Sheela-Na-Gigs: Power, Politics and Sexuality
Sheela-na-gigs are sculpted female forms displaying their, sometimes exaggerated, vulvas. While these carvings are found through much of Europe, there is the highest concentration of them in Ireland and Britain, with many also found in France and Spain. Archaeologically, they are categorised as “grotesques”, similar to gargoyles, found on church architecture and thought to ward off evil influence. While there is no consensus on their origin or age, some scholars place the emergence of such carvings in the 11th century. This talk tracks the history of Sheela-na-gigs in Ireland against the backdrop of Irish history. The women of Ireland were subjugated during an era in which female sexuality itself came to be regarded as vulgar, shameful, and deviant. In contemporary Ireland, there has been a resurgence of interest and cultural (re)connection with the Sheela-na-gig. The symbol has been utilised in political campaigns for women’s empowerment, in art, and in spirituality and examples are given of how today the Sheela is a vibrant, powerful, and celebrated form.
Dr Jenny Butler is President of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions (ISASR). She is a Lecturer in the Study of Religions Department at University College Cork and a Principal Investigator of UCC’s Environmental Research Institute (ERI). Her research interests are in the area of New Religious Movements, Western esotericism, and folk religion. Her monograph 21st Century Irish Paganism: Worldview, Ritual, Identity is forthcoming from Routledge.
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