Archaeology, Christianity, Churches, Femininity, Gender, Sculpture, Sex, Sheela-Na-Gig, Stone-Work
Okay, now I know what you are thinking; “Dan is posting porn again! Will someone please keep him away from that damned erotic heritage place!?!” But no. I tell you I didn’t find this in a red light district, smut shop, or even a kinky museum. This naughty little lady was found at a church. Her name is Sheela, or at least that’s what folks call her and a vast array of figures like her. She and her sisters go by the full name of ‘Sheela-na-Gigs’, and you can find them on churches throughout the United Kingdom. Yes, that’s right, it appears that one can find images of grotesque women spreading their labia can be found at old churches throughout the United Kingdom.
Why, you may ask. Well it’s a fair question, but the answer appears to be difficult to nail down. There are a couple theories as to the origins of the term, Sheela-Na-gig, just as there are a few theories as to the reason such images could be found in old churches. Is she a relic of past paganism, an omen about the temptations of sin, or possibly just an erotic gargoyle of sorts. It really depends on who you ask. As I recall, an archaeologist once suggested that she was a symbol of Jesus himself, but I can’t find a written source on that. Presumably, that theory didn’t get very far. Anyway, the whole thing is a little too far outside my own areas for me to weigh in on the controversies with confidence, but I think we can safely draw one conclusion from it; the history of Christianity is far more complex and interesting than you would gather from your local neighborhood church (unless perhaps you are in England).
Of course most history is more complex than folks would gather from the world as it is now, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people of the full range of human possibility from time to time.
That’s what Sheela is here for.
The image above is on Kilpeck Church. I have included a few others below, most of which I drew from a website called The SheelaNaGig Project. Also included are images from Chloran, Moulton, Fiddington, Binstead, Oxford, and Llandrindod. You may click to embiggen (if you dare), but a visit to the almighty wiki or the SheelanaGig Project is well worth the time it takes to read about these figures.
Maria Falvey said:
Dan, am I wrong to draw a relationship between Sheela and the Venus of Willendorf?
Oh the Venus is a much older lady I’m afraid. Any connection I could imagine would be purely speculative, and very reckless. I’d sooner shoot a geese than try to answer that one.
Laura @Travelocafe said:
There are so many interesting and bizarre statues hidden or in plain sight in so many churches… and by now so many are difficult to explain or to understand by the modern Christian.
I’ve written about these before, and I still think the face looks like ET.
Gerald Massey proposed that the name Sheelah is from the egyptian ‘sherah’ which means “source” or “waters of source”. But it also meant “to reveal” or “exhibit”. Clearly this image is ‘revealing’. But what? The egyptian ‘Ru’ symbol seen as the oval in the ankh is revealed as a doorway or portal, the christian equivalent being the vesica piscis. These are archaic symbols steeped in the mysteries of spiritual initiation…..dig deep and things are uncovered.
More porn! Yay!
Are you familiar with Pet-en-gueule (“Fart in face” in French, I believe.)?
Yes, I have books on erotic art. They’re very academic, I swear. Actually, they are. Several of the exhibitions my own work has been in have been exhibitions of erotic work and I used to occasionally be called an “erotic artist.” I never set out to be that, but I don’t see any reason to object to that label.
This page, eight photo down:
Apparently, sexual imagery is frequently found on misericords.
Love it! Have you heard PJ Harvey’s song of the same title? Awesome!
And the White Lion Roars! said:
I’m not an archaeologist, but I would probably go with the pagan symbol of fertility, just like Easter eggs and bunnies, and lots of other stuff that has been incorporated by Christians. Although, I’m not sure today’s Christians would get it…they probably already think it’s just a liberal woman who can’t control her libido.