John Harding, an IT director from Shropshire, England, was on a day trip to the quaint English market town of Church Stretton when he encountered his first Sheela-na-Gig carved in stone above the door of its 14th century church. "My first impression was, 'What the hell's that?'" he says. "It was an odd thing to find on a church."
"Odd" is an understatement. Sheela-na-Gigs are medieval stone figures—often found on the walls of churches or castles—of women caught mid-squat, thighs spread, using their hands to yank open their vulva and display their vaginas. Some of them have cheeky grins; others are wizened hags; one is depicted wiggling out of a demon's mouth. What they all have in common is the fact that they are proudly exposing their chiseled vags to anyone walking past.
The Church Stretton carving is one of hundreds of Sheela-na-Gigs found in England, Ireland, France, and Spain. Some anonymous prude had attempted to censor the image, obscuring her open genitalia with a stone, but Harding could still tell what it was covering up. "I got fascinated, basically. I started recording them, because there are quite a few in the area."
That was in 1998. Harding's database, the Sheela-Na-Gig Project, has been going ever since. Now people send him logs of suspected Sheelas; some come from as far away as Norway and Milan.
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"Sheela-na-Gig not a particularly old name, it's a name for two examples in Ireland," Harding explains. "There was an article published about them and that name stuck. Before that, they go by all manner of names. The oldest name for them is the one on the Isle of Wight [in England]: It's called the Idol."
The Sheelas went unloved for centuries. When 19th century Ordnance Survey workers came across one in Tipperary, Ireland, one man angrily wrote that the "shockingly crude" figure was an expression of the "grossest idea of immorality and licentiousness ." This attitude was not unusual; priests in the 18th and 19th century would routinely prise the Sheela-na-Gigs off church walls and away from the public eye. Over the past 20 years, they've even been found buried in shallow graves in church cemeteries or hurled into nearby wells and streams.
Today, Sheela-na-Gigs are undergoing an archeological renaissance. The Heritage Council of Ireland—a statutory body that seeks to preserve Irish history—began mapping the country's Sheela-na-Gigs in April. (Ireland has over a hundred, which is by far the highest number of Sheelas anywhere in the world.) There have been several books published by both experts and amateur enthusiasts about the mysterious female carvings.
But the Sheela-na-Gigs aren't giving up their secrets so easily. Nobody can conclusively say where they came from, or what they mean. There are a few competing schools of thought; Harding is part of a broad consensus that believes that they are an example of Romanesque architecture brought over with the Norman invasion of England and Ireland in the 11th and 12th century. As for what they symbolize, he thinks that they are meant to depict the sin of lust—a warning to medieval Christians to keep their thoughts pure.
"Bollocks," says Jack Roberts, an independent researcher from Galway, Ireland, who has published several books and pamphlets that stress a Celtic origin for the Sheelas. He even makes bronze Sheela-na-Gig jewelry, which he sells on his website and at a local market stall. ("I get a lot of reaction all the time, believe me," he says, putting on an American accent: " Oh mah gawd, what is thaaat?")
"People can't see the wood for the trees," he says. "They just see [Sheelas] as sex and a warning against sin and lust." Roberts argues that the Sheela-na-Gigs are depictions of powerful Celtic goddesses. "You could say that they are the last vestige of the reality of the sacred feminine in old Irish culture."
Irish mythology is full of fearsome goddesses that embody both life and death. The country even takes its Irish name, Éire, from the name of a Gaelic goddess. "Irish culture has the sacred feminine underlying it all the time, even now in the Catholic church," Roberts says. "You pray to Jesus a bit, but if you really want something, it's always Mary." When Christianity came to Ireland, he says, pagan beliefs mixed with monotheistic religion to become something uniquely Irish. The Sheelas are just one example.
It's impossible to date the Sheelas. They all broadly date back to the 12th to 14th century, but scientists can't carbon date stone. Some people believe they may be even older than the churches they are found in; many are made from a different material to the churches and castles they were found in, suggesting that they may have been taken from another earlier building and reinstalled in their current setting.
The lack of context also makes it difficult to decide what they were built for. Some Sheelas—like the one getting devoured by a monster—might be seen as a hellish warning to the church congregation. Others appear to have been placed above doorways as a token of luck, or a talisman against evil. There are Sheelas in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland whose vulvas have been worn to a nub from medieval churchgoers rubbing them as part of a religious ceremony.
"Nobody knows for sure; it's a guessing game," says Pat Reid, a Heritage Council employee who was in charge of the Sheela mapping project in Ireland. "They really are an enigma in themselves…. The latest [theory] is that they are possibly based on St. Patrick's wife, Sheelah, and they're an aid to childbirth or sexual instruction," Reid added, referencing a recent, groundbreaking finding: Recently, University College Cork folklorist Shane Lehan found records that indicated that Ireland's patron saint had a wife. Could the newly discovered Sheelah hold the key to the Sheela-na-Gigs? Reid admits that this might be a stretch, and there's not enough evidence to suggest this yet.
The Heritage Council are trying to preserve the Sheelas as best they can, though the broad consensus is that they should be kept in situ. The ideal scenario is to protect them from the elements with a small canopy, Reid says, but admits "in Ireland our rain tends to blow sideways!"
"I'd love to keep an open mind because I don't want to decide for myself that they're one particular thing," Reid says. "That's the beauty of it: These started out as one thing and morphed into entirely different things. Maybe they started out as a grotesque [piece of sculpture], became a sexual instruction book, then they became taboo, and now they're seen as art.
"That, to me, is wonderful."