Sheela na Gig - The Hag

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Sheela na Gig
The Hag

Sheela na Gig names a specific image or architectural motif. The typical Sheela na Gig displays a wizened old hag: she is deathly skinny and completely naked. (The term names both the motif and the hag it portrays.) She may lack breasts or display scars on her chest. If she has breasts, they sag pendulously with age, clearly empty and dried out. She looks viewers directly in the eye; sometimes she grins but she always holds her enlarged vagina wide open with her hands as if it were a gateway. Some Sheela na Gigs have vaginas so disproportionately large that this gateway metaphor is no exaggeration.

The Sheela na Gig is extremely mysterious: she is most frequently found incorporated into church buildings in Celtic (or formerly Celtic) areas, although this is clearly not a Christian image. Scientific analysis suggests that Sheela na Gig carvings tend to be older than the rest of the church that incorporates them, as if they were brought from elsewhere.

The earliest identified Sheela na Gigs are found in late eleventh-century churches in southern France. She also appears in English and Irish churches dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. The name “Sheela na Gig” is Irish; its meaning is unknown although nineteenth-century folklorists who first began researching the Sheela na Gig motif were told by their sources that it meant an “immodest woman.” Sheela na Gigs seem to have achieved their greatest popularity in Ireland where they also appear on secular buildings such as castles and mills.

The evocative image is extremely powerful; many find it shocking or disturbing.

Image The Sheela na Gig may be a physical representation of the Cailleach or Sacred Hag

Image She may be a Death Goddess: her vagina is the gateway to the next realm in the same manner that a mother’s genitalia is the gateway to Life

Image The Sheela na Gig is clearly not a fertility symbol; the artists who created her could not have made it plainer that she is a woman long past child-bearing

Whatever her initial origins, the Sheela na Gig now represents the magically protective power of the female genitalia and the spiritual protection of the Great Mother. Nineteenth-century folklorists were advised by local people that the Sheela na Gig wards off evil in the same manner that images of female genitalia are used as magically protective devices throughout the world.

See also Demeter; WORMWOOD: Dangers of Witchcraft: Evil Eye.