The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era

The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era

The Venus figurines is a term given to a collection of prehistoric statuettes of women made during the Paleolithic Period, mostly found in Europe, but with finds as far as Siberia. To date, more than 200 of the figurines have been found, all of whom are portrayed with similar physical attributes, including curvaceous bodies with large breasts, bottoms, abdomen, hips, and thighs, and usually tapered at the top and bottom.  The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail, and most are missing hands and feet. Some appear to represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs. There have been many different interpretations of the figurines, but none based on any kind of solid evidence. Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning may never be known.

The Paleolithic period lasted from around 30,000 BC to 10,000 BC and is characterised by the emergence of human creativity. Man-made artifacts from this period show the very earliest signs of workmanship, from small personal adornments and cave paintings to the prevalent Venus figurines, which represent the earliest known works of figurative art.

The figurines were carved from all manner of different materials, ranging from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite, or limestone) to bone, ivory, or clay. The latter type are among the earliest ceramic works yet discovered.  The oldest statuette was uncovered in 2008 in Germany. The "Venus of Hohle Fels”, as the figure has since been called, was carved from a mammoth’s tusk and dates to at least 35,000 years old.

The size of the figurines ranges from 1.5 inches to 9.8 inches in height. They have mostly been discovered in settlement contexts, both in open-air sites and caves, and on rare occasions, they have been found in burials. Considering they were found all throughout Europe, and were sometimes separated by thousands of years, the general similarity of these sculptures is extraordinary.

A selection of some of the Venus figurines found throughout Europe

A selection of some of the Venus figurines found throughout Europe. Image source.

The term ‘Venus figurines’ is controversial in itself.  Inspired by Venus, the ancient Greek goddess of love, it assumes that the figures represent a goddess. Of course, this is one possible explanation, but it is just one of many interpretations that have been proposed.  A considerable diversity of opinion exists in the archeological and paleoanthropological literature regarding the possible functions and significance of these objects. Some of the different theories put forward include: fertility symbols, self-portraits, Stone Age dolls, realistic depictions of actual women, ideal representations of female beauty, religious icons, representations of a mother goddess, or even the equivalent of pornographic imagery.

According to Soffer, Adovasio, and Hyland (2000), the garments that many of the Venus figures have been found wearing, including basket hats, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts, were not typical Paleolithic day wear. The authors suggest that the garments are more likely ritual wear, real or imagined, which served as a signifier of distinct social categories.

Dixson and Dixson (2011) argue that it is unlikely that the figures were realistic representations of women.  At the time the statuettes were made, Europe was in the grip of a severe ice age and it is unlikely that obesity was a common feature. Instead, the authors proposed that the figures may have symbolized abundance and hope for survival and longevity, and for well-nourished and reproductively successful communities, during the harshest period of the major glaciation in Europe.

Unfortunately, the true meaning and purpose of these statuettes may never be known, leaving us to wonder why prehistoric people separated by significant time and distance created such similar figures, and what they really meant.

By April Holloway

References

Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic – by Shawntelle Nesbitt

Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic – by Karen Diane Jennett

Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness? – by Alan Dixson and Barnaby Dixson

The Venus Figurines: Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic – by O. Soffer, J. Adovasio, and D. Hyland.

Comments

angieblackmon's picture

I like the idea that they might have been dolls. I am continually amazed at the artistry used to make these items.  I feel like the level of difficulty is so beyond my skill set, but guess I've never "needed" to carve something. While I can understand why some might think they are all different due to times found and places, they do all look stunningly similar!

love, light and blessings

AB

To me the interesting thing here is that though many of these are somewhat stylized, I get the impression that they were aware of what a profoundly obese woman looked like. So how, in those days of hunting and gathering and vigourous exertion, was anyone able to get that obese?

This points to the idea that there were women in those days whose only activity was to basically sit around and eat. Imagine how much a person would have to eat and basically rest in order to gain that much weight. Does this mean that there was a ritualistic role for certain women in those days where their role was to mostly sit around and be fed by the rest of the tribe? I think that's a path of inquiry that could be very interesting.

We have modern examples to compare ethologically. Just take a look at Broodmothers in the U.S.

Looking at these figures I see a full, ripe, voluptuous mother. A revered, 'Goddess Mother' to all. In a time when family survival centered around the strength of the next generation, symbols such as this mother would signify health and vitality to the clan or tribe. They would not see this female figure as obese and unhealthy. They would see her as strong and full of health to carry and bring forth strong offspring! Why wouldn't these powerful figures have been shared as people migrated and traveled to different lands?

I agree with the Mabriggs comment above with a few additional points.
The term Venus figurines is a complete misnomer and is a more modern "umbrella" term for these statues. It takes away from their the original worship of the Mother goddess and what she represented. Venus as a goddess did not come along until much later and I believe it confuses the figurines original use.
The Mother goddess represented Mother Earth and was associated with childbirth. It is not that hard to come to the realization that pregnant mother would embrace this goddess no matter where it traveled from. The Mother goddess represented the personification of nature, motherhood, fertility, creation, destruction or embodies the bounty of the Earth. *Wikipedia definition but an an accurate one.
I also feel the comments suggesting that they could have been porn to be insulting and a direct expression of modern thought. In addition some of the figures shown don't fall in line with the Mother goddess and probably represented something else. Finally, until you try to put yourself in the thinking of are a pregnant mother in an ancient time period where losses were many, you will never understand the true spiritual nature of this figurine.

It's hypothesis to link these to any kind or ritual or worship or deity. There is no evidence for that. Anything that takes us beyond 'may have been' is simply modern imagination.

I'd have to disagree with you Andrew, there is a ton of evidence in many different cultures and time periods. Perhaps you need to reread the history of this topic. Start here and then move to the time period of your choice.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_goddess#Earth_Mother

You begin with an error. The Paleolithic era begins with the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene. This is known as the Lower Paleolithic. The dates you are using are closest to the Upper Paleolithic and only represent a small portion of the Paleolithic era. If you're going to use the term "Paleolithic Era," be sure to state it is from approximately 2.6 million years to 10,000 BCE for the sake of clarity.

Even today, many women lack the ability to produce milk. Imagine how difficult it would be to provide for an infant AND tend to crops or gather food under such hardships with a baby. These women were certain kinds of wet nurses that offered high quality milk, instruction to the young as nannies do, etc. They lacked the hands because they, like the children, had to be provided for, but without them, many of the children my have not survived. Perhaps they were not well received in society because no mother wants to turn her child over to someone else, unless that is the only means for the child to survive. At the very least, they held an important role in society.

Someone once told me that these figures were likely created by a woman, looking down at her own body. If you look at them head on, they aren't realistic, but if you look at them overtop, you can see how it looks a lot like a woman's body from the perspective of her eyes looking down at it, and the proportions aren't actually that off. It made me rethink a lot of history. We always assume that these ancient artifcats were made by men, but, in reality, we don't know. In fact, analysis of ancient handprints in the caves of spain and france show they might've actually been women's hands, and the caves were, therefore, painted by women. Which, untill I learned this, I didn't realize that I had always assumed it was painted by men, but once I realized this, I understood how silly it is. There are so many amazing women throughout history who are ignored and left out of our textbooks, women who really truely did change the world in ways we don't understand because we never learn about them. Just a thought, something to think about.

One of the figures shown in one of the pictures attached refers to the Venus of Malta. (Rep. Malta EU) This comes from the Neolithic period - not from the Paleolithic.
What is fascinating about the statues and female figures found on this island nation is that, first of all the incredible large number of them - concentrated on a square area of 300km. The size of some of these - exceeding the 2 metres and the edifices in which these where found - some of the oldest free standing buildings in the world - built using megalithic dressed stones - up to 20/25 tonnnes in weight. Recent anthropoligical studies seem to indicate that the ratio between the number of male and female was grossly different from to day and it is possible that it led to a female dominated society. Nonetheless the fact that no entire male figures have been found -here in Malta - but only phallic symbols, i.e. as far as the male component is concerned, invites one to believe that the female figure, life bearing potential was very important for this mysterious culture.

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