Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Book Review: The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain

The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain
Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts

The Kilpeck Sheela, by John Harding The Sheela na Gig project
The Kilpeck Sheela*
There are a fair few books available that deal with Sheela-na-Gigs and they all have varying price tags and reviews. The best one looks like The Witch on the Wall, which seems to be the most sought after treatment of the subject, and is invariably going for between £100-350, or else there's Jerman and Weir's Images of Lust, which seems to be a more populist choice that comes with a more reasonable price tag of about £18. Alas, even that's a little much for me at the moment, so I went for this one instead. I picked it up for a whopping 9p, and as things go I think it's a pretty good bargain.

It's not without its problems – and I'll get to those in a minute – but it's a really good read. It's well written and engaging, and the authors present all the various theories surrounding the origins, influences and purpose of the Sheelas in a fairly balanced manner before giving a catalogue of all the documented Sheelas in Ireland and Britain, and discussing some figures that are related (such as male versions, or Seán-na-Gigs). It's pretty clear which theory the authors favour, but they go into the pros and cons of each theory in a fairly objective manner so you're free to agree or disagree. Each theory is dealt with in a chapter to itself, so it's well laid-out and straight-forward too.

In terms of origins, it's clear that most of the Sheelas are medieval and therefore Christian in date, but the authors also point out that there is iconography from across pre-Christian Celtic Europe that is similar to the poses the Sheelas are depicted in, so there could be pre-Christian influences. One theory (that Hutton argues strongly for in The Pagan Religions of the British Isles) suggests that the Sheelas are continental in origin, coming from a twelfth century fashion for "acrobatic grotesques" that show all kinds of lewd scenes that warn against sin. This book argues against that (though doesn't discount it from being a flavour that came to be added into the mix), pointing to the pre-Christian figures, the non-erotic nature of the Sheelas (their genitals are exposed but that doesn't mean it's supposed to be erotic), and the various features found on Sheelas that mark them out as being decidedly non-continental – they are often asymmetrical, with distinctively and disproportionately large heads, and they generally aren't "acrobatic" in form; their legs are usually drawn up to display their genitals, rather than being shown mid-tumble, or in compromising positions with other figures. The authors also favour the theory that the Sheelas were primarily carved for protective purposes, as opposed to trying to discourage sin, or simply representing fertility.

I learned a lot about Sheelas from this book, and of particular interest was the fact that authors noted the similarities between the Sheela and the "hag goddesses" like the Cailleach, which is something I've pondered on since I stumbled across Sheelah's Day. But there are some problems with the book, and while they're not necessarily major, I'd say they're pretty significant to my mind. When dealing with the subject of Sheelas specifically the book is well-referenced and seems pretty solid, but when the authors step outside of that, things get a little shaky. Unfortunately, it mostly relates to the bits where they talk about pre-Christian religion:
"The hag is a goddess of sovereignty – the Earth goddess responsible for the fortunes, fertility and prosperity of her territory. Her association with life, fertility and death was symbolised by her ability to move between three aspects: a young beautiful maiden, a powerful sexual woman and a hag or crone." (Emphasis mine).
I'm highlighting this bit in particular because I think it's pretty indicative of where the problem is. When pre-Christian religion is mentioned you'll find references to Marija Gimbutas and The Great Goddess and things like that, and in general I just can't get on board with it. The maiden, mother, crone concept just isn't a thing, historically, in Ireland or Britain, and the authors could have looked to far more reliable sources than Gimbutas. There are frequent references to Cernunnos as well, and while the point that the poses the Sheelas take and the way Cernunnos is depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron is interesting (also some evidence to suggest some Sheelas may have been antlered – like Cernunnos), the authors keep referring to him as in Irish deity.

All in all it's disappointing but I don't think it's something that's necessarily unforgivable. I wasn't reading the book to read about all that, and if you ignore those bits (it's mostly confined to chapter 6) and stick to the bits that are more reliably referenced, then it's still a good read. Looking to another review from someone who's more knowledgeable on Sheelas in particular, there are some other issues of accuracy to be aware of, namely the inclusion of a couple of figures who aren't really accepted as Sheelas by other experts, and some proofing issues that have resulted in one Sheela being wrongly labelled. I noticed some general proofing errors, but not the labelling error and I think most readers wouldn't have spotted that kind of mistake unless they're already well familiar with the subject.

Aside from that, while the chapter on symbolism was really interesting – pointing out the consistency in things like asymmetry, instances where one eye appears closed (in keeping with the kind of pose commonly referenced in Irish myths to indicate magic being performed), and so on – the discussion of where the name comes from and what it means felt a little fudged; the different theories were considered but no real opinion or critique offered either way. I agree with this article that the popular idea that it comes from "Sighle na gCíoch," or "Sheela of the breasts" is unconvincing considering that breasts aren't a universal feature of them in general, and while the authors seem to agree, they repeat the meaning later in the book if they accept it.

This is a pretty slim volume so it packs a lot in. In spite of the criticisms I have for it, I really enjoyed the book and would recommend it for anyone who mighas t be interested in the subject. While other books on Sheelas might be more academic and higher up on most book lists, I think this is a fairly solid introduction to the subject and will give you a pretty good overview, especially if you're on a budget (although this site is good, and conveniently free!) and only have a relatively casual interest that will be sated by something short and sweet. What it lacks in terms of accuracy in places, it makes up for in pointing you in the right direction and being more balanced in consideration of the various theories and issues surrounding the Sheelas than someone like Ronald Hutton managed in his treatment of it in The Pagan Religions of the British Isles (which made some good points but was extremely one-sided). All in all: Highly recommended, with caveats.

* The Kilpeck Sheela na Gig, near Hereford, England, taken by John Harding of The Sheela na Gig project. Used under Creative Commons licence via Wikimedia Commons.


Léithin Cluan said...

Really interesting review - thanks! I'd like to find out more about these intriguing figures at some point. Good to know what factual and mythological 'traps' to look out for, in advance - many thanks.

Seren said...

You're welcome! I hadn't looked into the subject for a long while so it really did help a lot, I definitely recommend it. It's a very easy read, too.