sheela-na-gig


sheela-na-gig
   This word, or the shorter form 'sheela', has been used since the mid-19th century by antiquarians and folklorists to describe medieval sculptured figures of a hideous naked woman squatting or standing with splayed legs, in such a way as to display her sexual organ, which she is often gripping. The name comes from Ireland, where these carvings were first noticed, but there is doubt whether it was genuinely widespread in common speech (Andersen, 1977: 22-4).
   The best-known sheela in England is a dwarfish goggle-eyed carving at Kilpeck (Herefordshire), but there are about two dozen others, some damaged; one found at Egre-mont Church (Cumbria) in 1880 holds a pair of shears, apparently about to trim her pubic hair (Bailey, 1983). It was long thought that sheelas were mainly an Irish phenomenon, and were charms to make women fertile. English examples were regarded as survivals of
   Celtic paganism (Sheridan and Ross, 1975: 8). However, a recent study (Weir and Jerman, 1986) has proved that the sheela is neither Irish nor pagan; it originated in medieval France and northern Spain, where it is extremely common as part of a repertoire of grotesque images, often blatantly sexual, found on early 12th century Romanesque churches, especially those along the routes to the great pilgrimage centre of St James of Compostella. The purpose would be to warn pilgrims against sexual sins by rousing disgust, presenting the female body as both voracious and degraded. The fashion for this and other grotesque carvings reached England early in the 11th century, and Ireland slightly later.
   Another interpretation which has been proposed several times is that sheelas were meant to drive away the Devil, since there is a belief, known over most of Europe since classical times, that to display the bum or the sexual organs is a powerful apotropaic gesture. Irish peasants gave this explanation when interrogated by antiquarians, saying that men afflicted by the evil eye used to ask prostitutes to perform such displays as a way of turning their luck (Andersen, 1977: 22-4, 103).
   Once sheelas began appearing on English churches, the locals must surely have developed stories and beliefs about them, though not along the pious lines which the clergy designing the church had intended. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort appears in folklore collections.
   ■ Andersen, 1977; Weir and Jerman, 1986; Sheridan and Ross, 1975; Richard N. Bailey, Folklore 94 (1983), 113-17.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Sheela na Gig — La famosa Sheela na gig de Kilpeck (Inglaterra). Las Sheela na Gigs (o Sheela na Gigs) son tallas figurativas de mujeres desnudas mostrando una vulva exagerada. Se encuentran en iglesias, castillos y otros edificiones, especialmente en Irlanda y… …   Wikipedia Español

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