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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

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

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 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.

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?

They may have known what obese people looked like.
Especially when the women were pregnant.
They would store a lot more fat as the pregnancy went on, and I doubt they would have done much movement whilst withchild.
Also, it is known that when people are without food for certain amounts of time and eat again the food is stored as fat just in case the body goes hungry, which can make somebody get larger.
There are many possibilities as to why they may look obese, as obesity can come in many different ways.

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