Historically, the vagina [more accurately, the Vulva] used to have a better press. Before Western religion introduced the pesky concept of shame, female genitalia were venerated in ancient mythology. Egyptian and Japanese goddesses would lift their skirts and give a flash of their privates to increase crop yields and ward off evil. There is a 17th-century drinking mug, referenced in The Story of V, which shows Satan being poleaxed by the sight of a vagina. ("Take that, devil!")....
In the most olden of olden days, in prehistoric times before men's role in procreation was understood, it was women's genitalia – not men's – that were celebrated as symbols of fertility. This continued into the medieval ages with Sheela Na Gigs [one pictured here], figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva pulled open. (Hooray! A mention of the vulva!) These are thought to have originated in France and Spain in the 11th century and can be found in medieval churches across Britain and Ireland.
The midwifery guru Ina May Gaskin, author of several bestselling home-birth bibles and recognised as the world's leading authority on natural childbirth, is obsessed with the figure of the Sheela Na Gig, which for centuries would have been the only context you would have seen a vagina depicted. Gaskin has written about how contemporary society's horror at the vagina – and the taboo of depicting one anywhere except in pornography – has contributed to women's fear of labour and the increasing medicalisation of childbirth.
"My idea is that this figure [the naked Sheela Na Gig] was probably meant to reassure young women about the capabilities of their bodies in birth. As you can see," she writes in Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, "the vulva of the crouching figure is open enough to accommodate her own head. Such a sight is quite encouraging to a woman in labour. I'd like to see a large rendition of a Sheela Na Gig as part of the décor of birth rooms in maternity units."
Na Gig as part of the décor of birth rooms in maternity units."In fact, many of the carvings were destroyed as "obscene" by church leaders in the 19th century and most people have no idea what these strangely informative little gargoyle figures look like. Dozens still exist, though.
I have seen a Sheela Na Gig. Intact. Thank the Goddess!