Friday, December 29, 2006

The explication of Sheela-na-gig

Sheela-na-gig T-shirt from the Twisted Mythology God ShopSheela-na-Gigs by Barbara Freitag, (Routledge, 2004) caught my eye at the AAR-SBL bookshow because it promised a thorough, cross-disciplinary methology, if not the answer to the origin of the puzzling carvings on old Irish and English churches.

You can buy a Sheela-na-Gig T-shirt too.

Author Barbara Freitag, who teaches at Dublin City University, crisscrosses through archaeology, literature, medieval history, and even a little military history while seeking the origin of these crude carving that usually show either a woman spreading her vagina or else squatting to give birth.

Even the etymology is tricky. Though “Sheela” or “Sheila” is an Irish form of “Cecilia,” (a name brought by the Normans), “gig” is a puzzle. It has variously been defined in dictionaries of slang as meaning the female genitals, a “wanton” girl or prostitute, or anything that whirls around. (The third gives us “whirlygig” as well as “jig,” the dance, plus “gigolo,” a paid dancing partner.)

The British West Indies fleet during the time of the American Revolution included a small ship called Shelanagig. Not exclusively Irish, the statues have also been recorded in Scotland, England, and Wales.

And in 18th and early 19th-century Irish folklore, Sheila was the wife of St. Patrick, not to mention one of the names used as personifying the nation of Ireland itself.

Freitag is reluctant to endorse the sweeping Margaret Murray-style “ancient Pagan goddess” interpretation of the statues, but she does conclude that it is possible “to place the Sheela-na-gig in the realm of folk deities in charge of birth.”

In Ireland particularly, she notes that they cease being carved and are even removed from churches during the reformation of manners (led by the now-legitimate Catholic clergy) that begins at the close of the 18th century and continues through the 19th. “Customary folk practices, wake amusements in particular, were curbed, marriage and sexual behavior were restrained and public order was controlled.”

Sheela-na-gigs is readable and interesting for the fun of following someone working out an intellectual puzzle. Freitag also includes photos of a large selection of Sheelas--they do not all look like the T-shirt image, not at all--plus a catalog of all the known such sculptures whether still extant or merely recorded in the past.

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Anonymous lindarosewood said...

I was on the island of St. Lucia a few weeks ago and found two cigarette lighter holders in a crappy trinkets shop. One had a high relief scupture of a "Rasta man" with a huge penis. The other was a "Rasta Woman" holding her cunt open like a Shelia-na-gig.

7:51 PM  
Blogger prairie mary said...

I once took a crowded bus ride to work in Portland, OR, that had me suppressing giggles all the way. A huge buxom woman was wearing her feminist defiant Sheelamagig medallion. A small meek man was crushed up against her so that he could only keep his nose out of her jewelry with some effort. I was sorry to be so amused, but really -- it was a Thurberesque situation.

I read somewhere that the male equivalent was a man with his mouth held open and his tongue stuck far out. Maybe.

Prairie Mary

9:35 PM  
Blogger Broomstick Chronicles said...

Ooh, I wish I'd known about this book when I was at the AAR! I'd have bought it. I have one from 1977 called The Witch on the Wall, by Jorgen Andersen. Found this great site with many references:

My friend Victoria has made a series of whimsical Sheela quilts that include Sheela wearing a sunbonnet in Mormon country, and Sheela outraging the most misogynistic of the Catholic Church fathers, like Augustine, and a mermaid Sheela. Maybe she'll be inspired to post some photos on her blog.

5:58 AM  

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