Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries
The quain tree and the weoh cwen
In the eighteenth century it was commonplace knowledge that the best way for a woman to frighten away the Devil was by lifting up her skirts. And bear in mind that knickers and such like were now worn until the very end of the nineteenth century… As confirmation we have Charles Eisen's fairly tasteful depiction while Thomas Rowlandson offers a more ribald version.
What does this gesture – referred to in more academic literature as 'female genital display' – have to do with weohs or stapols? Well the underlying connection is one of supernatural protection. In the eighteenth century the protection is for the individual. But earlier a depiction of the same gesture would have offered protection to the boundaries of a tribal area.
The importance of such 'tribal protectors' can be gauged from the cult to Toutatis (whose name means just that – 'tribal protector') in the second and third centuries (see The queen of the valley and Weohs and stapols.) But the use of female genital display in religious rituals is much older. It is well attested in the Greek mysteries. When Demeter was mourning the death of her daughter, Persephone, an old woman called Baubo amused her by lifting her skirts. This may have been a 'coded' reference the central part of the mystery cult's ritual drama; certainly it remains part of an annual custom in some parts of rural Greece to this day (Håland 2012)).
And – as this article wantonly speculates in the absence of any direct evidence – could this idea of 'tribal protection' live on in the female exhibitionists, the so-called 'sheela na gigs', on medieval churches? They too seem to be there to frighten away the Devil.
Despite the antiquity of female genital display, there is a huge gap in place and time between Classical Baubo figurines and the earliest Romanesque female exhibitionists – the oldest known ones are in western France and northern Spain and were carved in the eleventh to early thirteenth centuries (Weir and Jerman 1986). A very small number of British examples are also eleventh century but most are from the twelfth century, with a few later examples.
However the tradition of Romanesque figurative carving, whether female exhibitionists or other somewhat monstrous beings, could not have been invented from scratch. The quality of the carving is just too skilful. We have to assume that there was also a long-standing tradition of carving wood, although none of these works have survived the ravages of time. And that tradition presumably did not start with the construction of wooden churches in around the eighth century. Presumably the craftsmanship goes back to the decoration of feasting halls and such like. And presumably to the carving of the weohs and stapols which I discuss in more detail in another article (see Weohs and stapols).
We simply do not know what a weoh looked like, and there are only a few clues as to the appearance of a stapol. None of these clues involve female exhibitionists. Yet we do know that many of these weohs, and perhaps some of the stapols, would have been icons depicting the tutelary deities. As discussed in separate articles (The deities of the Anglo-Saxons and The Mothers) they would have been thought of as The Mothers, or the dísir. Depictions of the Deae Matronae in stone which have survived from those parts of northern Europe which came within the Roman Empire do not include any which are female exhibitionists. But such explicitly female depictions seem not to have been part of Roman iconography – there was no counterpart to Baubo in their pantheon.
However the Romans were not averse to including male exhibitionists. The male counterparts to the three Deae Matronae – the three hooded figures usually referred to as genii culcallati – are sometimes depicted with one of the hoods parted to reveal an erect penis (see The triple hooded ones).
To suggest that Romanesque female exhibitionists are direct successors to wooden woehs with prominent quims seems to be stretching the available evidence unduly. Indeed, I have no evidence of such carvings from before the eleventh century. But there are two curious carvings from after the Romanesque which, in their own ways, are unique survivals. And, in their own way, they just might be late successors to earlier depictions of sovereignty (see The queen of the valley).
The carvings in the bell-shaped manmade cave at Royston depict a variety of saints and other figures which seem to have been carved in the thirteenth century or maybe the fourteenth. Why they were carved, and by whom is unknown; the deep-rooted suggestion that the Knights Templars were involved is seemingly spurious. One of the more surprising figures is a female exhibitionist. To her right is a horse and to her left is a sword. As Meghan Rice has observed, this is a perfect iconography of sovereignty. She too, in an unpublished BA dissertation, has suggested that sheela na gig carvings would be excellent carvings to act as boundary protectors for the sovereign's land.
Of less certain date is a carving now standing at the base of the tower of the church at Braunston-in-Rutland. Presumably this was once inserted high up in the tower. The best guess is that this is fourteenth century (Trubshaw 1994) although a twelfth century date is perhaps possible. Despite her 'rude' appearance she is not a female exhibitionist. However she could have been inspired by a full-length wooden figure which was an exhibitionist – with the stone version conveniently bowdlerised by the need to insert her into the structure of the building.
Based on a suggestion by Jill Bourn, I first speculated about the origins of the Braunston carving and the links to Quaintree House nearly twenty years ago in an article called Goddess or Queen? The enigmatic carving at Braunston in Rutland
The clue is in the name of a wonderful old house in the village, Quaintree House. On the basis of my discussion of the word 'quain' earlier in this article, this tree could have been a simulacra with a 'quim' (and presumably breasts and a face akin to the surviving stone version). Or, the 'tree' was actually a carved stapol. Either way the simulacra or stapol would have served as a boundary marker – Braunston is near the boundary between Rutland and Leicestershire, in an area where the exact border was long disputed (as the nearby place-name Flitteris Park Farm (from Old English flyt 'strife, dispute' and hris 'brushwood', i.e. 'brushwood-covered land of disputed ownership'). As the River Gwash runs just to the south of the church then if there had been a stapol here then the location would be spot on for a stapol ford. (These remarks will make more sense if you have read the article on Weohs and stapols.) Furthermore, Rutland has deep associations with queens – the real sort. This anomalously-small county was the dowry of the queens of late Anglo-Saxon England.
I realise that neither Royston or Braunston offer conclusive evidence for the one-time existence of weoh cwens, still less that we should see sheela na gigs (or shee lena ghees) as successors to weohs depicting The Mothers, the Anglo-Saxon successors to more ancient tutelary deities of sovereignty. But I offer these speculations in the hope that other people might be aware of similar links to sovereignty or tribal protection – if so, please email me.
My thanks to Meghan Rice for sharing her ideas about sheela na gigs in a talk at Peter Knight's Alternative Archaeology conference in Pewsey, October 2013.
Feedback from John Grigsby (author of Warriors of the Wasteland and Beowulf and Grendel):
I was reading your article on sheela-na-gigs and weohs and it reminded me of something I'd read recently – in Greimas's Of Gods and Men which is an attempt to form some sort of order out of Lithuanian myth and folklore.
In one section he is talking about a being or beings called Aitvaras, which he sees as a kind of aerial deity or spirit, possibly involved in some original titanic creation myth, but in time becoming a kind of air-born fire demon, a mischievous elf who can bring disease as well as wealth.
Anyway – on seeing one of these entities one could make it depart by 'opening one's nightshirt' or 'showing one's ass' (Greimas 1992: 46) meaning 'one's sexual organs'.
Might a similar process be behind the women of Ulster stripping naked in order to cool the ardour of the enraged Cu Chulainn? It takes three vats of water to cool him down. His fury marks him out as outside societal norms – wild, in need of taming; he is the chaos that needs ordering before he is allowed back in to society. This makes me think of Enkidu, who only becomes civilized after he sleeps with the woman; or the madness of Owein which is 'healed' when he is anointed by the woman (in 'The Lady of the Fountain') in all cases we see calming, taming, ordering. Might the female display of the sheelas and the Lithuanian women be similarly employed? Just a thought!
copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013; John Grigsby 2014