British Archaeological Reports published the latest book on
British exhibitionist sculptures (sheela-na-gigs, or
shee-lena-gigs) under the title of:
A new study of the Sheela-Na-Gigs of Britain and Ireland,
by Theresa C. Oakley (B.A.R. British Series 495, £48)
- a volume without
an index, and with the usual terrible photo-quality of British
academic books (my own included).
through the tergid text of this doctoral thesis, I am amazed
that it was accepted for publication. A large part of it is
a graceless trashing of all previous studies. Another chunk
consists of mind-numbingly academic spreadsheets, lists and
pie-charts of yet another repertoire of categories and features
of the insular sheelas.
Dr Oakley repeatedly
condemns 'Victorian attitudes' in previous works, as well as
"anti-feminism" - even accusing me of "androcentrism".
But no proliferation of lists, references and obsessively-fractal
categorisation (the Victorian disease of reductionism), will
elucidate the enigma, nor substitute for fieldwork.
author not only ignores the male and bestial exhibitionists
of the British Isles, but also the hundreds of both male and
female exhibitionists in France and Spain. In other words, she
narrows down her 'study' to a self-defined category of figures,
with no reference to or comparison with earlier carvings, some
of which are (as shown on these web-pages) models for later
examples. The bloodlessness of her text suggests that she has
never set foot in a rural French church and marvelled at the
capitals; nor stood outside and seen a coherent corbel-table
illustrating various sins of appetite; nor yet given thought
to the iconography of Romanesque doorways which show the hellish
punishment which awaits sinners.
Just as Barbara
Freitag had one valuable contribution to add to the discussion
of sheela-na-gigs (the origins of the word itself - see
Dr Oakley has one solid idea which she doggedly pursues. This
is the obvious iconographic connection between sheelas
and apotropaic Gorgon-carvings - a connection which Dr Oakley
insists is also functional. But she does not even try to explain
why these should pop up in the British Isles and not elsewhere
in Europe. Thus she fails even to approach the core of the enigma,
the veil which occludes our understanding.
She actually ensures
her failure by her erection of an entirely unjustified distinction
between sheelas (as she defines them) and other female
exhibitionists, even though some Continental Romanesque church
figures are almost identical and at least as 'crude',
'rude' and 'shocking' to Victorian and some
She quite rightly
draws the reader's attention to the modern confusion between
the obscene (which was originally the blasphemous or seriously
immoral) and the sexual, but fails to realise that this confusion
dates from the early centuries of the Christian church (and,
indeed, Islam). These figures were obviously designed to shock,
both by their gorgon attributes (which the author dwells on)
and by their sexual apparatus and/or attitude. The myth of Perseus
tells us that the sight of a Gorgon transfixed the beholders
(turned them to stone), thus rendering them impotent. There
is, therefore, no doubt that Gorgon figures were regarded as
ugly, grotesque, monstrous, arresting - nor that they fed into
Romanesque iconography their monstrous appearance, their display
of teeth, and their connection with snakes, which Medusa had
writhing on her head instead of hair.
Gorgon with protruding tongue,
Corfu Archæological Museum (Greece)
On the other hand,
sheelas also have something in common with the (usually
portable) Baubo figurines, who may or may not have been regarded
as grotesque, but certainly were not apotropaic. Grotesque is
an entirely subjective attribute, of course: I regard tabloid
'beauties' as grotesque, and pigs as beautiful. Other people
have other opinions. At any rate, we don't know if sheelas
or Baubos were regarded as ugly, monstrous or cute when they
were created - after all, garden gnomes are considered cute
Note the large navel on this Baubo figurine
offered on eBay.
It is a feature of many sheela-na-gigs.
Click the picture to see a rear view.
While Dr Oakley
follows the connection between sheelas and monsters,
she does not even attempt to factor in the context of the Romanesque
exhibitionists on corbel-tables - some of them extensive - where
they are indisputably illustrating sins of the flesh. And in
suggesting an entirely Insular upsurge in apotropaic figures,
she ignores the phallic figures which we know symbolised power,
property, liminality and warnings against trespass in 'Celtic'
contexts. She even ignores the first male exhibitionist in a
Christian context, the monk, shown in the Anglo-Saxon manuscript
from the late 8th century, who clearly illustrates the temptations
of the flesh.
Vatican MS Barberini, Lat.570,
In making an absolute
distinction not only between sheelas and continental female
exhibitionists on churches, but also between Romanesque insular
exhibitionists and contemporaneous, continental Romanesque carvings,
she puts herself beyond the Pale of intelligent research. While
it is true that most Continental Romanesque female exhibitionists
are feet-to-ears acrobats, whereas few post-Romanesque Insular
figures are acrobatic, this merely suggests, however, that the
opprobrium accorded to acrobats and entertainers in the 12th
century had lessened by the 15th, so a double motif became a
single one. It may also suggest a shift of function, but that
is not disputed, given the length of time between the last Romanesque
exhibitionists and the last post-Romanesque ones: up to 400
© 2006 by Julianna Lees.
Saint-Vivien (Gironde), a crude Romanesque
example, with the emaciation
and necklessness characteristic of sheela-na-gigs.
There can absolutely
no doubt to anyone who has studied the corbel-tables of Aulnay,
Cervatos or Mauriac, that the Romanesque exhibitionists, male,
female and animal, are, primarily, minatory carvings meant to
illustrate the sins most deplored by 11th and 12th century Christians
- despite the perhaps unique male example at Bolmir,
near Cervatos, who is making the "fig" gesture which
is both obscene and apotropaic.
The problem of
the sheelas is that they have little or no context, and
were sometimes displaced and re-used. The question of why they
are where they are is the fundamental question with which I
and other investigators have concerned ourselves with. Dr Oakley's
book is mostly an achingly abstruse and academic divagation
on the anthropology of apotropaia and the connection between
the apotropaic and the sacred. But she produces no evidence
to justify a sacral function for the really quite small number
of sheelas on Irish tower-houses.
No sane person
would call them 'sacred' in the modern meaning of the
word. They might be 'sacred' in the loose sense that
Masonic ritual, or the turning of cure-stones
might be called sacred. Indeed it is well-known that some are
or were rubbed or touched during certain rituals. But a ritual
is not the same as a rite.
The sacred can
certainly be both fascinating and repellent - like menstrual
blood to some. But what is fascinating and repellent - obscene
in the original sense - is not necessarily sacred. Were public
executions - hanging, drawing and quartering, disembowelling
- sacred acts ? Only in the widest possible sense.
However, Dr Oakley
does quite rightly emphasise the obvious possibility that sheelas
on castles were status-symbols like phallic gateposts, or ridiculous
concrete sculptures in modern gardens, or so-called swimming-pools,
electronic gates, etc. - or, indeed, like good-quality carvings
on churches, on which all embellishment was displayed with pride.
If they were not, they would have been 'marks of Cain', 'penalty-points',
stigmas or curses placed upon the castles or their inhabitants
- for which there is no evidence.
I have already
demonstrated the similarity of some sheelas to Romanesque exhibitionists
on or near the Pilgrim Roads - of which Dr Oakley unbelievably
makes no mention, despite her admiration for Meyer Schapiro
and George Zarnecki. My own exposure to the Romanesque figures
convinces me more and more that sheela-na-gigs on castles
were semi-apotropaic 'status-statues' copied to a greater or
lesser extent from 'obscene' (i.e. arresting) exhibitionists
in France and Spain - though not from the particular male
exhibitionist at Bolmir
in Spain who is 'making the fig'. Those on post-Romanesque
churches, it seems to me, combine elements of grotesquery (like
misericords, bench-ends and roof-bosses), warning of the eternal
punishment awaiting sexual transgressors, and apotropaia.
Dr Oakley derides
'diffusionism' (the formulation of the chief characteristic
of cultural interaction). Had she stopped to think of how the
Roman Empire facilitated the westward movement of artefacts
and motifs from Iran, the Middle East and Egypt (and the eastward
movement of motifs to India), she would have not set herself
up for ridicule. In our own time the Anglo-American empires
have spread ideas and artefacts right across the world in all
she then suggests that the exaggerated-exhibitionist motif might
have actually originated in Ireland and travelled from West
to East, without making any attempt to substantiate the idea,
or citing the one example of an Irish stone carving which could
support it: the Boa
Island back-to-back figures - one of which is male, and
the other (assumed to be) female.
two figures have been identified on a 12th century secular building
at Oakham (Leicestershire, formerly Rutland), known as Oakham
Castle though it is in fact the earliest surviving hall of any
English castle (1180-90) and one of the best surviving Romanesque
Great Halls. Some corbels are in situ but other carvings
have been inserted into 'blank' walls in a fairly random
way. One of these, very badly damaged and worn, is a figure
with goat's feet and one hand to its groin. It might be
a female - or a masturbating male.
by Tina Negus
other is a lion,
definitely, but not exaggeratedly, male, with similarly
curious back legs.
click on a picture to enlarge
pre-date any on Irish tower-houses, and indeed strongly suggest
an iconographic link between continental Romanesque and Insular
Broken Luxuria ?
in a niche, Wells Cathedral
It so happens
that elsewhere in Oakham, above the 14th century church porch,
there is an acrobatic anal male exhibitionist, apparently
self-fellating. This is more likely to be a salvaged, re-used
Romanesque corbel rather than a copy.
with a figure at Greyabbey, Ireland.
After over thirty
years of looking at stone iconography on Romanesque churches
and at sheela-na-gigs which are continually being identified,
I am convinced that the latter, on castles, are a combination
of 'dirty postcard', status-symbol and apotropaia. Dr Oakley
evinces no sense of humour in her 'veil-lifting', but it is
hard not to smile at some of these figures. This may seem to
be a modern reaction, but there can be no doubt that 12th century
sculptors (whether apprentice or mature) carved them with gusto
and perhaps hilarity. The little tower-house lords may also
have combined humour with their pride in these carvings, whether
on doorways or (almost hidden from view) high up, below barbican
figure on the left is on a frieze of the 12th century church
at Saint-Vivien (Gironde), a point of embarkation from France
to Ireland. The figure on the right is high up on a quoin of
the 15th century castle at Ballaghmore (Laois) in Ireland (now
a pricey hotel). It seems to me that the Ballaghmore figure
is a copy of the St-Vivien one.
Is it a "dirty postcard from France" to frighten the
locals, a declaration that someone has made the pilgrimage to
Compostela, or an expression of allegiance to someone or some
should also not overlook the possiblity of the unintended
consequences of putting up funny little obscene carvings
on churches. What might have appalled prudish monks might well
have amused illiterate peasants, pilgrims and passers-by.
Irish castle figures are obviously an iconographic continuation
of the church-placed figures - but there are rather few of the
latter in Ireland, whereas almost all the many figures in England
are on churches. The Taghmon figure is on a fortified church.
may be relevant. All history is political. It could be (for
example) that an Anglo-Norman first put one on his castle to
shock the 'natives', and the custom spread. Castles are political
buildings by definition, so the distribution of sheelas may
well reflect shifting political realities. It is noteworthy
that there are so few castle figures north of the line between
Dundalk and Sligo, the last area to be pacified by the British.
The Riddle of
the Sheelas hinges on how a Romanesque motif of sin, carved
by talented sculptors on churches with ecclesiastical permission,
ended up as crude depictions of exhibitionist females on Irish
castles, whereas the 'tradition' in England continued to be
ecclesiastical, though with added late-medieval grotesqueness.
They certainly were not celebrations of femininity or the yoni
in the aggressively-patriarchal and property-based Gaelic society
whose last gasp is being heard only today.
A small, undated lead amulet from Avignon,
Cooke (2002) p.192
which, though tiny and not carved in stone,
fits one of the categories of sheela-na-gig.
Of course, it might, conceivably, have originated in Ireland...