At the Threshold: The Oxford Sheela-na-gig

I had lived in Oxford for almost seven years – not counting my earlier, student years here – before I learned that a medieval stone sheela-na-gig was preserved inside one of the city’s most ancient buildings, the Saxon tower of St Michael-in-the-Northgate. All my explorations of the city had never led me up the tower stairs to the glass case in which the sheela lies amongst old church keys, clay tobacco pipe-heads, and presentation copies of the Book of Common Prayer. While trying to choose a subject for a first blog post, several months after my first visit to the Oxford sheela, I found myself thinking again of that paradoxically exhibitionist yet mysterious little figure.OxfordSheela2 (361x640)

I first learned of the Oxford sheela in the late summer of 2014, when I picked up a 1986 booklet called Strange Oxford in the local history section of the city library. One of its chapters, by Mary Karmeres, informed me that in 1928 the eleventh- or twelfth-century sheela had been removed from the west outside wall of the Saxon tower (built c.1050), and taken to the Ashmolean Museum for investigation. After being returned to the church, it was temporarily consigned to a ‘back office’. While some Victorian and early twentieth-century church authorities removed sheelas from public view because embarrassed by them, the sheela at St Michael’s was shut away for her own protection – having been so badly damaged by urban pollution that she could not be replaced in her outdoors position.

Karmeres confidently stated Oxford’s sheela to be a ‘fertility carving’, repeating the notoriously unreliable folklorist Margaret Murray’s claim that brides arriving for their weddings at St Michael’s looked up at it to ensure a fertile marriage. Karmeres found it ‘unclear’, however, why it should have been positioned so high on the tower wall – where it could not have been easily visible from the street – rather than near a ‘feminine’ point of entry such as a gateway.

In fact – as I found from further reading – the sheela did indeed once overlook the medieval north gate of Oxford. The gatehouse formerly spanned what is now Cornmarket Street, and housed a prison in its upper storey. The north gate was demolished in 1771, but can still be seen depicted in earlier eighteenth-century engravings, two examples of which are displayed along with the sheela in St Michael’s church treasury.

When I saw the Oxford sheela in September 2014, I found that the explanatory text on the card propped behind it repeated the two still most popular theories of these objects’ significance: that they celebrated sexuality or fertility, or, conversely, functioned as grotesque, satirical emblems of the sin of lust. However, the Sheela-na-Gig Project suggests another interpretation for this particular sheela, based on its placement above Oxford’s north gate: that it might have been an apotropaic, or protective, device against evil influences (like the shoes and animal remains sometimes discovered within the fabrics of old houses).

Certainly, while the north gate still stood, the Oxford sheela was closely associated with the city’s architecture of secular authority and civic defence, even if only by coincidence. Scowling over the threshold to the city, she could well have been regarded as a ‘Hag of the Castle’ – the name given to sheelas by mid-nineteenth-century antiquaries who, observing them above doors and gateways in Irish non-religious buildings, conjectured that they had been intended as protective devices. For these antiquaries, the sheelas recalled the tutelary goddesses, and female personifications of land sovereignty, who had figured in the old Celtic legends.

The original positioning of the Oxford sheela halfway up the tower wall, near to both a belfry window and the gateway beneath, meanwhile tallies with Barbara Freitag’s observations on the liminal, ‘borderline’ positions typically occupied by sheelas in all the British, Irish, and European locations where they have been recorded. In Sheela na Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (2004), Freitag favours the fertility theory of the sheela’s significance. She suggests that they represent the act of childbirth in particular while more generally signifying the cyclical processes of life and death. Most interestingly for me, however, Freitag also notes the  contrasting or contradictory aspects of the imagery of many sheelas – as seen in individual examples displaying both aged hag faces, and youthful, nubile bodies.

Similar contrasts might be traced through the whole tradition of the Sheela-na-gig as Freitag and others have described it. Sheelas have been associated variously with birth and death, youth and age, fertility and sterility, voluptuous invitation and defensive repulsion – as well as being interpreted as both celebrations of sexuality, and satires on lust. Oxford’s sheela is no exception to this paradoxical tendency. Forever frozen in her exhibitionist act, she remains concealed from outside onlookers, and separated from those inside by the glass case housed halfway up her tower: between earth and heaven, as it were. The almost total effacement of her features is one cause of her inscrutability – but such of her rather sardonic expression as can be discerned resists interpretation, too. She defies both sympathy and judgement.

Beginning this blog, the Oxford sheela-na-gig occurred to me as an inspirational emblem, not only as a sort of charm against the anxiety of exposure, but also to convey my still rather indeterminate sense of how I might proceed with the blog (though I have my ideas). A possible icon of both creative fertility, and death, seemed an apt subject for a first post – and could serve equally well, should this be a last one – but most of all, for the moment, I welcome the protective Hag of the Castle, to watch over this threshold.