Trying To Make Sense Of The Venus Figurines?
Race, Goddesses, Fertility, Magic, Obesity, Motherhood, Sex and Death
In 1864 Paul Hurault, the 8th Marquis de Vibraye, was digging around in the cave systems of Laugerie-Basse, Dordogne. He had always been an amateur archaeologist, but soon his name would be immortalised. His discovery of a female figurine, a slender 8cm tall ivory creation, prompted comparisons with the Aphrodite of Knidos, and he named her La Vénus impudique - the ‘immodest Venus’. She is dated to the Magdalenian period (~17-12kya), and she became the first of many similar female figurines to be uncovered during the archaeological rush of the late 19th century. Today we call these types of small portable figurines ‘Venuses’, although the meaning of the term has changed with intellectual fashions. Nobody is entirely sure how many there are, how to define them, or even what time period we are dealing with. Typically a Venus figurine refers to a statuette of the female form, often with large or exaggerated bodies, made between roughly 40-10 thousand years ago. But the Upper Palaeolithic Venus phenomenon was just the first, and a renaissance of the form appears during the Neolithic of the Near East and continues into the Bronze Age, where they become more stylised and linked with named female deities. Whether or not the Palaeolithic and Neolithic Venus moments are connected is an open question. Geographically we’re focusing here on Europe and parts of wider Eurasia, since these have produced the majority of the artefacts. If the physical and chronological nature of these figurines is ambiguous, then their interpretation has been vastly more muddled. We’ll work through them, from Victorian ideas about race to feminist theories of the Mother Goddess, from materialist ideas about obesity to recent thoughts about childbirth. Almost no other artefact type has produced so much controversy and speculation, and the 150 years or so of thought is a window onto the ever-changing landscape of archaeological theory.
Early Days: Race, Steatopygia and Primitivism (1864-1900)
Prehistory as a field was born in great strife. In 1823 the Reverend William Buckland had discovered the ochre-saturated bones of a Palaeolithic man in Paviland Cave on the Gower peninsula. Although he believed them to be the remains of a Roman prostitute, their true age is around 33,000 years old. He struggled to believe that any human could predate the Biblical flood, and he was not alone. In fact by the mid 19th century the nascent study of prehistory was divided into ‘fixists’ (E. Lartet, A. de Quatrefages, M. Sanson, L. Bourgeois and J. Delaunay) and those convinced of the reality of human evolution (Paul Broca, P. Topinard, T. Hamy, G. de Mortillet and M. Boule). Religious fixists insisted on the created form of human beings since their divine beginning, whilst positivists and materialists stressed the gradual development of human faculties and capacities. Artwork occupied a special place for both camps, since it was accepted that the European disinterested aesthetic experience represented a pinnacle of human achievement. For the religious man, artwork was a gift, present in the earliest of souls, whereas for the student of Lamarck and Huxley, art was one of the final developments of the advanced types.
The ‘immodest Venus’ arrived into a world which was wholly unprepared for the idea of Palaeolithic art. Not only was there no theoretical lens to make sense of it, many scholars outright rejected it. Forgeries, rivalries, theft, competition, ideologies and national squabbles produced an atmosphere of distrust. One prehistorian, Gabriel de Mortillet, even accused the Spanish clergy of faking the Altimira cave art in order to discredit the field. Lubbock and Mortillet denied that prehistoric people were religious at all, and thus any artwork was merely for amusement, contentment, simple pleasure - art-for-art’s sake:
that our earliest ancestors could have counted to ten is very improbable, considering that so many races now in existence cannot get beyond four - Lubbock, 1865
Against this view came the ideas of E.B. Tylor, who posited one of the most influential ideas in archaeological thought. He argued that, far from being irreligious and simple, tribal peoples all over the world in fact had a highly developed sense of spirituality - one which attributed a soul and being to inanimate objects and natural forces. Animism, as it became known, was the default inner state of man, unencumbered by dogma or proscription. Not long afterwards McLennan introduced the concept of ‘totemism’, and then in 1890 came Frasier’s The Golden Bough. Concern with the mental state of the ‘primitive mind’ was paramount, ushering in dozens of ethnographic and anthropological works focusing on language, mythology, religion, artwork and oral histories. The Age of Primitivism had begun. One man in particular stands out for us - Édouard Piette - a French archaeologist who became fascinated with Venus figurines. He represented the Rousseaun wing of the intellectual movement, believing that the harsh but simple life of savage man was more free and spiritually rich than modern civilisation, a view which still resonates with many people today:
Exercise and open-air life disseminated among the savages, whom we regard as miserable, a touch of morality, of strength and calm that labourers and office clerks will never know… Ingenious man, dedicated to the art of drawing and sculpture was, in his time, a pioneer of civilization; he left his mark in a stage of humankind on the road to progress. He was not a savage enclosed in the narrow circle of his forefather’s ideas, he was a man of progress and he might still be so - Piette, 1873
Piette was a thorough and methodical scientist, horrified by the sloppy work, theft and vandalism which accompanied many excavations of the time. He negotiated the return of many invaluable artefacts, and by around 1900 he owned almost every Palaeolithic Venus figurine in existence. These included: L’Ebauche; La Vénus de Brassempouy; Le Manche de poignard; La Fillette; La Dame à la capuche; La Figurine à la ceinture and La Figurine à la pèlerine. A few details in particular bothered Piette. One was the ‘Egyptian’ style of the some of the figurines, especially their hair or hoods, and the other was the startling fat deposits on some of the hips and buttocks of the carvings.
Steatopygia is a condition whereby large amounts of adipose fat tissue accumulates on the hips, thighs and buttocks, found predominantly in women of Khoisan, African Pygmy and Andamanese descent. It was noted by European explorers to southern Africa, along with the extended labia of various groups of sub-Saharan African women. Most famously the Khoikhoi woman Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman (1789-1815) who was exhibited around Europe as a a kind of curious savage, and many people paid to look at her almost-naked body, even to poke her with a stick. She, and other similar women, were known as ‘Hottentot Venuses’. Piette and other archaeologists some decades later made the link between her steatopygia and the curvy shape of the Venus figurines they had uncovered. Unlike Hurault’s ‘immodest Venus’, the name was instead directly associated with the African Khoikhoi body.
Piette developed a theory of Palaeolithic Venus figurines which drew both on this racial physiological science and the primitivism which he believed accounted for the style of prehistoric art. In his reading two races of Palaeolithic humans lived in Europe, one which looked more ‘African’ and the other more ‘Egyptian’ or ‘Greek’.
What troubles me is that there were two human races during the Eburnien, one with fatty protuberances, an enormous descending abdomen, ample thighs, prominent hips and, probably, buttocks that were correspondingly imposing. The enormous size of the abdomen was a result of concentrated fat deposits, held in place by fibrous tissue, which also accounts for the abundant hips and a sort of calf on the front of the thighs. This latter was not muscle. In this regard, there can be no doubt about the analogy with Bushman women. This race was also as hairy as Esau.
The other race was without body hair, had flat abdomens, somewhat slender thighs, and hips and buttocks lacking the fatty outgrowths. The artists who represented them exaggerated the abdominal flattening, the slenderness of the buttocks and the lack of projecting hips; and this could have been out of hatred for the other race which at that time must have been a conquered people
Piette to Reinach, 11 January, 1895
There was no question that these figurines could have been stylistic or artistic, since the primitive animistic mind could only copy nature, rather than import any imaginative license. This dualism between art and function, born out of the European experience of art as a disinterested medium, was retained in Palaeolithic art studies. Primitive man possessed the aesthetic impulse, but it was bound by the need for symbolic and magical functionality. The Venus figurines were perfectly naturalistic, but no doubt stored some deeper purpose. Only through the racial struggle for greatness had some peoples freed art from the baser needs of life, and although this could be glimpsed in the cave art masterpieces of the time, Palaeolithic man was still the infant of the species.
Making Sense Of The Palaeolithic (1900-1945)
Between 1900 and 1945, many more Venus or female figurines and artworks were discovered across Europe and further afield. These include the famous Venus of Willendorf (1908); Lespuge (1922); Dolni Vestonice (1925); Petersfels (1927-32); Moravany (1930); Mal’ta (1928) and Buret’ (1936-40). The latter sites, in Siberia, were surprising, and indicate a cultural or group connection stretching from France deep into Eurasia. Of course, these findings were not separated from the sites themselves, nor were they insulated from the developments in archaeological thought more broadly.
Trying to define the different eras of the deep past was a problem not just for the Palaeolithic, but for all of prehistory. These then had to reckon with the different ‘stages’ of civilisation found across the world. From the Arctic to South Africa, Polynesia to the Amazon, a whole constellation of different peoples had to be slotted into any general theory of human development. In 1816 Christian Thomsen had developed the ‘three-stage’ model we are still familiar with - a stone age, bronze age and iron age. Sir John Lubbock’s 1865 work, Pre-Historic Times: As Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages, had separated the stone age into an ‘old’ (Palaeolithic) and ‘new’ (Neolithic). Hodder Westropp proposed a ‘middle’ age, the Mesolithic, in 1866, which was immediately controversial. Analogies between prehistoric stone tools and Aboriginal or Andaman tools proved irresistable, and prehistorians began drawing lines of comparison between the shell middens of Denmark and the contemporary people of Tierra del Feugo. Terms like ‘Mousterian’ (1876), ‘Magdalenian’ (1885) and ‘Aurignacian’ (1906) became better defined, and the latter two came be characterised through craniometry, physical anthropology, ethnographic analogy and artwork as ‘Caucasoid’ and ‘Negroid’ respectively.
In 1911, the architect Emmanuel‐Élisée Pontremoli and sculptor Constant‐Ambroise Roux began work on the entrance structure to the new Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris. They chose two designs, one for each side. The first of which depicted a Caucasian Magdalenian man, wearing a primitive crown, drawing a bison on a cave wall. The second depicted a Negroid Aurignacian man sculpting a Venus figurine. This was a crucial symbolic moment, chiseling in stone the two racial phenotypes of Palaeolithic Europe, with the superior and sophisticated cave-art triumphing over the sensual and earthbound Venus. Reinforcing this was a series of busts, made by sculptor Louis Mascré and the prehistorian Aimé Rutot between 1909 and 1914. Again the Magdalenian man was a ruddy brown, vigorous individual, skillfully carving his art into reindeer antler, whilst the ‘Negroid of Menton’ Aurignacian was an African-looking man, sculpting the newly discovered Venus of Willendorf.
It should be noted however, that the interpretation of this racial schema was more nuanced than perhaps modern readers might expect. In linking the Aurignacian to the San Bushmen, which was the dominant consensus, there wasn’t necessarily a universal judgement on what this meant. As William J. Sollas (1849–1936), professor of geology at Oxford University, wrote of Aurignacian art and sculpture in his 1911 work, Ancient Hunters and Their Modern Representatives:
the best examples attain so high a pitch of excellence that enthusiastic discoverers have spoken of them as superior in some respects to the work of the Greeks… we cannot survey the series of pictures with which Aurignacian man has illustrated the animal life of his time without a feeling of delight, and the pleasure we feel in this glimpse of a vanished fauna is enhanced by the fact that we look at it through the eyes of the ancient hunter himself… although far from attaining to our standard of beauty, yet still there was something prepossessing about the Bushman to those who looked with a discerning eye, all that we learn about the Bushmen impresses us with their great intellectual ability
Waves Of Matriarchy: Mother Goddesses and Venus Figurines
Turning away from race as the explanatory framework, we now dive into the depths of another, more well-known, theory for the Venus figurines - their symbolic representation of female deities and female social power. The idea of a matriarchy, a female-led or centric society, is one of mankind’s oldest enduring myths. Between 1864 - 1884 this myth was to undergo probably its most powerful revival, thanks to three books: Das Mutterrecht (Motherright) (1861) by Johann Jakob Bachofen; Primitive Marriage (1865) by John Ferguson McLennan, and Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) by Friedrich Engels. Although very different in inspiration and conclusion, the groundwork was laid for first-wave feminists to draw on prehistory to make the case that the original human society was female-centred, largely peaceful and largely egalitarian. The American feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage argued in the 1880’s that prehistory was a period of female supremacy and rule over men. Nobody could quite agree whether this golden age was one of free love and promiscuity or chaste sacred motherhood, but they were all convinced that the prehistoric evidence supported their position. The strange esoteric blend of eugenics, theosophy, moral exhortations to chastity, reverence for motherhood and recognition of the divine feminine all swirled around in the Edwardian gallop towards universal suffrage. Gage, and then the British activist Frances Swiney, pioneered the belief that early societies worshipped goddesses and were led by female priestesses. This enthusiasm largely disappeared with the wars and the right to vote secured, but it came back with a roar during the 1970’s.
The intellectual passion for matriarchy within archaeology and its related fields was not trivial however. Excavations at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans and scholarly investigations into Hellenic religion by Jane Ellen Harrison drew on Bachofen to explain the presence of female ‘goddess’ figurines. Frazer and Harrison, along with the ‘Cambridge Ritualists’, helped maintain the matriarchal myth and embedded it into the Classics. Harrison’s 1903 work, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, insisted that pre-Classical Greece was a goddess-worshipping matriarchy. The link continued throughout the 20th century, with Florence Mary Bennett’s Religious Cults Associated with the Amazons (1912) and later works by J. H. Thiel (1931), George Thomson (1949) and E. A. S. Butterworth (1966), all shoring up the image of an archaic female-led society.
With the advent of second-wave feminism came an urgent need to understand the origins and development of patriarchy as an institution. Although it began its life largely outside of the academy, texts such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, continued to rely on an account of prehistory which identified patriarchy as a later intrusion into a more female-friendly world. The ‘Goddess Movement’ began in earnest throughout the Western world during the 1970’s. Carol P. Christ gave her influential speech ‘Why Women Need The Goddess’ in 1978, laying out the feminist critique of Christianity and patriarchy and defending the myth of the ancient Goddess as both real and necessary. Although mainstream archaeology had largely moved away from this narrative, it found its champion in the Lithuanian scholar Marija Gimbutas. Gimbutas had bucked the trend of grand meta-narratives by presenting the story of ‘Old Europe’, the earliest Neolithic agricultural communities, as one of peaceful egalitarian matriarchy. She interpreted Neolithic Venus figurines, artwork and spiral iconography as evidence for a Great Goddess religion. She also resurrected older ideas about the invasion of the Indo-Europeans from the Pontic-Caspian steppe through the ‘Kurgan Hypothesis’, pointing out that patriarchy and the diminishment of female-centric art seem to coincide with the appearance of kurgan burial mounds and the male dominance of the Bronze Age.
Along with most of 'civilization' in ancient times, they worshipped a goddess of fertility and abundance, and Earth Mother of creation and regeneration. They were a peaceful artistic community, enviably 'in-tune' with all that surrounded them. Nearly 6,000 years ago, these particular people took advantage of their environment and in the relative isolation of their islands advanced a style of spiritual expression unlike anything found elsewhere in the region. Successful for more than a thousand years they continue to develop and to thrive with no trace of conflict or war (...) As we know, not much survived of the early matrifocal people of mainland Europe once they were overrun and assimilated by aggressive Indo-European tribes identified by Archaeology and author Dr. Marija Gimbutas
Linda C. Eneix 1997
Meanwhile, in Anatolia, the most potent symbol of this new Goddess movement was being constructed. The site of Çatalhöyük had been discovered in 1958 and was excavated during the 1960’s by James Mellaart. This was to prove a most fruitful combination. Mellaart’s discovery of Venus figurines on the site resulted in an outpouring of goddess literature. He and his acolytes were convinced that Çatalhöyük was a peaceful, egalitarian, matrilineal society, dedicated to the worship of the Great Goddess. His particular blend of Wicca, neopaganism and feminism resulted in Çatalhöyük becoming a pilgrimage site for the movement:
Perhaps more interesting and far reaching is the connection between goddess tours and the archaeological work at the site. As Hodder states (1997, 693),'at the site itself we are visited by bus-loads of people on Goddess Tours who are interested in a spiritual connection with the site, who may come to pray, or who are part of the New Age, Ecofeminist or Gaia Movements’. But it is not simply a matter of visiting the site or buying the T-shirt, many of these people want to adopt an interventionist role. Recently, a house has been bought in the nearby village which will operate as a base for goddess groups and this has led to local tensions amongst the conservative, largely Islamic township of Qumra. Additionally, some goddess groups want to build a shrine at the site. Increasingly as goddess groups contribute financially to the project, they will ask for something in return. Already they are dissatisfied with archaeological data freely available to them on the web. As Hodder remarks, the 'fact that these answers are insufficient was made clear in discussions with the New Age Women's Movements. When we told them that we would provide the data so that they could make their own less androcentric interpretations from the site, they complained that this was not enough 'because when you hand over the data to us, they have already been interpreted by you' (Hodder 1997, 693-4)
Despite rigorous critiques of Mellaart’s work and his falsifications of the evidence, Çatalhöyük has never shaken this legacy, and even today seems cocooned in a protective shell of interpretation. It continues, much like the Venus figurines, to be seen as a bastion of Neolithic, female-centric egalitarianism. Hopefully the next few generations of archaeologists will be able to lay the Goddess to rest.
Sex Magic & Fertility
After race and feminism comes sex. If archaeologists are less comfortable with the grandiloquence of the ‘goddess’, they do seem more at home with the neutrality of ‘fertility’. One reason is that fertility and sexuality belong to the study of biology and evolutionary science, which naturally pays great attention to how mating and reproduction occurs across the animal world. Its good to be reminded that Gimbutas’ and Mellaart’s writings about great goddesses were deeply unfashionable throughout the 60’s and 70’s and beyond. In fact archaeology had pivoted towards a more rigorous scientific approach. The ‘New Archaeology’ or ‘processual archaeology’ wanted nothing to do with mythical golden ages or deities, it wanted a clear-eyed objectivity to be cast onto the material record, to blow away the cobwebs of cultural interpretation and to rely on hypotheses, logic, rationality and the creation of testable frameworks to explain cultural change.
In 1968 a fresh wind swept through figurine studies with the work of Peter Ucko. His 1968 dissertation monograph Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete took aim at the entirety of the Mother Goddess hypothesis, and his later works used an effective combination of empirical studies and anthropological analogies to open the door to alternative explanations. These figurines had no one explanation, he argued, they could easily be children’s toys, initiation tools, magical items or burial aides.
On the basis of the suggested lines of investigation above (I-4), it is possible that the figurine material of Knossos may include figurines made for the following categories of reasons: those made by, and for, children to play with; others as some sort of initiation figures used as teaching devices to accompany songs or tales, and thrown away after use; still others as vehicles for sympathetic magic, carried and cared for by mothers desirous of offspring and kept in the house until the birth of a child
Peter Ucko - The Interpretation of Prehistoric Anthropomorphic Figurines (1962)
As we saw in the earlier development of Palaeolithic art studies, the question still lurks - what were the figurines for? Removing the Goddess did not reveal an answer, so much as provide new possibilities. The carry-over from the 19th century was the magico-functional paradigm, more easily expressed as ‘sympathetic magic’. In 1899 two Australian anthropologists, Walter Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen, had provided one of the most powerful analogies in prehistoric art theory. Their work on the Arrernte or Arunta Aboriginal peoples revealed that cave art was connected to fertility - in that the Arunta people would draw images of animals in the hope that they would multiply. This idea was picked up by two giants of the field - Salomon Reinach (1858-1932) and Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961) - and extended to other domains of Palaeolithic life, including hunting and human fertility.
Fertility was of course a preoccupation for the Goddess theorists, and the notion of a Mother Earth rests on the fecundity of women and their abilities to reproduce and nourish. The other side of this argument is about control, a topic feminists have long critiqued, and a major point of debate surrounding the later domestication of plants and animals. If there was no matriarchy, then fertility was presumably under the control of men? A host of new ideas started to spill out from archaeologists: figurines were prehistoric porn (Guthrie 1979); representations of prostitutes or after-life sex slaves (Orphanides 1983; Karageorghis 1981) and totems of fertility. In fact no less than 10 surveys of prehistoric figurines between 1975 and 1987 suggest fertility as the most likely motivating factor behind their creation. Of those that disagreed or rejected the fertility argument, only one also excluded eroticism or pornography as a function (Pfieffer 1985). To quote from Sarah Nelson’s 1990 article Diversity of the Upper Paleolithic 'Venus’ Figurines and Archeological Mythology:
If the figurines are assumed to have been made by men, then it follows that they were created for male purposes. Even when they were first discovered, the Abbe Breuil (1954, cited in Ucko and Rosenfeld 1973:119) said they were for "pleasure to Paleolithic man during his meals". Berenguer (1973:52) focuses on reproductivity: "we may deduce man's obsessive need for women who would bear him lots of children to offset the high mortality rate caused by the harsh living conditions." Von Konigswald worried about other possessions, "It certainly is an old problem: how could man protect his property, mark a place as 'his home', 'his living site' so that others would recognize and respect it, especially in a period where there were no houses, just abris and caves?" He concludes that men made the "grotesque" figurines to guard their property, and scare off intruders!
Whilst certain scholars do seem curiously obsessed with seeing sex everywhere during the Palaeolithic, Guthrie in particular (over 60 pages in his 2005 book on Palaeolithic Art is spent describing hip-to-waist ratios, erotic fat, sex toys and more) the counter-arguments needed little more than good objective observation. The type-casting of the Venus of Willendorf as the ‘typical' expression of Palaeolithic and other figurines hid a more complex reality. Simple descriptions of each of the figurines would in fact reveal that obesity and exaggerated sexual characteristics were not the dominant feature, and as figurine discoveries from Magdalenian Germany during the 60’s-80’s showed, there could be great differences across space and time. As Rice’s 1981 breakdown of 188 Venus figurines revealed, of those that could be identified as female, the full age range from pre-pubescent to grandmother were represented almost equally. Almost none of them could be described as pregnant. Sadly this basic point, that many of the figurines look nothing like the swollen Willendorf, has been lost. Even today as we’ll see, the majority of studies on the Venuses focus on their supposedly exaggerated physiques.
Amongst these articles was a cutting from the Life section of an edition of USA Today containing a report on FAT!SO?, an American organisation concerned with raising public awareness of issues of 'fat acceptance' (Hainer 1996: 1-2). The article describes the adoption of the Venus of Willendorf as their mascot, and places the figure in a thoroughly contemporary frame of reference by characterising her as "a short, squat, faceless figurine with prodigious love handles. And breasts so large that- well, let's just say she doesn't need the Wonderbra”
Lander, Louise Muriel (2005) From artifact to icon: an analysis of the Venus figurines in archaeological literature and contemporary culture
A point of contention amongst Palaeolithic researchers is whether the Venus figurines are supposed to be pregnant or obese? We’ve seen how the enlarged buttocks gave support to racial classifications, but as academia turned away from the concept of race other explanations were needed. The Goddess argument saw the enlarged breasts, hips, buttocks and stomachs as stylisations and reflective of the essential female nature, while the male-focused fertility cult saw these aspects as similarly feminine or through an erotic lens. As critiques of all these came and went there is still no good proposal for why many figurines look fat. One simple explanation was that some Palaeolithic women were in fact obese, an idea which runs counter to our image of mammoth hunters permanently at the edge of starvation. We can separate out the later Neolithic figurines here and say they are more plausibly representations of obese people - agriculture providing the excess calories in this model.
This is what we could call a form of realism, looking at the figurines as accurate depictions of real people at the time. As a general theory it has prompted some interesting ideas, and continues to do so: In 1976 J.R Harding wrote a brief article entitled Certain Upper Palaeolithic 'Venus' Statuettes Considered in Relation to the Pathological Condition Known as Massive Hypertrophy of the Breasts, where he considers the Venus figurines to be depictions of a medical condition, rather than an ideal; numerous papers studying fatty tissue deposition, iodine deficiency, fatty liver syndrome and more all refer back to the Venus, in particular the Venus of Willendorf. Jean-Pierre Duhard described the shape of Pliestocene women in general based on the proportions and measurements of the figurines. Using different fat deposition markers - “steatopygia (deposits round the buttocks), steatocoxia (round the hips), steatotrochanteria (femoral deposit) or steatomeria (crural deposit)” - he was able to characterise each figurine in turn and draw some conclusions:
In our far distant ancestresses there existed the same morphological diversity as today, as is shown by sculpture, with a realism more physiological than anatomical, showing subjects of varying ages and at different phases of their functional life. One particularly important point is their adiposity, or the location of the fatty deposits. These have specific sex-related functions, which obviously have not changed since that period, and undergo identical changes in physical appearance following the same laws of physiology: it was therefore of interest to discover whether, despite different climatic conditions, way of life and different food resources, the same clinical forms of adiposity would be observed.
- Duhard, J. (1991). The shape of Pleistocene women
That the figurines display physiologically accurate placements of fat suggest that these were not stylistic imaginary fancies, but rather a close replication of what people saw in their everyday lives, much like the animals drawn in the caves. In this archaeology had returned to the 19th century understanding of Palaeolithic art, that it was imitative. However, the obvious shift was the move away from racial categorisations towards a broader ‘human’ or ‘female physiology’. This has been further explored in research looking into adaptations to the coldest point of the last ice age, when many figurines were made. Even in the 1960’s this point was confusing, how could Gravettian ice age hunters be familiar with female body fat when they lived as active mobile hunter-gatherers in freezing conditions? A 2020 paper published in the Obesity Journal by Richard J Johnson and colleagues ran with this idea. They mapped out the location of figurines in comparison to the known glacial maximum line in Europe, and then compared the hip-to-waist and shoulder-to-waist ratios of the various Venus figurines. They argue that a correlation exists between the most obese figurines and their proximity to the coldest parts of the continent, making them either accurate representations of real people, or ideal body types for women to survive in those conditions.
The final analysis to note here has become relatively well known outside of academia. This is the original idea that the Venus figurines look the way they do because they represent women drawing themselves. Pioneered by LeRoy McDermott in 1996, the self-representation theory, in my experience at least, has a lot of people convinced. It neatly explains why so many figurines seem exaggerated, but also lack faces and often feet. In the absence of mirrors women needed to look down at themselves and carve what they saw, unsurprisingly focusing on their breasts and hips. Impossible to refute or prove, McDermott’s argument will probably always remain popular as a partial explanation for the figurines, even if it can’t explain their greater meaning and purpose.
Clothing & Motherhood
As we move through the 90’s and into the 000’s, the original question asked 150 years earlier continues to perplex scholars, and new examples of the figurines keep appearing. In 2005 ivory Venuses were found in Zaraysk, Russia, and in 2008 a classic figurine was found at Hohle Fels cave in Germany. This turned out to be between 40,000-35,000 years old, putting it at the start of the Aurignacian period, likely one of the earliest Venuses ever made. Discussions about gender and sex in the Palaeolithic also continued to flow, bringing some of the third-wave feminist critiques about gender performance and creation into archaeology. In 2000 a paper entitled The “Venus” Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic, brought forward a number of arguments to make the case that the Venus figurines were almost certainly dressed, both in their sculpted form as well as possible miniature clothing being placed on them. This new focus on the individual hairstyles, patterns, grooves, symbols, dots and so on echoed some of the original questions posed by Piette in the late 19th century. It was certainly a fruitful line of enquiry and matched ethnographic understandings of dolls and figurines in other cultures, which are often dressed up like people, adorned with objects and given hairstyles made of organic materials.
New advances in archaeological science, combined with this focus on the clothing of the figurines produced one of the most interesting hypotheses about their function. A 28,000 year old female skeleton from Italy, dubbed ‘La Donna di Ostuni’, was discovered to have preserved a perfect 8 month old of fetus inside of her. Researchers working on their remains are confident that the evidence points to the mother having died from a condition known as eclampsia. This causes severe convulsions and seizures, strong headaches, blurred vision and other visual distortions and can result in death. What makes this case so interesting for us is that she was buried wearing a headcap made from hundreds of small seashells, which looks very similar to the ‘bobbled’ cap found on a number of Venus figurines, including the Venus of Willendorf. As the researchers state:
Many of these statuettes were very small and light probably used as necklace amulets. Eclampsia (again a specific human feature among mammals), occurring at the end of pregnancy in young primiparae has probably terrorised our ancestors. Certainly, seizures were recognised to start from the head (muscle contractions, visual disturbances, unusual head or eye movements, mouth alteration, loss of consciousness); therefore, we may propose the hypothesis that the headdress that pregnant women wore was probably a protective artefact against these ominous events like death at birth and convulsions.
To my mind this represents one of the first papers where concrete contextual evidence has managed to be used to explain the function of the figurines - a protective female amulet of sorts. Doubtless they had other uses, nothing stays semantically static for 30,000 years, but being able to show something like a death during pregnancy is light years ahead of speculations about sex slaves or abstract ‘fertility cults’.
Putting It All Together
Having covered over a century’s worth of research, are we able to say anything meaningful about the Venus figurine phenomenon? Well we have roughly four basic hypotheses to show for it all:
Realism: the figurines are accurate representations of Palaeolithic and Neolithic people. This can be looked at sexually, racially (not a popular or likely productive take) or physiologically, in particular the focus on obesity and age.
The Goddess: the figurines are representations of a general female deity, still a popular view amongst some feminists and environmentalists, but generally seen as anachronistic now.
Magico-Functional: the figurines are some kind of magical object relating to protection, luck, motherhood, pregnancy, fertility, ancestors, dead spouses, shamanic or religious activity or something else.
Mundane: this would include art-for-art’s sake, children’s toys, dolls, throwaway objects, teaching or visual aides, or some other less exotic function.
Personally I think the figurines should be considered more realistic than stylistic or idealistic, and any proposed function needs evidence stronger than just ideas like ‘fertility’. I haven’t had the space here to consider the figurines in the wider context of Palaeolithic art, nor to look at whether the Palaeolithic and Neolithic figurines represent one unbroken tradition, or two separate creations. It is interesting in the light of genetic studies that the figurines seem to continue to be made, despite population turnovers and disappearances. I lean towards them being for personal use, with most of them being small and portable, and likely connected to pregnancy and protection. Hopefully future work can integrate wider lines of evidence, rather than speculation, but we must always be prepared to admit in the final analysis that we simply don’t know.
I leave you with a portion of Camille Paglia's superlative description of the Venus figurines from her 1990 magnum opus Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson:
Venus of Willendorf carries her cave with her. She is blind, masked. Her ropes of corn-row hair look forward to the invention of agriculture. She has a furrowed brow. Her facelessness is the impersonality of primitive sex and religion. There is no psychology or identity yet, because there is no society, no cohesion. Men cower and scatter at the blast of the elements. Venus of Willendorf is eyeless because nature can be seen but not known. She is remote even as she kills and creates. The statuette, so overflowing and protuberant, is ritually invisible. She stifles the eye. She is the cloud of nature. She is eternally pregnant. She broods, in all senses. She is hen, nest, egg. The Latin mater and materia, mother and matter, are etymologically connected. Venus of Willendorf is the nature-mother as primeval muck, oozing into infant forms. She is female but not feminine. She is turgid with primal force, swollen with great expectations. She has no feet. Placed on end, she would topple over. Woman is immobile, weighed down by her inflated mounds of breast, belly, and buttock. Like Venus de Milo, Venus of Willendorf has no arms. They are flat flippers scratched on the stone, unevolved, useless. She has no thumbs and therefore no tools. Unlike man, she can neither roam nor build. She is a mountain that can be climbed but can never move. The braided cap of Venus of Willendorf is hivelike—prefiguring the provocative beehives of French court wigs and shellacked swinging-Sixties towers. Venus buzzes to herself, queen for all days, woman for all seasons. She sleeps. She is hibernation and harvest, the turning wheel of the year. Female jiggle is the ducklike waddle of our wallowing Willendorf, who swims in the underground river of liquid nature. Sex is probings, plumbing, secretions, gushings. Venus is drowsing and dowsing, hearkening to the stirring in her sac of waters. Is the Venus of Willendorf just to female experience? Yes. Woman is trapped in her wavy, watery body. She must listen and learn from something beyond and yet within her. The Venus of Willendorf, blind, tongueless, brainless, armless, knock-kneed, seems a depressing model of gender. Yet woman is depressed, pressed down, by earth’s gravitation, calling us back to her bosom. We will see that malign magnetism at work in Michelangelo, one of his great themes and obsessions. In the west, art is a hacking away at nature’s excess. The western mind makes definitions. Life always begins and ends in squalor. The Venus of Willendorf, slumping, slovenly, sluttish, is in a rut, the womb-tomb of mother nature. Never send to know for whom the belle tolls. She tolls for thee.
Bibliography (not in text)
The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation | SpringerLink
Science, the Media, and Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Figurines - Nowell - 2014 - American Anthropologist - Wiley Online Library
The Origins of the Concept of ‘Palaeolithic Art’: Theoretical Roots of an Idea | SpringerLink
CAVE ART AND THE THEORY OF ART: THE ORIGINS OF THE RELIGIOUS INTERPRETATION OF PALAEOLITHIC GRAPHIC EXPRESSION - PALACIO‐PÉREZ - 2010 - Oxford Journal of Archaeology - Wiley Online Library
Towards a Genealogy of the Concept of "Paleolithic Mobiliary Art" (jstor.org)
The Origins of the Concept of ‘Palaeolithic Art’: Theoretical Roots of an Idea | SpringerLink
I’ve always had one question about the idea that the figurines were women carving themselves from what they could see looking down at their own bodies : How did they do the buttocks?
A really informative read! The discovery of the pregnant woman in a shell cap and its potential connection to the "Venus" of Willendorf figure is especially interesting. Thanks for the synopsis and including the bibliography, too!