Ireland’s Heritage Council and Heritage Maps have launched a new dataset mapping all the Sheela-na-Gigs in situ and in collections around Ireland. Sheela-na-Gigs are female figures often characterized by bands across the forehead, visible ribs, and most notably, their hands spreading their vulvas wide open. They are found in the UK and to a lesser degree on the continent (mainly France and Spain), but Ireland has the greatest number of Sheela-na-Gigs. They are most commonly seen in churches and monasteries, usually ones of medieval Romanesque design or in newer ones that incorporate salvaged elements of earlier religious structures on the site. They are also found in lay buildings like castles.
Discussing the launch of this new cultural resource and the St. Patrick connection, renowned UCC folklorist Shane Lehane suggests “that perhaps the key to understanding the inherited notion that St Patrick had a wife, Sheela, is to explore the hugely interesting archaeological manifestation that also bears her name: the Sheela-na-Gig”.
“In Ireland, there are over 110 examples of these, oft misunderstood, medieval stone carvings of naked, old women exposing their genitalia. They are often positioned in medieval tower-houses, medieval church sites and holy wells. Up to recently these were seen as figures representing the evils of lust or as ways of averting the ‘evil eye’. More convincing reassessments have reinterpreted the Sheela-na-gig, in line with the Cailleach, as belonging to the realm of vernacular folk deities associated with the life-giving powers of birth and death. Placed with the cycles of both the natural and agricultural year and the human life cycle, she can be regarded as the embodiment of the cycle of fertility that overarches natural, agricultural and human procreation and death”.
Speaking about the launch of the Sheela-na-Gig map, Beatrice Kelly, Heritage Council Head of Policy & Research, stated, “Sheela-na-Gigs are very evocative symbols of the feminine in old Irish culture and their prominent positions in medieval churches and castles attests to the importance of the female in Irish society. As modern Ireland strives for equality in all aspects of life this map can help us all to understand the important place women have traditionally held within our culture and society.”
There are probably more Sheelas that haven’t been officially documented yet. The Heritage Council is hoping to add to the layer with new information and asks that members of the public contact them if they know of any Sheela-na-Gigs that are not yet marked on the map.
As the name suggests, Heritage Maps is a collection of culture-related data sets marked on a map of Ireland. You can select different layers to view on the map — shipwrecks, UNESCO World Heritage sites, burial grounds, walled towns, museums, protected architectural sites, and hundreds more — and create the mother of all heritage tours customized to your interests. There are more than 150,000 sites pinpointed in all of the layers, and the number increases all the time.
To view the new Sheela-na-Gig dataset, click on the Archaeology category in the Layer List and check the Sheela-na-Gig box. You’ll see the map populate with data points. Click on one of the points and then on the right arrow after the name for the full information to drop down, including a photo (just thumbnails, alas).