It is said that the name Sheela Na Gig or Sheela-na- gig or simply Sheela is derived from an Irish phrase ‘Sighle na gCioch’, meaning the old hag of the breasts and the phrase Sheela na gig was said to be a term for a hag or old woman. It refers to a number of stone figurines from Ireland and Britain, depicting a naked woman with dry breasts gesturing to or otherwise conspicuously displaying her exaggerated vulva. The highest concentrations of these figurative carvings can be mainly found in Romanesque churches in Ireland and Great Britain, dating roughly from 1000 to 1200 AD, but they can also be found, though less frequently, in Scotland, Wales, as well as in other countries of Europe like, France and Spain. However, Ireland has the greatest number of 101 surviving Sheela-na-gig carvings, along with 45 examples in Britain.
According to popular myths, Sheela na-gig with the look of an old hag was a lustful pagan goddess who threw herself at men by showing them her private parts. Most men rejected her advance in disgust, due to her hideous look. However, if anybody accepts her, Sheela transformed herself into a beautiful woman and grants kingship to the lucky man.
As the Sheila-na-gigs were believed to be associated with the special power to avert evil influences or bad luck, they were often placed over doorways or window lintels and also on castle walls in Ireland, to ward off death, demons and evil spirits. Even, some pre-Christian freestanding sculptures were found near the water reserves, like ponds or lakes.
Later, they were brought into the churches and were carved or built on the outer walls, probably as a pre-condition of conversion demanded by the old Irish. However, in the later centuries, especially in the early modern times, the priesthood increasingly railed against the customary blessing rites of touching the vulva stones and they were removed, hidden and even destroyed by them as relics of paganism. Nevertheless, the concept of Sheela still exists today and the Irish custom of rubbing the Sheela stones still continues, as in those ancient days. Others had deep grooves where people scraped out rock dust for the ritual use in blessings, healings and possibly conception magic.
The exhibitionist sculpture contained many motifs of sin and punishment and its presence was considered as a warning against the sin of lust. That interpretation is supported to some extent by the existence of male and female pairs of figures showing obvious signs of arousal. However, Sheela Na Gigs is also known as a fertility goddess and her figurines have been used at weddings and births. The lean and thin upper half of these figures were meant to appease the dead mothers or grandmothers who were thought to bear a grudge against the newborn. Sheelas are carved in the position of birthing and are presented with their vulva in the desired physiological state before, during or after birth. In some places, brides were required to look at and perhaps touch the Sheela before weddings, which seems to suggest their role in fertility rites.
On the other side, Sheela was related to the pagan practice of using magic power to avert evil or bad influence, in which women lifted up their skirts to scare off evil spirits and this suggests that Sheela was a protector against evil. It is based on the traditional belief that the Devil cannot bear the sight of a woman’s genitals. In 1843 Johann Georg Kohl, a German traveling in Ireland, recorded that he found women who acted as living Sheela na gigs and could heal a person caught in the spell of the evil eye or evil spirit by lifting their skirts to expose their nakedness.
Further, in a letter to the Irish Times on 23 January 1977, an elderly man, Walter Mahon-Smith, recalled that in County Galway, a deadly feud had continued for generations between two families. One day, before the First World War, when one of the families, armed with pitchforks and heavy blackthorn sticks, attacked the home of the other, only a woman was alone in the house. She appeared at the door of her cottage and in full sight of all, lifted her skirt and underclothes high above her head, displaying her genitals, as the enemy party had to flee in terror.
Nevertheless, sexuality, birth and death, ferocity, warning and protection, all are aspects of Sheela-na-gig and they are not mutually exclusive of each other.