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The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era

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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.

Standing female figurine, marble. Neolithic. Archaeological Museum of Eleusis (Public Domain )

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.

Top image: Front and side view of the Venus of Brassempouy (Public Domain)

By April Holloway

Comments

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.

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.

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.

I find it very interesting when I read the comments that the only ones that understand about these figures are the women. The men put them down and make negative comments. What you and the other women here have written IS true and shows that we as women are finally getting back some of our ancient knowledge.

When ritual objects like this are found that are PHALLIC in nature, no one says they must be dolls or porn figures. Funny that.
Goddess fertility figures used in ritual - not totally proven but OMG so much more likely than anything else. And you know what? That's EXACTLY how modern Pagans use them today.

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