Around Ireland one will find stone circles, dolmens, cairns, burial mounds, raths, and holy wells, and then there is the Sheela-na-gig stone carvings. The female carving that is an affront to prudish minds and Victorian senses.
Theories abound as to the meaning and dating of Sheela-na-gigs, a female image that depicts a naked and posing woman that accentuates the most powerfully evocative symbol of the genitalia. Judging from the buildings where Sheela-na-gigs are found they were craved between the 12th and 17th centuries, erected on many churches of the medieval period and invariably in a prominent position such as over the main entrance door or a window. However they may have been based on much older pre-Christian fertility symbols. In the medieval period they were most likely warning symbols against the sins of the flesh, in the pre-Christian period Sheela-na-gigs are more likely to have represented the celebration of female fertility.
Some of the earliest examples of Sheela-na-Gigs are found on churches and abbeys associated with the female branch of the Church. Ireland had a dual form of Christianity, with a female church led by figures like St Bridget operating parallel to the male church.[http://www.newgrange.eu/
Jack Roberts, an English-born antiquarian, has studied sheela-na-gigs since he moved to Ireland more than 20 years ago. He perceives a con-spiracy to suppress a full debate about the his-torical significance of the objects, led by the Roman Catholic Church and supported by the
academic establishment and the National Mus-eum of Ireland.
The name sheela-na-gig is from the Irish language however the exact meaning is uncertain. Eamonn Kelly in his book on Sheela-na-gigs: Origins and Functions suggests: 'The old hag of the breasts' (Sighle na gCíoch in Irish), or 'The old woman on her hunkers' (Síle-ina-Giob in Irish). Other names for sheela-na-gig include 'the Devil Stone,' 'the Idol,' 'the Evil Eye Stone,' 'Julia the Giddy,' 'Shiela O'Dwyer,' 'Cathleen Owen,' 'Saint Shanahan,' 'Whore,' 'the Witch,' and 'the Hag of the Castle.' Mr Kelly believes it probably translates as either 'the hag of the breasts' or 'the old woman on her hunkers'. He said: 'The term "sile" in Irish refers to an old woman, and it was almost certainly taken to Australia by Irish convicts and emigrants and gave rise to the Australian term "Sheela."
There are 140 Sheela-na-Gigs listed, (100 in Ireland, 40 in Britain and France) and each entry includes a description, location and a drawing in a book authored by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, titled The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain.
There are many opinions as to what the figures represent and their raison d'etre. These opinions are as diverse as the shapes and styles of the Sheelas themselves and include Pagan Spirit, Mother Earth, Earth Goddess, Pagan Goddess, good luck symbols, fertility symbols, figures to celebrate womanhood etc. It is widely believed that they repel evil spirits. [http://www.knowth.com/sheela-na-gig.htm]
Taking a rational approach, Barbara Freitag argues that these female figures are not con-nected to eroticism, love-making or warnings against lust, but to childbirth, to life-giving powers, renewal and fertility. [Barbara Freitag, Sheela-na-Gigs - Unravelling an Enigma. (NY & London: Routledge, 2004).]
Archaeologists such as professor Etienne Rynne from the University of Galway, claims they are part of an older Irish tradition and insists that, far from warning against female sexuality, they celebrate it in a manner similar to goddess cults in other parts of the world.
Kathryn Price nicDhàna wrote, "She reveals to you the gateway . . . through which everyone of us entered the world. Through which all of our fore-mothers entered this world. Each one emerging from the one before her all down the line, open archway after archway, reaching back through time . . . directly back to the First Woman." Wooden Ragalhan , found in Ragalhan Bog in 1908, carbon dated back to 1098/998 BCE. carved of yew tree, perhaps illustrating death in the old world and birth into the next. ["Síla na Géige is the Cailleach as Creator," by Kathryn Price nicDhàna, http://www.bandia.net/sheela/article.html]
In a website blog titled "Niamh's Blog," she wrote, "There's an old Norman church in our area, built at the same time as Drimagh castle, and I spotted a Sheela-na-gig there a few years ago. This is an ancient pagan/medieval idol, of a female character with an exaggerated vulva. Some historians say it is a warning to an illiterate populace of the evils of lust, others say she was a fertility symbol. They may have denoted sacred pagan sites, and when Christians built churches on the sites they often included the Sheela-na-gigs in their construction. It can be seen under the topmost window, to the left. I like the fertility idea, and had her as a sort of talisman throughout my last pregnancy, even waddling down to her each time I thought I was in labour, until I realised we can see her from the back bedroom, where I eventually gave birth. I like to think this baldy exhibitionist looked over me and guided my labour with her magical powers. That's the closest to religion I get. Any ttc'ers, this post's for you." [http://www.themamashipblog.com/2012/01/sheela-na-gig.html , Niamh's Blog]