This figure can be found in at the Church of St Andrews in Clevedon, North Somerset. The church is thought to date from the 12th century but has been added to over the years. There is some doubt over the date of the foundation with several dates possible from 1090-1170. The masonry however is late Norman. The tower was originally short and quite stubby and was raised to its present height in the 17th century. There is a rich corbel table surrounding the tower (see below) with each corbel being carved. However the carvings are now so worn as be almost indistinguishable from the ground. The variation in carving can be seen from the different outlines of the corbels. Despite the number of carvings on the church nothing has been published on them 1. The majority of the carvings are heads which can be found in double, treble and janiform styles. One corbel is very abstract and it’s very hard to tell what it is meant to represent.
The alleged sheela figure can be found on the right hand side of the church as you walk in through the main gate. It is one of a number of corbels (see below for examples) which are just above head height under the eaves of the church roof. The figure hold a foot in each hand in an acrobatic position which is very similar to a figure in Lower Swell. There are no immediate genitals visible but there is a small cleft in the middle of the groin and there also appears to be the remains of a large cigar shaped area of stone immediately in between the legs. This could indicate that the carving has been defaced at some time. If this was originally a vulva then it would be similar in relative size to the Oaksey Sheela however it could equally be a mega-phallic male. Unfortunately it is now too worn to be sure either way.
Is this a sheela na gig?
The truth of the matter is it’s impossible to tell. Romanesque sculpture includes both splay legged exhibitionist figures and non exhibitionist splay legged figures. For example the figure at Rock church in Worcestershire is splay legged and impaled on something. While the it is suggestive it is not overtly exhibitionist. A number of the
capitals in Anselms Crypt in Canterbury Cathedral are also non exhibitionist splay legged figures. Unfortunately this figure will have to be filed under “maybe”.
The architecture of the church at West Knoyle is of the decorated period (late 12th early 13th centuries) and adorning the tower on the corner directly opposite the main entrance to the churchyard is this monstrous testicle licking anus shower. This figure is posed in much the same position of feet to ears as another testicle licking anus shower at nearby Mere some 3 miles distant. on the right adjacent corner there is a carving of a dog with it’s head to tail. On closer inspection this figure too is licking its genitals. This could be an indication of how we are supposed to interpret this figure. A man acting like a dog perhaps? Possibly indicating a sinful, bestial nature?
Unfortunately I have not been able to find out much about the church or its figure to date. If you have any information please get in touch.
This figure is located on the gate post of a private house in the small village of Ansford which adjoins Castle Cary in Somerset
The figure appears to be a corbel (see below) and the local town guide states that the figure originates from Glastonbury abbey. From the style of the figure it would appear to be from the 15th century and it similar to other carvings at nearby Castle Cary Church (see below)
The motif seems to be popular in the area with similar anus showers at Mere and West Knoyle
The following information comes from Adrian V Pearse Chairman of the Castle Cary Living History Group
“This carving was installed in its present position at his home by my grandfather, Wosson John Barrett, assisted by local builder G. Stockley, in the late 1930s or 1940s – I have several photos of this being done. The Barrett family had a number of grocery and confectionery shops in both Castle Cary and Glastonbury – it is believed this carving came from the garden of one of the Glastonbury shops, no. 10 High Street – the garden was a plot detached from the actual building plot, to the south and a little to the east, bordering the north side of the abbey site. These plots were full of rubble and material from the ruins. The grotesque as now sited is combined with the top part taken from a staddle stone, and the weather vane came from the remains of a nearby demolished house, the ‘Lower House’ at Ansford mentioned in the Woodforde diaries. All three items were installed here at the same time. We have recently been informed that the symbolism of the grotesque comes from Revelation chapter 12, and that there are other Somerset examples also associated with Glastonbury Abbey.”
There are at least two carvings mounted above some of the shops in the main street in Glastonbury. These appear to be made from the same material and are similar in style
Side view of the figure. The flat top may indicate that it is a re-used corbel with separate finial cemented on top. Conversely the figure may just be a decorative feature. Examples of this can be seen on the church at Castle Cary which only have a decorative function. There appear to be worn animal heads on each side of the finial
Figure at nearby Castle Cary church dating from the 15th century. The eyes are treated in a similar way to the anus shower though other figures eyes have drilled pupils. This figure is purely decorative.
Male and Female monsters at Castle Cary church circa 15th century (notice the breasts on the left hand figure). Compare these to the monstrous anus shower at Mere.
I heard of a possible sheela in the church at Mere from someone on the internet. I finally managed to get down to the village only to find out that unfortunately while the figure is exhibitionist it is definitely not a sheela. Nevertheless it is interesting and deserves a mention. The carvings can be found in the Church of St. Michael in Mere Wiltshire in the Bettesthorne chapel. The carvings have obviously been moved but due to the lack of weathering it seems likely that they have been indoors for most of their life. A possible indication of them having had to have been moved some point can been seen in the original roof line of the chapel which is still visible on the inside wall (See below). The church itself is thought to be around 900 years old. The earliest records date to around 1091.
There are guides to the church available but no mention is made of the carvings despite other interesting features being mentioned.
The figure does not fit the usual sheela type and may in fact be male there are two “stones” which the monsters tongue is licking but there seems to be a distinct lack of any other genitalia. I think the safest categorisation would be that of an “anus shower” rather than a Sheela. There is also another similar figure on the opposite wall which appears to be holding a scroll or shaft of some type. I got the distinct impression that this figure was meant to be holding something in between its legs and arms though what that could be I have no idea.
A similar “testicle licking” figure can be found on the Church Tower at West Knoyle some 5 miles away to the east
This figure was discovered by Dr Alex Woodcock and published in the paper “A Sheela Na Gig at Worth Matravers” in the proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society. (It also appears in Dr Theresa Oakley’s Phd Thesis)
It resides on the church of St Nicholas at Worth Matravers which is some 10 miles east from the similarly dedicated church at Studland. Dr Woodcock states in his article that the figure predates the Studland figure by some 30 years and so may have served as inspiration (but it would seem not the model) for the Studland figure. There are also a number of acrobatic figures on the corbel table which also seem to have served as inspiration for some of the acrobatic corbels at Studland. Dr Woodcock does not give an exact date for the church but dates the corbels to the early years of the 12th Century. He also states that despite rebuilding in the church the sheela na gig is likely to be in its original position. Unfortunately the lichen encrusting the figure has made the exhibitionist nature of the carving less obvious. See Keith Jones’ figure below which shows the vulva more clearly.
Its worth noting that despite the fact that both Studland and Worth Matravers have Sheela na gig figures the execution of them differs considerably. The Worth Matravers figure is fairly naturalistic being a recognisable humanoid female figure with a small but deeply incised vulva. The Studlandfigure however has a grossly exaggerated vulva and right hand and is barely humanoid. Only the now worn face gives away the fact it is meant to represent a female human. Despite the differing styles it is obvious from the corbels at both sites that they share the same influences and would seem to originate from the same “school” of sculptors. This begs the question why is there such a difference in the execution of the motif despite the proximity and obvious shared style of carving. Perhaps this indicates a development of the motif into an exaggerated form? (A disparity of styles can also be seen in the cluster of figures in Shropshire at Holdgate, Church Stretton and Tugford). Other figures on the church however seem to share characteristics with Studland. Two goat heads have their beards carved as parallel lines on the underside. A head at Studland also has its beard represented in the same way. In addition to the sheela Worth Matravers church also has a number of acrobatic figures. Studland too also has a number of acrobatic figures one of which may be a disguised exhibitionist.
The carving on the church is obviously connected with that of nearby Studland but it is also worth noting the similarity of the style of carving on both churches to that of Stoke Sub Hamdon some 50 miles or so to the North West. The faces of figures on both churches are represented in a similar flat manner.
The Oxford Sheela is housed in the old Saxon tower of the “Church of St Michael At the North Gate” in the middle of the city on the corner of North Street and Ship Street. The tower is one of the oldest buildings in the city predating the Norman conquest. The tower is mentioned in the Domesday book and appears to have been an important and comparatively wealthy church at that time. The church formed part of the north gate into the city (see below) interestingly there was also a St. Michaels at the South gate as well.
“At North-Gate and South-Gate too
St Michael guards the way,
While o’er the East and o’er the West
St Peter holds his sway”
The Sheela was originally placed on the West side of the tower high up near the belfry windows. Significantly the Sheela actually looked out over the gate itself. The Sheela is thought to be a 11thC or 12thC Norman addition to the tower. It is currently housed in the tower itself in the Treasury along with other historical artefacts belonging to the church.
As can been seen from the photograph the Sheela is not that big being around a foot square. It’s interesting that the Sheela because of its small size would not have been readily recognizable from the ground. This detracts from the notion that it would have been warning against lust… Why place a warning where no one can see it? There is also a tradition reported by Margaret Murray that the figure was shown to brides on their wedding day. However she says that the source for this was a newspaper article which she once remembers reading1. I think it would be safer to take this tradition with a pinch of salt taking into account the original position and size of the figure.
It’s placing does however fit in very nicely with the apotropaic or defensive uses of Sheelas. Here we have a sheela not only guarding a church but guarding the main gate into a city! If the reconstruction by the Oxford Archaeological Unit is accurate then the Sheela would have looked out over the very gate itself. Personally I think this is a very strong to pointer to this Sheela at least serving a protective rather than a warning function.
A church is recorded on this site in the Domeseday book in 1086 which mentions that St Michaels owns 2 houses. This would seem to indicate that the church was fairly wealthy at that time. The tower on which the figure resided and is now housed is thought to date from the 11thC and is Saxon in origin. There is a short history at the church’s website at http://www.smng.org.uk/see/history.htm
1 Margaret Murray. Female Fertility Figures. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. LXIV 1934
Images of lust reports this sheela as being “much rubbed?”. I find myself agreeing with the question mark. Unlike the Buncton Sheela this carving could have been moved to it’s current position, around 10 ft of the ground, from a more accessible position. You can see from the photograph that the stone is unlike any of the other surrounding flint nodules and much weathered. The vaginal area on the carving is a wide deep oval, fingers are lightly incised on either side stretching a fair way into the vulva. The fingers do not appear shortened or “rubbed out” in any way in fact they are rather long and stand out from the rest of the carving. If the carving has suffered from rubbing it would have happened in two ways.
1. The finger could have been rubbed up and down this would result in a deeper line within the vulva which is not present.
2. The finger could have been rubbed in a circular motion around the vulva. If this type of rubbing took place then you would expect the vaginal area to grow wider which indeed it is, however the fingers would have gradually been “rubbed out” which they most certainly are not.
From what I’ve seen of the carving it appears that the image was carved this way deliberately. It’s pretty hard to deny that the large vagina immediately grabs your attention. Jorgen Andersen in his book the “Witch on the Wall” describes the figure as being much rubbed with the fingers being re-carved at some point. I’ll leave it to you which theory you choose to subscribe to.
The comedian Mike Harding who is interested in Green Men came across a tradition of genital rubbing on Kali statues in India. The rubbing however was in an up and down motion which makes sense given the narrow vertical nature of the vulval slit. If the carving has been rubbed it has been done in quite a different way.
The carving is quite badly weathered the face is deeply cracked and the rest of the carving is badly pitted. It could do with being moved inside the church to protect it from elements. A booklet describing the history of the church can be found inside but makes no mention of the Sheela at all. Comments in the visitor book show that, at least a few people have visited the church because of the Sheela and it seems a shame that it is likely to gradually weather away to nothing through neglect. If you do visit the church please make a comment in the book that you’d like to see it conserved in some way. Unlike other carvings on the church the Sheela is fairly crude her friendly grin providing a contrast to the other victorian gargoyles which can be found on the tower and on the back of the church.
The parish of Buckland lies around 15 miles north of High Wycombe. It is very small village the houses of which crowds around the large parish church of All Saints. Buckland is very near the Lower Icknield Way one of the main roads of Celtic Britain. The history of the church stretches as far back as 1067 where it is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Interestingly another sheela also lies on the Icknield way further north at the cave in Royston
Jorgen Andersen in the Witch on the Wall relates a story originally from a leaflet in the Church that the sheela figure is actually one of two robbers executed at Hang Hill some two miles from the church. The leaflet also described the figure as having its arms raised (despite the fingers carved into the vulva). Interestingly the figure at Holdgate also has a tradition of being the image of an executed felon. The figure was described by the sexton in 1980 “The last man to be hanged on Hangman’s Hill” (Weir and Jerman page 151)
I finally managed to visit Binstead with my wife in June 2008.
The visit was very informative as we photographed other pieces of sculpture in the church which firmly put the sheela and animal head figure in a Romanesque context.
The church was thought to have served the workmen in the nearby quarry and from Herringbone work in the walls is thought to date from the mid 12th century around 1150.
Nearby lies Quarr Abbey, a Cistercian house dedicated to the Virgin Mary which was founded in 1131, by Baldwin de Redvers, finally being consecrated 1 June 1150.”
Due to the low status of the church and the nearness of the higher status building it would seem likely that sculpture was more likely to originally have been part of the fabric of the abbey. Only a few ruins remain of the original abbey which was dissolved in the 1500s. The present abbey building dates from 1908. As we have seen in other churches,sculpture is frequently re-used. It would seem likely that the the romanesque fragments were rescued from the abbey ruins and re-used at some point in Binstead church rather than being part of the original Romanesque incarnation.
The head on which the figure sits is definitely an animal head grasping its snout with its paws. This is a common romanesque motif and can be seen on many other churches (e.g. Penmon on Anglesey in Wales). This along with the other fragments in the church appear to be Romanesque in style. The sheela figure appears also appears to be Romanesque in style although it is very weathered. Unlike the animal headbelow it is not a corbel being carved in the round. (Compare to the Holdgate sheela na gig in Shropshire).
There are number of carved corbels inside the church along with a grotesque hunched figure on the end of the church abovethe romanesque fragments. These are thought to be Victorian although some of the interior corbels have been carved in a Romanesque style. Two of the interior corbels, which are crudely carved, appear to be pipe player which may also be an angel, while the other appears to be drummer although both are hard to make out.
“The Idol” an older name
It’s worth noting that the name “The Idol” is the oldest recorded name for a sheela predating John O’Donovan’s “sheela ny gigg” by 59 years. It is mentioned in 1781 in “The History of the Isle of Wight” by R. Worsley and mentioned again in 1795 by J.Albin in “A New, Correct and Much-improved History of the Isle of Wight” (Andersen). “The Idol” name was also applied to the sheela in Lusk, County Dublin in Ireland.
The following information is from visits made by Keith Jones and Paul Sivell a local resident.
Notes from Keith Jones
A rather badly weathered sheela which is situated at the apex of an arch gate which leads into the grounds of the church. The figure appears to be seated, with her arms resting above her genitals, with a circle vaginal cavity below. She appears to be sitting on some structure with her legs bent at the knees, and widely splayed. Her face is now very badly worn, but is bald, and her large ears are still to seen. Formerly it is though that it had been placed on the church.
The figure was first mentioned in “The History of the Isle of Wight” by R. Worsley published in 1781;
‘The church is a small plain building having nothing remarkable about it, but a rude and very ancient piece of sculpture over the key-stone of the north door, representing a human figure, sitting with the feet on a kind of pedestal, resembling a man’s head; the whole is about two feet and a half high; it is vulgarly called the Idol,’ (N.B. Local tradition refers to the figure as the ‘Saxon Idol’ 1)
Another writer suggested:
‘The squatting figure is seated on, and supported by an animal head, the mouth of which can be seen from below, and with paw like projections on either side of the head.’
In light of the negative attitudes towards Sheelas, it is refreshing to consider John Albin’s note in his History of the Isle of Wight published in 1795:
‘A report is related, that this figure was removed some years ago, when the church was undergoing some repairs, but that it was restored to its ancient situation on its being productive of displeasure to the inhabitants.’
Of the old church, only the chancel now remains, and the traces of herringbone stone work, suggests an early Norman, or Romanesque date. In 1844 the old nave and associated structured which were contemporary with the chancel were rebuilt. The church notes state the Sheela was originally located above the north door of the nave. The church notes claim:
‘Studies by G. E. and A. L. Hutchinson of the Isle or Wight Natural and Archaeological Society confirmed the figure as a Sheela na gig associated with pagan properties of protection, and possibly fertility’.
During my visit, I found the figure on an ornamental gate a little south east of the church. The figure which measures 36cm high, 33cm wide, sits on an animal’s head which is 31cm. High, and is 3.4m off the floor.
Although the Sheela is weathered, and covered in part by white lichen, it is still possible to make out quite a lot of detail. Her head is bald, and seems proportionally larger then her body. She has very large ears, much like the Scregg Castle Sile. Both arms come to rest in rather flat hands each side of a clear vaginal cavity. The figure has very broad hips, which contrast with rather spindly legs which suggests this is a seated figure. I would agree with the suggestion that she sits on an animals head. The animal seems to wear a muzzle, and appears to be a bear.
Notes from Paul Sivell
‘You will see that there has been some modern re-pointing and there dollops of cement mortar under each of the sheela’s feet. I don’t know if you agree but the feet appear to to curve in and it looks as though both hands & feet are being used to to pull open the vulva. I am undecided about the stone beneath. The sheela is sited above the archway to the east of the main entrance to the church. It is about 4 m up and approx 0.5m in height (excluding the base stone). It is made from Binstead/Quarr limestone. This was quarried extensively in the immediate vicinity of the site, quarrying apparently began around 300 A.D. although it was most famed during the medieval period. Winchester Cathedral, Romsey Abbey & the upper portion of the tower of London were all made from
Binstead Limestone. The sheela has always been known locally as the “Saxon Idol”. I was first shown it and told this as a child by my father in the mid 1950’s.
This figure can be found at the Church of St Michael in Bray in Berkshire. This gets a mention in The Witch On The Wall in the gazetteer section where it is described as “raising it’s garment so as to exhibit it’s sagging genitalia”. As you can see the figure is too weathered to be certain what it originally was. You could as easily make a case for it being a miser figure holding a sack. It’s position next to the main door of the church is a possible indication of it being a sheela but that is hardly conclusive evidence.This figure has to go in to the “too weathered” file.
In addition to the male figure on Abson Church The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts also mentions a figure (above) on the tower as a possible sheela.
Keith Jones investigated Abson on the strength of a mention of a sheela na gig from the Erotic Traveller website, convinced that there was a sheela at the site, he came up with the figure on the tower (which from a distance could be mistaken for a sheela similar to that at Church Stretton). Keith has visited the site fairly recently with improved equipment and has begun to have doubts himself. It seems that the figure that the Erotic Traveller website was referring to was in fact the male figure. I recently re-visited the church with an improved telephoto lens on the camera and managed to get the above shot of the figure. As you can see there is nothing really to suggest that the figure is a sheela let alone exhibitionist. In fact it appears to holding a model of something possibly a building or ship. In addition the figure appears to be wearing a feather in a hat. In retrospect and with the new photo and details both myself and Keith are now of the opinion that the figure is not a sheela at all.
The Abson figure in sheela na gig literature.
This figure now appears in two books on sheela na gigs namely Jack Robert’s “The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts” and Barbara Freitag’s “Sheela na gigs : Unravelling an enigma”. What is not as well known is that this figure only got into the “Divine Hag” because of Keith’s initial mistaken visit. Jack Roberts credits Keith with the discovery in the “Divine Hag. Barbara Freitag admittedly describes the figure as dubious but I feel this one figure we can discount as being a sheela with some certainty.