lust, or a more general protection against evil.
More recently some feminists have re-interpreted the imagery of Sheela Na Gigs as portraying a more positive, empowering view of female sexuality and adopted it as a symbol of Irish feminism. However it is open to question whether this has more to do with present day cultural and political concerns rather than what they were meant to portray in their own time and culture.
Perhaps there is no unifying theory of what they were meant to represent in a lot of different and often localised historical contexts. Perhaps some artists and stone masons were just having a little fun right under the noses of their clerical and civic overlords: An imaginative rebellion against the stultifying orthodoxy of authoritarian religion. Perhaps they were intended to allow us to project our own fantasies onto them so that they can mean different things to different people at different times.
Your fantasies are welcome...
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name "Sheela na Gig" is derived from the Irish, Síle na gcíoch, meaning "Julia of the breasts". For a map showing the distribution of Sheela na Gigs in Ireland, see here. [Select Sheela na Gigs from the archaeology section].
Very similar figurines can also be found elsewhere in the UK and Europe. The style of gargoyles, by way of contrast, can often be very different. More of a male figure?
|A 12th-century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England|
|Dragon-headed gargoyle of the Tallinn Town Hall, Estonia|