Calmness and Strength in the Birthing Figure of the Sheela-na-gig

Calmness and Strength in the Birthing Figure of the Sheela-na-gig
12th century Sheela-na-gig, Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England
Sheela-na-gig, which is the anglicized form of the Irish term, Sigla na gćioch means “Sheela of the breasts,” and refers to a specific type of medieval stone figure that represents the female body as if in the act of giving birth.[1]  Primarily found within the Celtic traditions of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, these figures all depict the simple form of a naked woman whose face remains calm as she spreads her vulva wide to reveal the life path of her birth canal.[2]    Although the origins of the sheela-na-gig figures are unknown, some historians have interpreted the representations as vulgar and attached to Christian themes of sin.  However, different studies have instead pointed to a strong correlation between these figures and the existence of a fertility goddess in pre-Christian Celtic tradition.  As Ina May Gaskin has described in her work, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, the image of these figures can be extremely empowering to a woman in labor: 

My idea is that this figure was probably meant to reassure young women about the capabilities of their bodies in birth.  Ellen Predergast, in an article written for an Irish journal, remarked, “After a lifetime’s awareness of such figures I am convinced their significiance lies in the sphere of fertility, and that is what is depicted…is the act of giving birth.”  Whether Ms. Predergast and I are right or not, I can testify that a sheela-na-gig figure can be a great help at a birth.  As you can see, the vulva of the crouching figure is open enough to accommodate her own head.  Such a sight is quite encouraging to a woman in labor (Ina May 253).

Looking at the female face of the sheela-na-gig image, one easily notes that her expression is calm and serene, her mouth turning upwards as if in a tranquil smile.   The figure as a whole therefore represents the physical opening up that must take place at birth as one of calmness and strength for the woman.

[1] See Edith M. Guest, “Ballyvourney and Its Sheela-na-gig” in Folklore vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec. 1937): 374.

[2] Ina May Gaskin, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, New York: Bantam Books, 2003, 252.