Sometimes the traces of antiquated or forgotten belief systems hide in plain sight, overlooked as we scurry about our seemingly important lives, oblivious to the weirdness or meanings embedded into our physical surroundings. Just take a look at the symbols found on the American dollar bill or in Masonic architecture. Some might say these are proof of the Illuminati or some such shadowy secret cabal or conspiracy, while others would say they’re just vestiges of historical semiotics carried down for aesthetic reasons. Whatever they are, these symbols can persist in our cultural consciousnesses even as their original symbolism is forgotten.
Occasionally, these symbols are noticed by modern-day lore hunters and receive a newfound level of attention and scrutiny. Such is the case in Ireland, where Ireland’s Heritage Council has renewed interest in sheela-na-gigs, lewd female figures carved or sculpted into buildings throughout the Emerald Isle.
Ireland’s Heritage Council, an organization which promotes Irish history and culture, has traveled throughout the country locating and cataloging the lascivious ladies. Scholars still disagree about the origin of the figures; some believe they have their roots in Medieval religious warnings against lustful sins, while others assert they’re a vestige of Pagan fertility idols. Most sheela-na-gigs are depicted as elderly women, lying back exposing their lady bits or even…well, see for yourself:
While sheela-na-gigs are commonly thought to be a warning against the pleasures of the flesh or a means of averting the gaze of the dreaded ‘evil eye,’ folklorist Shane Lehane of the University College Cork believes the exhibitionist figures have more in common with the Gaelic myth of the Cailleach, or ‘divine hag’:
More convincing reassessments have reinterpreted the Sheela-na-gig, in line with the Cailleach, as belonging to the realm of vernacular folk deities associated with the life-giving powers of birth and death. Placed with the cycles of both the natural and agricultural year and the human life cycle, she can be regarded as the embodiment of the cycle of fertility that overarches natural, agricultural and human procreation and death.
The Irish Heritage Council has made an interactive map of over one hundred sheela-na-gigs throughout Ireland if, ya know, that’s your thing. No judgment here.