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Grotesque Sheela-Na-Gigs?

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Title:
Grotesque Sheela-Na-Gigs?
Alternate title:
A feminist reclaiming of borders in "the spirit of woman" posters
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Shanahan, Rachel Lynn ( author )
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English
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Sheela-na-gigs ( lcsh )
Sculpture, Medieval -- Ireland ( lcsh )
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bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )

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This essay argues that traditional interpretations of Irish sheela-na-gig stone carvings are informed by patriarchal and phallogocentric beliefs about female bodies and sexualities. Historical scholarship uses expressions such as grotesque, hideous, ugly, and obscene to interpret the sheela-na-gig's sexual gesturing, and this language of disgust is used today within sheela-na-gig studies and beyond. Feminist theories offer critiques of phallogocentric understandings of female bodies and sexualities, which allow us to critically attend to the consequences of representations of the “grotesque” for women historically, socially, psychically, and politically. I conclude by discussing the sheela-na-gig border on Cathleen O’Neill’s “The Spirit of Woman” feminist posters as a possible symbol for borders as transformative sites for feminist knowledge about female bodies and sexualities.
Thesis:
Thesis (M.H.) - University of Colorado Denver.
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Includes bibliographic references
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System requirements - Adobe Reader.
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Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Rachel Lynn Shanahan.

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|University of Colorado Denver
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|Auraria Library
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944456409 ( OCLC )
ocn944456409
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LD1193.L58 2015m S53 ( lcc )

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Full Text
GROTESQUE SHEELA-NA-GIGS?
A FEMINIST RECLAIMING OF BORDERS IN THE SPIRIT OF WOMAN
POSTERS
by
RACHEL LYNN SHANAHAN
B.A., Florida Gulf Coast University, 2011
A thesis submitted to the
Faculty of the Graduate School of the
University of Colorado in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Humanities
Humanities Program
2015


This thesis for the Master of Humanities degree by
Rachel Lynn Shanahan
has been approved for the
Humanities Program
by
Sarah K. Tyson, Chair
Margaret Woodhull
Chad Kautzer
August 28, 2015


Shanahan, Rachel Lynn (M.H., Humanities)
Grotesque Sheela-na-gigs? A Feminist Reclaiming of Borders in The Spirit of Woman
Posters
Thesis directed by Assistant Professor, Sarah K. Tyson.
ABSTRACT
This essay argues that traditional interpretations of Irish sheela-na-gig stone
carvings are informed by patriarchal and phallogocentric beliefs about female bodies and
sexualities. Historical scholarship uses expressions such as grotesque, hideous, ugly, and
obscene to interpret the sheela-na-gig's sexual gesturing, and this language of disgust is
used today within sheela-na-gig studies and beyond. Feminist theories offer critiques of
phallogocentric understandings of female bodies and sexualities, which allow us to
critically attend to the consequences of representations of the grotesque for women
historically, socially, psychically, and politically. I conclude by discussing the sheela-na-
gig border on Cathleen ONeills The Spirit of Woman feminist posters as a possible
symbol for borders as transformative sites for feminist knowledge about female bodies
and sexualities.
The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication.
Approved: Sarah K. Tyson
m


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This thesis is in memory of my grandfather, Andrew Lawrence Shanahan, Sr.,
who passed away during the completion of this project. This project stemmed from a
deep regret and too-late urges to learn more about his relationship with his mother, my
great-grandmother Mary Margaret Shanahan, who risked the journey from Ireland to
America in the 1920s.
I would like to thank my enormous family, the majority of which is comprised of
wise, courageous, balanced, gracious, and gifted women. I cannot thank them and all of
my family members enough for their laughter and loveespecially my parents, Amy and
Andy, and my sister Heather for always showing compassion in hard times, and whose
quirks make life less serious.
I would like to thank Sarah K. Tyson for encouraging me to trust my own thought
experiments and for expanding my feminist horizon. I'd also like to thank Chad Kautzer
and Margaret Woodhull for their patience, humor, and coffee throughout my time as a
graduate student. Thank you to my mentor and poetic songbird, Elena Flores Ruiz who
taught me invaluable lessons about feminism, philosophy, and beyond. And thank you to
my two best men: Jason, whose support is lighthearted and gentle; and Dylan, who
consistently teaches me about intuition and unconditional love.
IV


TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER
I. INTRODUCTION 1
II. SITUATING THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: ANALYZING THE LANGUAGE
OF THE LITERATURE 12
Antiquarian Studies 13
Feminist Interventions 21
A Changing Milieu 29
III. BEYOND THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: PROBLEMATIZING GROTESQUE
BODIES 31
Abject Woman and Discursive Power 34
Visual Constructions of Woman 38
The Living Grotesque 43
Finding a Way Out Within 47
IV. TRANSFORMING THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: BORDERS AS
FEMINIST SPACES 49
Borders as Margins and Mestizas 52
Bodies as Fluid Borders 57
Subverting Borders through Parody 61
Feminist Borders in Perspective 66
V. CONCLUSION: EMBRACING OUR OWN SHADOW-BEAST 69
BIBLIOGRAPHY 72
v


CHAPTERI
INTRODUCTION
In 1988, Irish feminists distributed The Spirit of Woman posters for Dublins
millennial celebration, showcasing ten of Irelands most historically important women of
the last thousand years. The goal was to deliver a message about the invisibility of
women in Irish history, responding to the citys prior release of celebratory posters,
which featured an all-male troupe of Irelands most valued historical icons, enshrined:
Faces of Dublin. The feminists received considerable backlash from the posters, not
because they wished to celebrate undervalued women, but because they celebrated one
obscene female figure in particular: the sheela-na-gig, which was displayed in a
patterned border.1
Shopkeepers refused to display or sell the feminists posters, and The Irish Times
caught wind of the story and published an article surrounding the controversy.2 When the
posters designer, Cathleen ONeill was asked in an interview why she chose to include
the sheela-na-gigs, she simply stated, I was reclaiming a positive womans symbol for
the Millennium.3 ONeills urge to find a positive symbol for women is not a new
endeavor, as weve seen with the symbol of Venus, and variations thereof for trans
people, Rosie the Riveter, the Black Power fist, the rainbow flag, the triangle, and more.
Yet, the sheela-na-gig has been denigrated and belittled for her sexuality, ambiguity, and
plurality. Shes been the centerfold in many academic texts who illustrate her as the
1 See Molly Mullin, Representations of History, Irish Feminism, and the Politics of Difference, Feminist
Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 29-50.
2 KathrynHolmquist, "Shccla-na-gigs-Ncvcr in a Thousand Years." Irish Times, July 12, 1988, 1.
3 Ibid.
1


witch on the wall,4 the image of lust,5 and the divine hag.6 She is present at church
and at home, and comes under scrutiny when she tries to move into the public sphere,
resulting in orders for her censorship and violent destruction. Beyond doubt, the
oppressive criticisms, portrayals, and persecutions suffered by the sheela-na-gig carvings
are similar to those historically suffered by women generally.
Therefore, ONeills response deserves attention and forces us to ask important
questions, such as, how could feminists claim that a sexually explicit and "foul" female
image be considered positive for women? Why have sheela-na-gigs been considered
grotesque and foul in the first place, and who determines these portrayals and what are
their interests? Further, what values and beliefs about gender, sex, and sexuality do these
portrayals carry, and how do these values affect the lives of white women, women of
color, lesbians, and those on gendered and sexual margins? And finally, what
transformative possibilities can we locate in the sheela-na-gig carvings that may help
make these lives more livable?7 Over the course of my analysis, I delve deeper into these
questions by investigating traditional interpretations of grotesque sheela-na-gigs
through inquiring into patriarchal and phallogocentric constructions of female bodies and
sexualities.
Sheela-na-gigs are early medieval Irish stone relief carvings of female figures
found in or on churches, cemeteries, and homes, primarily positioned above doorways or
on walls. Scholars estimate the sheela-na-gig carvings originate from as early as the
4 Jorgen Andersen, The Witch on the Wall (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde andBaggar, 1977).
5 Anthony Weir and Jim Jerman. Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches (London:
Routledge, 1986).
6 McMahon and Roberts, The Sheela-na-gigs of Ireland and Britain.
7 See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), xxiii.
2


eleventh and thirteenth century up through the late sixteenth century, though the exact
dates of origin are not actually known.8 Though similar carvings have been found
outside of Ireland, such as Scotland and the UK, and throughout several historical eras,
the name Sheela-na-gigor Sile na gCioch, the former being the Anglo spellingis
of Celtic origin.9 Unfortunately, the true etymological meaning has been lost, and much
of the Celtic folklore and language of indigenous Irish culture that would have helped
make sense of the sheela-na-gigs have slipped into extinction. A spectrum of
speculations exist about the images original meaning and purpose as the sheela-na-gigs
obscurity and gender-bending qualities have puzzled scholars for over a century.
Unfortunately, scholars bafflement has often been reflected in reactions of unease,
disgust, and horror.
Before discussing the biased nature of traditional interpretations of the sheela,10 it
is helpful to first conduct a brief analysis of the carvings. To begin, all sheela carvings
slightly vary in style, probably because they were carved by different people, but most
have similar characteristics that render them sheela-na-gigs, including physical features
and gestures. The sheela is depicted bald, in which some believe is an indication of old
age, death, or sickness. Another view of the sheelas might suggest the image may have
been meant to illustrate a woman on her back, in which the hair, if any, would fall behind
the head.11 However, some variations of the carvings depict lines for hair, which may
signify short hair, or hair that is tied back or braided. The facial features are similarly
8 Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain. The Divine Hag of the
Christian Celts: An Illustrated Guide (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2000), 12.
9 Barbara Freitag, Sheela-na-gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (New York: Routledge, 2004), 52.
10 Sheela is a common abbreviation for the image. I use this shortened version throughout the essay.
11 For more on sheela-na-gigs as birthing charms, see Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 68-109.
3


obscurely depicted; the eyes are either two simple
dots or large, bulging or glaring eyes. The mouth
is often shown with a grin or smirk, while other
times the tongue protrudes, or teeth are carved
into a snarl or a toothy-smile. The body is naked,
small, thin, and not proportionate to the size of the
head, seeming to detract importance away from
the core of the body. The breasts are typically
small or not represented and ribs are sometimes
carved as small horizontal lines, which contradicts the
typical fertility or birthing figure represented with
large breasts. The arms and legs are similarly thin and
without any significant characteristics, apart from their
position in relation to the sheelas most defining and
contested physical trait, an exaggerated vulva.12
What defines the sheela-na-gig is the large
vulva that she holds open or manipulates with her
hands in a squatting or sprawling position. Although
the sexuality of the image may be evident, the sheelas
gesturing is open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps the sheela-na-gig gestures to the
12 Figure 1 (top): Sheela-na-gig on corbel-table, Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire, as shown in Margaret
Murray, Female Fertility Figures, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain
and Ireland Vol. 64 (Jan-Jul 1934): plate xii. Figure 2 (bottom): Sheela-na-gig at the British Museum,
London, UK, reprinted with permission from Trustees of the British Museum.
4


womb, opening up to welcome us back to our first home, or opening to expel a child or
placenta. Or, she may be opening her vagina as a threat to swallow or envelop the
viewer, or foreboding castration with her vagina dentata (toothed vagina). A common
interpretation of the sheelas gestures is a symbol of her reproductive powers, but maybe
the sheela isnt fecund or of child-bearing age. That said, the sheela may not even be
heterosexual. For instance, Egyptologist, Margaret Murray illustrates the sheela as a yoni
figure, or a symbol for celebrating female or lesbian love.13 The carving could signify
positive female sexual pleasure or self-touching, on the one hand, or warnings against
sinful sexual lust on the other. Furthermore, sheelas could be just another apotropaic
image to avert the evil eye, guarding windows and door to protect those inside; or
perhaps, the sheelas were meant to attract good health.
The sheela-na-gigs secondary characteristics are equally undetermined. Does her
smile suggest a superior position, as if she knows something the viewer does not? Is she
planning a rebellion? Maybe she intends to provoke laughter in a cathartic sense of relief.
Or, perhaps her smile is a warm welcome, or an acknowledgment of something familiar.
We could also interpret the representation of the sheelas large eyes as mirroring the
openness of the vagina, possibly symbolizing wisdom, or the connection between mind
and body. Moreover, we might speculate her nakedness represents an Eve-like innocence
before her downfall, or that she is in the midst of a ritual, or perhaps giving birth. As
demonstrated, there are undeniably more questions than answers to the mysterious
sheela-na-gig carvings, as well as more possible interpretations to explore.
13 Ibid., 99.
5


Nineteenth century antiquarians were the first to start asking questions about these
images. The sheela-na-gigs exposed genitalia and ostensibly unattractive appearance
were interpreted by antiquarians as grotesque, obscene, ugly, and terrifying. The
language of disgust used to describe the overall presence of the sheela-na-gig is
undoubtedly steeped in more general assumptions about gender, sex, sexuality, and body
archetypes. The field of sheela-na-gig research is relatively small, given that sheela-na-
gigs have been a topic of inquiry for nearly two centuries, but the language of disgust
persists throughout sheela-na-gig studies into the twenty-first century. Therefore, this
linguistic trend calls attention to the pervasiveness of dominant assumptions about
privileged bodies and subjectivities.
To better understand this tradition of interpretations of grotesque sheela-na-
gigs, beginning with the earliest available recordings in the nineteenth century by writers
and scholars, consideration of patriarchal and phallogocentric constructions of female
bodies and sexualities more generally is necessary. My approach assumes that traditional
readings of the sheela-na-gig carvings are not neutral-free, but are rather informed by
political and social interests of dominant groups following the medieval period in Europe,
i.e., imperialist, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied males. I in turn utilize feminist
critiques of such constructions, in order to offer an alternative perspective of sheela-na-
gigs-
My goal for this project in the following is not to uncover the true meaning and
function of the sheela-na-gig. Rather, my goal is to unpack the sexist interpretations of
the sheela-na-gig, and how these interpretations are informed by larger misogynist norms.
We need to identify these norms and how they are operating in the scholarly literature
6


and to show how the existing feminist critiques of these norms, and their related notions
of the grotesque, are therefore relevant to the interpretative strategies in question. In
other words, feminist critiques can help us rethink the traditional readings of the
carvings.
My methodology is rooted in the belief that mainstream frameworks of sheela-na-
gigs are contingent upon a nexus of dominant discourses about gender, sex, and sexuality.
I also believe that those who invest in those discoursesand therefore echo and
reverberate these truthsbenefit implicitly or explicitly from the interests and power
these discourses promote and uphold. Feminist critiques can therefore provide new
knowledge about female bodies and sexualities that counter dominant phallogocentric
interests.14
In this work I utilize French feminist thought, post-colonial theory, and queer
theory, as well as other various branches of feminist theory such as film studies, visual
studies, art criticism, political science, and concepts that resist neat categories. My goal
in using multiple viewpoints is to demonstrate how feminist theory can help us overturn
traditional interpretations of sheela-na-gigs, and provide the grounds for new readings
and uses. Often, but not always, readings of sheela-na-gigs can descend into the same
analyses that uncritically reflect upon the discourses and institutions that shape their
evidence. Thus, those interested in learning more about sheela-na-gigs could benefit
from reading outside of the mainstream, traditional canon of sheela research.
14 Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Postmodernism: Knowledges as Partial, Contingent, and Politically
Informed, in Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader, ed. Alison M. Jaggar (Boulder:
Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 344.
7


Additionally, I argue that a significant portion of sheela-na-gigsapproximately
thirty out of one hundred five cataloged Irish sheelasare found in liminal spaces, above
doorways, gateways, and arches, on walls of homes above windows or on quoins, and
with tombs, water wells, and bridges. Many of the remaining sheelas were found
amongst ruins, in rivers or along river banks, dug up in fields, or were donated to
museums without record of their original placement.15 Thus, I will focus on a sample of
about thirty percent of Irish sheelas that are known to occupy liminal spaces.16
Ultimately, I argue that feminists can reclaim the liminality of sheela-na-gigs as a way to
radically transform how we think about feminine subjectivity. Thus, ONeills The
Spirit of Woman posters can be understood as an instance of reclaiming the liminality of
sheela-na-gigs for feminist ends.
I employ a specific understanding of radical in terms of its Latin etymological
origin. The Latin word radix means root,17 and radicalis means of or having roots.
Therefore, to perform a radical critique would mean to target the root of a problem,
rather than just a symptom.18 To perform a radical feminist critique would be to pursue
fundamental origins of a problem through the lens of feminist theory. For example, a
radical feminist critique of the grotesque would look not to symptoms such as the
shaming of womens bodies, but to deeper concerns about how some womens bodies are
15 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 144-53.
16 While sheela-na-gigs are indeed found outside of Ireland, I focus on the Irish sheelas because of the
seemingly intentional placement of these carvings in liminal spaces. When sheelas appear outside of
Ireland in the United Kingdom, for instance, they are utilized most often, but not always, inside churches as
rhetorical devices and are featured with other apotropaic or grotesque carvings. The Irish sheelas are
almost always featured alone, which suggests they were more central figures for indigenous Irish folk, as
opposed to their dogmatic positions within the colonialist culture. For more information regarding sheelas
outside of Ireland, see the sheela-na-gig catalog in Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 139-53.
17 Chad Kautzer, Radical Philosophy: An Introduction (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 2.
18 Ibid.
8


represented as grotesque in order to promote a social hierarchy that serves male desires
and interests. Radical feminist interventions therefore are often geared toward social and
political reform or change. The radical change, according to radical philosopher Chad
Kautzer, involves overcoming not only the lived experiences of alienation,
objectification, and self-hatred, but also the more fundamental systems of oppression
responsible for those experiences as well.19 Thus, a radical feminist critique of the
grotesque can expose fundamental issues indicative of patriarchal or phallogocentric
culture and offer solutions to overcome the oppressions that result from traditional belief
systems.
Moving forward, I perform a linguistic analysis of scholarly texts over the last one
and a half centuries to demonstrate how patriarchal beliefs and values shaped, and
continue to shape, interpretive frameworks of the sheela-na-gig. The language of disgust
that is used to debase the sheela-na-gig will provide further insight into how patriarchal
and phallogocentric values and assumptions inform perceptions of female bodies and
sexualities. Chapter One also evaluates how feminists have interceded in sheela-na-gig
studies to provide alternative readings and frameworks for understanding the carvings.
These feminist contributions are significant to the recuperating of these images and in
fostering inclusive epistemic and corporeal philosophies of female bodies and sexualities,
which counter or radicalize patriarchal philosophies of knowing and experiencing
subjectivity.
Such feminist projects are germane to exposing the language of disgust that
operates outside the boundaries of sheela-na-gig studies and shape perceptions of female
19 Ibid., 3.
9


comportment and subjectivity. Chapter Two investigates womens subordination
predicated on male representations of female bodies and sexualities as justification for
her lower social and political power. I employ feminist philosophies to help show that
interpretive frameworks of disgust operate within phallocentrism and phallogocentrism,
and that these dominant notions of the grotesque have consequences for women today. I
suggest that perhaps we can understand historians' reactions of disgust to sheela-na-gigs
as a confrontation with the repressed abject. I also discuss the influence of discursive
structuressystems of thoughts, ideas, symbols, and productions of knowledge that are
mediated by those in power within a culture or societythat merge to form a web of
meanings that shape representations of grotesque bodies. Feminist philosophies are
helpful in exposing how these factors are intertwined to transform how we interpret
sheela-na-gig bodies, and how these interpretations are similarly reflected in the lives of
women generally. Finally, in Chapter Three I use the sheela-na-gig borders on The
Spirit of Woman posters as an access point to talk about feminist reclamations of the
border and liminality, and how we can use these feminist theories to better understand
how to transform ways in which we think about sheela-na-gigs and female subjectivity.
Ultimately, I recognize that this image is not one-dimensional, so to speak.
Approaching sheela-na-gig studies from an interdisciplinary methodology will help to
unearth the layers of patriarchal privileging that cast these images in a particular light,
and to produce different readings of the carvings that might lead to sources for womens
liberation. Adrienne Rich asserts that history forces us to assimilate into the male
10


universal, that we can understand our past through a male lens.20 She argues the
necessity for feminist history as a responsibility that is not simply contributory [to the
mainstream]; it demands that we turn the questions upside down,21 because without our
own history we are unable to imagine a future because we are deprived of the precious
resource of knowing where we come from.22 To question and to reclaim the past is,
therefore, crucial to imagining possibilities for the future. We can view a reinterpretation
of the sheelas as such a reclamation project.
20 Adrienne Rich, Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life (1983), in Blood, Bread, and Poetry.
Selected Prose 1979-1985 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 142.
21 Ibid., 146.
22 Ibid., 141.
11


CHAPTER II
SITUATING THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: ANALYZING THE LANGUAGE OF THE
LITERATURE
From the early 18th century to present day, sheela-na-gigs have perplexed
explorers and scholars, escaping definition and remaining largely ambiguous in meaning
and function. It is precisely this condition of obscurity which allows for so many
patriarchal interpretations to be applied and reproduced. The majority of scholarship has
focused on the question of origins: which historical and cultural group produced them,
the function and purpose for the images, the etymological meaning of the name, and
whether or not these carvings can be understood as replicas from other cultures. These
types of questions about origins however have narrowed conversations about sheelas and
implicate new or alternative interpretations of the carvings. I analyze the language of
disgust in sheela-na-gig literature to show the evolution of conversations about sheela-na-
gigs, and to demonstrate how basic assumptions and values from the Romantic and
Victorian Eras still inform interpretations of sheelas in the twenty-first century. I also
demonstrate how religion, particularly Christianity and Catholicism, played an important
role in traditional interpretations of these carvings. In other words, the words we choose
to describe reactions to the sheelas comportment and appearance are steeped in
patriarchal ideals of sexuality and femininity.
The first recordings of sheela-na-gigs appeared in field notes of commissioned
surveyors, and their observations mirror the reactions of disgust that inform sheela-na-gig
scholarship for the next two centuries. On October 3, 1840, surveyor Thomas OConor
recorded the sheela-na-gig on Kiltinane Church as an 111 excuted [sic] piece of
12


sculpture, and the grossest idea of immorality and licentiousness... being in its way in
direct opposition to the sentiment of... people professing the Christian faith. He
reckoned that the sheela-na-gig appealed to the wantonness of some loose mind, but
that The good effect was perhaps expected... by raising a disgust in the mind against all
excesses in the indulgence of animal passion. His fellow surveyor, John ODonovan
agreed with OConors remarks in a letter, suggesting that it was in Very bad taste to
exhibit such a figure on a Christian chapel at so late a period. 23 Only a few years later,
similar observations of the sheela-na-gig resurface in antiquarian studies to become
known as legitimate blueprints of history.
Antiquarian Studies
While sheela-na-gigs have been around for centuries, probably since the early
Medieval Era, the majority of sheela-na-gig literature developed post-Enlightenment in
antiquarian studies. Antiquarian studies emerged as a product of the European
Enlightenment, which transformed how people viewed the world and themselves in that
world. New preference was given to science over religion, which revolutionized art,
philosophies, and intellectual scholarship. Science provided new rational and empirical
evidence to explain evolutions of human society, the human condition, and critical
reflections about social functions, i.e., evolutions of government, morals, language, etc.
The ethos of rationalization and finding Truth and origins in the Enlightenment gave way
to new fields of inquiry such as, naturalism, anthropology, and antiquarianisman
23 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 17.
13


interest in ancient artifacts and relics. These fields were essential in constructing and
justifying relations of racial and gender domination.
The antiquarians introduced the sheelas to institutions of higher learning and a
growing modern culture that was highly invested in the accumulation of knowledge.
Often, these antiquarian explorers would ransack cities of distant countries, stealing
sacred artifacts and culturally significant items for the sake of research. The contact
antiquarians had with the indigenous people of these countries, and how they depicted the
people in photographs and travelogues, further developed the Europeans' racist colonialist
attitudes about the privileged status of their whiteness and the uncivilized ways of the
"savage." During the British colonialist invasions in the seventeenth century, the English
depicted the Irish as descendants of Africans so as to rationalize the enslavement of Irish
people, which was cheaper and more conveniently located than trading African slaves.
Therefore, even though the sheelas are part of European history, the colonialists used
concepts of the primitive to meet economic and political agendas that followed suit with
the reformation of Britain. As demonstrated in academic articles about sheelas in the
nineteenth century, antiquarian scholarship was unreflective about race, class, and gender
in their cross-cultural analyses.
Sheela-na-gigs first appeared as a topic of inquiry in antiquarian scholarship in
1844. Edward Clibborn, Irish archaeologist and Royal Irish Academy museum curator,
describes a sheela-na-gig presented and admitted into the Academy library. Clibborn
hypothesizes that the sheela-na-gigs were introduced to Europe as luck charms, fetishes,
14


or symbols to ward off the evil-eye by African or Asian Gnostics.24 He compares the
Irish sheelas to other hideous images found in Spain, Italy, and Africa that were often
hung above doorways and commonly found in poor or rural communities. Clibbom
claimed that the sheela images were probably symbols of unwanted bodily attachment in
Gnostic beliefin which the body was associated with the negative, female, hylic, or
material.25 Clibborn comments on a particular placement of the sheelas in cemeteries and
their relationship to Gnostic or ascetic beliefs:
It was argued that, if the tower was the residence of the Irish ascetics
during their lives, it may have been considered the type of the plus, male,
pneumatic," or spiritual principle; and so the earth, grave, crypt, or
church near it, in which were deposited the bodies, or material principles
of the deceased, originally derived from mother earth, may have been
considered the type of the negative female, hylic, or material principle.26
Whether or not Clibborn's hypothesis is correct, he makes an interesting observation
about the hierarchy of males and females in spiritual traditions. Binaries are built into
this hierarchy setting males and females apart as opposites; in other words, the male-
positive-spirit rises above female-negative-body. According to Clibborn, it was the goal
of the Gnostics or ascetics to "destroy the 'Hylic, or material'... and to elevate and
cultivate the 'pneumatic, or spiritual,' principle of their natures.27 Thus, I contend from
Clibborns observation that females were ultimately tied to the body and could not
achieve the same spiritual harmony as males, who could transcend the body in order to
achieve the highest form of the spiritual. Clibbom does not explicitly acknowledge the
24 Edward Clibbom, "On an Ancient Stone Image Presented to the Academy by Charles Hatpin, M.D."
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869) Vol. 2 (1840 1844): 567.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid. In Gnostic beliefs, "pneumatic" is defined as a fullness of spirit or soul. "Hylic" means body,
which is the lowest of the three types of human in Gnostic beliefs.
27 Ibid.
15


phallic symbology of the tower and the vaginal representation of the receptacle hole that
is the grave, though these insinuations seem to underlie the beliefs he outlines. He does,
however, claim that the sheelas indicate what one should "destroy," i.e., bodily pleasures,
eroticism, and the material.
Unacknowledged and problematic beliefs about race, class, and gender underpin
much of Clibborn's work on the sheelas. Clibborns analysis might have been informed
by what antiquarians knew as exotic cultures: the so-called mysterious, mystical and
savage world outside of European culture. Historically, the English created these
qualities of the savage, or attached these meanings to certain physical qualities of
people from these cultures. Antiquarian research often reinforced these distinctions
between English and non-English cultures, emphasizing the primitive, exotic, and less
intelligent qualities of African, Asian, or Middle Eastern cultures which distinguished
themselves as the more modem, civilized, and intelligent Anglo-European culture. For
instance, Clibborn identifies sheelas as charms adopted from African rituals and practiced
by people in lower classes. When comparing the sheelas to later developments of luck
charms, e.g., hanging lucky horseshoes above the door, he identifies this as a common
practice of "peasantry"28 who "have no notion that they are, probably, putting up
equivalents for those hideous figures which the people call shela-na-gig [sic] (my
emphasis).29 Here, Clibborn assumes that the poor do not see the sheela-na-gig for what
it really is: the most hideous and frightful-looking female figure.30
28 Ibid., 571.
29 Ibid., 570.
30 Ibid., 572.
16


Additionally, Clibborn's historical context probably informed his interpretations
of disgust, fright, and an aversion to the sheela-na-gigs public display of sexuality.
Clibborn was writing at the end of the Romantic Era (1800-1850), and was most likely
influenced by this humanistic period of great emotional and political undertones. Within
this movement, there was a push to use ones senses to translate your aesthetic
experiences. It was common to use intense emotions such as fear, awe, or anxiety to
describe nature or humanity. For example, Henry Fuselis painting of The Nightmare in
1781 portrays a beautiful sleeping womans nightmare of an incubus who sits on her
sprawled body before he engages in sexual activity. The intense image of an ugly and
frightening sexual creature and the vulnerability of the woman conjures anxiety and
horror in the viewer. Correspondingly, we may better understand Clibborn's and other
antiquarians reactions of disgust and horror to sheelas and the carvings overt sexuality.
However, these reactions have held sway well into the 20th century.
After Clibborn wrote his article, Europeans fell into swing of the Victorian Era
from 1837-1901, and increasingly became more invested in sexual privacy. Therefore,
conversations about the obscene sheela-na-gigs eventually slowed or, at least, were
censored. Barbara Freitag points out that Mid-nineteenth century censorship laws of
obscene content can account for the sparse scholarship and selective wording [about
sheela-na-gigs] during this period.31 Nearly eighty years later, in the 1920s and 1930s,
sheela-na-gig researchers reemerge. This reemergence of scholarly interest in sheelas
came after Sigmund Freuds 1913 publication of Totem and Taboo and from growing
interest in the occult. Freuds psychoanalytic research on social taboos, especially of
31 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 17.
17


primitive cultures,32 informed anthropological research of his time. Although Freuds
work may have reinvigorated sheela-na-gig research and developed an historical
framework ("primitive" or pre-cultural) for hypothesizing about sheelas, early twentieth-
century scholars continued to use the language of disgust and horror adopted from the
Victorian Era. However, "first wave" feminists' involvement in sheela scholarship would
challenge the course of research through the end of the century.
One of the earliest texts about sheela-na-gigs in the twentieth century was written
by women's rights advocate, Margaret A. Murray (1923), an Egyptologist and widely
published scholar and professor who specialized in studies of witchcraft and fertility
figures. Murray treated the sheela-na-gig not as an image of horror, but as a probable
central figure of worship. Murray was the first scholar to propose that the sheelas were
not good luck charms or apotropaic images for the superstitious, but significant female
icons of reverence for fertility-worshipping communities.33 After Murray and a few
others published brief catalogues about sheela-na-gigs found throughout Ireland and
England, an influx of scholars began to write about these images, documenting them in
what Murray later called a "haphazard" manner.34 To contextualize Murray's more
developed feminist analysis on sheela-na-gigs, which came eleven years after her first
minor article in 1923,1 analyze the mainstream ideas that occupied antiquarian research
in the early 20th century.
32 See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1999).
33 M.A. Murray and A. D. Passmore, "86. The Sheela-Na-Gig at Oaksey," Man Vol. 23, Royal
Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (September, 1923): 140.
34 Murray, Female Fertility Figures, 93.
18


Throughout the several articles on sheela-na-gigs in the early twentieth century, a
few major themes emerge. To begin with, most scholars label sheela-na-gigs as pre-
Christian, pagan, evil-warding icons, orthanks to Murrayfertility figures. Yet,
Murray's hypothesis did not earn full support with archaeologists, as many still believed
traditional conclusions that framed sheela-na-gigs in a negative light. Among the many
scholars I analyzed, the majority acknowledged sheela-na-gigs as having pre-Christian,
ancient, or primitive roots, though there continued to be back-and-forth debates on their
original functions and meanings.
For example, archaeologist H.C. Lawlor (1931) claims that the images are
"ancient" and definitely prior to the fifth century35prior to the widespread authority and
institutionalization of Catholic-Christianity in Europe. Stuart Piggott (1930) agrees that
sheela-na-gigs were undeniably "primitive" pre-Christian figures, derived from either
ancient fertility cults or pagan relics that survived into the middle ages.36 Other
antiquarians focused more on religious interpretations, as in the work of Dina Portway
Dobson (1930) who wrote that, while the dates of the sheela-na-gigs or similar images
are unknown, they bear a resemblance to stories of pre-Christian demons tempting
celibate monks with "lusts of the flesh."37 Dobson's emphasis on the demonic traits of
sheelas exemplifies the frightful challenge these images posed to Christian values. Often
when sheelas were hypothesized to be pre- or non-Christian, they were likened to
demonism or witchcraft. According to Clibbom's analysis, sheela-na-gigs are probably
35 H.C. Lawlor, "4. Two Typical Irish 'Sheela-na-gigs.'" Man Vol. 31, Royal Anthropological Institute of
Great Britain and Ireland (Jan., 1931): 5-6.
36 Stuart Piggott, "94. A Primitive Carving from Anglesey." Man Vol. 30, Royal Anthropological Institute
of Great Britain and Ireland (July, 1930): 122-123.
37 Dina Portway Dobson, "8. Primitive Figures on Churches." Man Vol. 30, Royal Anthropological Institute
of Great Britain and Ireland (January, 1930): 11.
19


replicas of African luck charms called "fetishes," which display similar sexual postures.38
European antiquarian explorers often depicted Africans as hypersexual in travelogues;
therefore, images like sheela-na-gigs were framed as products not of racially and morally
pure Anglo Christians, but of the more exotic and primitive mind of African sexuality.
These historians' emphasis on the primitive quality of sheelas are examples of how
antiquarians belittled non-Anglo cultures in their analyses as to implicitly privilege their
own, constructing racial boundaries between us and them.
Another example of antiquarians refutation of Christian roots can be
demonstrated by the universalizing of the sheela-na-gig. While early scholars grappled
with identifying the specific origins of the sheela, other anthropologists compared the
carvings to various ancient mythical or worship figures. The aim of this process may
have been to gain acceptance of the sheela-na-gig as a depiction of the universal mother
figure, rather than an Irish-specific conundrum. For instance, Douglas Hamilton Gordon
(1934) spoke of the sheela-na-gigs' etymological meaning as having significant
connections to gig, a translation for breast, which can be found in an assortment of
cultural references to other ancient Mother goddesses.39 Antiquarian theory began
compare and contrast artifacts in other cultures, embracing the notion that cultures shared
tools, stories, gods, and more. Gordons speculations could only go so far for some,
evidenced by V.C.C. Collum's (1935) tart response to Gordon that the "grotesque"
sheela-na-gig could never represent the mother goddess of the "faithful breast.40
38 Clibbom, On an Ancient Stone Image, 571.
39 D.H. Gordon, "206. Irish 'Sheela-na-gigs.'" Man Vol. 34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great
Britain and Ireland (Nov., 1934): 184. For alternative perspectives on the etymologies of the sheela-na-gig,
see Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 52-67.
40 V.C.C. Collum, "64. Female Fertility Figures." Man Vol. 35, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great
Britain and Ireland (April, 1935): 62-63.
20


Collum's response not only indicates a defense of pure female sexuality, but also
demonstrates a universal heterosexual womens experience of motherhood.
A second major theme in antiquarian research is the common use of belittling
language about female bodies to describe the sheela-na-gigs. All scholars identified the
sex of the sheela-na-gig as female, which prompted them to read the sheela through a
gendered lens of femininity. Antiquarians used denigrating language to negatively
identify the images comportment. These observations often implied assumptions about
gender, especially in terms of femininity and masculinity.
The most apparent use of belittling language, or language of disgust, occurs in
descriptions of the sheela-na-gigs' appearance. As we saw in the beginning of
antiquarian research, Clibbom uses "hideous" and "frightful-looking" to describe the
sheelas;41 Collum calls them "grotesque"42; and Lawlor describes them as "absurd,"
"exceedingly ugly and grotesque," "quaint," and "hideous."43 Many antiquarians, most of
whom were male, used denigrating language to describe the sheelas' bodily
characteristics.
Feminist Interventions
Eleven years after her first brief publication, Murray sought to demystify and
identify the cultural significance of sheela-na-gigs beyond the "haphazard"44 debates.
Murray argued that fertility figures were "worthwhile"45 to study, especially since so
41 Clibbom, On an Ancient Stone Image, 570- 572.
42 Collum, 64. Female Fertility Figures, 62-63.
43 Lawlor, 4. Two Typical Irish Sheela-na-gigs, 5.
44 Murray, Female Fertility Figures, 93.
45 Ibid.
21


many had been recently documented and few conclusions had been reached. She stated
that more preference was given to priapic, or phallic, male figures than to female figures,
and she knew there was a particular reason for thatmost historians were male.46
Murrays theory about sheela-na-gigs sought to establish the importance of the
audience for which fertility figures were made. Murray distinguished three primary types
of fertility figures found on sacred and holy sites throughout various historical times and
cultures: the Universal Mother, the Divine Woman, and the Personified Yoni. The
Universal Mother was the classic fertility symbol with full and exaggerated breasts, often
pregnant, and holding or suckling a child. This image was worshipped by the women,
men, and children of the fertility cult.47 The Divine Woman was different from the
Universal Mother, as she was designed for male devotion. The Divine Woman is
depicted as young, beautiful, with realistically-sized genitaliathe image of an alluring
and attractive woman that is still virginal, but with potential to be a mother. These
images were worshipped only by men in fertility cults.48
The third fertility figure is the Personified Yoni; yoni is defined as worship of the
vulva as a goddess. The Yoni figure is most clearly distinguished by exaggerated
genitals. The secondary sexual characteristics, the breasts, are minimal so that the
essential element is the vulva, or pudenda.49 Murray says the sheela-na-gig is most
similar to the original personified yoni, the Greek female fertility figure Baubos, the
companion to the Egyptian queen Isis. Murray states, "This legend says that when Isis
46 Ibid., 99.
47 Ibid., 93.
48 Ibid., 94.
49 Ibid.
22


was mourning for Osiris, Baubos assumed the attitude represented in the figures, and
thereby made Isis laugh and cease from lamenting."50 Additionally, when the carvings
are found in graves, they're almost always female graves, and when found in Roman
domestic contexts, they were found in the women's quarters.51 Murray goes on to say:
It is very evident that the appeal of the Baubo figures and of the Sheila-na-gig was
to the sexual side of woman's nature, and in the legend of Baubo the attitude is
definitely connected with pleasure and laughter. The religious connection is so
strong, both among the heathen and the Christian, as to suggest that some form of
homo-sexuality was practiced by women as a religious rite.52
In other words, Murray believes that yoni figures should not be connected with Mother
figures, because no emphasis should be made on reproduction. The yoni is not
worshipped for fertility as mother or creator of all human life, nor as virginal fertility for
the male desire, but is worshipped as female companionship and sexuality by women, for
women. In fact, Murray believes the image may be in connection with lesbianism as a
woman's rite, and from "whose rites men were rigorously excluded."53 She cites the
location of some sheelas to exclusive female spaces, including abbeys, of which Jorgen
Andersen cites at least three sheelas associated with nunneries or abbess quarters.54
Although this is a small portion, Murray's analysis is far different from the heterosexual
assumptions about sheelas made by other antiquarians.
Murray's feminist analysis is radical to mainstream sheela-na-gig studies, because
she transformed the sheela-na-gig from an object of male gaze to a figure created by
50 Ibid., 95.
51 Ibid., 97. Note that, although the location of gynaeceums, or womens quarters in Roman domestic
settings, segregated and isolated women, yoni images might have been an indication of some kind of
womens-only spirituality.
52 Ibid., 99.
53 Ibid.
54 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 144-53.
23


women for women that provokes laughter, female companionship, and female
sexualityand this was in 1934! Murray was making progressive claims about women's
history, which was not a widely recognized topic in her time. She states a reason for her
writing about the sheela-na-gigs is because "so much of the published work on female
psychology is founded on the masculine ideas of what a woman should feel or be."55
Murray was tired of men publishing work about women that was inaccurate or dependent
on "vague hearsay." She recalls a sheela-na-gig found on a nunnery, The Abbey, that is
one of the most significant religious houses of the Middle Ages in England, but that the
"intimate customs of the women of that period is derived only from the vague hearsay
evidence of male writers, who were invariably ecclesiastics."56 Murray wanted women to
write about the sheela-na-gig, because she believed that the image was only for women
and bears an importance to women's lives, i.e., a sisterhood, the possibility for a positive
female sexuality, women-only customs, and women-only humor.
A few years after Murray's essay, fellow archaeologist and friend, Edith Guest,
defended Murray's analysis that sheela-na-gigs are in fact fertility figures. "It is so
obvious what they are that conjecture dismisses them at the point where they become
'luck-stones' in the mediaeval castle wall."57 Guest produced a thorough analysis of
several examples of sheela-na-gigs, drawing connections between their spatial locations,
known pagan rituals, and other symbols of ceremony found near the image, such as cows
and wells. Her aim, along with Murray, was to emphasize the significant role these
images played in the lives of Irish women.
55 Murray, Female Fertility Figures, 99.
56 Ibid., 98.
57 Edith Guest, Ballyvoumey and Its Sheela-na-gig, Folklore Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec. 1937): 375.
24


Guest argues that, while several stones may have dated from the seventh and
eighth centuries, many also probably originated between the eleventh and sixteenth
centuries. Guest identifies a sheela-na-gig on the Moate Castle in Westmeath as being
from the seventeenth century, though the appearance is "deliberately grotesque" and
appears to be a "late imitation."58 Guest recognizes that the images could date back much
earlier than the Middle Ages, but she argues that they were reproduced century after
century, up through medieval times. Guest is one of the first to recognize that sheela-na-
gigs may have gone through transformations of meanings and functions over time; thus,
Guest changed the focus of scholarship from defining one possible meaning to
questioning the multiplicity of meanings that may have existed.
Sheela-na-gig scholarship slowed in the second half of the twentieth century,
probably due to the focus on other pressing matters in political and social changes.
However, in the 1970s sheela-na-gig scholars began to publish books rather than short
articles and catalogues, which allowed for more extensive documentation about sheela-
na-gigs. The demand for more detailed and organized records became a priority for those
in the 1970s, as technology and the influx of information was more widely available. In
1974, Ellen Ettlinger argued that the sheelas' liminality is a "vexing problem," because
the image cannot be pinned down and too many explanations exist.59 Ettlinger proposed
a new theory: the sheela-na-gigs were church rhetoric to warn women of "ill repute" or
"immoral behavior," and the reason they were on the walls of castles and churches was
simply a mistake as stonemasons were resourceful in their material, reusing stones from
58 Ibid., 384.
59 Ellen Ettlinger, "Sheila-na-gigs." Folklore Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring, 1974): 62-63.
25


ruins. One could say that Ettlinger's hypothesis is practical given the religious dogma
during the medieval ages. However, she also asserts that rhetoric constitutes "the right
direction" for sheela-na-gig research, which begs the questions: the right direction for
whom and to what ends?60 The notion of church rhetoric seemed to put the debate to rest
for a short while, and the sheela-na-gigs blended in with other European priapic and
sexual stone carvings.
Jorgen Andersen produced the first full-length manuscript exploring the various
interpretations of sheelas, called The Witch on the Wall (1977). However, we find the
same language of repulsion when Andersen describes the gestures and physical
characteristics of the sheela-na-gigs as ugly and "grotesque."61 Perhaps one of the most
noticeable features of Murray's, Guest's, and Ettlinger's analyses are the absence of
language of disgust. Thus, it is primarily the male scholars who continue to use belittling
language about sheelas, leading contemporary readers of the first full text on sheela-na-
gigs to interpret the images in a similarly negative or off-putting manner.
Additional historical scholarship in the 1980s revealed that patriarchal
assumptions about sex and gender are deeply engrained within representations of history.
Art historians Anthony Weir and Jim Jerman (1986) examine various erotic and priapic
images, focusing explicitly on the sheela-na-gig. However, Weir and Jermans
observations operate within phallocentric assumptions about gender. In other words, they
uncritically identify the female reproductive organs as inferior and passive to the
supposed life-giving62 active role of the phallus. They argue that, The important thing
60 Ibid.
61 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall.
62 Weir and Jerman, Images of Lust, 146.
26


to note... is that the female emblem, the vulva, is very rare indeed in the role, perhaps
because it plays a receptive, passive part in comparison with the male organ.63 Weir
and Jerman base their claims on binary oppositions between man and woman, which pin
female bodies and sexualities into one category of characteristics, i.e., feminine, passive,
inferior, receptacles, lack. Murray's concerns about male interpretations of sheela-na-
gigs fifty years earlier appear to have been well-substantiated.
It is not until the 1990s that feminists began to bring the sheela-na-gig into
broader conversations about normative ideals of female heterosexuality, which
conceptualized female bodies and eroticism as sources of liberation and empowerment.
The sheela-na-gig was appealing within that broader challenge, because she expressed a
sexuality that could be an empowering symbol for women of different backgrounds.
Josephine Withers (1991) documented American feminist artist Nancy Spero's sheela-na-
gig artwork as part of a series of drawings of empowering female figures. Spero
maintains that the female figures she chose for her artwork transcend time and culture;
she believed that the sheela-na-gig, among other female figures such as Artemis and
Tiamat, the Babylonian mother goddess, serve as empowering autonomous figures for
contemporary women.64 And in 1997, Hilary Robinson, feminist art critic, evaluated a
sheela-na-gig gallery exhibit from: Beyond the Pale, which highlighted post-colonial
Irish culture. Robinson identified the exhibits problematic framework that "maintained
63 Ibid. See also Ann Pearson, "Reclaiming the Sheela-na-gigs: Goddess Imagery in Medieval Sculptures of
Ireland, Canadian Womens Studies Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer/Fall, 1997): 20-24.
64 Josephine Withers, "Nancy Spero's American-Born 'Sheela-na-gig,'" Feminist Studies Vol. 17, No. 1
(Spring, 1991): 51.
27


woman as the 'other's other' and put forward a concept of femininity which was either
emblematic or even occupying the colonialist space of the 'primitive.'"65
More scholars have begun writing on the sheela-na-gig since the 1990s, with
topics ranging from concepts of medieval virginity (Juliette Dor, 2003) to sheelas as
inspirational figures for Irish contemporary art (Sonya Ines Ocampo-Gooding, 2012).
Marian Bleeke (2005) focuses on how visual receptions of sheelas produced common
understandings of the images as sexually sinful, and Luz Mar Gonzalez Arias (2007)
argues that sheela-na-gigs allow for multiple signifiers of female corporeality in Irish
culture. Molly Mullin (1991) recognizes the changing representations of sheela-na-gigs
and Irish women in relation to Irish Nationalism. Similarly, Georgia Rhoades (2010)
theorizes about the rhetorical dimensions of the sheela-na-gig, and provides a new
interpretation of the sheela which expresses sexuality of elderly women. And Barbara
Freitag (2004) proposes the sheela-na-gig served as a symbol for hope and health for
rural pregnant Irish mothers.
Feminist scholarship about sheela-na-gigs continues to grow within
interdisciplinary frameworks, rather than solely in fields of anthropology, history, or
folklore studies. Feminists have also begun to ask more specific questions about sheelas,
rather than basic concerns about who created them, why and when. I take up this trend of
alternative interpretations and offer a philosophical critique that will assist in exposing
65 Hilary Robinson," Within the pale in from: Beyond the Pale: the construction of femininity in the
curating of an exhibition season at the Irish Museum of Modem Art, Dublin," Journal of Gender Studies
Vol. 6, No. 3 (Apr. 2010): 265.
28


the patriarchal and phallocentric representations of women that inform grotesque
interpretations of sheela-na-gigs.
A Changing Milieu
Over the last two hundred years, sheela-na-gig research has undergone significant
changes. Feminists are occupying the most current conversations about sheelas in order
to reclaim these images, and to provide new critical insight about visual and rhetorical
representations of sheelas. Yet, assumptions about female bodies and sexualities remain
intact in the twenty-first century, despite feminist interventions. As I was composing this
analysis, I presented a picture of a sheela-na-gig to a man whose immediate exclamation
was, "How terrifying!" He then argued that they must be devil-worshipping icons and
surely could not have been works of Christians. I was fascinated to witness his response,
as it was exactly what the antiquarians believed one and a half centuries prior. It made
me think, with all of the progress women have made in the past two centuries, why are
images offemale genitals still considered disgusting, impure, or even frighteningly
monstrous? According to Barbara Creed, Both [woman and monster] are constructed as
biological freaks whose bodies represent a fearful and threatening form of sexuality.66
But was is fearful about the monstrous-feminine is more about male fears of
castration and loss of their phallic symbol of power, than about female desire or
feminine subjectivity.67
66 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993),
6.
67 Ibid., 7.
29


Despite the significant work in the last two decades, the body of feminist work on
sheela-na-gigs is relatively small, and many feministsparticularly American
feministshave never heard of a sheela-na-gig. Perhaps one reason for their relative
obscurity is their geographic isolation, situated in Ireland in mostly rural areas.
Nevertheless, the sheela-na-gig is an excellent candidate for interdisciplinary
conversations about visual representations, women's history, morality, and sexual
politics. The next chapter delves further into the framing of the grotesque, and how
perceptions of the grotesque are predicated on phallocentric representations of female
bodies and sexualities.
30


CHAPTER III
BEYOND THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: PROBLEMATIZING GROTESQUE BODIES
The earliest interpretations of sheela-na-gigs were plagued by the language of
disgust, the majority of these readings performed by men. Though women and feminists
have been reconstructing the conversation about sheela-na-gigs for the past three decades,
building upon Murray's and Guest's work almost a century earlier, the language of disgust
that continues to operate outside the boundaries of sheela-na-gig studies remains
influential. That is to say, receptions of the sheela-na-gig remain marked by language of
the grotesque and their reception offers us insight into the symptoms of a broader
tradition of oppression within patriarchal culture. Elizabeth Grosz clearly explains
women's subordination within patriarchal culture:
Misogynist thought has commonly found a convenient self-justification
for women's secondary social positions by containing them within bodies
that are represented, even constructed, as frail, imperfect, unruly, and
unreliable, subject to various intrusions which are not under conscious
control. Female sexuality and women's power of reproductions are the
defining cultural characteristics of women, and at the same time, these
very functions render women vulnerable, in need of protection or special
treatment, as variously prescribed by patriarchy.68
That is to say, women's subordination is predicated on male representations of her body
and comportment as a rationale for her lesser social and political power. Traditional
interpretations of the sheela-na-gig appear to reflect such restricting schemas of female
bodies and sexualities. Misogynist constructions of the sheela-na-gig as quaint, pagan
fertility figures unquestioningly limit her within a definition prescribed by patriarchal
ideas of frailty, vulnerability, unruly, and likened by some to witchcraft. However, these
68 Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,
1994), 13.
31


definitions prove to be slippery, as the sheela-na-gig seems to escape definition and still
remain mostly liminal.
This chapter utilizes feminist research to bring into focus the many ways in which
we may better understand the subjugating role of patriarchy and the broader context of
the sheela-na-gig's reception as phallocentric. I reconstruct how an interpretive tradition
of disgust operates within phallocentric and phallogocentric perceptions and
constructions of female bodies and sexualities, in which dominant notions of the
grotesque have consequence for women today.
We can rely on various feminist projects to help expose these dominant
patriarchal and misogynist beliefs and to clarify the ways in which the language of
disgust about sheela-na-gigs is constituted by and reproduces deeply embedded cultural,
social, religious, and political beliefs about female bodies and sexualities. Cathleen
O'Neill's feminist sheela-na-gig poster can be seen as an example of exposing history as a
history of male figures, by doctoring the all-male city celebratory "Spirit of Dublin"
poster, to instead feature influential women of Dublin's past. Her posters revealed how
history is taught to be explicitly constituted as men's history, casually leaving out the
significant roles women have played in the shaping of politics, culture, medicine, and
society in general. Molly Mullin provides an excellent analysis of this poster and its
negative reception, demonstrating how representations of history and gender are caught
up within nationalist agendas. These types of recuperating practices expose patriarchal
structures that hinder women from gaining social and political power. I approach these
pressing issues from a philosophical perspective to show how representations of bodies
can have dire effects for women.
32


In this chapter, I look to several feminist projects to explicate how phallocentrism
underpins representations of women, and to assist in showing that these phallocentric
representations inform traditional interpretations of sheela-na-gigs.
First, I explore corporeal reactions of disgust as confrontations with the abject, in
which the sheela-na-gig can be seen as abject and that discourse plays a role in what we
know about the images. Next, I investigate another discourse of visual representations of
classical western, or Greek-inspired, aesthetics of beauty through the male gaze to further
explicate reactions to the sheela-na-gigs' grotesqueness. Last, I flesh out how
constructions of grotesque bodies affect women today. These ideas come together to
continue feminist dialogues and thought experiments about what a female ontology of
female bodies and sexualities might look like, and how these ideas can coalesce with
sheela-na-gig research.
The ideas presented in this section are not exhaustive, as there are far more layers
of political, racial, economic, and social institutions that contribute to broader
constructions of "disgusting" female bodies and sexualities. However, the examples in
this chapter will emphasize the importance of understanding how dominant patriarchal
beliefs operate to frame female bodies as disgusting, and how sheela-na-gigs have been
taken up by these phallocentric systems of oppression.
We can also rely on various feminist projects that theorize about how we may
transform misogynist constructions, including but not limited to, reclaiming or embracing
notions of multiplicity, fluidity, and liminality, as well as reclaiming women's history.
The feminist theories I consider in this chapter will have varying perspectives, sometimes
critiquing each other, on constructions of gender and sexuality and of reclamation
33


processes, and certainly do not claim to speak for feminism or women as a whole. I also
do not wish to universalize or essentialize womens lives or bodies, as there are so many
individual and group experiences that are determinate with respect to race, class,
sexuality, ethnicity, disability, weight, and more. Multiplicity of perspectives are crucial
to understanding experiences of marginalization as occurring as diverse and plural, that
women do not exist within the same social and political realities, and therefore
experience oppression of bodies and sexualities in other complex layers.
Nevertheless, putting just the following select thinkers in conversation with
sheela-na-gig interpretations will, on one hand, demonstrate the possibilities of
recuperating sheela-na-gigs within a narrow context of Eurocentric culture
interpretations through a western, or European and Anglo-American lensin which the
image is situated, and on the other hand, confirm that a feminist dialogue about sheela-
na-gigs is absolutely necessary in cultivating a multiplicity of feminist understandings
about female sexualities and bodies.
Abject Woman and Discursive Power
We may look to Julia Kristeva in order to articulate how the sheela-na-gig is
abject is her ability to slip in and out of meanings, practically escaping them by
remaining mostly liminal throughout the past two centuries. I show how reactions of
disgust indicate confrontations with the abject, and how religious discourse plays a
primary role in how the sheela-na-gig is framed as grotesque.
The abject can be loosely defined as what conjures a reaction of horror or disgust
because it threatens to breakdown meaning or "disturbs identity, system, order... borders,
34


positions, rules." 69 The abject triggers horror or disgust due to "the loss of the
distinction between subject and object or between self and other."70 In other words, the
abject is "The in-between, the ambiguous, and composite,"71 and merges us with the
Other who we have become separated and distinct from in the Symbolic (systems and
order of meaning-making, i.e. alphabetical writing, patriarchal language). Abjection is
the reaction of patriarchal fear of confronting and merging with Otherness, so as to
displace the self outside the Symbolic order that sustains patriarchy. Thus the abject is
rendered immoral and is repressed or excluded.72
The abject resurface through symptoms of repressions that corporeally signify and
symptomize as disgust or revulsion.73 These revulsions, understood by Kristeva as what
"notifies us of the limits of the human universe," consist of "a language that gives up, a
structure within the body, a non-assimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer that the
listening devices of the unconscious do not hear, for its strayed subject is huddled outside
the paths of desire."74 In other words, the symptoms of abjection are resurfacings of the
nonsensical, or escaping symbolic language, but still surface corporeally by virtue of our
forgetting of their existence.
Perhaps we can understand historians' reactions of disgust to sheela-na-gigs as a
confrontation with the repressed abject. The sheela-na-gig's self-touching in public
69 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1982), 4.
70 Dino Felluga, "Modules on Kristeva: On the Abject," Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, last
modified January 2012, Purdue University, accessed May 04, 2015, http://www.purdue.edu/
guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html.
71 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4.
72 Ibid., 6-8.
73 Ibid., 11.
74 Ibid.
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places perhaps marks this breakdown of dominant notions of female sexuality as a
private, modest, and passive; or, perhaps we could understand their reactions as disgust
with confronting the repressed mother figure as a sexual being; or, finally, maybe we can
interpret their disgust as confrontation with a pre-British Irish pagan, and potentially
matrilineal, identity repressed through centuries of colonial rule. Either way, the sheela-
na-gig's liminality allows her to occupy this space of the in-between, or the merging
between various and contradicting meanings. The placement of the carvings above
doorways or as headstones mark boundaries between inside and outside, the living and
dead, and her presence shows she mediated these borders.
Thus, historians' attempts to define or pin down the sheela-na-gig as demon-like,
sinful, and defiling are all attempts to place her, the abject, within the Symbolic, because
her presenceparticularly her appearance on churches, cemeteries, nunneries, and
homesthreatens the viewer to merge or identify with forbidden social, religious, and
nationalist taboos or condemnations. What once could have been a matrilineal image is
therefore abject in discourses mediated by patriarchy, colonialism, and Catholicism.
Thus, we can view the historians' readings of her as an attempt to defend against the
abject. Antiquarians vehemently denied any Christian influence of sheela-na-gig
carvings, and today it is common belief that the stones were placed on churches as
rhetoric condemning female sexuality. Both of these interpretations can be seen as
defenses against the abject, because they both support narratives of sin, immorality, and
deviance.
Understanding discursive abjection is important to projects of sheela-na-gig
interpretation because how an object is signed discursively has a direct correlation with
36


how we identify with the object. When I say, "signed discursively" I am referring to how
meanings are established through discourse, or systems of thoughts, ideas, symbols, and
productions of knowledge that are mediated by those in power within a culture or society.
In regards to interpretations of sheela-na-gigs, the systems of power relations that
mediate what we know about them include, but are not limited to: academic or
institutions of higher learning; government formation (political domination and rule by
men); institutions of family and heterosexuality (socialization of gender roles); and
religious institutions and texts that align morality with maleness.
These systems of power all play a role in how little we know about sheela-na-
gigs. Meaning, systems of power privilege narratives that support and maintain their
positions of power. Hence, the Catholic Churchs orders in 1631 to destroy or discard the
sheela-na-gigs imagines obesae et aspectui ingratae, which roughly translates as
images of thankless (or disagreeable) females75in efforts to control and maintain a
particular religious narrative. Indeed, discourse is not always mediated so directly or
forcefully; rather, discourse helps to shape and is shaped by other systems of power that
privilege the narratives of mostly white, heterosexual, and able-bodied men. History in
general lacks stories about women and women's lives, compelling feminists to write their
own histories. And in regards to the sheela-na-gig, written and oral traditions that could
have explained the meanings of the images are now, to the best of our knowing, extinct,
but could have offered women an alternative understanding of feminine subjectivity.
75 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 69.
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Visual Constructions of Woman
The sheela-na-gig contradicts phallocentric beliefs about woman as beautiful,
maternal, and lacking, which may provide another glimpse into the frameworks of horror
within which she is represented. The sheela-na-gig is known to us foremost as an image
or symbol to which the meanings and significations have been lost. Historical
interpretations, however, have shaped visions and narratives about the sheelas which we
have generally accepted throughout the years. Historians' readings of her were probably
based on initial visual reactions, her sexual gesturing and body characteristics all
performing as signs that relay messages to the viewer. We can argue those historians'
interpretations of these signs depended largely upon the limitations of their own language
and knowledge of what these signs could mean. Therefore, we can understand sheela-na-
gig interpretations as exhibiting existing cultural beliefs, and the limitations of those
beliefs, about bodies and beauty, sexuality and modesty. Correspondingly, we must first
understand patriarchal culture and how it has shaped what these sexual significations
mean to the male viewer.
In a patriarchal culture, the male gaze, or the act of looking as fetishizing,
objectifies women's bodies as sites for desire, pleasure, and judgment.76 Laura Mulvey,
feminist film theorist, coined "male gaze" as a term for phallocentric visual pleasure. In
other words, the gaze externalizes the other's body as an object or a thing to be looked at.
The gazer becomes the Subject, the one who uses or manipulates the object, and refuses
76 For Luce Irigaray, this is called phalloculocentrism, known as: "established activity and understandings
in the realm of the visual -what is or is not seen allows for the construction of castration anxiety and of
woman as 'other of man's same.' This then determines the representation of women and the construction of
'femininity' in the Symbolic order." Hilary Robinson, Reading Art, Reading Irigaray: The Politics of Art by
Women (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 53.
38


the Object's subjectivitytheir internal being or essencethat renders them the agency
to exercise freedom, logic, etc. In other words, the object is strictly an unthinking thing.
The gaze also makes it possible to divide the object into parcels, e.g., a woman's breasts,
buttocks, and vagina also become sexualized objects. Phallocentrism relies on the
vagina, in particular, as a symbol of the castrated woman "to give order and meaning to
[the male] world." Mulvey continues, "An idea of woman stands as linchpin to the
system: it is her lack that produces that phallus as a symbolic presence."77 Thus, the male
gaze solidifies the phallus' self-importance and the female's lack of symbolic presence
renders her inferior. However, the objectified and castrated female body can also pose a
problem for the male gaze. Mulvey explains, "She also connotes something that the look
continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of
castration and hence unpleasure."78
The male gaze also assumes the privilege that permits men to physically or
verbally exploit womens bodies. Consequently, the male gaze objectifies the female
body as a site for judgment. The gaze therefore constitutes a heterosexual gauge and
standard through which men and women view the female body, and which becomes the
standard through which we judge female bodies and sexuality. We can understand early
reactionsthe majority of whom were maleof disgust to the sheela-na-gigs as products
of the male gaze, and that the grotesque labels became retained in the cultural and
historical memory as a standard perception. Women are subjected to judgments of
several body parts that males are not; the vagina, the so-called counterpart to the phallus,
77 Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), 14.
78 Ibid., 21.
39


is the primary signifier of the sheela-na-gig and her sexuality. We can look to earlier
illustrations and depictions of females in classical aesthetics to situate this tradition
within a broader cultural context.
Classical western artistic traditions, styles stemming from the Greeks and adopted
or referenced by artists within European traditions thereafter, are examples of how
phallocentric notions of the female body and sexualities have been determined by men.
As an illustration, we will look to the female nude and how traditional depictions of the
female body have assisted in how we visually interpret women's vaginas and sexualities
as representation of her modesty and as a site for pleasure. The female nude may also
give us insight to the sheela-na-gigs' perceived obscene, ugly, and frightening gesturing
as a threat of castration within a phallocentric framework.
Since mid-fourth century bee, the majority of female nude sculptures, drawings,
and paintings were modeled after Praxiteles' Knidian Aphrodite in "modest pose" (Venus
Pudica or "modest Venus). In this sculpture Aphrodite is disrobing, rendering her
completely nude, breasts exposed, but covering her genitals with her hand.79 This gesture
of concealment became one of the most popular poses for the female nude within classic
art traditions. We can also interpret her concealment as a gesture signifying recognition
of her inferiority, or lack of a phallus. The sheela-na-gig's revealing gestures are bodily
comportments opposite of that which is considered aesthetically beautiful or pleasureful,
79 Nanette Salomon, "The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history's 'hidden agenda' and pernicious
pedigrees," in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts, ed. Griselda Pollock (New York:
Routledge, 1996): 87-114.
40


which may account for her disturbance among modem historians as an outward sign of
castration.
Praxiteles' placement of Aphrodite's hand over her genitals signals a few things to
the viewer about female sexuality, including but not limited to the following. First, the
vagina is directly linked to the female's morality. As Aphrodite unclothes herself to take
a ritual cleansing bath, her "instinct" is to cover her vagina as a natural reaction to her
own nudity and a sign of her modesty. In some descriptions of the statue, her vagina is
synonymously referred to as her modesty. This modest gesture signals what a woman
ought to do when exposed, lest she appears sexually promiscuous and therefore
undesirable and not wife-material. In this view, female sexuality is deemed as something
to be regulated or kept under control. In other words, phallocentrism shapes our
perception of female sexuality, her lack of a penis and inferiority, as something women
ought to instinctually be embarrassed about. Early perceptions of the sheela-na-gig seem
to mirror such beliefs, as the sheela-na-gig's gestures probably appeared as immodest,
flaunting her castration, and thus threatening or unpleasurable to male viewers.
Second, Praxiteles depicted Aphrodite's pubis in classical styles of beauty in ways
that the sheela-na-gig does not. Aphrodite's legs come together in the sculpture to create
the vaginal "v," furthering her modesty as it blocks our view of her genitals, but also
representing a phallocentric view of the vagina as lacking any definition or physical
characteristics. In another view, Irigaray sees the "v" or triangle as a sign for the womb,
which reduces women to mothers or the maternal.80 The sheela-na-gig, on the other
hand, opens her legs wide rather than closing them and closing off. In this frontal view,
80 Robinson. Reading Art, Reading Irigaray, 160.
41


we can see her genitals in full and in the shape of a pointed oval, rather than in a discrete
and fragmented view of the "v." The sheela-na-gig's gesturing therefore may connote
something other than the maternal, or possibly a different way of understanding the
womb in non-reproductive way, challenging reductive frameworks that limit women to
maternal roles. Additionally, according to Mary Russo, "The images of the grotesque
body are precisely those which are abjected from the bodily canons of classical
aesthetics. The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-
contained, symmetrical, and sleek.... The grotesque body is open, protruding, secreting,
multiple and changing. ... "81 Thus, the sheela-na-gig challenges notions of modesty and
aesthetic beauty, rendering her obscene, unruly, and a threat to the phallus in the lens of
gendered expectations.
The Knidian Aphrodite's 360-degree physique is also quite different from the
sheela-na-gig's two-dimensional relief. The male gaze can continually look around the
body while not acknowledging her lack and what that signifies. The rest of her body
therefore can become sexualized and objectified, because she blocks her lack for us. The
sheela-na-gig, on the other hand, forces the gaze to avow the vagina, as the eye cannot
move elsewhere except for the face, chest, arms and legs, which are often carved from
rough stone rather than smooth marble. The difference in texture may be another
suggestion that the sheela-na-gig's coarseness bolsters her unpleasurable presence.
Aphrodite's smooth texture reaffirms her pleasurable nature; some reports confirm that
men experience arousal when viewing the statue, and some men have even attempted to
fornicate with it. The sheela-na-gig, to the best of my knowledge, has never been
81 Simone Weil Davis, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," Feminist Studies Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 13.
42


documented as arousing, but was inversely subjected to visual and textual censorship.82
The disparate treatment of these images demonstrates how aesthetic traditions of female
representations can shape our perceptions and interpretations of female sexuality and
beauty as grotesque or beautiful, abject or inspiring.
As Iris Marion Young explains, "A fetish is an object that stands in for the
phallusthe phallus as the one and only measure and symbol of desire, the
representation of sexuality."83 The phallus is therefore the locus of sexuality that fills and
fulfills the vaginathe female's empty receptacle signifying her lack of a phallus, her
negation to his affirmative presence. The tradition of male nudes that bare and ostensibly
showcase the penis is another indication of patriarchal privileging of the phallus over the
vagina, because the male nude does not gesture to cover or censor his genitals, but
naturally exhibits his body unshamingly. Patriarchal culture therefore assumes that the
phallus holds a superior position over the vagina as it signals the male's active presence
as opposed to the female's passivity and absence. The historians' interpretations of
sheela-na-gigs seem to reflect these conventions of phallocentrismthat the sheela-na-
gig showcases her castration and this conjures horror about the vulnerability of the
phallus, the possibility of losing male symbolic status and becoming like woman.
The Living Grotesque
As discussed above, grotesque female bodies and sexualities have been
psychically, socially, and discursively exiled in patriarchal culture. Likewise, grotesque
82 As noted in the previous chapter, Victorians refrained from writing about obscene topics, and often
spoke about the sheela-na-gig in Latin so as to censor or veil the sinful nature of the images.
83 Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory
(Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 190.
43


bodies are not abstracted from the lived world, but experience ongoing subjugation and
its symptoms. As Elizabeth Grosz states, "the body is neither brute nor passive but is
interwoven with and constitutive of system of meaning, signification, and representation.
On one hand it is a signifying and signified body; on the other, it is an object of systems
of social coercion, legal inscription, and sexual and economic exchange."84 In other
words, bodies are not scientifically universalized objects that transcend time and daily
realities, but embody and express (patriarchal) meanings, objectifications, coercions, and
exchanges that become truths of one's existence. This section brings these ideas to light
by demonstrating how the framing of grotesque bodies have consequence for women in
their everyday life, using the example of new surgical trends of labiaplasty, and how
these consequences are symptoms of a culture that privileges men.
First, let's flesh out the idea of what it means to embody the signs signified to
one's body. For example, the male body is subjected to significations that authorize
usage of their own bodies as powerful mechanisms, i.e. machines of war, political rulers
of law, workhorses for economic sustainability, and providers of sexual pleasure.
Similarly, the female body is subjected to signs that suggest use of their bodies as sex
objects, reproductive vessels, and housekeepers. As a result, most women experience
some level of male power over their bodies; one senses the fixing sexual objectification
of the male gaze, grows numb from being isolated in the home, chokes through coercion
of physical and emotional violence, and grieves from laws that regulate and prohibit the
personal choice to abort a fetus yet silently support the personal choice to surgically
enhance breasts, labia, and virtually any part of the body that increases a woman's
84 Grosz, Volatile Bodies, 18.
44


desirability. The performance of male power and patriarchal privilege is not just
embodied by men, because that power and privilege establishes barriers and norms for
others, women in particular, and impairs their quality of life.
One extreme symptom of dominant patriarchal standards of female beauty and
sexuality lies in the world of surgical body enhancement. Labiaplasty, the surgical
procedure of reconstructing or clipping the labia minora and labia majora to achieve a
less protruding and "tucked in" vaginal aesthetic, is gaining women's attention. Simone
Weil Davis' essay Loose Lips Sink Ships analyzes this procedure of "designer vaginas" as
a product of shaming tactics in mass media and pornography, and as a reflection of male
desire for the "clean slit."85 We are reminded of Russo's explanation of the classical
aesthetic body once again, "closed... self-contained, symmetrical, and sleek" as it
becomes the standard now for the vulva.
Though testimonies from women and MTF trans people about their labial
procedures emphasize the difficulties their genitals posed for them in everyday
experiences, the need for the procedure, whether profound or superficial, can be
symptoms of phallocentric power and systems of meaning production. In other words,
how comfortably we fit into clothes made to fit certain bodies, how easily we can pass as
female or as a woman, or how close you come to standards of "normal" size and color are
all shaped and made possible by a society that privileges male ways of living, knowing,
and identifying. So, that is to say that some who undergo labiaplasty do experience labial
discomfort, but it is the society that privileges options for managing discomfortsurgical
removal rather embracing other modes of thinking, i.e. deemphasizing the importance of
85 Davis, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," 8.
45


heterosexual intercourse in relationships, finding other sources and sites of pleasure, or
redesigning women's clothing to not fit so tightly to the body. The language of disgust in
sheela-na-gig studies can be seen similarly as caught within a web of phallocentric
meanings and ways of thinking, in which options for interpreting the images are restricted
by narrow representations of female sexuality as reproductive or sexual object. Only
through feminist interpretations are we given alternative ways of thinking of the sheela-
na-gig.
It should be acknowledged that labiaplasty is an extreme and glamorized case, but
there are also more silent and damaging symptoms of patriarchy. Elaine Lawless's
ethnographic work retells the stories of abused women in shelters, whose life stories
reveal how religious concepts of sin and women's "defiled nature" played roles in their
abusive relationships and how they viewed themselves as inferior, evil, or sexually sinful
and unclean.86 Thus, the framework of grotesque unruly bodies and female sexuality is
not something that is only viewed by men, but is a male-way of constructing the image of
Female that women can also subscribe to and live within, resulting in self-hatred, self-
ridicule, and ridicule of other women. Traditional interpretations of the sheela-na-gig
were conducted by men for the most part, but women scholars such as Dobson and
Ettlinger seemed to nod to such representations of unruly and sinful women in their
interpretations of sheelas as demonic icons or rhetoric to warn against lust over the
wayward prostitute. Therefore, we can see how pervasive and impulsive patriarchal
ideologies can become in the imagination of cultural practices.
86 Lawless, "Woman as Abject," 238-248.
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Davis asks, "What's the trajectory from Second Wave feminist 'self-discovery and
celebration' to the current almost-craze for labiaplasty?"87 One possible answer, and what
I hope to show in this section, is that patriarchal culture continues to reproduce
phallocentric and hierarchical constructions of the beautiful and the grotesque; and that
feminist interventions that promote relearning and redefining women's bodies and
sexualities are effective methods of change.
Finding a Way Out Within
Feminist interventionist projects deconstruct, expose, and eradicate patriarchal
ideologies, and offer radical examples of what alternative feminine subjectivities might
look like. We can learn from these examples as guides or methodologies for constructing
new ways of talking about sheela-na-gigs. In fact, there seems to be a need for new
language to describe the sheela-na-gigs and experiences of the images in a positive and
female-identifying way. In Hilary Robinson's exhibit review offrom: Beyond the Pale,
which showcased a display of sheela-na-gig artifacts, Robinson wonders how to translate
her experience of seeing the images for the first time: "Powerful, stark, literally
unspeakable (what are the words that I can begin to use to construct thiswhat is it?
Emotion? Knowledge? Intelligence?that I experience in this encounter?), a wish for
identification is provoked in me, a woman viewer, by the carvings."88 It seems pertinent
that women should be able to speak about the sheela-na-gig and articulate their
experience and identification with the image in a way that is positive or composite, so as
87 Davis, Loose Lips Sink Ships, 8.
88 Robinson, "Within the Pale, 255.
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to not resort to languageunderstood by some feminists as another patriarchal
constructionthat may be inadequately translate their experiences of the sheela-na-gig.
Generally speaking, most women, even most feminists, around the world have not
seen or heard of the sheela-na-gig. However, most women have felt the male gaze, have
experienced the silent assessment of their breasts, waist, butt, and labia, sometimes
turning inward the ocular verdict of the signs of her femininity as an accurate reflection
of her being. At that moment, her understanding of her body is not her understanding, or
of a female ontology; her objectified body is a mirrored-reflection of a male or phallus-
centered way of knowing and being.89 Many women experience their bodies through this
same lens, a lens of judgment and, sometimes, horror. Thus, alternative female ways of
knowing, experiencing, and seeing are crucial to feminist interventionist projects because
they can perhaps interrupt and prevent internalization of the gaze.
Like Young, we must ask ourselves, what would a female knowledge or ontology
of female bodies and sexualities look like, and is this possible in a patriarchal culture?
I'm optimistic that it is possible, and I think, despite the circumstances, that feminism will
take us there. The sheela-na-gig can be used as a jumping off point for radicalizing, or
uprooting, traditional knowledge about female bodies and sexualities. The next chapter
will offer a new series of alternatives to interpreting the sheela-na-gig borders on
Cathleen ONeills The Spirit of Woman posters as possible sites for feminist
transformation.
89 Young, Throwing Like a Girl, 190-205.
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CHAPTER IV
TRANSFORMING THE SHEELA-NA-GIG: BORDERS AS FEMINIST SPACES
On July 12, 1988, the Irish Times ran an article titled, "Sheela-na-gigsnever in a
thousand years." The article expressed shopkeepers' revulsion to Cathleen O'Neill's "The
Spirit of Woman" feminist posters, their reactions triggered by the poster's border donned
with happy sheelas linked arm-in-arm. In the center of the poster are illustrated portraits
of ten historically renowned Irish women, and their placement indicates a centering of
women in discussions of history and politics where they have been traditionally
marginalized or invisible. The sheela-na-gig, though one of the earliest and most widely
recognized female figures in Ireland, was not centered in the poster with the other women
nor represented in an individual portrait. Instead, there are numerous connected sheelas
encompassing the margins of the poster. Their placement at the margins, both literally in
the poster and discursively, is an example of possibilities for feminist reclaiming of
female bodies and sexualities. Moreover, feminist reclamation projects can look to the
sheelas' liminality, both in language and physical location, from which the carvings offer
new insight into the liminality of feminine subjectivity.
Throughout time and cultures, borders have played important and various roles:
establishing safe and unsafe spaces, dividing and separating land and people, markers of
limitations, restrictions, and more. In fact, the sheela borders on "The Spirit of Woman"
posters were not an entirely new concept in regards to physical locations of the carvings.
Many sheela carvings were placed above doorways, on walls of homes, and in cemeteries
as headstones shows that she somehow mediated borders between inside and outside, the
49


living and the dead. Some speculate the sheela-na-gigs upper half signals death, while
the lower half signals birth and rebirth. The sheela would have therefore represented
birth and death as interrelated and cyclical, rather than oppositional and occurring in a
linear order.90 The sheelas placement was also linked almost exclusively to female
spaces. We are reminded of Murrays observations about sheelas in female graves and
yoni figures in Roman womens quarters.91 Additionally, the sheela-na-gigs possible
connection to womens laughter and lesbianism are more important factors that may help
make sense of the images.92 Thus, her presence may not have been merely decorative or
lucky, and probably served a far more influential role in the lives of Irish people, and
women in particular.93
My intent, however, is not to identify or speculate the probable origins of the
sheelas, but to offer a critical feminist approach to understanding the repulsion and
censorship of sheelas. My goal is not to eliminate possibilities for the authentic sheela-
na-gig down to a probable conclusion, nor is it to find the inner spirit of Woman that
essentializes and universalizes female lives. A strategy such as this may fail to notice the
values of liminality and the multiplicity of possibilities for understanding or representing
sheelas, gender, sexuality, and bodies. Rather, much like Judith Butler advises, I aim to
investigate not the cause of the carvings' rejection, but that the origin and cause of the
traditional interpretations of disgust are "the effects of institutions, practices, [and]
discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin."94 In other words, the sheela-na-
90 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 92.
91 Murray, Female Fertility Figures, 97.
92 Ibid., 99.
93 For multiple perspectives about the meaning and use of this image, see Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma.
94 Butler, Gender Trouble, xxxi.
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gigs are interpreted as grotesque because certain bodies are deemed legitimate or
illegitimate based on a nexus of power relations that favor and legitimize those in power.
Thus, I use the feminist recuperating of the sheela-na-gigs in "The Spirit of Woman"
posters as an example of feminist reclaiming of borders as overlooked yet significantly
subversive locations for political feminist critique. I attempt to show how O'Neill's
poster can be read as a call to action for an ethical imperative to decenter institutions of
phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality. Ultimately, the sheela-na-gigs
themselves are liminal, and thus become central figures for understanding the liminality
of feminine subjectivity.
The sheela-na-gig has been acknowledged by feminists as an image that can be
used to critique and sometimes subvert gender, sexuality, and body ideals. However,
feminist theories have rarely positioned the sheela-na-gig in dialogue with theories of
borders. Border theory is typically practiced within distinct intellectual circles such as
Latin American feminist philosophy, or in disciplinary contexts of political science,
philosophy, and economics, hence, the probable misconnection between sheelas and
borders. Nevertheless, O'Neill's poster inadvertently brings into focus how the border
can function as a site for transforming epistemic values about female bodies and
sexualities.
The beginning of my analysis starts with an exploration of the common view of
borders as margins and social indicators of separation or distinction between people,
places, or things. I employ Gloria Anzalduas postcolonialist feminist theory of the
borderland and la mestiza, to suggest that we might think about the sheela border on The
Spirit of Woman posters as symbolizing the marginalization of sheela-na-gigs and Irish
51


women within a colonialist and patriarchal context. Next, I explore Luce Irigarays
feminist philosophy of the placenta and mucus that comprise ethical corporeal borders for
intersubjective relations. This will serve as another possible feminist reading of the
sheelas and sheela borders as fluid and plural. Last, I employ Judith Butlers take on
borders as identity categories that are constructed through the repetition of performances.
Butler advises that "laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable for
feminism,"95 and therefore I argue that the sheela-na-gigs placement in the borders
performs a parody of the grotesque. I conclude by arguing that feminist theories of the
borders can be significant sites for transforming how we think about sheela-na-gigs, as
well as for female bodies, sexualities, and subjectivities.
Borders as Margins and Mestizas
To begin with, we can think about the sheela borders through the lens of
postcolonial feminist analyses of marginalization. Marginalization is defined as the
social and political subjugation of members of a society deemed insignificant or without
power by that societys dominant group(s). Such postcolonialist analyses are theoretical
reflections on the lives and experiences of those living invisibly on the margins, and are
crucial guides to the new questions about social relations, institutions, and more.96
Postcolonial feminist theory can provide insight to how the sheelas, and their receptions
of disgust, compel us to ask new questions about dominant cultural norms and values,
95 Ibid ., XXX.
96 Sandra Harding, Borderlands Epistemologies, in Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader,
ed. Alison M. Jaggar (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 337.
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i.e., sex, gender, and racial hierarchies, phallogocentrism, and compulsory
heterosexuality.
Gloria Anzaldua, one of the most widely recognized postcolonialist feminists,
employs the common conception of a border as a physical and psychic border that divides
land and people. She describes borders as signifying boundaries "set up to define the
places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them."97 Therefore, for those who
live on or straddle these borders or margins, who are outsiders within each world, the
border becomes a liminal space of continuous transition. In this view, borders are
constructions that reinforce relationships and identities of opposition and contradiction.
The merging of these two worlds creates an "emotional residue of an unnatural
boundary," giving rise to a new dynamic space called a borderland, and a new border
culture.98 This new border culture embraces identities and modes of consciousness as
liminal, contradictory, and multiple, rather than determined, consistent, and singular.
Therefore, Anzalduas theory of the border might help reframe the sheelas liminality as
inhabiting a new dynamic space that contradicts and undermines phallocentric culture.
In the context of the sheela-na-gig borders, the sheelas occupy marginalized
positions not just literally on the margins of the paper, but also on the edge of traditional
representations of female bodies and sexualities. The margins, as described by Anzaldua,
converge both worlds in which the sheela-na-gig does not belong. In other words, the
sheela borders symbolize the marginalization of female sexuality as either pure or
97 Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestizo, Second Edition (San Francisco: Aunt Lute
Books, 1999), 25.
98 Ibid., 25.
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immoral. The sheela-na-gig seems to fall somewhere in-between these constructions,
identifying as neither saint nor whore, but potentially both at the same time. In other
words, the sheela-na-gigs lack of a clear definition and origin has contributed to the
confusion about the images, giving rise to numerous varying interpretations. Thus, the
sheela-na-gig can be identified as all or none of these readings at once, because her
liminality allows her to slip in and out of meanings. Interpretations of the carvings are
also constantly in transition as culture changes, exemplified by readings of nineteenth
century antiquarians versus twenty-first century feminists. The carvings are constantly
being re-read, re-presented, and therefore occupy no one understanding. The sheela
therefore straddles both worlds and occupies a border culture, "vague and undetermined"
and "in a constant state of transition.99 Reactions to the sheela borders on The Spirit of
Woman posters similarly reflect their liminal and undetermined position within Irish
culture as the most widely recognized yet censored symbol.
Further, according to Anzaldua, those who live on the borderland are those who
cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the 'normal'"the prohibited and
forbidden.100 The sheela-na-gig is perceived as abnormal within traditional
constructions of female sexuality; whore, queer, elderly, mother, illness, and primitive are
all ways that the sheela has been depicted as not within boundaries of normal female
sexuality. The perceptions of the sheelas gesturing as deviant from the norm is a product
of their displacement through British colonialism, Catholicism, and phallogocentrism,
and has resulted in visible, discursive, epistemological censorship of the image.
99 Ibid.
100 Ibid., 25.
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However, Anzaldua proposes a solution to overcoming the psychological borders
or habitual thinking of normalization imposed through cultural domination.101
Anzaldua affirms that we must embrace the consciousness of la mestiza, a woman of
mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. A mestiza consciousness encompasses the
multiplicity, liminality, and contradictions indicative of border culture and identity, and
Anzaldua believes these qualities are necessary for social and political transformation.
She states that dualisms create rigid boundaries that exclude mestiza consciousness from
having a voice:
... The work of mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject-object
duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the
images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem
between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in
healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our
culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dualistic
thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of
a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of
rape, violence, of war.102
In other words, Cartesian dualisms of subject-object can cause rifts in social relations that
lead to suffering. Therefore, borders for Anzaldua are barriers of thought and sites for
transformation. She points out that Western borders are habitual patterns of thought,
supposed to keep the undesirable ideas out.103 She suggests that we move from
convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a
single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away
from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather
101 Ibid., 100.
102 Ibid., 102.
103 Ibid., 101.
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than excludes.104 These new ways of thinking are tolerant of the contradictory and
liminality of cultures and personalities indicative of borderland peoples, and turns the
ambivalence into something else105a radical change in how we view subjectivity.
Anzalduas border theory can provide a way to re-imagine the sheela borders as a
symbol for both restricting (Western) and liberating (mestizo) modes of consciousness.
For example, reactions to the sheela-na-gig borders reflect how dualismsmale/female,
pure/impure, moral/immoral, beautiful/grotesque, proper/obsceneset up how we
perceive or make meaning about others, limiting them within categories of either one or
the other. The sheela, however, slips in and out of these meanings and cannot be pinned
down by traditional dualistic thinking. But, if we embrace that the sheela is constituted
by these contradictory meanings, rendering her liminal and plural, rather than trying to
fix into one definition of fertility figure or church rhetoric, then this may open more
possibilities for speaking about or relating to the sheela-na-gig.
Overcoming dualisms is a major theme within feminist theory, and feminists
suggest that transforming binaries starts with the body. Anzaldua suggests that this wont
be easy: "This is the sacrifice that the act of creation requires, a blood sacrifice. For only
through the body, through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And
for images, words, stories to have this transformative power, they must arise from the
human bodyflesh and boneand from the Earth's bodystone, sky, liquid, soil.106
Anzalduas notion of liminality, multiplicity, and contradictions closely ties to another
104 Ibid.
105 Ibid.
106 Ibid., 97.
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popular feminist concept of fluidity. Irigaray offers us another take on borders as a fluid
corporeal space where two people are brought together, and serves as another example of
the subjugating effects of dualistic thinking and disconnection from the body.
Bodies as Fluid Borders
Borders can be political and social locations for critique of dominant cultures, as
Anzaldua points out, but borders can also be corporeal. One of the most notable aspects
of the sheela borders is the repetition, or multitude of representations, of their bodies and
sexual gestures, which calls attention to the corporeal aspects to these images. That is not
to say, however, that the sheela is a celebration of the body as female essence in terms of
Cartesian dualisms that rigidly align male/female with mind/body, subject/object, and
culture/nature. Rather, the sheelas placement within borders resonates more with
Irigarays understanding of the placental border that ungrounds these dualisms and
privileges fluid boundaries between subjects. Moreover, Irigarays positive image of
fluid boundaries exposes the unease, disgust, and horror that the loss of secure and rigid
boundaries provokes in the male cultural imaginary, and which may underscore
reactions of disgust to the abjected sheela.107
Just as Anzaldua's borderland constantly mediates and transitions between two
worlds, Irigaray's placenta mediates and transitions between two bodies. Irigaray
recognizes the placenta as an embodied border that mediates the relationship between
mother and fetus. JaneMaree Maher, who utilizes Irigarays theory of the placenta,
107 Margrit Shildrick, Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, postmodernism and (bio)ethics (London:
Routledge, 1997), 17.
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highlights that the potential mediated through the placenta is a refiguration of the
relationship between subject and body. The possibility of an organ that does not belong to
one body, but rather is turned to multiple sites, reforms embodied subjectivity in terms
that are much more fluid.108 In other words, the placenta challenges the psychoanalytic
and philosophical notion of the autonomous male Subject, which requires that the mother
be suppressed in order to join the father in the realm of the Symbolic (or, put simply, to
use language and to become a self-identifying subject). Irigaray problematizes this
traditional ideal of subjectivity as a phallogocentric construct, and offers a feminist
analysis that centers the mother as embodying a more accurate form of subject relations
that does not manifest in individual autonomy. Irigaray reminds us that the child is
brought into the world through a mediated relationship, the nourishing border of the
placenta, which is neither ruled nor ruled by the mother or the fetus. This type of border
for Irigaray refigures the static or fixed border that divides relationships (self/other, or
us/them for Anzaldua) as a fluid boundary that dissolves traditional male
representations of sexed and gendered bodies. So, while Anzaldua wants to transcend
dualities of subject/object, Irigaray wants to jam the structures of subject/object relations.
However, both Irigaray and Anzaldua believe that transformation begins with the body.
Irigaray is concerned first and foremost with the body, especially the mothers
body. Though critics have claimed Irigaray essentializes womens bodies, Shildrick
notes that Irigaray does not recogniz[e] women only within relations of
(re)production.109 The body towards which she gestures is determined by no one form.
108 JaneMaree Maher, Visibly Pregnant: Toward a Placental Body, Feminist Review No. 27 (2002): 97.
109 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 177-8.
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It is always plural, fluid and unbounded; a body that is not yet realized because not yet
represented.110 Irigaray wants to represent a morphology of the female body, which she
suggests is infinitely plural or not one. Irigaray most notably uses the two lips as an
example of female plurality, referring to the lips of the mouth and the labia lips of the
vulva. Hilary Robinson notes that Irigarays notion of female morphology produces a
site for itself in this term: not the lips of the mouth, not the lips of the genitals, but at the
same time both the lips of the mouth and the lips of the genitals: the lips, as a term, is
the site of a play between them.111 This type of play reveals how bodies are constituted
anatomically, socially, and discursively, and are not mutually exclusive from the other.112
One cannot help but think of the sheela-na-gigs playful comportment that suggests a
connection between the mouth and vulva lips. Thus, the sheela might provide an
interesting visual construal of female morphology due to the anatomical, social, and
discursive play of gesturing, and how she might disrupt these factors simultaneously.
Reading Irigaray in connection to the sheela borders may offer new possibilities
for thinking about bodiesfemale bodies in particularand their importance for social
relations, that diverge from phallocentric principles. The plurality and fluidity of the
female body that Irigaray proposes is a direct critique of the oneness of the phallus and
the privileging of the disembodied static masculine subject.113 Irigaray acknowledges
that intersubjectivity begins with new visions about the body. The mucus, the border or
threshold that mediates the lips, as well as the placenta, allows for the relinquishing of
110 Ibid., 178.
111 Robinson, R eadingArt, 101.
112 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 178.
113 Ibid., 176.
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control and the presence of the subject demanded by... intersubjectivity.114 In other
words, the mucus and placenta refigures the image of the static or fixed border as a fluid
boundary that threatens the separation of mind/body, self/other, and inner/outer. The
mucus therefore becomes an ethical site for transforming social relations as connected,
mutually dependent and void of control or domination.
Connectivity also seems to be an important factor in the sheela-na-gig poster
border. Rather than being depicted in a singular portrait with other historical Irish female
icons, the sheela-na-gigs are featured together, arm-in-arm. Likewise, the sheela border
does not represent the carvings as solidified in stone, but as a fluid connection bound by
flowing ink. To clarify, the sheela-na-gig borders might represent an alternative look at
sheelas, which typically appear on buildings as singular stone carvings, rarely, if ever,
accompanied by another sheela or other carvings. Touching, for Irigaray is an
indispensable act for female morphology.
When the/a woman touches herself... a whole touches itself because it is
infinite, because it has neither the knowledge nor the power to close up or
to swell definitively to the extension of an infinite. This self-touching
gives woman a form that is in(de)finitely transformed without closing over
her appropriation. Metamorphoses occur in which there is no complete set,
where no set theory of the One is established.115
Irigarays concept of self-touching is always already touching of the labia, but can also be
understood as an erotic signaling of womens power over her own sexuality. The border
of sheelas that self-touch and touch each other might symbolize representations of
womens bodies as infinite and falling on a continuum, rather than occupying an either/or
114 Robinson, Reading Art, 104.
115 Luce Irigaray in Speculum of the Other Woman (1985) as quoted in Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 111.
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position within rigid dualisms. On the other hand, they may also represent what
phallocentrism fears: fluids, mucus, loss of control, and loss of subjectivity.
Irigarays placental and mucus borders are not conventional, and many believe
her work does not satisfy feminist needs for real solutions for liberation. Irigaray
acknowledges that we do not yet know what a culture of morphology will look like.
However, she stresses that the body is dynamic and playful, and that culture depends on
this same kind of playful repetition in order to psychologically subvert how we interact
with each other.116 Parody, the playful or humorous subversion tactic, is also seen by
Butler as crucial for changing cultural perceptions about bodies. While Irigaray
highlights the ethical dimensions of such transformations, Butler focuses on the political
possibilities for those who deviate from norms of gender, sex, and sexuality.
Subverting Borders through Parody
Thus far, we have understood borders as defining categories of bodies and
identities, yet also as sites for critique of these categories. Butler takes up conversations
about borders and boundaries and encourages us to think about the political possibilities
that can come from radical critiques of categories of identity.117 Butler sees the concept
of the border as constituting a restrictive linguistic construct of being in or out, which
is not determined pre-discursively but is made possible through discourses that regulate
and control social relations for phallocentric and heterosexual interests.118 Butler
believes subversive gender performativity is key to questioning the discursive construct
116 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 176-8.
117 Butler, Gender Trouble, xxxii.
118 Ibid., 182.
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of inner and outer. We can put the sheela border in conversation with Butler by
employing concepts of performativity and parody to read the repetition of performative
gestures by the sheela-na-gigs in alternative ways.
Butler begins by critiquing identity categories as a mediating boundary that
strives for stability, in which intemality and externality are made possible for
constructions of identity.119 When Butler speaks about in and out, she is referring to
how bodies on the outside are framed as representative of who we are on the inside.
However, Butler argues that it is not a question of how external factors become
internalized as ones true identity, but what discourses make the binary inner/outer
possible? And, how exactly have we come to understand that bodies sign or indicate
ones complexity, the very invisibility of its hidden depth?"120
Butlers critique of identity categories as outer expressions of inner selves
helps to clarify the situation of the sheela-na-gig. For instance, readings of the carvings
as grotesque or frightening led to conclusions about the images meaning as evil-warding,
non- or anti-Christian, or whorish. Likewise, readings that situate the sheela as a fertility
figure cast a positive light on the image as heterosexual and reproductive. However, as
weve seen the sheela-na-gig appears to be more complex than either of these
representations, but attempts to situate the sheela are often predicated on dualisms of
inner/outer. In those cases, interpretations of the images comportment (performance)
and meaning (identity) are stuck within dualistic thinking that seeks to conflate inner and
outer dimensions, much like traditional identity categories that conflate notions such as
119 Ibid.
120 Ibid., 183.
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heterosexual-fecund-wholesome-recognizable versus homosexual-un(re)productive-
revolting-ambiguous. Thus, the sheela-na-gigs expulsion followed by a repulsion...
founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexuality axes of
differentiation.121
One could, therefore, read the performance of the sheela as disrupting static or
stable boundaries of gender and sexuality. On a basic level, the sheelas physical
characteristicsbaldness, distorted body, bulging eyes, protruding tongue, large vulva
obscure hegemonic notions of femininity. However, it is the sheelas performance or
gesturing that oversteps feminine gender and sexuality, and is that which horrifies or
repulses the viewer. The gaping vulva, as it were, indicates both inner and outer worlds,
and self-mediates the transition between the two. The inner world that we dont see is
perhaps the complexities of the sheela meanings and functions within Irish culture
neither consistent or mundane, but always changing and hidden. The sheela borders can
perhaps be understood as embodied critiques of hegemonic constructions of gender and
sexuality.
For Butler, then, constructions of inner/outer are also performed through the body.
Gender is the consistent repetition of performances over time that normalizes and
homogenizes certain gendered behavior. In a basic form, hair and clothing are kinds of
gendered performances because they can communicate ones gender and sexuality to
others. Gender is therefore an illusion produced through the body in various mundane
121 Ibid., 182.
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gestures, movements, and styles that give the appearance of achieving or accomplishing
gender.122 Butler argues
This repetition is at once a reenactment and re-experiencing of a set of
meaning already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized
form of their legitimation. Although there are individual bodies that enact
these significations by becoming stylized into gendered modes, this
'action' is a public action. There are temporal and collective dimensions to
these actions, and their public character is not inconsequential; indeed, the
performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender
within its binary framean aim that cannot be attributed to a subject, but,
rather, must be understood to found and consolidate the subject.123
It is the mundane collective public acts that make possible the exclusion of others who
perform differently. The sheela-na-gig, often appearing in public places on churches and
on the feminist posters, are delegitimized due to their failure to reenact and thus maintain
gender. According to Butler, The possibilities of gender transformation are to be found
precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to
repeat, a de-formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmic effect of abiding
identity as a politically tenuous construction.124 The repetition of sheela-na-gigs in the
poster borders fail to repeat gender norms, but simultaneously succeed through these
failures by parodying the grotesque.
Parody for Butler calls gender categories into question by using imitation in
humorous ways as a form of critique. She notes that gender practices within gay and
lesbian cultures often thematize 'the natural' in parodic contexts that bring into relief the
122 Ibid., 191.
123 Ibid.
124 Ibid., 192.
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performative construction of an original and true sex.125 Thus, grotesque female bodies
and sexualities can also be called into question through parodic imitations.
We can look to James Naremore in order to better clarify how parody connects to
the sheela borders. Naremore offers a genealogy of the grotesque, locating its origins
around 1500 from city excavations in Rome. The term grotesque was derived from
ornamental wall paintings found in grotte, or caves, which depicted humans, animals,
plants and other objects fused together in absurd ways. This ancient ornamentation style
was considered monstrous, mockery, and low art, and the grotesque soon became
synonymous with lower parts of the body. Over time, the grotesque lost its reference
to the original artistic style and became more known through the lens of morals.126
Hence, Victorian antiquarians confrontations with the grotesque sheela-na-gigs as non-
Christian. Nevertheless, the notion of the grotesque maintained psychological elements
that aim at defamiliarizing the everyday world and thereby controlling or exorcizing the
absurdities and terrors of life,127 provoking laughter in an unresolved tension.128
Through this definition, then, we can understand the grotesque as a parodic strategy that
radicalizes the mundane. Similarly, this view of the grotesque can help build an
understanding of the sheela-na-gig borders as performing parodic imitation.
The sheela-na-gigs in The Spirit of Woman poster borders can be read as an
illustration of parodic performance that humorously imitates the grotesque. Simply put,
the sheelas take the place of typical floral or feminine ornamentation in the borders. In
125 Ibid., xxxi.
126 James Naremore, Stanley Kubrick and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque, Film Quarterly Vol. 60, No. 1
(Fall 2006): 5-6.
127 Wolfgang Kayer, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, as quoted in Naremore, Stanley Kubrick, 6.
128 Naremore, Stanley Kubrick, 6.
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other words, they imitate the ornamentation that became popular in bourgeois European
high-culture. The ironic replacement of European elitist superfluities with Irish
grotesque, or lower body images, suggests a critique of class privilege within a culture
of colonization. But, while the sheelas provoked fear or disgust for some, the sheela-na-
gigs maintain their grins, signaling to the liminal tension of disgust. The sheela-na-gigs
smileonce thought by Murray to be the laughing Baubosmay suggest a comic
rebellion against romantic medieval and Victorian visions of femininity. Butler argues
that laughter and play is crucial for feminism, because it has power to transform the
mundane that oppresses certain bodies, races, and sexualities.129 The sheelas in the
borders appear playful, and we can read these types of parodic performances of the
grotesque as sources of feminist power.
Feminist Borders in Perspective
Feminist borders, though often overlooked in sheela-na-gig studies, can offer
insight into modes of transforming phallocentric culture, whether that is language,
gender, sexuality, corporeality, or subjectivity. As suggested by the feminists discussed
above, there is an ethical imperative to transformation that will make life more habitable
for those who live on the margins. That is not to say that feminism seeks to collapse
differences between us to become one whole-and-alike, but sees the ethical responsibility
to cultivate a world that does not privilege some differences over others. Feminism also
seeks to celebrate differences between and within others, recognizing that liminality,
contradictions, multiplicity, and discontinuity is emblematic of the embodied subject.130
129 Butler, Gender Trouble, xxx.
130 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 179.
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Feminist readings of the sheela-na-gig, whether philosophical, visual, historical, or
rhetorical, can help participate in the recuperating of these images as possible sites for
transforming misogynist representations of feminine subjectivity.
Feminist recuperations of sheela-na-gigs are important to the history and
knowledge produced about these carvings, because they can provide critical perspectives
about the marginalization of women and how it affects women's present and future living
conditions. As declared by Adrienne Rich:
History as 'advertisement for the state' (Koenig's phrase) has existed
probably as long as the state has existed; it is a way of justifying the hands
that already hold power, of proving that others are unfit for power, in part
by making invisible or cruelly distorting their experience and culture. It is
nothing new to say that history is the version of events told by the
conqueror, the dominator. Even the dominators acknowledge this. What
has more feelingly and pragmatically been said by people of color, by
white women, by lesbians and gay men, by people with roots in the
industrial or rural working class is that without our own history we are
unable to imagine a future because we are deprived of the precious
resource of knowing where we come from: the valor and the waverings,
the visions and defeats of those who went before us.131
The lack of textual, visual, or verbal records about sheelas, whether destroyed, forbidden,
or vanished indicates how Irish women's history under colonialism has been made
invisible. Furthermore, misogynist historical interpretations of sheelas add an extra layer
of distortions to knowledge about women in the past, telling women's history through a
male lens. Rich tells us that "making educated guesses" is a process "every historian of
an oppressed group must do. As feminists, we need to be looking above all for the
131 Rich, Resisting Amnesia, 141.
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greatness and sanity of ordinary women.132 Thankfully, there are women working on
such recuperation projects that we can turn to.
Sociologist, Barbara Freitag speculates the sheelas may have been birthing
charms for rural Irish women. Freitag explains that women in Europe experienced high
risks of death during childbirth, stillbirths, infant fatalities, as well as improper and
unavailable medical assistance due to rural isolation and outdated birthing procedures.
She also highlights the religious pressure to conceive, quoting verses from Genesis (3:16)
that console womens fears of death during childbirth as making it easier in heaven to be
forgiven of your sins. The sheelas were perhaps Irish women's last resort and source for
hope and health. Such educated guesses can provide insight into rural working class
women's experiences, and how life-saving birthing procedures and practices were only
available to the elite.133 Historical projects like Freitag's also help to demonstrate how
discourses privilege compulsive heterosexuality, phallocentrism, imperialism, as well as
class, are structured to assert dominance and control over female bodies and sexualities.
Nevertheless, feminist theories of borders reveal the limitations and possibilities
in regards to feminist reclamations of bodies, sexualities, and histories. Reactions of
disgust signify a confrontation with limitations of our thinking, and can either detach us
from each other further, or can unground us altogether through laughter. The border on
ONeills The Spirit of Woman poster demonstrates that alternative possibilities exist
for using borders or margins as sites for radical social and political transformation.
132 Ibid., 148.
133 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 70-4.
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CHAPTER V
CONCLUSION: EMBRACING OUR SHADOW-BEAST
Caught in stone
I celebrate
all who tell
the truth -
over centuries
of darkness.
Susan Connolly, Female Figure134
Reclaiming sheela-na-gigs as positive women's symbols did not seem to be
generally accepted at first. The Irish Times article that featured O'Neill's feminist posters
was titled "Sheela-na-gigsnever in a thousand years." The title can be interpreted in a
few ways as both positive and negative. On one hand, the phrase could be a statement of
rejection or refusal of new feminist-imagined sheelas, possibly seen as a threat to
dominant ideologies of gender and sexuality, and thus, nationality. On the other hand,
the phrase may indicate a wonder about the unimagined future, or something that is not
yet understood. In a similar thread, it could recognize that the sheelas had been doubted,
invisible, or censored over the last century, or as a signal of a turning point in the present,
a coming to realization or a change in belief.
However, negative public reception of the sheelas probably suggests the former.
The article was published during a historical holiday and milestone for Irish folk, of
which the sheela posters challenged conventional understandings of Irish narratives and
identities by exposing the nation's patriarchal privileges. In addition, the poster's
134 Susan Connolly, Female Figure, Forest Music (United Kingdom: Shearsman Books, 2009): 56-57.
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inception in the late 1980s occurred during an increase in numerous feminist
consciousness-raising movements and literature. These factorslocal and global
feminist initiativesmay help to elucidate the public's negative reactions toward the
sheela borders as possible acts of denial of the privileging of certain bodies and
sexualities.
In May 2015, Irish politicians announced that same-sex marriage will soon
become legal across the country, which would be a huge step for the nation. Although
protests and marches are growing in Ireland, so too are the voices of the dissenters.
Religion and conservative politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, form the ideological
foundation for blocking marriage equality legislation from passingand they just may be
able to block it, for now. The backlash against grotesque gay and lesbian people of
Ireland demonstrates how compulsory heterosexuality is woven into patriarchal cultural
belief and knowledge systems, not just in Ireland, but also in the United States, where
only 19 out of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have legalized gay marriage.135
Needless to say, feminism also continues to struggle in America, in Ireland, and around
the worldbut not without a hopeful future.
One small first step women can take toward larger goals for radicalizing
hegemonic structures of gender and sexuality is to embrace and exercise what Anzaldua
calls her Shadow-Beast, the feminist rebel inside her. The Shadow-Beast emerges as
135 On June 26, 2015, the United State Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same-sex marriage.
Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who voted against the ruling, argued that it was a
threat to American democracy. Similarly, most conservative politicians running for presidential
candidacy in the 2016 elections are rallying to fight against the new amendment, or focusing on religious
freedom or imperial tyranny as justification for their fight. Ariane de Vogue and Jeremy Diamond,
Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage nationwide, CNN (June 26, 2015).
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the part of women that frightens men and causes them to try to control and devalue
female culture136females by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood in her
stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), [and] by virtue of being in tune with
natures cycles, [are] feared.137 The Shadow-Beast is ultimately inside of us, and
reflects a view of feminine subjectivity as lustful, chaotic, and liminalnot subdued,
controlled, definable or knowable. Anzaldua urges us to waken the Shadow-Beast inside
us, for women hold a unique relationship to monsters. There is a sense in which the
womans look at the monster, says Linda Williams ...is also a recognition of their
similar status as potent threats to vulnerable male power.138 Recognition with the
monster, or with disgust or the grotesque, proves to have powerful subversive effects,
particularly when this recognition with the monstrous feminine subjectivity sends us
laughing. Perhaps the sheela-na-gig can manifest to some of us as our own Shadow-
Beast.
136 Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Fr outer a, 4.
137 Ibid., 39.
138 Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, 6.
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GROTESQUE SHEELA NA GIGS? POSTERS by RACHEL LYNN SHANAHAN B.A., Florida Gulf Coast University, 2011 A thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Humanities Humanities Program 2015

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ii This thesis for the Master of Humanities degree by Rachel Lynn Shana han has been approved for the Humanities Program by Sarah K. Tyson, Chair Margaret Woodhull Chad Kautzer August 28, 2015

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iii Shanahan, Rachel Lynn (M.H., Humanities) Grotesque Sheela na Posters Thesis directed by Assistant Professor, Sarah K. Tyson. ABSTRACT This essay argues that traditional interpretations of Irish sheela na gig stone carvings are info rmed by patriarchal and phallogocentric beliefs about female bodies and sexualities. Historical scholarship uses expressions such as grotesque, hideous, ugly, and obscene to interpret the sheela na gig's sexual gesturing, and this language of disgust is u sed today within sheela na gig studies and beyond. Feminist theories offer critiques of phallogocentric understandings of female bodies and sexualities, which allow us to n historically, socially, psychically, and politically. I conclude by discussing the sheela na symbol for borders as transformative sites for feminist knowledge about fe male bodies and sexualities. The form and content of this abstract are approved. I recommend its publication. Approved: Sarah K. Tyson

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iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This thesis is in memory of my grandfather, Andrew Lawrence Shanahan, Sr., who passed away durin g the completion of this project. This project stemmed from a deep regret and too late urges to learn more about his relationship with his mother, my great grandmother Mary Margaret Shanahan, who risked the journey from Ireland to America in the 1920s. I would like to thank my enormous family, the majority of which is comprised of wise, courageous, balanced, gracious, and gifted women. I cannot thank them and all of my family members enough for their laughter and love especially my parents, Amy and Andy, and my sister Heather for always showing compassion in hard times, and whose quirks make life less serious. I would like to thank Sarah K. Tyson for encouraging me to trust my own thought experiments and for expanding my feminist horizon. I'd also like to thank Chad Kautzer and Margaret Woodhull for their patience, humor, and coffee throughout my time as a graduate student. Thank you to my mentor and poetic songbird, Elena Flores Ruiz who taught me invaluable lessons about feminism, philosophy, and beyond And thank you to my two best men: Jason, whose support is lighthearted and gentle ; and Dylan, who consistently teaches me about intuition and unconditional love.

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v TABLE OF CONTENTS CHAPTER I. INTRODUCTION 1 II. SITUATING THE SHEELA NA GIG: ANALYZING THE LANGUAGE OF THE LITERATURE 12 Anti quarian Studies 13 Feminist Interventions 21 A Changing Milieu 29 III. BEYOND THE SHEELA NA GIG: PROBLEMATIZING GROTESQUE BODIES 31 Ab ject Woman and Discursive Power 34 Visual Constructions of Woman 38 The Living Grotesq ue 43 Finding a Way Out Within 47 IV. TRANSFORMING THE SHEELA NA GIG: BORDERS AS FEMINIST SPACES 49 Borders as Margins and Mestizas 52 Bodies as Fluid Borders 57 Subverting Borders through Parody 61 Feminist Borders in Perspective 66 V. CONCLUSION: EMBRACING OU R OWN SHADOW BEAST 69 BIBLIOGRAPHY 7 2

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1 CHAPTER I INTRODUCTION In 1988, the last thousand years. The goal was to deliver a message about the invisibility of which featured an all The feminists received considerable backlash from the posters, not because they wished to celebrate undervalued women, but because they celebrated one na gig, which was displayed in a patterned border. 1 S hopkeepers refused to display T he Irish Times caught wind of the story and published an article surrounding the controversy. 2 When the de the sheela na was reclaiming a positive wom the Millennium 3 urge to find a positive symbol for women is not a new endeavor people, Rosie the Riveter, the Black Power fist, the rainbow flag, the triangle, and more Yet, the sheela na gig has been denigrated and belittled for her sexuality, ambiguity, and 1 Feminist Studies Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 29 50. 2 Kathryn Holmquist, "Sheela na gigs Never in a Thousand Years," Irish Times, July 12, 1988, 1. 3 Ibid.

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2 4 ust 5 ivine h ag 6 She is p resent at church and at home, and comes under scrutiny when she tries to move into the public sphere, resulting in orders for her censorship and violent destruction. Beyond doubt, the oppressive criticisms, portrayals, and persecutions suffered by the she ela na gig carvings are similar to those historically suffered by women generally. Therefore, questions, such as, how could feminists claim that a sexually explicit and "foul" female im age be considered positive for women? Why have sheela na gigs been considered grotesque and foul in the first place, and who determines these portrayals and what are their interests? Further, what values and beliefs about gender, sex, and sexuality do th ese portrayals carry, and how do these values affect the lives of white women, women of color, lesbians, and those on gendered and sexual margins? And finally, what transformative possibilities can we locate in the sheela na gig carvings that may help mak e these lives more livable? 7 Over the course of my analysis I delve deeper into these questions na gigs through inquiring into patriarchal and phallogocentric constructions of female bodi es and sexualities. Sheela na gigs are e arly medieval Irish stone relief carvings of female figures found in or on churches, cemeteries, and homes, primarily positio ned above doorways or on walls. Scholars estimate the sheela na gig carvings originate from as early as the 4 Jorgen Andersen, The Witch on the Wall (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Baggar, 1977). 5 Anthony Weir and Jim Jerman. Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Med ieval Churches (London: Routledge, 1986). 6 McMahon and Roberts, The Sheela na gigs of Ireland and Britain. 7 See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge Classics, 2006), xxiii.

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3 eleventh and thirteenth century up through the late sixteenth century though the exact dates of origin are not actually known 8 Though similar carvings have been found outside of Ireland, such as Scotland and the UK, and throughout several historical eras, na och is of Celtic origin. 9 Unfortunately, the true etymological meaning has been lost, and much of the Celtic folklore and language of indigenous Irish c ulture that would have helped make sense of the sheela na gigs have slipped into extinction. A spectrum of speculations exist na obscurity and gender bending qualities have puzzled scholar s for over a century. Unfortuna has often been reflected in reactions of unease, disgust, and horror. Before discussing the biased nature of traditional interpretations of the sheela, 10 it is helpful to first conduct a brief analy sis of the carvings. To begin, all sheela carvings slightly v ary in style probably because they were carved by different people but most have similar characteristics that render them sheela na gigs, including physical features and gestures. T he sheela is depicted bald, in which some believe is an indication of old age, death, or sickness. Another view of the sheelas might suggest the image may have been meant to illustrate a woman on her back, in which the hair, if any, would fall behind the head. 11 Ho wever, some variations of the carvings depict lines for hair, which may signify short hair, or hair that is tied back or braided. The facial features are similarly 8 Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, The Sheela na Gigs of Ireland a nd Britain. The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts: An Illustrated Guide (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2000), 12. 9 Barbara Freitag, Sheela na gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (New York: Routledge, 2004), 52. 10 his shortened version throughout the essay. 11 For more on sheela na gigs as birthing charms, see Freitag Unraveling an Enigma, 68 109.

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4 obscurely depicted; the eyes are either two simple dots or large, bulging or glaring eyes. The mouth is often shown with a grin or smirk, while other times the tongue protrudes, or teeth are carved into a snarl or a toothy smile. The body is naked, small, thin, and not proportionate to the size of the head, seeming to detract importance away from the core of the body. T he breasts are typically small or not represented and ribs are sometimes carved as small horizontal lines, which contradicts the typical fertility or birthing figure represented with large breasts. The arms and legs are simila rly thin and without any significant characteristics, apart from their contested physical trait, an exaggerated vulva. 12 What defines the s heela na gig is the large vulva that she holds open or manipu lates with her hands in a squatting or sprawling position. Although gesturing is open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps the sheela na gig gestures to the 12 Figure 1 (top): Sheela na gig on corbel table, Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire, as shown in Margaret The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 64 (Jan Jul 1934): plate xii. Figure 2 (bottom): Sheela na gig at the British Museum, London, UK, reprinted with permission from Trustees of the British Museum.

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5 womb, opening up to welcome us back to ou r first home, or opening to expel a child or placenta. Or, she may be opening her vagina as a threat to swallow or envelop the viewer, or foreboding castration with her vagina dentata s a symbol of her reproductive powers, but maybe bearing age. That said, the sheela may not even be heterosexual. For instance, Egyptologist, Margaret Murray illustrates the sheela as a yoni figure, or a symbol for cel ebrating female or lesbian love. 13 The carving could signify positive female sexual pleasure or self touching, on the one hand, or warnings against sinful sexual lust on the other. Furthermore, sheelas could be just another apotropaic image to avert the ev il eye, guarding windows and door to protect those inside; or perhaps, the sheelas were meant to attract good health. The sheela na are equally undetermined. Does her smile suggest a superior position, as if she knows somet hing the viewer does not? Is she planning a rebellion? Maybe she intends to provoke laughter in a cathartic sense of relief. Or, perhaps her smile is a warm welcome, or an acknowledgment of something familiar. We could also interpret the representation openness of the vagina, possibly symbolizing wisdom, or the connection between mind and body. Moreover, we might speculate her nakedness represents an Eve like innocence the midst of a ritual, or perhaps giving birth. As demonstrated, there are undeniably more questions than answers to the mysterious sheela na gig carvings, as well as more possible interpretations to explore. 13 Ibid., 99.

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6 Nineteenth century antiquarians were the first to start asking questions about these image s. T he sheela na were interpreted by antiquarians as grotesque, obscene, ugly, and terrifying. The language of disgust used to describe the overall presence of the sheela na gig is undoubtedly steeped in more general assumptions about gen der, sex, sexuality, and body archetypes. T he field of s heela na gig research is relatively small, given that sheela na gigs have been a topic of inquiry for nearly two centuries but t he language of disgust persists throughout sheela na gig studies into the twenty first century Therefore, t his linguistic trend calls attention to the pervasiveness of dominant assumptions about privileged bodies and subjectivities To better understand this tradition of na gigs beginning with the earliest available recordings in the nineteenth century by writers and scholars consideration of patriarchal and phallogocentric constructions of female bodies and sexualities more generally is necessary My approach assumes that traditional readings of the sheela na gig carvings are not neutral free, but are rather informed by political and social interests of dominant groups following the medieval period in Europe, i.e., imperialist, heterosexual, Christian, able bodied males. I in turn utilize feminist critiques of such constructions, in order to offer an alternative perspective of sheela na gigs My goal f or this project in the following is not to uncover the true meaning and function of the sheela na gig. Rather, my goal is to unpack the sexist interpretations of the sheela na gig, and how these interpretations are informed by larger misogynist norms W e need to identify these norms and how they are operating in the scholarly literature

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7 and to show how the existing fem inist critiques of these norms, and their r elated notions of the grotesque, are therefore relevant to the interpretative strategies in quest ion In other words, feminist critiques carvings My methodology is rooted in the belief that mainstream frameworks of sheela na gigs are contingent upon a nexus of dominant discourses abou t gender, sex, and sexuality. I also believe that those who invest in those discourses and therefore echo and benefit implicitly or explicitly from the interests and power these discourse s promote and uphold. F e minist critiques can theref ore provide new knowledge about female bodies and sexualities that counter dominant phallogocentr ic interests. 14 In this work I utilize French feminist thought, post colonial theory and queer theory, as well as other various branches of feminist theory such as film studies, visual studies, art criticis m, political science, and concepts that resist neat categories. My goal in using multiple viewpoints is to demonstrate how feminist theory can help us overturn traditional interpretations of sheela na gig s and provide the grounds for new readings and uses. Often, but not always, readin gs of sheela na gigs can descend into the same analyses that uncritically reflect upon the discourses and institutions that shape their evidence. Thus those interested in learning more about sheela na gig s could benefit from read ing outside of the mainstream, tra ditional canon of sheela research 14 Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader ed. Alison M. Jaggar (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 344.

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8 Additionally, I argue that a significant portion of sheela na gig s approximately thirty out of one hundred five cataloged Irish s heelas are found in liminal spaces above doorways, gateways, and arches on walls of homes above windows or on quoins and with tombs, water wells, and bridges Many of the remaining sheelas were found amongst ruins, in rivers or along river banks, dug up in fields, or wer e donated to museums without record of their original placement. 15 Th us, I will focus on a sample of about thirty percent of Irish sheelas that are known to occupy liminal spaces 16 Ultimately, I argue that feminists can reclaim the lim inality of sheela na gigs as a way to radically transform how we think about feminine subjectivity. T hus poster s can be understood as an instance of reclaiming the liminality of sheela na gigs for feminist ends. origin. The Latin word radix 17 and radicalis Therefore, to perform a radical critique the root of a problem, rather than just a symptom. 18 To perform a radical feminist critique would be to pursue fundamental origins of a problem through the lens of feminist theory. For example, a radical feminist critique of the grotesque would look not to symptoms such as the 15 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall 144 53. 16 While sheela na gigs are indeed found outside of Ireland, I focus on the Irish sheelas because of the seemingly intentional placement of these carvings in liminal spaces. When sheelas appear outside of Ireland in the United Kingdom, for instance, they are utilized most often, but not always, inside churches as almost always featured alone, which suggests they were more central figures for indigenous Irish folk, as opposed to their dogmatic positions within the colonialist culture. For more information regarding sheelas outside of Ireland, see the sheela na gig catalog in Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 139 53 17 Chad Kautzer, Radical Philosophy: An Introduction (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 2. 18 Ibid.

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9 represented as grotesque in order to promote a social hierarchy that serves male desires and interests. Radical feminist interventions therefore are often geared toward social and The radical change according to radical philosopher Chad involves overcoming not only the lived experiences of alienation, objectification, and self hatred, but also the more fundamental systems of oppression responsible for those experiences as well. 19 Thus, a r adical feminist critique of the grotesque can expose fundamental issues indicative of patriarchal or phallogocentric cult ure and offer solutions to overcome the oppressions that result from traditional belief systems. Moving forward, I perform a linguistic analysis of scholarly texts over the last one and a half centuries to demonstrate how patriarchal beliefs and values shaped, and continue to shape, interpretive frameworks of the sheela na gig. The language of disgust that is used to debase the sheela na gig will provide further insight into how patriarchal and phallogocentric values and assumptions inform perceptions of female bodies and sexualities. Chapter One also evaluates how feminists have interceded in sheela n a gig studies to provide alternative readings and frameworks for understanding the carvings. These feminist contributions are significant to the recuperating of these images and in fostering inclusive epistemic and corporeal philosophies of female bodies and sexualities which counter or ra dicalize patriarchal philosophies of knowing and experiencing subjectivity. Such feminist projects are germane to exposing the language of disgust that operates outside the boundaries of sheela na gig studies and shape perceptions of female 19 Ibid., 3.

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10 comportment and subjectivity Chapter Two investigate s predicated on male representations of female bodies and sexualities as justification for her lower social and political power. I employ feminist philoso phies to help show that interpretive frameworks of disgust operate within phallocentrism and phallogocentrism, and that these dominant notions of the grotesque have consequence s for women today. I suggest that perhaps we can understand historians' reactions of disgust to sheela na gigs as a confrontation with the repressed abject I also discuss the influence of discursive structures systems of thoughts, ideas, symbols, and productions of knowledge that are mediated by those in power within a culture or soc iety that merge to form a web of m eanings that shape representations of grotesque bodies. Feminist philosophies are helpful in exposing how these factors are intertwined to transform how we interpret sheela na gig bodies, and how these interpretations are similarly re flected in the lives of women generally Finally, i n Chapter Three I use the sheela na reclamations of the border and liminality and how we can use these feminist theories to better unders tand how to transform ways in which we think about sheela na gigs and female subjectivity Ultimately, I recognize that this image is not one dim ensional, so to speak A pproach ing sheela na gig studies fr om an interdisciplinary methodology will help t o unearth the layers of patriarchal privileging that cast these images in a particular light, and to produce different readings of the carvings liberation A into the male

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11 universal, that we can understand our 20 She argues the 21 be own history we are unable to imagine a future because we are deprived of the precious 22 To question and to reclaim the past is, therefore, crucial to imagining possibilities for the future. We ca n view a reinterpretation of the sheelas as such a reclamation project. 20 Blood, Bread, and Poetry : Selected Prose 1979 1985 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986), 142. 21 Ibid., 146. 22 Ibid., 141.

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12 CHAPTER II SITUATING THE SHEELA NA GIG: ANALYZING THE LANGUAGE OF THE LITERATURE From the early 18 th century to present day, sheela na gigs have perplexed explorers and scholars, escaping definition and remaining largely ambiguous in meaning and function. I t is precisely this condition of obscurity which allows for so many patriarchal interpretations to be applied and reproduced. The majority of scholarship has focused on the question of origins : which historical and cultural group produced them, the function and purpose for the images, the etymological meaning of the name, and whether or not these carv ings can be understood as replicas from other cultures. T hese types of questions about origins however have narrowed conversations about sheelas and implicate new or alternative interpretations of the carvings I analyze the language of disgust in sheela na gig literature to show the evolution of conversations about sheela na gigs, and to demonstrate how basic assumptions and values from the Romantic and Victorian Eras still inform inter pretations of sheelas in the twenty first century. I also demonstrate how religion particularly Christianity and Catholicism, played an important role in traditional interpretations of these carvings. In other words, the words we choose to describe reactions to the comportment and appearance are steep ed in patriarchal ideals of s exuality and femininity The first recordings of sheela na gigs appeared in field notes of commissioned surveyors, and their observations mirror the reactions of disgust that inform sheela na gig scholarship for the next two ce recorded the sheela na

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13 direct opposition to the sentime reckoned that the sheela na excesses in the indulgence of a fellow surveyor 23 Only a few years later, similar observations o f the sheela na gig resurface in antiquarian studies to become known as legitimate blueprints of history. Antiquarian Studies While sheela na gigs have been around for centuries, probably since the early Medieval Era, the majority of sheela na gig literatu re developed post Enlightenment in antiquarian studies. Antiquarian studies emerged as a product of the European Enligh tenment, which transformed how p eople viewed the world and themselves in that world. New preference was given to science over religion, which revolutionized art, philosophies, and intellectual scholarship. Science provided new rational and empirical evidence to explain evolutions of human society, the human condition, and critical reflections about social functions, i.e., evolutions of g overnment, morals, language, etc. The ethos of rationalization and finding Truth and origins in the Enlightenment gave way to new fields of inquiry such as, naturalism, anthropology, and antiquarianism an 23 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 17.

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14 interest in ancient artifacts and relics. T hese f ields were essential in constructing and justifying relations of racial and gender domination. The antiquarians introduced the sheelas to institutions of higher learning and a growing modern culture that was highly invested in the accumulation of knowledge Often, these antiquarian explorers would ransack cities of distant countries, stealing sacred artifacts and culturally significant items for the sake of research. The contact antiquarians had with the indigenous people of these countries, and how they depicted the people in photographs and travelogues, further developed the Europeans' racist colonialist attitudes about the privileged status of their whiteness and the uncivilized ways of the "savage." During the British co lonialist invasions in the seve nteenth century the English depicted the Irish as descendants of Africans so as to rationalize the enslavement of Irish people, which was cheaper and more conveniently located than trading African slaves Therefore, e ven though the sheelas are part of Eu ropean history, the colonialists used concepts of the primitive to meet economic and political agendas that followed suit with the reformation of Britain As demonstrated in academic articles about sheelas in the nineteenth century antiquarian scholarship was unreflective about race, class, and gender in their cross cultural analyses. Sheela na gigs first appeared as a topic of inquiry in antiquarian scholarship in 1844. Edward Clibborn, Irish archaeologist and Royal Irish Academy museum curator, describ es a sheela na gig presented and admitted into the Academy library. Clibborn hypothesi ze s that the sheela na gigs were introduced to Europe as luck charms, fetishes,

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15 or symbols to ward off the evil eye by African or Asian Gnostics. 24 He compares the Irish hung above doorways and commonly found in poor or rural communities Clibborn claimed that the sheela images were probably symbols of unwanted bodily attachment in Gnosti c belief in which the body was associated with the negative, female, hylic, or material. 25 Clibborn comments on a particular placement of the sheelas in cemeteries and their relationship to Gnostic or ascetic beliefs: It was argued that, if the tower was t he residence of the Irish ascetics during their lives, it may have been considered the type of the plus, male, church near it, in which were deposited the bodies, or material principle s of the deceased, originally derived from mother earth, may have been considered the type of the negative female, hylic, or material principle. 26 Whether or not Clibborn's hypothesis is correct, he makes an interesting observation about the hierarchy of ma les and females in spiritual traditions. Binaries are built into this hierarchy setting males and females apart as opposites; in other words, the male positive spirit rises above female negative body. According to Clibborn, it was the goal of the Gnostic 27 Thus, I contend from female s were ultimat ely tied to the body and could not achieve t he same spiritual harmony as males wh o could transcend the body in order to achieve the highest form of the spiritual. Clibborn does not explicitly acknowledge the 24 Edward Clibborn, "On an Ancient Stone Image Presented to the Academy by Charles Halpin, M.D." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836 1869) Vol. 2 (1840 1844): 567. 25 Ibid. 26 which is the lowest of the three types of human in Gnostic beliefs. 27 Ibid.

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16 phallic symbology of the tower and the vaginal representation of the receptacle hole that is the grave though these insinuations seem to underlie the beliefs he outlines He does, however, claim that the sheelas indicate what one should "destroy," i.e., bodily pleasures, eroticism, and the material. U nacknowledged and problematic beliefs abo ut race, class, and gender underpin might have been informed by what antiquarians knew as exotic cultures: the so called mysterious, mystical and savage world outside of European culture. Histor ically, the English created these qualities or attached these meanings to certain physical qualities of people from these cultures Antiquarian research often reinforced these distinctions between English and non English cultures, emphasizing the primitive, exotic, and less intelligent qualities of African, Asian, or Middle Eastern cultures which distinguished themselves as the more modern, civilized, and intelligent Anglo European culture. For instance, Clibborn identif ies sheelas as charms adopted from African rituals and practiced by people in lower classes. When comparing the sheelas to later developments of luck charms, e.g., hanging lucky horseshoes above the door, he identifies this as a common practice of "peasan try" 28 who "have no notion that they are, probably, putting up equivalents for those hideous figures which the people call shela na gig [sic] (my emphasis). 29 Here, Clibborn assumes that the poor do not see the sheela na gig for what t hideous and frightful 30 28 Ibid., 571. 29 Ibid., 570. 30 Ibid., 572.

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17 A dditionally, Clibborn's historical context probably informed his interpretations of disgust, fright, and an aversion to the sheela na Clibborn was writing at the end of t he Romantic Era (18 00 1 850 ) and was most likely influenced by this humanistic period of great emotional and political undertones Within this mo experiences. I t was common to use i ntense emotions such as fear, awe or anxiety to describe nature or humanity. The Nightmare in 1781 portrays a beautiful sprawled body before he engages in se xual activity The intense image of an ugly and frightening sexual creature and the vulnerability of the woman conjures anxiety and horror in the viewer. Correspondingly, we may better understand Clibborn's and other of disgust an d horror to sheelas sexuality However, these reactions have held sway well into the 20 th century. After Clibborn wrote his article, Europeans fell into swing of the Victorian Era from 1837 1901, and increasingly became more invested in sexual privacy Therefore, c onversations about the obscene sheela na gigs eventually slowed or, at least, were nineteenth century censorship laws of obscene content can account for the sparse sch olarship and selective wording [about sheela na 31 Nearly eighty years later, in the 1920s and 1930s, sheela na gig researchers re emerge This reemergence of scholarly interest in sheelas on of Totem and Taboo and from growing psychoanalytic research on s ocial taboos, especially of 31 Freitag Unraveling an Enigma 17.

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18 32 informed anthropological research of his time. Although work may have reinvigorated sheela na gi g research and developed an historical framework ("primitive" or pre cultural) for hypothesizing about sheelas, early twentieth century scholars continued to use the language of disgust and horror adopted from the Victorian Era. However, "first wave" femi nists' involvement in sheela scholarship would challenge the course of research through the end of the century. One of the earliest texts about sheela na gigs in the twentieth century was written by women's rights advocate, Margaret A. Murray (1923), an Eg yptologist and widely published scholar and professor who specialized in studies of witchcraft and fertility figures. Murray treated the sheela na gig not as an image of horror, but as a probable central figure of worship. Murray was the first scholar to propose that the sheelas were not good luck charms or apotropaic images for the superstitious, but significant female icons of reverence for fertility worshipping communities. 33 After Murray and a few ot hers published brief catalogues about sheela na gig s found throughout Ireland and England, an influx of scholars began to write about these images, documenting them in what Murray later called a "haphazard" manner. 34 To contextualize Murray's more developed feminist analysis on sheela na gigs, which came e leven years after her first minor article in 1923, I analyze the mainstream ideas that occupied antiquarian research in the early 20 th century. 32 See Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1999). 33 M.A. Murray and A. D. Passmore, "86. The Sheela Na Gig at Oaksey," Man Vol. 23, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (September, 1923): 140. 34

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19 Throughout the several articles on sheela na gigs in the early twentieth centu ry, a few major themes emerge To begin with, most scholars label sheela na gigs as pre Christian, pagan, evil warding icons, or thanks to Murray fertility figures. Yet, Murray's hypothesis did not earn full support with archaeologists, as many still believed traditional conclusions that framed sheela na gigs in a negative light. Among the many scholars I analyzed, the majority acknowledged sheela na gigs as having pre Christian, ancient, or primitive roots, though there continued to be back and forth debates on their original functions and meanings. For example, archaeologist H.C. Lawlor (1931) claims that the images are "ancient" and definitely prior to the fifth century 35 prior to the widespread authority and institutionalization of Catholic Christianity in Europe. Stuart Piggott (19 30) agrees that sheela na gigs were undeniably "primitive" pre Christian figures, derived from either ancient fertility cults or pagan relics that survived into the middle ages. 36 Other antiquarians focused more on religious interpretations as in the work of Dina Portway Dobson (1930) who wrote that, while the dates of the sheela na gigs or similar images are unknown, they bear a resemblance to stories of pre Christian demons tempting celibate monks with "lusts of the flesh." 37 Dobson's emphasi s on the demonic traits of sheelas exemplifies the frightful challenge these images posed to Christian values. Often when sheelas were hypothesized to be pre or non Christian, they were likened to demonism or witchcraft. According to Clibborn's analysis sheela na gigs are probably 35 H.C. Lawlor, "4. Two Typical Irish 'Sheela na gigs.'" Man Vol. 31, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Jan., 1931): 5 6. 36 Stuart Piggott, "94. A Primitive Carvi ng from Anglesey." Man Vol. 30, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (July, 1930): 122 123. 37 Dina Portway Dobson, "8. Primitive Figures on Churches." Man Vol. 30, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Januar y, 1930): 11.

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20 replicas of African luck charms called "fetishes," which display similar sexual postures. 38 European antiquarian explorers often depicted Africans as hypersexual in travelogues; therefore, images like sheela na gigs were frame d as products not of racially and morally pure Anglo Christians but of the more exotic and primitive mind of African sexuality. These histori ans' emphasis on the primitive quality of sheelas are examples of how antiquarians belittled non Anglo cultures i n their analyses as to implicitly privilege their refutation of Christian roots can be demonstrated by the universalizing of the sheela na gig. While early schol ars grappled with identifying the specific origins of the sheela, other anthropologists compared the carvings to various ancient mythical or worship figures. The aim of this process may have been to gain acceptance of the sheela na gig as a depiction of t he universal mother figure, rather than an Irish specific conundrum. For instance, Douglas Hamilton Gordon (1934) spoke of the sheela na gigs' etymological meaning as having significant connections to gig, a translation for breast, which can be found in a n assortment of cultural references to other ancient Mother goddesses. 39 Antiquarian theory began compare and contrast artifacts in other cultures, embracing the notion that cultures shared tools, stories, gods, and more. go so far for some, evidenced by V.C.C. Collum's (1935) tart response to Gordon that the "grotesque" sheela na 40 38 39 D.H. Gordon, "206. Irish 'Sheela na gigs.'" Man Vol. 34, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (Nov., 1934): 184. For alternative perspectives on the etymologies of the sh eela na gig, see Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 52 67. 40 V.C.C. Collum, "64. Female Fertility Figures." Man Vol. 35, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (April, 1935): 62 63.

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21 Collum's response not only indicates a defense of pure female sexuality, but also demonstrates a universal heterosexual A second major theme in antiquarian research is the common use of belittling language about female bodies to describe the sheela na gigs. All scholars identified the sex of the sheela na gig as female, which prompted them to read the sheela through a gendered lens of femininity. Antiquarians used denigrating language to negatively gender, e specially in terms of femininity and masculinity. The most apparent use of belittling language, or language of disgust, occurs in descriptions of the sheela na gigs' appearance. As we saw in the beginning of antiquarian research, Clibborn uses "hideous" and "frightful looking" to describe the sheelas; 41 Collum calls them "grotesque" 42 ; and Lawlor describes them as "absurd," "exceedingly ugly and grotesque," "quaint," and "hideous." 43 Many antiquarians, most of whom were male, used denigrating language to describe the sheelas' bodily characteristics. Feminist Interventions Eleven years after her first brief publication, Murray sought to demystify and identify the cultural significance of sheela na gigs beyond the "haphazard" 44 debates. Murray argued that fertility figures were worthwhile 45 to study, especially since so 41 572. 42 63. 43 na 44 45 Ibid.

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22 many had been recently documented and few conclusions had been reached. She stated that more preference was given to priapic, or phallic, male figures than to female figures, a nd she knew there was a particular reason for that most historians were male. 46 theory about sheela na gigs sought to establish the importance of the audience for whi ch fertility figures were made. Murray distinguished three primary types of fer tility figures found on sacred and holy sites throughout various historical times and cultures: the Universal Mother, the Divine Woman, and the Personified Yoni. The Universal Mother was the classic fertility symbol with full and exaggerated breasts, ofte n pregnant, and holding or suckling a child. This image was worshipped by the women, men, and children of the fertility cult. 47 The Divine Woman was different from the Universal Mother, as sh e was designed for male devotion The Divine Woman is depicted as young, beautiful, with realistically sized genitalia the image of an alluring and attractive woman that is still virginal, but with potential to be a mother. These images were worshipped only by men in fertility cults. 48 The third fertility figure is th e Personified Yoni; yoni is defined as worship of the vulva as a goddess. The Yoni figure is most clearly distinguished by exaggerated genitals. The secondary sexual characteristics, the breasts, are minimal so that the essential element is the vulva, or pudenda. 49 Murray says the sheela na gig is most similar to the original personified yoni, the Greek female fertility figure Baubos, the companion to the Egyptian queen Isis. Murray states, "This legend says that when Isis 46 Ibid., 99. 47 Ibid., 93. 48 Ibid., 94. 49 Ibid.

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23 was mourning for Osiris, Baubo s assumed the attitude represented in the figures, and thereby made Isis laugh and cease from lamenting." 50 Additionally, when the carvings are found in graves, they're almost always female graves, and when found in Roman domestic contexts they were found in the women's quarters. 51 Murray goes on to say: It is very evident that the appeal of the Baubo figures and of the Sheila na gig was to the sexual side of woman's nature, and in the legend of Baubo the attitude is definitely connected with pleasure and l aughter. The religious connection is so strong, both among the heathen and the Christian, as to suggest that some form of homo sexuality was practiced by women as a religious rite. 52 In other words, Murray believes that yoni figures should not be connecte d with Mother figures, because no emphasis should be made on reproduction. The yoni is not worshipped for fertility as mother or creator of all human life, nor as virginal fertility for the male desire, but is worshipped as female companionship and sexual ity by women, for women. In fact, Murray believes the image may be in connection with lesbianism as a woman's rite, and from "whose rites men were rigorously excluded." 53 She cites the location of some sheelas to exclusive female spaces, including abbeys of which Jorgen Andersen cite s at least three sheelas associated with nunneries or abbess quarters 54 Although this is a small portion, Murray's analysis is far different from the heterosexual assumptions about sheelas made by other antiquarians. Murray's feminist analysis is radical to mainstream sheela na gig studies, because she transformed the sheela na gig from an object of male ga ze to a figure created by 50 Ibid., 95. 51 Ibid., 97. Note that, although the locatio settings, segregated and isolated women, yoni images might have been an indication of some kind of only spirituality. 52 Ibid., 99. 53 Ibid. 54 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall, 144 53.

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24 women for women that provokes laughter, female companionship, and female sexuality and this was in 1934! Murray was making progressive claims about women's history, which was not a widely recognized topic in her time. She states a reason for her writing about the sheela na gigs is because "so much of the published work on female psychology is found ed on the masculine ideas of what a woman should feel or be." 55 Murray was tired of men publishing work about women that was inaccurate or dependent on "vague hearsay." She recalls a sheela na gig found on a nunnery, The Abbey, that is one of the most si gnificant religious houses of the Middle Ages in England, but that the "intimate customs of the women of that period is derived only from the vague hearsay evidence of male writers, who were invariably ecclesiastics." 56 Murray wanted women to write about t he sheela na gig, because she believed that the image was only for women and bears an importance to women's lives, i.e., a sisterhood, the possibility for a positive female sexuality, women only customs, and women only humor. A few years after Murray's ess ay, fellow archaeologist and friend, Edith Guest, defended Murray's analysis that sheela na gigs are in fact fertility figures. "It is so obvious what they are that conjecture dismisses them at the point where they become 'luck stones' in the mediaeval ca stle wall." 57 Guest produced a thorough analysis of several examples of sheela na gigs, drawing connections between their spatial locations, known pagan rituals, and other symbols of ceremony found near the image, such as cows and wells. Her aim, along wi th Murray, was to emphasize the significant role these images played in the lives of Irish women. 55 56 Ibid., 98. 57 na Folklore Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec. 1937): 375.

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25 Guest argues that, while several stones may have dated from the seventh and eighth c enturies, many also probably originated between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Guest identifies a sheela na gig on the Moate Castle in Westmeath as being from the seventeenth century, though the appearance is "deliberately grotesque" and appears to be a "late imitation." 58 Guest recognizes that the images could date back much earlier than the Middle Ages, but she argues that they were reproduced century after century, up through medieval times. Guest is one of the first to recognize that sheela na gigs may have gone through transformations of meanings and funct ions over time; thus, Guest changed the focus of scholarship from defining one possible meaning to questioning the multiplicity of meanings that may have existed. Sheela na gig scholarship slowed in the second half of the twentieth century, probably due t o the focus on other pressing matters in political and social changes. However, in the 1970s sheela na gig scholars began to publish books rather than short articles and catalogues, which allowed for more extensive documentation about sheela na gigs. The demand for more detailed and organized records became a priority for those in the 1970s, as technology and the influx of information was more widely available. In 1974, Ellen Ettlinger argued that the sheelas' liminali ty is a "vexing problem," because th e image cannot be pinned down and too many explanations exist. 59 Ettlinger proposed a new theory: the sheela na gigs were church rhetoric to warn women of "ill repute" or "immoral behavior," and the reason they were on the walls of castles and churches was simply a mistake as stonemasons were resourceful in their material, reusing stones from 58 Ibid., 384. 59 Ellen Ettlinger, "Sheila na gigs." Folklore Vol. 85, No. 1 (Spring, 1974): 62 63.

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26 ruins. One could say that Ettlinger's hypothesis is practical given the religious dogma during the medieval ages. However, she also asserts that rhetoric constitutes "the right direction" for sheela na gig research, which begs the questions: the right direction for whom and to what ends? 60 The notion of church rhetoric seemed to put the debate to rest for a short while, and the sheela na ropean priapic and sexual stone carvings. Jorgen Andersen produced the first full length manuscript exploring the various interpretations of sheelas, called The Witch on the Wall (1977) However, we find the same language of repulsion when Andersen descri bes the gestures and physical characteristics of the sheela na 61 Perhaps one of the most noticeable features of Murray's, Guest's, and Ettlinger's analyses are the absence of language of disgust. Thus, it is primarily the male schola rs who continue to use belittling language about sheelas, leading contemporary readers of the first full text on sheela na gigs to interpret the images in a similarly negative or off putting manner. Additional historical scholarship in the 1980s revealed t hat patriarchal assumptions about sex and gender are deeply engrained within representations of history. Art historians Anthony Weir and Jim Jerman (1986) examine various erotic and p riapic images focusing explicitly on the sheela na gig. However, Weir observations operate within phallocentric assumptions about gender. In other words, they uncritically identify the female reproductive organs as inferior and passiv e to the 62 active role of the phallus. They argue that, 60 Ibid. 61 Andersen, The Witch on the Wall 62 Weir and Jerman Images of Lust 146

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27 63 Weir and Jerman base their claims on binary oppositions between man and woman, which pin female bodies and sexualities into one category of characteristics, i.e., feminine, passive, inferior, receptacles, lack. Murray's concerns about male interpretations of sheela na gigs fifty years earlier appear to have been well s ubstantiated. It is not until the 1990s that feminists began to bring the sheela na gig into broader conversations about normative ideals of female heterosexuality, which concept ualized female bodies and eroticism as sources of liberation and empowerment. The sheela na gig was appealing within that broader challenge, because she expressed a sexuality that could be an empowering symbol for women of different backgrounds. Josephine Withe rs (1991) documented American feminist artist Nancy Spero's sheela na gig artwork as part of a series of drawings of empowering female figures. Spero maintains that the female figures she chose for her artwork t ranscend time and culture; she believed that the sheela na gig, among other female figures such as Artemis and Tiamat, the Babylonian mother goddess, serve as empowering autonomous figures for contemporary women. 64 And in 1997, Hilary Robinson, feminist art critic, evaluated a sheela na gig gallery exhibit from: Beyond the Pale which highlight ed post colonial Irish culture Robinson identified 63 Ibid See also Ann Pearson, "Reclaiming the Sheela na gigs: Goddess Imagery in Medieval Sculptures of Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer/Fa ll, 1997): 20 24. 64 Josephine Withers, "Nancy Spero's American Born 'Sheela na gig,'" Feminist Studies Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1991): 51.

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28 woman as the 'other's other' and put forward a concept of femininity which was either emblematic or ev en occupying the colonialist space of the 'primitive.'" 65 More scholars have begun writing on the sheela na gig since the 1990s, with topics ranging from concepts of medieval virginity (Juliette Dor, 2003) to sheelas as inspirational figures for Irish cont emporary art (Sonya Ines Ocampo Gooding, 2012). Marian Bleeke (2005) focuses on how visual receptions of sheelas produced common understandings of the images as sexually sinful, and Luz Mar Gonzalez Arias (2007) argues that sheela na gigs allow for multip le signifiers of female corporeality in Irish culture. Molly Mullin (1991) recognizes the changing representations of sheela na gigs and Irish women in relation to Irish Nationalism. Similarly, Georgia Rhoades (2010) theorizes about the rhetorical dimens ions of the sheela na gig, and provides a new interpretation of the sheela which expresses sexuality of elderly women. And Barbara Freitag (2004) proposes the sheela na gig served as a symbol for hope and health for rural pregnant Irish mothers. Feminist scholarship about sheela na gigs continues to grow within interdisciplinary frameworks, rather than solely in fields of anthropology, history, or folklore studies. Feminis ts ha ve also begun to ask more specific questions about sheelas, rather than basic c oncerns about who created them, why and when. I take up this trend of alternative interpretations and offer a philosophical critique that will assist in exposing 65 Hilary Robinson, "Within the pale in from: Beyond the Pale: the construction of femininity in the curating of an exh ibition season at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin," Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 6, No. 3 (Apr. 2010): 265.

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29 the patriarchal and phallocentric representations of women that inform grotesque interpretati ons of sheela na gigs. A Changing Milieu Over the last two hundred years, sheela na gig research has undergone significant changes. Feminists are occupying the most current conversations about sheelas in order to reclaim these images, and to provide new critical insight about visual and rhetorical representations of sheelas. Yet, assumptions about female bodies and sexualities remain intact in the twenty first century, despite feminist interventions. As I was composing this analysis, I presented a pictu re of a sheela na gig to a man whose immediate exclamation was, "How ter rifying!" He then argued that t hey must be devil worshipping icons and surely could not have been works of Christians. I was fascinated to witness his response, as it was exactly what the antiquarians believed one and a half centuries prior. It made me think, with all of the progress women have made in the past two centuries, why are images of female genitals still considered disgusting, impure, or even frighteningly monstrous ? 66 67 66 Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993), 6. 67 Ibid., 7.

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30 Despite the significant work in the last two decades, the body of feminist work on sheela na gig s is relatively small and many feminists particularly American feminists have never heard of a sheela na gig. Perhaps one reason for their relative obscurity is their geographic isolation situated in Ireland in mostly rural areas. Nevertheless, the sheel a na gig is an excellent candidate for interdisciplinary conversations about visual representations, women's history, morality, and sexual politics. The next chapter delves further into the framing of the grotesque, and how perceptions of the grotesque are predicated on phallocentric representations of female bodies and sexualities.

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31 CHAPTER III BEYOND THE SHEELA NA GIG: PROBLEMATIZING GROTESQUE BODIES The earliest interpretations of sh eela na gigs were plagued by the language of disgust, the majority of the se readings performed by men. Though women and feminists have been reconstructing the conversation about sheela na gigs for the past three decades, building upon Murray's and Guest's work almost a century earlier, the language of disgust that continues to operate outside the boundaries of sheela na gig studies remains influential. That is to say, receptions of the sheela na gig remain marked by language of the grotesque and their rec eption offers us insight into the symptoms of a broader tradition of oppression within patriarchal culture. Elizabeth Grosz clearly explains women's subordination within patriarchal culture: Misogynist thought has commonly found a convenient self justific ation for women's secondary social positions by containing them within bodies that are represented, even constructed, as frail, imperfect, unruly, and unreliable, subject to various intrusions which are not under conscious control. Female sexuality and wo men's power of reproductions are the defining cultural characteristics of women, and at the same time, these very functions render women vulnerable, in need of protection or special treatment, as variously prescribed by patriarchy. 68 That is to say, women's subordination is predicated on male representations of her body and comportment as a rationale for her lesser social and political power. Traditional interpretations of the sheela na gig appear to reflect such restricting schemas of female bodies and sex ualities. Misogynist constructions of the sheela na gig as quaint, pagan fertility figures unquestioningly limit her within a definition prescribed by patriarchal ideas of frailty, vulnerability, unruly, and likened by some to witchcraft. However, these 68 Elizabeth Grosz. Volati le Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 13.

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32 definitions prove to be slippery, as the sheela na gig seems to escape definition and still remain mostly liminal This chapter utilizes feminist research to bring into focus the many ways in which we may better understand the subjugating role of patriarc hy and the broader context of the sheela na gig's reception as phallocentric. I reconstruct how an interpretive tradition of disgust operates within phallocentric and phallogocentric perceptions and constructions of female bodies and sexualities, in which dominant notions of the grotesque have consequence for women today. We can rely on various feminis t projects to help expose these dominant patriarchal and misogynist beliefs and to clarify the ways in which the language of disgust about sheela na gigs is constituted by and reproduces deeply embedded cultural, social, religious, and political beliefs ab out female bodies and sexualities. Cathleen O'Neill's feminist sheela na gig poster can be seen as an example of exposing history as a history of male figures, by doctoring the all male city celebratory "Spirit of Dublin" poster, to instead feature influe ntial women of Dublin's past. Her posters revealed how history is taught to be explicitly constituted as men's history, casually leaving out the significant roles women have played in the shaping of politics, culture, medicine, and society in general. Mo lly Mullin provides an excellent analysis of this poster and its negative reception demonstrating h ow representations of history and gender are caught up within nationalist agendas. These types of recuperating practices expose patriarchal structures that hinder women from gaining social and political power. I approach these pressing issues from a philosophical perspective to show how representations of bodies can have dire effects for women.

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33 In this chapter, I look to several feminist projects to explicat e how phallocentrism underpins representations of women, and to assist in showing that these phallocentric representations inform traditional interpretations of sheela na gigs First, I explore corporeal reactions of disgust as confrontations with the ab ject, in which the sheela na gig can be seen as abject and that discourse plays a role in what we know about the images. Next, I investigate another discourse of visual representations of classical western, or Greek inspired aesthetics of beauty through the male gaze to further explicate reactions to the sheela na gigs' grotesqueness. Last, I flesh out how constructions of grotesque bodies affect women today. These ideas come together to continue feminist dialogues and thought experiments about what a f emale ontology of female bodies and sexualities might look like, and how these ideas can coalesce with sheela na gig research. T he ideas presented in this section are not exhaustive as there are far more layers of political, racial, economic, and social i nstitutions that contribute to broader constructions of "disgusting" female bodies and sexualities. However, the examples in this chapter will emphasize the importance of understanding how dominant patriarchal beliefs operate to frame female bodies as dis gusting, and how sheela na gigs have been taken up by these phallocentric systems of oppression. We can also rely on various fem inist projects that theorize about how we may transform misogynist constructions, including but not limited to, reclaiming or em bracing notions of multiplicity, fluidity, and liminality as well as reclaiming women's history. The feminist theories I consider in this chapter will have varying perspectives, sometimes critiquing each other, on constructions of gender and sexuality an d of reclamation

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34 processes, and certainly do not claim to speak for feminism or women as a whole. I also so many individual and group experiences that are determinate with r espect to race, class, sexuality, ethnicity, disability, weight, and more. Multiplicity of perspectives are crucial to understanding experiences of marginalization as occurring as diverse and plural, that women do not exist within the same social and political realities, and therefore experience oppression of bodies and sexualities in other complex layers. Nevertheless, putting just the following select thinkers in conversation with sheela na gig interpretations will, on one hand, demonstrate the possibilities of recuperating sheela na gigs wit hin a narrow context of Eurocentric culture interpretations through a western, or European and Anglo American lens in which the image is situated, and on the other hand, co nfirm that a feminist dialogue about sheela na gigs is absolutely necessary in cultivating a multiplicity of feminist understandings about female sexualities and bodies. Abject Woman and Discursive Power We may look to Julia Kristeva in order to articulate how the sheela na gig is abject is her ability to slip in and out of meanings, practically escaping them by remaining mostly liminal throughout the past two centuries. I show how reactions of disgust indicate confrontations with the abject, and how relig ious discourse plays a primary role in how the sheela na gig is framed as grotesque. The abject can be loosely defined as what conjures a reaction of horror or disgust

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35 positions, rules." 69 The abject triggers horror or disgust due to the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. 70 In other words, the abject is "The in between, the ambiguous, and composite," 71 and merges us with the Other who we have become separated and distinct from in the Symbolic (systems and order of meaning making, i.e. alphabetical writing, patriarchal language). Abjection is the reaction of patriarchal fear of confronting and merging with Otherness, so as to displace the self outside the Symbolic order that sustains patriarchy. Thus the abject is rendered immoral and is repressed or excluded. 72 The abject resurface through symptoms of repressions that corporeally signify and symptomize as d isgust or revulsion. 73 These revulsions, understood by Kristeva as what "notifies us of the limits of the human universe," consist of "a language that gives up, a structure within the body, a non assimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer that the lis tening devices of the unconscious do not hear, for its strayed subject is huddled outside the paths of desire." 74 In other words, the symptoms of abjection are resurfacings of the nonsensical, or escaping symbolic language, but still surface corporeally by virtue of our forgetting of their existence. Perhaps we can understand historians' reactions of disgust to sheela na gigs as a confrontation with the repressed abject. The sheela na gig's self touching in public 69 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4. 70 Dino Felluga, "Modules on Kristeva: On the Abject," Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, last modified January 2012, Purdue University, accessed May 04, 2015, http://www.purdue.edu/ guidetotheory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html. 71 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4. 72 Ibid., 6 8. 73 Ibid., 11. 74 Ibid.

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36 places perhaps marks this breakdown of dom inant notions of female sexuality as a private, modest, and passive; or, perhaps we could understand their reactions as disgust with confronting the repressed mother figure as a sexual being; or, finally, maybe we can interpret their disgust as confrontati on with a pre British Irish pagan, and potentially matrilineal, identity repressed through centuries of colonial rule. Either way, the sheela na gig's liminality allows her to occupy this space of the in between, or the merging between various and contrad icting meanings. The placement of the carvings above doorways or as headstones mark boundaries between inside and outside, the living and dead, and her presence shows she mediated these borders. Thus, historians' attempts to define or pin down the sheel a na gig as demon like, sinful, and defiling are all attempts to place her, the abject, within the Symbolic, because her presence particularly her appearance on churches, cemeteries, nunneries, and homes threatens the viewer to merge or identify with forbi dden social, religious, and nationalist taboos or condemnations. What once could have been a matrilineal image is therefore abject in discourses mediated by patriarchy, colonialism, and Catholicism. Thus, we can view the historians' readings of her as an attempt to defend against the abject. Antiquarians vehemently denied any Christian influence of sheela na gig carvings, and today it is common belief that the stones were placed on churches as rhetoric condemning female sexuality. Both of these interpre tations can be seen as defenses against the abject, because they both support narratives of sin, immorality, and deviance. Understanding discursive abjection is important to projects of sheela na gig interpretation because how an object is signed discursiv ely has a direct correlation with

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37 how we identify with the object. When I say, "signed discursively" I am referring to how meanings are established through discourse, or systems of thoughts, ideas, symbols, and productions of knowledge that are mediated b y those in power within a culture or society. In regards to interpretations of sheela na gigs, the systems of power relations that mediate what we know about them include, but are not limited to: academic or institutions of higher learning; government for mation (political domination and rule by men); institutions of family and heterosexuality (socialization of gender roles); and religious institutions and texts that align morality with maleness. These systems of power all play a role in how little we know about sheela na gigs. Meaning, systems of power privilege narratives that support and maintain their sheela na gigs which ro ughly translates as 75 in efforts to control and maintain a particular religious narrative. Indeed, discourse is not always mediated so directly or forcefully; rather, discourse helps to shape and is shaped by other systems of power that privilege the narratives of mostly white, heterosexual, and able bodied men. History in general lacks stories about women and women's lives, compelling feminists to write their own histories. And in regards to the sheela na g ig, written and oral traditions that could have explained the meanings of the images are now, to the best of our knowing, extinct, but could have offered women an alternative understanding of feminine subjectivity. 75 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 69.

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38 Visual Constructions of Woman The sheela na gig contradict s phallocentric beliefs about woman as beautiful, maternal, and lacking, which may provide another glimpse into the frameworks of horror within which she is represented. T he sheela na gig is known to us foremost as an image or symb ol to which the meanings and signific ations have been lost. H istorical interpretations, however, have s haped visions and narratives about the sheelas which we have generally accepted throughout the years Historians' readings of her were probably based o n initial visual reactions, her sexual gesturing and body characteristics all performing as signs that relay messages to the viewer. We can argue those historians' interpretations of these signs depended largely upon the limitations of their own language and knowledge of what these signs could mean. Therefore, we can understand sheela na gig interpretations as exhibiting existing cultural beliefs, and the limitations of those beliefs, about bodies and beauty, sexuality and modesty. Correspondingly we mu st first understand patriarchal culture and how it has shaped what these sexual significations mean to the male viewer. In a patriarchal culture, the male gaze, or the act of looking as fetishizing, objectifies women's bodies as sites for desire, pleasure and judgment. 76 Laura Mulvey, feminist film theorist, coined "male gaze" as a term for phallocentric visual pleasure. In other words, the gaze externalizes the other's body as an object or a thing to be looked at. The gazer becomes the Subject, the one who uses or manipulates the object, and refuses 76 For Luce Irigaray, this is called phalloculocentrism, known as: "established activity and understandings in the realm of the visual what is or is not seen allows for the construction of castration anxiety and of woman as 'other of man's same.' This then determines the representation of women and the construction of 'femininity' in the Symbolic order." Hilary Robinson, Reading Art, Reading Irigaray: The Politics of Art by Women (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2006), 53.

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39 the Object's subjectivity their internal being or essence that renders them the agency to exercise freedom, logic, etc. In other words, the object is strictly an unthinking thing. The gaze also makes it pos sible to divide the object into parcels, e.g., a woman's breasts, buttocks, and vagina also become sexualized objects Phallocentrism relies on the vagina, in particular, as a symbol of the castrated woman "to give order and meaning to [the male] world." Mulvey continues, "An idea of woman stands as linchpin to the system: it is her lack that produces that phallus as a symbolic presence." 77 Thus, the male gaze solidifies the phallus' self importance and the female's lack of symbolic presence renders her i nferior. However, the objectified and castrated female body can also pose a problem for the male gaze. Mulvey explains, "She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castrati on and hence unpleasure." 78 The male gaze also assumes the privilege that permits men to physically or body as a site for judgment. The gaze therefore constitutes a hetero sexual gauge and standard through which men and women view the female body, and which becomes the standard through which we judge female bodies and sexuality. We can understand early reactions the majority of whom were male of disgust to the sheela na gigs as products of the male gaze, and that the grotesqu e labels became retained in the cultural and historical memory as a standard perception. Women are subjected to judgments of several body parts that males are not; the vagina, the so called counterpart to the phallus, 77 Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), 14. 78 Ibid., 21.

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40 is the primary signifier of the sheel a na gig and her sexuality We can look to earlier illustrations and depictions of females in classic al aesthetics to situate this tradition within a broader cultural context Classic al w estern artistic traditions styles stemming from the Greeks and ado pted or referenced by artists within European traditions thereafter, are examples of how phallocentric notions of the female body and sexualities have been determined by men. As an illustration, we will look to the female nude and how traditional depictio ns of the female body have assisted in how we visually interpret women's vaginas and sexualities as representation of her modesty and as a site for pleasure. The female nude may also give us insight to the sheela na gigs' perceived obscene, ugly, and frig htening gesturing as a threat of castration within a phallocentric framework. Since mid fourth century bce, the majority of female nude sculptures, drawings, and paintings were modeled after Praxiteles' Knidian Aphrodite in "modest pose" ( Venus Pudica or modest Venus). In this sculpture Aphrodite is disrobing, rendering her completely nude, breasts exposed, but covering her genitals with her hand. 79 This gesture of concealment became one of the most popular poses for the female nude within classic art tra ditions. We can also interpret her concealment as a gesture signifying recognition of her inferiority, or lack of a phallus. The sheela na gig's revealing gestures are bodily comportments opposite of that which is considered aesthetically beautiful or pl easureful, 79 Nanette Salomon, "The Venus Pudica: uncovering art history's 'hidden agenda' and pernicious pedigrees," in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts, ed. Griselda Pollock (New York: Routledge, 1996): 87 114.

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41 which may account for her disturbance among modern historians as an outward sign of castration. Praxiteles' placement of Aphrodite's hand over her genitals signals a few things to the viewer about female sexuality, including but not limited to t he following. First, the vagina is directly linked to the female's morality. As Aphrodite unclothes herself to take a ritual cleansing bath, her "instinct" is to cover her vagina as a natural reaction to her own nudity and a sign of her modesty. In some descriptions of the statue, her vagina is synonymously referred to as her modesty. This modest gesture signals what a woman ought to do when exposed, lest she appears sexually promiscuous and therefore undesirable and not wife material. In this view, fe male sexuality is deemed as something to be regulated or kept under control. In other words, phallocentrism shapes our perception of female sexuality, her lack of a penis and inferiority, as something women ought to instinctually be embarrassed about. Ea rly perceptions of the sheela na gig seem to mirror such beliefs, as the sheela na gig's gestures probably appeared as immodest, flaunting her castration, and thus threatening or unpleasurable to male viewers. Second, Praxiteles depicted Aphrodite's pubis i n classical styles of beauty in ways that the sheela na gig does not. Aphrodite's legs come together in the sculpture to create the vaginal "v," furthering her modesty as it blocks our view of her genitals, but also representing a phallocentric view of t he vagina as lacking any definition or physical characteristics. In another view, Irigaray sees the "v" or triangle as a sign for the womb, which reduces women to mothers or the maternal. 80 The sheela na gig, on the other hand, opens her legs wide rather than closing them and closing off. In this frontal view, 80 Robinson. Reading Art, Reading Irigaray, 160.

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42 we can see her genitals in full and in the shape of a pointed oval, rather than in a discrete and fragmented view of the "v." The sheela na gig's gesturing therefore may connote something other tha n the maternal, or possibly a different way of understanding the womb in non reproductive way, challenging reductive frameworks that limit women to maternal roles. Additionally, according to Mary Russo, "The images of the grotesque body are precisely thos e which are abjected from the bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self 81 Thus, the sheela na gig challenges notions of modesty and aesthetic beauty, rendering her obscene, unruly, and a threat to th e phallus in the lens of gendered expectations. The Knidian Aphrodite 's 360 degree physique is also quite different from the shee la na gig's two dimensional relief. The male gaze can continually look around the body while not acknowledging her lack and what that signifies. The rest of her body therefore can become sexualized and objectified, because she blocks her lack for us. Th e sheela na gig, on the other hand, forces the gaze to avow the vagina, as the eye cannot move elsewhere except for the face, chest, arms and legs, which are often carved from rough stone rather than smooth marble. The difference in texture may be another suggestion that the sheela na gig's coarseness bolsters her unpleasurable presence. Aphrodite's smooth texture reaffirms her pleasurable nature; some reports confirm that men experience arousal when viewing the statue, and some men have even attempted to fornicate with it. The sheela na gig, to the best of my knowledge, has never been 81 Simone Weil Davis, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," Feminist Studies Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring 2002): 13.

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43 documented as arousing, but was inversely subjected to visual and textual censorship. 82 The disparate treatment of these images demonstrates how aesthetic traditions of fem ale representations can shape our perceptions and interpretations of female sexuality and beauty as gro tesque or beautiful, abject or inspiring. As Iris Marion Young explains, "A fetish is an object that stands in for the phallus the phallus as the one and only measure and symbol of desire, the representation of sexuality." 83 The phallus is therefore the locus of sexuality that fills and fulfills the vagina the female's empty receptacle signifying her lack of a phallus, her negation to his affirmative prese nce. The tradition of male nudes that bare and ostensibly showcase the penis is another indication of patriarchal privileging of the phallus over the vagina, because the male nude does not gesture to cover or censor his genitals, but naturally exhibits hi s body unshamingly. P atriarchal culture therefore assumes that the phallus holds a superior position over the vagina as it signals the male's active presence as opposed to the female's passivity and absence. The historians' interpretations of sheela na g igs seem to reflect these conventions of phallocentrism that the sheela na gig showcases her castration and this conjures horror about the vulnerability of the phallus, the possibility of losing male symbolic status and becoming li ke w oman The Living Grot esque As discussed above, grotesque female bodies and sexualities have been psychically, socially, and discursively exiled in patriarchal culture. Likewise, grotesque 82 As spoke about the sheela na gig in Latin so as to censor or veil the sinful nature of the images. 83 Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 190.

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44 bodies are not abstracted from the lived world, but experience ongoing subjugation and its symptoms. As Elizabeth Grosz states, "the body is neither brute nor passive but is interwoven with and constitutive of system of meaning, signification, and representation. On one hand it is a signifying and signified body; on the other, it is an obj ect of systems of social coercion, legal inscription, and sexual and economic exchange." 84 In other words, bodies are not scientifically universalized objects that transcend time and daily realities, but embody and express (patriarchal) meanings, objectifi cations, coercions, and exchanges that become truths of one's existence. This section brings these ideas to light by demonstrating how the framing of grotesque bodies have consequence for women in their everyday life, using the example of new surgical tre nds of labiaplasty, and how these consequences are symptoms of a culture that privileges men. First, let's flesh out the idea of what it means to embody the signs signified to one's body. For example, the male body is subjected to significations that aut horize usage of their own bodies as powerful mechanisms, i.e. machines of war, political rulers of law, workhorses for economic sustainability, and providers of sexual pleasure. Similarly, the female body is subjected to signs that suggest use of their bo dies as sex objects, reproductive vessels, and housekeepers. As a result, most women experience some level of male power over their bodies; one senses the fixing sexual objectification of the male gaze, grows numb from being isolated in the home, chokes t hrough coercion of physical and emotional violence, and grieves from laws that regulate and prohibit the personal choice to abort a fetus yet silently support the personal choice to surgically enhance breasts, labia, and virtually any part of the body that increases a woman's 84 Grosz, Volatile Bodies 18.

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45 desirability. The performance of male power and patriarchal privilege is not just embodied by men, because that power and privilege establishes barriers and norms for others, women in particular, and impairs their quality of life. On e extreme symptom of dominant patriarchal standards of female beauty and sexuality lies in the world of surgical body enhancement. Labiaplasty, the surgical procedure of reconstructing or clipping the labia minora and labia majora to achieve a less protru ding and "tucked in" vaginal aesthetic, is gaining women's attention. Simone Weil Davis' essay Loose Lips Sink Ships analyzes this procedure of "designer vaginas" as a product of shaming tactics in mass media and pornography, and as a reflection of male d esire for the "clean slit." 85 We are reminded of Russo's explanation of the classical contained, symmetrical, and sleek" as it becomes the standard now for the vulva. Though testimonies from women and MTF trans people about their labial procedures emphasize the difficulties their genitals posed for them in everyday experiences, the need for the procedure, whether profound or superficial, can be symptoms of phallocentric power and systems of meaning production. In other words, how comfortably we fit into clothes made to fit certain bodies, how easily we can pass as female or as a woman, or how close you come to standards of "normal" size and color are all shaped and made possible by a society that privileges male ways of living, knowing, and identifying. So, that is to say that some who undergo labiaplasty do experience labial discomfort, but it is the society that privileges options for managing discomfort surgical remo val rather embracing other modes of thinking, i.e. deemphasizing the importance of 85 Davis, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," 8.

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46 heterosexual intercourse in relationships, finding other sources and sites of pleasure, or redesigning women's clothing to not fit so tightly to the body. The language of d isgust in sheela na gig studies can be seen similarly as caught within a web of phallocentric meanings and ways of thinking, in which options for interpreting the images are restricted by narrow representations of female sexuality as reproductive or sexual object. Only through feminist interpretations are we given alternative ways of thinking of the sheela na gig. It should be acknowledged that labiaplasty is an extreme and glamorized case, but there are also more silent and damaging symptoms of patriarchy Elaine Lawless's ethnographic work retells the stories of abused women in shelters, whose life stories reveal how religious concepts of sin and women's "defiled nature" played roles in their abusive relationships and how they viewed themselves as inferi or, evil, or sexually sinful and unclean. 86 Thus, the framework of grotesque unruly bodies and female sexuality is not something that is only viewed by men, but is a male way of constructing the image of Female that women can also subscribe to and live wit hin, resulting in self hatred, self ridicule, and ridicule of other women. Traditional interpretations of the sheela na gig were conducted by men for the most part, but women scholars such as Dobson and Ettlinger seemed to nod to such representations of u nruly and sinful women in their interpretations of sheelas as demonic icons or rhetoric to warn against lust over the wayward prostitute. Therefore, we can see how pervasive and impulsive patriarchal ideologies can become in the imagination of cultural pr actices 86 Lawless, "Woman as Abject," 238 248.

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47 Davis asks, "What's the trajectory from Second Wave feminist 'self discovery and celebration' to the current almost craze for labiaplasty?" 87 One possible answer, and what I hope to show in this section, is that patriarchal culture continues to re produce phallocentric and hierarchical constructions of the beautiful and the grotesque; and that feminist interventions that promote relearning and redefining women's bodies and sexualities are effective methods of change. Finding a Way Out Within F emini st interventionist projects deconstruct, expose, and eradicate patriarchal ideologies and offer radical examples of what alternative feminine subjectivities might look like W e can learn from these examples as guides or methodologies for constructing new ways of talking about sheela na gigs. In fact, there seems to be a need for new language to describe the sheela na gigs and experiences of the images in a positive and female identifying way. In Hilary Robinson's exhibit review of from: Beyond the Pale, which showcased a display of sheela na gig artifacts, Robinson wonders how to translate her experience of seeing the images for the first time: "Powerful, stark, literally unspeakable (what are the words that I can begin to use to construct this what is it? Emotion? Knowledge? Intelligence? that I experience in this encounter?), a wish for identification is provoked in me, a woman viewer, by the carvings." 88 It seems pertinent that women should be able to speak about the sheela na gig and articulate their experience and identification with the image in a way that is positive or composite, so as 87 88 Robinson, "Within t

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48 to not resort to language understood by some feminists as another patriarchal construction that may be inadequately translate their experiences of the sheela na gig Generally speaking, most women, even most feminists, around the world have not seen or heard of the sheela na gig. However, most women have felt the male gaze, have experienced the silent assessment of their breasts, waist, butt, and labia, sometimes turning inward the ocular verdict of the signs of her femininity as an accurate reflection of her being. At that moment, her understanding of her body is not her understanding, or of a female ontology; her objectified body is a mirrored reflection of a m ale or phallus centered way of knowing and being. 89 Many women experience their bodies through this same lens, a lens of judgment and, sometimes, horror. Thus, alternative female ways of knowing, experiencing, and seeing are crucial to feminist interventi onist projects because they can perhaps interrupt and prevent internalization of the gaze. Like Young, we must ask ourselves, what would a female knowledge or ontology of female bodies and sexualities look like, and is this possible in a patriarchal cultur e? I'm optimistic that it is possible, and I think, despite the circumstances, that feminism will take us there. The sheela na gig can be used as a jumping off point for radicalizing or uprooting, traditional knowledge about female bodies and sexualitie s The next chapter will offer a new series of alternatives to interpreting the sheela na gig borders on feminist transformation. 89 Young, Throwing Like a Girl, 190 205.

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49 CHAPTER IV TRANSFORMING THE SHEELA NA GIG: BORDERS AS FEMINIST SPACES On July 12, 1988, the Irish Times ran an article titled, "Sheela na gigs never in a thousand years." The article expressed shopkeepers' revulsion to Cathleen O'Neill's "The Spirit of Woman" feminist posters, their reactions triggered by t he poster's border donned with happy sheelas linked arm in arm. In the center of the poster are illustrated portraits of ten historically renowned Irish women, and their placement indicates a centering of women in discussions of history and politics where they have been traditionally marginalized or invisible. The sheela na gig, though one of the earliest and most widely recognized female figures in Ireland, was not centered in the poster with the other women nor represented in an individual portrait. In stead, there are numerous connected sheelas encompassing the margins of the poster. T heir placement at the margins, both literally in the poster and discursively, is an example of possibilities for feminist reclaiming of female bodies and sexualities. Mo reover feminist reclamation projects can look to the sheelas' liminality both in language and physical location from which the carvings offer new insight into the liminality of feminine subjectivity. Throughout time and cultures, borders have played imp ortant and various roles: establishing safe and unsafe spaces, dividing and separating land and people, markers of limitations, restrictions, and more. In fact, the sheela borders on "The Spirit of Woman" posters were not an entirely new concept in regard s to physical locations of the carvings. Many sheela carvings were placed above doorways, on walls of homes, and in cemeteries as headstones shows that she somehow mediated borders between inside and outside, the

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50 living and the dead Some speculate the sheela na the lower half signals birth and rebirth. The sheela would have therefore represented birth and death as interrelated and cyclical, rather than opposition al and occurring in a linear order 90 acement was also linked almost exclusively to female spaces. We are reminded of Murray n female graves and yoni figures in Roman 91 Additionally, the sheela na d lesbianism are more important factors that may help make sense of the images. 92 Thus, her presence may not have been merely decorative or lucky, and probably served a far more influential role in the lives of Irish people, and women in particular. 93 My int ent, however, is not to identify or speculate the probable origins of the sheelas, but to offer a critical feminist approach to understanding the repulsion and censorship of sheelas. My goal is not to eliminate possibilities for the authentic sheela na gi g down to a probable conclusion, nor is it to find the inner spirit of Woman that essentializes and universalizes female lives. A strategy such as this may fail to notice the values of liminal ity and the multiplicity of possibilities for understanding or representing sheelas, gender, sexuality, and bodies. Rather, much like Judith Butler advises, I aim to investigate not the cause of the carvings' rejection, but that the origin and cause of the traditional interpretations of disgust are "the effects of in stitutions, practices, [and] discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin." 94 In other words, the sheela na 90 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 92. 91 92 Ibid., 99. 93 For multiple perspectives about the meaning and use of this image, see Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma 94 But ler, Gender Trouble, xxxi.

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51 gigs are interpreted as grotesque because certain bodies are deemed legitimate or illegitimate based on a nexus of power relations that fav or and legitimize those in power. Thus, I use the feminist recuperating of the sheela na gigs in "The Spirit of Woman" posters as an example of feminist reclaiming of bo rders as overlooked yet significantly subversive locations for political feminist critique. I attempt to show how O'Neill's poster can be read as a call to action for an ethical imperative to decenter institutions of phallogocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality. Ultimately, the sheela na gigs themselves a re liminal, and thus become central figures for understanding the liminality of feminine subjectivity. The sheela na gig has been acknowledged by feminists as an image that can be used to critique and sometimes subvert gender, sexuality, and body ideals However, feminist theories have rarely positioned the sheela na gig in dialogue with theories of borders. Border theory is typically practiced within distinct intellectual circles such as Latin American feminist philosophy, or in disciplinary contexts of political science, philosop hy, and economics, hence, the probable misconnection between sheelas and borders. Nevertheless, O'Neill's poster inadvertently brings into focus how the border can function as a site for transforming epistemic values about female bodies and sexualities. T he beginning of my analysis starts with an exploration of the common view of borders as margins and social indicators of separation or distinction between people, places, or things. I employ Gloria Anzalda postcolonialist feminist theory of the borderl and and la mestiza na gigs and Irish

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52 feminist philosophy of the placenta and mucus that comprise ethical corporeal borders for intersubjective relations. This will serve as another possibl e feminist reading of the sheelas and sheela borders as fluid and p s take on borders as identity categories that are constructed through the repetition of performances Butler advises that "laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable for feminism," 95 and therefore I argue that the sheela na in the borders performs a parody of the grotesque I conclude by arguing that feminist theories of the borders can be signific ant sites for transforming how we think about sheela na gigs, as well as f or female bodies, sexualities, and subjectivities Bor ders as Margins and Mestizas To begin with, we can think about the sheela borders through the lens of postcolonial feminist analyses of marginalization. Marginalization is defined as the social and political subjugation of members of a society deemed ins ignificant or without power Such postcolonialist analyses are theoretical reflections on the lives and experiences of those living invisibly on the margins, and are elations, institutions, and more. 96 Postcolonial feminist theory can provide ins ight to how the sheela s, and their receptions of disgust, compel us to ask new questions about dominant cultural norms and values, 95 Ibid., xxx. 96 Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader, ed. Alison M. Jaggar (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2014), 337.

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53 i.e., sex, gender, and racial hierarchies, ph allogocentrism, and compulsory heterosexuality. Gloria Anzalda one of the most widely recognized postcolonialist feminists, employs the common conception of a border as a physical and psychic border that divides land and people. She describes borders as signifying boundaries "set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us fro m them. 97 Therefore, for those who border becomes a liminal space of continuous transition. In this view, borders are constructions that reinforce relationships and identities of opposition and contradiction. The merging of these two worlds creates an "emotional residue of an unnatural 98 This new border culture embraces i dentities and modes of consciousness as liminal contradictory, and multiple, rather than determined, consistent, and singular. inhabiting a new dynamic space that co ntradicts and undermines phallocentric culture. In the context of the sheela na gig borders, the sheelas occupy marginalized positions not just literally on the margins of the paper, but also on the edge of traditional representations of female bodies and sexualities. The margins, as described by Anzalda converge both worlds in which the sheela na gig does not belong. In other words, the sheela borders symbo lize the marginalization of female sexuality as either pure or 97 Gloria Anzalda, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Second Edition (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1999), 25. 98 Ibid., 25.

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54 immoral. The sheela na gig seems to fall somewhere in between these constructions, identifying as neither saint nor whore, but potentially both at the same time. In other words, the sheela na confusion about the images, giving rise to numerous varying interpretations. Thus, the sheela na gig can be identified as all or none of these readings at once, because her liminal ity allows her to slip in and out of meanings. Interpretations of the carvings are also constantly in transition as culture changes, exemplified by readings of nineteenth century antiquarians versus twenty first century feminists. The carvings are constantly being re read, re presented, and therefore occupy no one understanding. The sheela therefore stra ddles both worlds and occupies a border culture, "vague and undetermined" and "in a constant state of transition 99 liminal and undetermined position within Irish cul ture as the most widely recognized yet censored symbol. Further, according to Anzalda those who live on the borderland are those who 100 The sheela na gig is perceived as abnormal within traditional constructions of female sexuality; whore, queer, elderly, mother, illness, and primitive are sexuality. The perceptions of t of their displacement through British colonialism, Catholicism, and phallogocentrism, and has resulted in visible, discursive, epistemological censorship of the image. 99 Ibid. 100 Ibid., 25.

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55 However, Anzalda proposes a solution to overcoming the psychological borders or habitual thinking of normalization imposed thr 101 Anzalda affirms that we must embrace the consciousness of la mestiza, a woman of mixed European and Amerindian ance stry. A mestiza consciousness encompasses the multiplicity, liminality and contradictions indicative of border culture and identity, and Anzalda believes these qualities are necessary for social and political transform ation. She states that dualisms cr eate rigid boundaries that exclude mestiza consciousness from having a voice: mestiza consciousness is to break down the subject object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended. The answer to the problem between the white race and the colored, between males and females, lies in healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts. A massive uprooting of dua listic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of ra pe, violence, of war. 102 In other words, Cartesian dualisms of subject object can cause rifts in social relations that lead to suffering. Therefore, borders for Anzalda are barriers of thought and sites for transformatio n. She points out that Western borders are habitual patterns of thought, 103 She su convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole persp ective, one that inclu des rather 101 Ibid., 100. 102 Ibid., 102. 103 Ibid., 101.

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56 104 These new ways of thinking are tolerant of the contradictory and liminali ty of cul tures and personalities indicative 105 a radical change in how we view subjectivity Anzalda border theory can provide a way to re imagine the sheela borders as a symbol for both restricting (Western) and liberating ( mestiza ) modes of consciousness. For example, reactions to the sheela na gig borders reflect how dualisms male/female, pure/impure, moral/immoral, beautiful/grotesque, proper/obscene set up how we perceive or make meaning about others, limiting them within categories of either one or the other. The sheela, however, slips in an d out of these meanings and cannot be pin ned down by traditional dualistic thinking. But, if we embrace that the sheela is constituted by these contradictory meanings, rendering her liminal and plural, rather than trying to fix into one definition of fert ility figure or church rhetoric, then this may open more possibilities for speaking about or relating to the sheela na gig. Overcoming dualisms is a major theme within feminist theory, and feminists suggest that transforming binaries starts with the body. Anzalda be easy: "This is the sacrifice that the act of creation requires, a blood sacrifice. For only through the body, through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And for images, words, stories to have th is transformative power, they must arise from the human body flesh and bone and from the Earth's body stone, sky, liquid, soil. 106 Anzalda notion of liminality multiplicity, and contradictions closely ties to another 104 Ibid. 105 Ibid. 106 Ibid., 97.

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57 popular feminist concept of fluidit y. Irigaray offers us another take on borders as a fluid corporeal space where two people are brought together, and serves as another example of the subjugating effects of dualistic thinking and disconnection from the body. Bodies as Fluid Borders Borde rs can be political and social locations for critique of dominant cultures, as Anzalda points out, but borders can also be corporeal. One of the most notable aspects of the sheela borders is the repetition, or multitude of representations, of their bodie s and sexual gestures, which calls attention to the corporeal aspects to these images. That is not to say, however, that the sheela is a celebration of the body as female essence in terms of Cartesian dualisms that rigidly align male/female with mind/body subject/object, and positive image of fluid boundaries exposes the unease, disgust, and horror that the loss of secure and rigid reactions of disgust to the abjected sheela. 107 Just as Anzalda's borderland constantly mediates and transitions between two worlds, Irigaray's placenta mediates and transitions between two bodies. Irigaray recognizes the placenta as an embodied border that mediates the relationship between mother and 107 Margrit Shildrick Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, postmodernism and ( bio)ethics (London: Routledge, 1997), 17.

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58 relationship between subject and body. The possibility of an organ that does not belong to one b ody, but rather is turned to multiple sites, reforms embodied subjectivity in terms 108 In other words, the placenta challenges the psychoanalytic and philosophical notion of the autonomous male Subject, which requires that the mot her be suppressed in order to join the father in the realm of the Symbolic (or, put simply, to use language and to become a self identifying subject). Irigaray problematizes this traditional ideal of subjectivity as a phallogocentric construct, and offers a feminist analysis that centers the mother as embodying a more accurate form of subject relations that does not manifest in individual autonomy. Irigaray reminds us that the child is brought into the world through a mediated relationship, the nourishing border of the placenta, which is neither ruled nor ruled by the mother or the fetus. This type of border for Irigaray refigures the static or fixed border that divides relationships (self/other, or lves traditional male representations of sexed and gendered bodies. So, while Anzalda wants to transcend dualities of subject/object, Irigaray wants to jam the structures of subject/object relations. However, both Irigaray and Anzalda believe that tran sformation begins with the body. n relations of 109 108 Feminist Review No. 27 (2002): 97. 109 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 177 8.

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59 It is always plural, fluid and unbounded; a body that is not yet realized because not yet 110 Irigaray wants to represent a morphology of the f emale body, which she example of female plurality, referring to the lips of the mouth and the labia lips of the vulva. Hilary Robinson site for itself in this term: not the lips of the mouth, not the lips of the genitals, but at the same time both the lips of the mouth and the site of a play between the 111 This type of play reveals how bodies are constituted anatomically, socially, and discursively, and are not mutually exclusive from the other. 112 One cannot help but think of the sheela na connection between th e mouth and vulva lips. Thus, the sheela might provide an interesting visual construal of female morphology due to the anatomical, social, and discursive play of gesturing, and how she might disrupt these factors simultaneously. Reading Irigaray in connec tion to the sheela borders may offer new possibilities for thinking about bodies female bodies in particular and their importance for social relat ions, that diverge from phallocentric principles. The plurality and fluidity of the female body that Irigaray proposes is a direct critique of the oneness of the phallus and the privileging of the disembodied static masculine subject. 113 Irigaray acknowledges that intersubjectivity begins with new visions about the body. The mucus, the border or threshold that me 110 Ibid., 178. 111 Robinson, Reading Art 101. 112 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 178. 113 Ibid., 176.

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60 114 In other words, the mucus and placenta refigures the image of the static or fixed border as a fluid bounda ry that threatens the separation of mind/body, self/other, and inner/outer. The mucus therefore becomes an ethical site for transforming social relations as connected, mutually dependent and void of control or domination. Connectivity also seems to be an important factor in the sheela na gig poster border. Rather than being depicted in a singular portrait with other historical Irish female icons, the sheela na gigs are featured together, arm in arm. Likewise, the sheela border does not represent the carv ings as solidified in stone, but as a fluid connection bound by flowing ink. To clarify, the sheela na gig borders might represent an alternative look at sheelas, which typically appear on buildings as singular stone carvings, rarely, if ever, accompanied by another sheela or other carvings. Touching, for Irigaray is an indispensable act for female morphology. When t he/a woman touches herself... a whole touches itself because it is infinite, because it has neither the knowledge nor the power to close up o r to swell definitively to the extension of an infinite. This self touching gives woman a form that is in(de)finitely transformed without closing over her appropriation. Metamorphoses occur in which there is no complete set, where no set theory of the One is established. 115 touching is always already touching of the labia, but can also be of sheelas that self touch and touch each other might symbo lize representations of 114 Robinson, Reading Art, 104. 115 Luce Irigaray in Speculum of the Other Woman (1985) as quoted in Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 177.

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61 position within rigid dualisms. On the other hand, they may also represent what phallocentrism fears: fluids, mucus, loss of control, and los s of subjectivity. her work does not satisfy feminist needs for real solutions for liberation. Irigaray acknowledges that we do not yet know what a culture of morphology will lo ok like. However, she stresses that the body is dynamic and playful, and that culture depends on this same kind of playful repetition in order to psychologically subvert how we interact with each other. 116 Parody, the playful or humorous subversion tactic, is also seen by Butler as crucial for changing cultural perceptions about bodies. While Irigaray highlights the ethical dimensions of such transformations, Butler focuses on the political possibilities for those who deviate from norms of gender, sex, and sexuality. Subverting Borders through Parody Thus far, we have understood borders as defining categories of bodies and identities, yet also as sites for critique of these categories. Butler takes up conversations about borders and boundaries and encoura ges us to think about the political possibilities that can come from radical critiques of categories of identity. 117 Butler sees the concept is not determined pre discursively but is made possible through discourses that regulate and control social relations for phallocentric and heterosexual interests. 118 Butler believes subversive gender performativity is key to questioning the discursive construct 116 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 176 8. 117 Butler, Gender Trouble, xxxii. 118 Ibid., 182.

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62 employing concepts of performativity and parody to read the repetition of performative gestures by the sheela na gigs in alternative ways. Butler begins by critiquing identity constructions of identity. 119 how bodies on the outside are framed as re However, Butler argues that it is not a question of how external factors become possible? And, how exactly have we come to un derstand that bodies sign or indicate isibility of its hidden depth?" 120 helps to clarify the situation of the sheela na gig For instance, r ead ings of the carvings warding, non or anti Christian, or whorish. Likewise, readings that situate the sheela as a fertility figure cast a positive light on the image as heter osexual and reproductive. However, as na gig appears to be more complex than either of these representations, but attempts to situate the sheela are often predicated on dualisms of inner/outer. In those cases interpretations of the and meaning (identity) are stuck within dualistic thinking that seeks to conflate inner and outer dimensions much like traditional identity categories that conflate notions such as 119 Ibid. 120 Ibid., 183.

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63 heterosexual fecund wholesome recogniza ble versus homosexual un(re)productive revolting ambiguous. Thus, the sheela na founds and consolidates culturally hegemonic identities along sex/race/sexu ality axes of 121 One could, therefor e, read the performance of the sheela as disrupting static or stable boundaries of gender and sexuality. On a basic level, the sheela physical characteristics baldness, distorted body, bulging eyes, protruding tongue, large vulva obscure hegemonic notio ns of femininity. gesturing that oversteps feminine gender and sexuality, and is that which horrifies or repulses the viewer. The gaping vulva, as it were, indicates both inner and oute r worlds, and self mediate neither consistent or mundane, but always changing and hidden. The sheela borders can perhaps be un derstood as embodied critiques of hegemonic constructions of gender and sexuality. For Butler, then, constructions of inner/outer are also performed through the body. G ender is the consistent repetition of performances over time that normalizes and homoge nizes certain gendered behavior. In a basic form, hair and clothing are kinds of others. G ender is therefore an illusion produced through the body in various mundane 121 Ibid., 182.

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64 gesture s, movements, and styles that give the appearance of achieving or accomplishing gender. 122 Butler argues This repetition is at once a reenactment and re experiencing of a set of meaning already socially established; and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation. Although there are individual bodies that enact these significations by becoming stylized into gendered modes, this 'action' is a public action. There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public charact er is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame an aim that cannot be attributed to a subject, but, rather, must be understood to found and consolidate the subject. 123 It is the mundane collective public acts that make possible the exclusion of others who perform differently. The sheela na gig, often appearing in public places on churches and on the feminist posters, are delegitimized due to their failure to reenact and thus maintain precisely in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a failure to repeat, a de formity, or a parodic repetition that exposes the phantasmic effect of abiding identity as a politically tenuous 124 The repetition of sheela na gigs in the poster borders fail to repeat gender norms but simultaneously succeed through these failures by parodying the grotesque. Parody for Butler calls gender categories into question by using imitation in lesbian cultures often thematize 'the natural' in parodic contexts that bring into relief th e 122 Ibid., 191. 123 Ibid. 124 Ibid., 192.

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65 performative construction of 125 Thus, grotesque female bodies and sexualities can also be called into question through parodic imitations. We can look to James Naremore in order to better clarify how parody connects to the sheela borders. Naremore offers a genealogy of the grotesque, locating its origins ornamental wall paintings found in grotte, or caves, which depicted humans, animals, plants and o ther objects fused together in absurd ways. This ancient ornamentation style was considered monstrous, mockery, and low art, and soon became Over time, the grotesque lost its reference to the ori ginal artistic style and became more known through the lens of morals. 126 na gigs as non Christian. Nevertheless, the notion of the grotesque maintained psychological elements that aim 127 128 Through this definition, then, we can understand the grotesque as a parodic strategy that radicalizes the mundane. Similarly, this view of the grotesque can help build an understanding of the sheela na gig borders as performing parodic imitation. The sheela na illustration of parodi c performance that humorously imitates the grotesque. Simply put, the sheelas take the place of typical floral or feminine ornamentation in the borders. In 125 Ibid., xxxi. 126 Film Quarterly Vol. 60, No. 1 (Fall 2006): 5 6. 127 Wolfgang Kayer, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, as quoted in Naremore, 128

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66 other words, they imitate the ornamentation that became popular in bourgeois European cultur tique of class privilege within a culture of colonization But, while the sheelas provoked fear or disgust for some, the sheela na gigs maintain their grins, signaling to the liminal tension of disgust The sheela na smile once thought by Murray to be the laughing Baubos may suggest a comic rebellion against romantic medieval an d Victorian visions of femininity Butler argues that laughter and play is crucial for feminism, because it has power to transform the mundane that oppresses certain bodies, races, and sexualities 129 The sheelas in the borders appear playful, and we can read these types of parodic performances of the grotesque as sources of feminist power. Feminist Borders in Perspective Feminist borders, though often overlooked in sheela na gig studies, can offer insight into modes of transforming phallocentric culture, whether that is language, gender, sexuality, corporeality, or subjectivity. As suggested by the feminists discussed above there is an ethical imperative to transformation that will make life more habitable for those who live on the margins. That is not to say that feminism seeks to collapse differences between us to become one whole and alike, but sees the ethical responsibility to cultivate a world that does not privilege some differences over others. Feminism also seeks to celebrate differences betwee n and within others, recognizing that liminal ity, contradictions, multiplicity, and discontinuity is emblematic of the embodied subject. 130 129 Butler, Gender Trouble, xxx. 130 Shildrick, Leaky Bodies, 179.

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67 Feminist readings of the sheela na gig, whether philosophical, visual, historical, or rhetorical, can help participat e in the recuperating of these images as possible sites for transforming misogynist representations of feminine subjectivity Feminist recuperations of sheela na gigs are important to the history and knowledge produced about these carvings, because they can provide critical perspectives about the marginalization of women and how it affects women's present and future living conditions. As declared by Adrienne Rich: History as 'advertisement for the state' (Koenig's phrase) has existed probably as long as the state has existed; it is a way of justifying the hands that already hold power, of proving that others are unfit for power, in part by making invisible or cruelly distorting their experience and culture. It is nothing new to say that history is the ver sion of events told by the conqueror, the dominator. Even the dominators acknowledge this. What has more feelingly and pragmatically been said by people of color, by white women, by lesbians and gay men, by people with roots in the industrial or rural work ing class is that without our own history we are unable to imagine a future because we are deprived of the precious resource of knowing where we come from: the valor and the waverings, the visions and defeats of those who went before us. 131 The lack of textu al, visual, or verbal records about sheelas, whether destroyed, forbidden, or vanished indicates how Irish women's history under colonialism has been made invisible. Furthermore, misogynist historical interpretations of sheelas add an extra layer of disto rtions to knowledge about women in the past, telling women's history through a male lens. Rich tells us that "making educated guesses" is a process "every historian of an oppressed group must do. As feminists, we need to be looking above all for the 131

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68 great ness and sanity of ordinary women. 132 Thankfully, there are women working on such recuperation projects that we can turn to. Sociologist, Barbara Freitag speculates the sheelas may have been birthing charms for rural Irish women. Freitag explains that w omen in Europe experienced high risks of death during childbirth, stillbirths, infant fatalities, as well as improper and unavailable medical assistance due to rural isolation and outdated birthing procedures. She also highlights the religious pressure to conceive, quoting verses from Genesis (3:16) forgiven of your sins. The sheelas were perhaps Irish women's last resort and source for hope and health. Such educate d guesses can provide insight into rural working class women's experiences, and how life saving birthing procedures and practices were only available to the elite. 133 Historical projects like Freitag's also help to demonstrate how discourses privilege compu lsive heterosexuality, phallocentrism, imperialism, as well as class, are structured to assert dominance and control over female bodies and sexualities. Nevertheless, feminist theories of borders reveal the limitations and possibilities in regards to femin ist reclamations of bodies, sexualities, and histories. Reactions of disgust signify a confrontation with limitations of our thinking and can either detach us from each other further, or can unground us altogether through laughter T he border on poster demonstrates that alternative possibilities exist for us ing borders or margins as sites for radical social and political transformation. 132 Ibid., 148. 133 Freitag, Unraveling an Enigma, 70 4.

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69 CHAPTER V CONCLUSION: EMBRACING OUR SHADOW BEAST Caught in stone I celebrate all who tell the truth over centuries of darkness. -Susan Female Figure 134 Reclaiming sheela na gigs as positive women's symbols did not seem to be generally accepted at first. The Irish Times article that featured O'Neill's feminist posters was tit led "Sheela na gigs never in a thousand years." The title can be interpreted in a few ways as both positive and negative. On one hand, the phrase could be a statement of rejection or refusal of new feminist imagined sheelas, possibly seen as a threat to dominant ideologies of gender and sexuality, and thus, nationality. On the other hand, the phrase may indicate a wonder about the unimagined future, or something that is not yet understood. In a similar thread, it could recognize that the sheelas had bee n doubted, invisible, or censored over the last century, or as a signal of a turning point in the present, a coming to realization or a change in belief. However, negative public reception of the sheelas probably suggests the former. The article was pub lished during a historical holiday and milestone for Irish folk, of which the sheela posters challenged conventional understandings of Irish narratives and identities by exposing the nation's patriarchal privileges. In addition, the poster's 134 Forest Music (U nited Kingdom: Shearsman Books, 2009): 56 57.

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70 inception in the late 1980s occurred during an increase in numerous feminist consciousness raising movements and literature. These factors local and global feminist initiatives may help to elucidate the public's negative reactions toward the sheela borders as possible acts of denial of the privileging of certain bodies and sexualities. In May 2015, Irish politicians announced that same sex marriage will soon become legal across the country, which would be a huge step for the nation. Although protests and marches are g rowing in Ireland, so too are the voices of the dissenters. Religion and conservative politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, form the ideological foundation for blocking marriage equality legislation from passing and they just may be able to block it Ireland demonstrates how compulsory heterosexuality is woven into patriarchal cultural belief and knowledge systems, not just in Ireland, but also in the United States, where only 19 ou t of 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have legalized gay marriage. 135 Needless to say, feminism also continues to struggle in America, in Ireland, and around the world but not without a hopeful future. One small first step women can take toward larg er goals for radicalizing hegemonic structures of gender and sexuality is to embrace and exercise what Anzalda 135 On June 26, 2015, the United State Supreme Court ruled that states cannot ban same sex marriage. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who voted against the ruling, argued that it was a tive politicians running for presidential candidacy in the 2016 elections are rallying to fight against the new amendment, or focusing on religious freedom or imperial tyranny as justification for their fight. Ariane de Vogue and Jeremy Diamond, ourt rules in favor of same CNN (June 26, 2015).

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71 the part of women that frightens men and causes them to t ry to control and devalue 136 stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), [and] by virtue of being in tune with 137 The Shadow Beast is ulti mately inside of us, and reflects a view of feminine subjectivity as lustful, chaotic, and liminal not subdued, controlled, definable or knowable. Anzalda urges us to w aken the Shadow Beast inside us for women hold a unique relationship to monsters here is a sense in which the ... is also a recognition of their similar status as potent threats to vulnerable male power 138 Recognition with the monster or with disgust or the grotesque, proves to have powerful subversive effects, particularly when th is recognition with the monstrous feminine subjectivity sends us laughing Perhaps the sheela na gig can manifest to some of us as our own Shadow Beast 136 Anzalda, Borderlands/La Frontera, 4. 137 Ibid., 39. 138 Creed, The Monstrous Feminine, 6.

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