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Oxford's Sheela Na Gig, on display in St Michael at the North Gate Church.

Oxford's Sheela Na Gig, on display in St Michael at the North Gate Church.

Photo: Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oxford's Sheela Na Gig

6 August 2021 (Updated 7 September 2021)

The Saxon tower at St. Michael at the North Gate church holds an example of a Sheela Na Gig, an unusual design carved in stone that can be found in over 100 churches throughout the British Isles.

This stone carving motif can inspire surprise and confusion in people, and it is not hard to see why. A Sheela Na Gig carving depicts a grotesque naked woman with exaggeratedly large, gaping genitalia.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that correctly. The origin of this somewhat explicit carving motif is a matter of some dispute. Suggested explanations include:

  • An intentionally grotesque figure, similar to other gargoyles, designed to ward off evil spirits.
  • The survival of a pagan fertility goddess.
  • A warning against lust and the sins of the flesh.

More details on the differing interpretations of the Sheela Na Gigs motif can be found on Wikipedia.

The Oxford Sheela Na Gig

Sheela Na Gig's are most commonly found in churches of Norman origin or earlier, and Oxford's is no exception. The tower at St Michael at the North Gate Church is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, dating from before the Norman invasion.

The Sheela Na Gig is now in a display case on the ground floor, but its original position was high on the outside of the tower, overlooking the old city gate below.

The Sheela Na Gig Project argues that its positioning indicates the Sheela Na Gig was placed here for protective or defensive purposes rather than as a warning against lust and vice.

Another Oxfordshire Sheela Na Gig?

The Sheela Na Gig Project also highlights a stone carving at the church of St John the Baptist in Burford as another possible example of a Sheela Na Gig. In this case, the carving is unusual as it depicts not one but three figures.

The left figure is displaying female genitalia, the centre one is wearing a skirt with what might be a penis protruding below the hemline while pointing towards the genitals of the figure on the left. The righthand figure is riding a horse.