When it comes to deciphering ancient carvings and sculptures, it's usually pretty easy to deduce the symbology behind the likes of a rain cloud and a lightening bolt with the right cultural context and some intuition. However, when it comes to these proudly provocative sheelas, historians and archaeologists are totally stumped.
Found en masse across Ireland and parts of western Europe, these carvings - popularly known as Sheela-na-Gigs - date back to somewhere around the 12th and 14th centuries and depict a wide variety of women proudly opening their legs and allowing the world to gaze on the wonder that is the female genitalia. The female figures are portrayed as being both skeletally thin and sexually robust and have been found everywhere from church doorways to castles to literal man caves once used by the Knights Templar.
So, why does this lascivious lady keep showing up in such diverse contexts, taking on seemingly contradictory personas? It's hard to say whether or not sheela was in fact meant to be a symbol of pornographic desire, prosperous fertility, or even feminine power, but one thing is for sure - like most powerful women, she makes some people uncomfortable.
These Sheela-Na-Gig Carvings Found Across Western Europe Are Proudly Displaying Their Yonis To The World
Across Ireland and parts of Britain, you can find sheela-na-gig carvings welcoming passers-by with legs outstretched above church doorways, under roof awnings, and interwoven into wall carvings. No matter where she is, though, her genitalia is being proudly displayed with the help of her own two hands.
The sheela-na-gig has gone by a diverse array of names over the years, including names of adoration such as "The Idol Hole" and "Julia the Giddy" as well as names of disdain such as "The Witches Stone" and "The Whore of Kilpeck," among others. Despite her apparently controversial presence, she has been most commonly spotted in places of particular significance and prominence on buildings and walls, suggesting that she was a figure people were encouraged to gaze upon, regardless of whether it was as a warning or as a blessing.
No One Can Figure Out Exactly What The Sheelas Are Supposed To Symbolize
With the uncovering of nearly 140 sheela-na-gig sculptures, historians agree this symbol once held significance for ancient peoples inhabiting Ireland and western Europe. The question now, though, is exactly what did she represent?
These statues have been found hiding in the architecture of buildings, at the bottom of wells, and even in piles buried beneath the earth. However, despite how common her likeness has become, historical records describing her - much less mentioning her - are suspiciously rare. It is believed that, due to her sexually explicit form, medieval scholars may have shied away from discussions surrounding her origin story, and those who were brave enough to discuss it still didn't dare write the stories down. So, thanks to the perceived inappropriateness of female sexuality, many of the traditional stories surrounding the Irish roots of the sheela have likely been lost to history.
Still, many myths about her existence remain. Most commonly, sheelas have been associated with such concepts as luck, fertility, and the aversion of evil, for in many ancient cultures the vagina was associated with protection. In fact, it is believed that women would rub the sculptures when entering churches in order to receive her blessings. Others, though, have interpreted sheelas as being images of lust and as warnings against the sins of the flesh, explaining their prevalence on churches.
Sheela-Na-Gigs Are Most Often Found On Churches
The presence of sheela-na-gigs on the walls and above the doorways of churches has both perplexed and offended members of the modern Christian church, and has frequently led to the vandalism of the sculptures. Since the post-reformation church gained popularity, it is believed that a vast majority of the sheelas that once existed were either taken as personal mementos, hidden away for safe keeping, or destroyed by church goers who were less than enthused by the image's greeting them every day.
Sheelas have been found at the bottom of wells, in rivers, and even buried in graveyards outside of churches after having been crushed, burned, and otherwise destroyed. The discomfort with nudity that resulted from the reformation of the church is likely what led to the destroying of so many sheelas, however it is also likely that - due to the prominent position and sheer volume of the figures - they were once significant and positive cultural symbols.