Unravelling an Enigma

Barbara Freitag

206 Pages, ISBN 978 0 415 34553 8     
Published by Routledge, 2004     

An air of mystery has surrounded the crude carvings of naked females, called Sheela-na-gigs, since their scholary discovery some one hundred and sixty years ago. Especially puzzling is the fact that they occur predominantly in medieval religious buildings. High-minded clergymen have since defaced or destroyed many of these carvings, and for a long time archaeologists dismissed them as rude and repulsive.

Only in the less puritanical atmosphere of the last few decades have academics and artists turned their interest to Sheela-na-gigs. Divergent views emerged: some see them as ancient goddesses, some as vestiges of a pagan cult, others as protective talismans or Christian warnings against lust. Here Barbara Freitag examines all the literature on the subject, highlighting the inconsistencies of the various interpretations in regard to origin, function and name. By considering the Sheela-na-gigs in their medieval social context, she suggests that they were folk deities with particular responsibility for assistance in childbirth.

This fascinating surcey sheds new light on this controversial phenomenon and also contains a complete catalogue of all known carvings, including hitherto unrecorded or unpublished figures. It is the most comprhensive study of the Sheela-na-gigs yet published.

Barbara Freitag is Lecturer in Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland.

(The text above comes from the back of the book)