(The information below, as well as the photographs of ancient sheela-na-gigs, comes from Eamon P. Kelly, Sheela-na-gigs, Origins and Functions. 1996. Country House, Dublin. It’s available used from Amazon; I couldn’t find it anywhere else.)
Have you ever seen Celtic Woman, the wildly popular Irish music group? They are five young women: wispy, sweet-voiced fairies in flowing diaphanous gowns. Though the membership of the group changes, the face on all their albums remains the same - a fresh-faced redhead with a flirtatious smile half-concealed by her long curly locks.
Celtic Woman is to Irish culture as the Kingston Trio were to folk music. Lush instrumentals soar behind them; their movements and facial expressions are carefully choreographed. They perform at night in old Irish castles lit by flaming torches, with dry ice sending fog into the air. But if you visit those castles and look carefully, you may find a different Celtic woman, earthier and more vital than these five, despite her 900 years.
Sheela-na-gigs are carved into the cornerstones and keystones of Irish churches and castles. Their legs are spread and their hands point to or hold open the vulva. The figures are emaciated, with big heads. Breasts, if any, are small. The meaning of the name is uncertain; it may mean old hag of the breasts, or old woman on her hunkers.
Sheela-na-gigs seem to have evolved from ancient exhibitionist friezes in Ireland and along pilgrimage routes in Europe. The grotesque bodies with swollen vulva showed Hell’s punishment for lust, a sin particularly attributed to women.
The Church considered the Irish sinful and licentious, and disapproved of their married priests, as well as their customary laws on divorce and remarriage. The Norman invasion of Ireland in 1146 was part of Rome’s attempt to rein in the Irish church. The sheela-na-gigs, single figures carved on blocks, began to appear in the next century, first on the cornerstones of churches, and later on keystones of castles above the entrance, apparently as a protective figure. From the 17th century onward many were deliberately destroyed, and only about a hundred remain. These have been well-rubbed around the vulva, indicating they were considered fertility symbols.
Eamon Kelly says “It is clear that a deliberate effort has been made to represent sheela-na-gigs as grotesque, hideous and scary.”
I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. I like the lady with the braids - but is that a moustache, or teeth? This other one looks quite contented, and given the position of the fingers of her left hand, may be about to be positively blissful.
I never liked the crotch shots in Hustler magazine; their airbrushed smiles and curves seemed unconnected to the wrinkly folds and openings below, as though the women had no idea what was going on down there. But I love the sheela-na-gigs. To me they say “This is mine, like it or lump it.”
Our sexual organs are hidden from view, and many young women may not know what they look like. When I was fourteen, about a year after I started my period, I decided to try tampons. Though I had examined the little drawing on the Tampax instructions, I didn’t realize there were three different holes. With great difficulty and a lot of pain I inserted the tampon in my urethra. I knew something was wrong but didn’t know what until I tried to pee and the tampon emerged soaked with urine. Fifty years later the memory still makes me squirm.
The word pudenda derives from pudere, Latin for “to be ashamed.” In the early 1970's feminists celebrated female sexuality. In our consciousness-raising-cum-baby-group in Ann Arbor our bible was Our Bodies, Ourselves. We were determined to overcome shame and self-consciousness. With a hand mirror and a transparent plastic speculum, and a lot of laughter, we took turns trying to see our cervices.
My sister Luli has spent a lifetime being outrageous. One Christmas she gave me a delicately molded silver pendant of a vagina dentata. (A toothed vagina, and you don’t want to know.) It resembled a shark’s mouth. I wore it for about an hour, but I had to take it off - it felt too hostile.
When I told Luli of my discovery of sheela-na-gigs, she naturally had to make some, out of Sculpey® baking clay. Mine is delightfully exuberant. I used to hide it in a drawer, but now that Amanda is older I keep it on my desk. I have given her a hand mirror. I hope she will explore every part of her body, and rejoice in her sexual self.
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