View Full Version : The Prehistory of Germanic Europe [Herbert Schutz]: 'Venus' Figurines

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006, 11:20 PM
The best known human representations are female figurines, the so-called Venus figures, a particularly unfortunate designation since the term, derived from later cultural concepts, suggests that the figurines represent the Stone Age ideal of woman, as well as being earth-, mother-, fertility goddesses. These inferences are all the more risky since one knows nothing definite about the significance which Paleolithic man gave them.

So far over a hundred of these female figurines have been found, spread across the entire Ice Age area from the Atlantic to Siberia and datable to the Upper Paleolithic from Aurignacian to Magdalenian. Made of ivory, bone, limestone, black amber, red ochre or clay, most of these statuettes belong to the portable inventory. They have been found in graves, probably intended as burial gifts, and on campsites especially near the inside walls of huts and shelters in niches or hollows, or near fireplaces-the figurine from Dolni Vestonice was actually found in a fireplace. These feminine representations are also known from rock relief.

One of the best known figurines is the 'Venus' of Willendorf , found in 1908 in the loess deposits of the Danube valley. Carbon-14 dating has the sculpture made about 32,000 years ago.

A typical characteristic of many of these figurines are their exaggerated proportions which one interprets almost immediately as portraying advanced stages of pregnancy. From there it is only a short step to see in them representations of fertility, or even fertility goddesses. Before jumping to any such conclusions, even to the casual observer the Willendorf 'Venus' reveals herself to be extraordinarily obese.

This little limestone figurine, 11 cm tall and still bearing the traces of red ochre all over, is so fat that her thighs form rings over the knees, the fat deposits circle her ample midriff from buttock to buttock in a wide flabby welt, while her oversized breasts reach down to the level of the navel. Each of her spindly, understated arms is folded across a breast. The fingers of each hand though are worked out individually.

Seen from above the head is covered by six rows of a concentric braid-like arrangement, usually interpreted to be hair, which reaches down to a receding chin thus obliterating her face. That this could be the sort of head-dress richly ornamented with the shells often found around heads and skulls has not been considered.

The attention to detail-the full calves, dimpled knees, fat thighs, vaginal detail, body folds on front and back, explicitly worked out shoulders, elbows and hands, and especially the intricate treatment given to the head, makes the omission of facial features a deliberate exclusion. That the legs taper downward is of course a realistic observation, but because of other, more stylized treatments, as well as the general-perhaps accidental-absence of feet, it is suggested that these figurines may have been pushed into the ground, or were to be held in the hand.

Figurines have been found at Mauern, the Vogelherdhohle and at Nebra, near Halle. In the Petersfelshohle were found stylized headless figurines with holes drilled into the upper end as though intended for stringing, to be worn as pendants.

At Dolni Vestonice similar pendants were found, only this time consisting only of torsos with pronounced breasts. It is not known if these pendants were worn by men or women or both, or why, or if at all. Of interest is a comparison of the figurines from Nebra found in 1962, with equally stylized carvings from Gonnersdorf on the Rhine. In profile they show a slender torso with protruding breast while from the waist to the knee the body is a triangular stylization of the buttocks. The figurines from Nebra are a bit more curvaceous.

The real surprise at Gonnersdorf, in 1968, were the engravings in the slate floor tiles of gracefully drawn women shown singly, or behind one another or in pairs, facing one another as though swaying in a supple dance, and dating from about I0,000B.C. In appearance they are completely unlike the familiar voluptuous 'Venus' figures.

Without heads or feet, they are shapely, straight backed, big bosomed, wasp-waisted representations of femininity, whose hips and buttocks are still pronounced, partly because the figures are shown doing a partial dip at the knee. Again thighs and calves are tapered to form a point. In all, individual examples of the Gonnersdorf type have been found on nineteen sites between the Pyrenees and the Ukraine.

It is interesting that although some 20,000 years separate the Willendorf Venus and her Aurignacian contemporaries from France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, from these female Magdalenians, heads and feet are still missing.

It is a common impression that it was the Upper Paleolithic male who preferred his ideal woman to be corpulent. In fact, all types have been found-girlish, slim, graceful, mature, obese, pregnant and even giving birth. Because many of the figurines had been reddened, a link was sought with the festive use of red in connection with burials, and the attempt was made to establish a death-rebirth-fertility cycle in which the 'pregnant' statuettes, as well as the cowrie-shells played a significant role.

Whether these figurines were objects used in fertility rites, or represented some archetypal mother-cult or whether they themselves were objects of veneration, as an externalization of fertility or as household divinities, has not been established.

from: The Prehistory of Germanic Europe by Herbert Schutz;
1983; ISBN 0300028636