Symbols of Fertility, procreation and life
Swelling bellies, ample curves, and the milk-filled breasts of a pregnant woman -- what could be more natural, and evocative?
Reproducer Venus, fat and fertile.
A Palaeolithic man needed a woman who would bear him lots of children. Not a pretty face but a “faceless fertile being" with a strongly emphasized vulva to produce a continuing supply of young humans. And, if she got too fat in the process, well, there's just more of her to impregnate. So men carved desirable images of obese, passive, child-bearing nurturers -- another weapon in the armoury of Palaeolithic magic. Perhaps these ladies were divine in some sense, but, if so, that was restricted to a place in cults of fertility acted out by men and for men. This was the early 20th century prehistorians' view -- and there may well be a certain amount of truth in it.
But not enough to carry the weight of the theory. For it should have been obvious (even at the time) that this could not have been the whole story. Some Venuses didn't fit the model.
Someone may have unkindly pointed out, too, that there are no carved children. If Palaeolithic Tarzans were obsessed with the need for abundant offspring, they (literally) didn't show it.
So fertility was combined with another idea.
From Palaeolithic Reproducer to Mother Goddess
Johann Bachofen had already proposed the existence of the Neolithic cult of the female deity and prehistoric matriarchy in Mutterrecht und Urreligion (Mother Right and the Origins of Religion) in 1861. He believed that women and Mother-centred religion had dominated in the epochs before recorded history.
In this once-upon-a-time-world, women were
the repository of all culture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.In short, the first gods were female and women ruled the earth. In this era, women mated promiscuously and "every woman's womb was the mortal image of the Earth Mother". Everyone was sister, brother, uncle, or aunt to everybody else, a world of unimaginable equality or, as Bachofen described it, "the undifferentiated unity of the mass." It sounds as if he pictured Mutterrecht society as a kind of human beehive. A beehive throbbing with inchoate forms of She-worship:
Whirling round and round in dance until "the beasts and all the mountain seemed wild with divinity."Of course, such happy, chaotic times couldn't last. Too bodily-busy, sticky (if not steamy), and oblivious to the individual, the Mother was destined to be replaced by paternal rule. The stars transited from the warm lucent bubble of livingness to the celestial, Olympian right of the father.* Out went the She-god, in came the He-god -- and with him, hierarchical male-dominated religions, and male control of females. This "world historical defeat of the female sex", as Friedrich Engels phrased it, was not only inevitable ... but for women's own good: obscene disorder was suppressed and women came under the protection of individual men.
The Neolithic Goddess in the Rear-view Mirror
Although the evidence for an ancient Mother Goddess religion is much stronger in Neolithic archaeology (popularly connected with the writings of the Marija Gimbutas), theories that include the Palaeolithic figurines as ritualistic representations of an even older Mother Goddess are quite common.
Gertrude Rachel Levy's study of Stone Age religion, The Gate of Horn (1948) was strong on the continuity of female religious traditions from Upper Palaeolithic people who "bequeathed to all humanity a foundation of ideas upon which the mind could raise its structures": the cave as the female womb; the mother as a pregnant earth; the magical fertile female as the mother of all animals. Levy assumed that the Venus figurines were
the first step in the establishment of a relationship between the human group and the One [the goddess].Well, maybe. She had an interesting idea, though, about why the early Venuses usually lacked extremities: "the general unimportance among the statues of face, hands, and feet may have originated in fears of magic dangers” -- as seen, for example, in modern voodoo dolls. Having made a potential connection between an anthropomorphic figure of a specific person and the resulting power over that individual, Levy left the idea hanging and took refuge in vague references to their role in a "cult of human fertility".
What's a Fertility Cult Anyway?
Obviously, many Venuses have pronounced sexual characteristics but all that really tells us is that there was an undoubted (and unsurprising) interest in sexuality.
It says nothing about cult.
The word 'cult' implies beliefs and rituals, or at least performances. So any ' fertility cult' requires some kind of ritualistic performance that aimed to promote animal, vegetable or human procreation. Needless to say, we rarely find archaeological evidence demonstrating such performances in any prehistoric period, let alone in the Upper Palaeolithic.
What about 'fertility' by itself, then?
It's an inconvenient fact that those hunter-gatherer societies which survived into the early 20th centuries did not seem especially concerned with fertility. Not a perfect analogy (to be sure) but the best we have. The importance of fertility only becomes apparent during the transition into communities based on agricultural and pastoral production. Still, archaeologists can really only hope to unveil the meaning of the Venuses by analogy of some sort -- which means borrowing ideas from various other disciplines (psychology, phenomenology of religions, anthropology, or -- to be very up-to-date -- neuroscience) .
Zenobia will do her re-reading of the past through the lens of feminism.
You Tarzan, Me Jane
Feminist scholars of the 1960's began to question the research methods and male chauvinism apparent in earlier studies of the female figurines. Citing Bachofen’s Mutterrecht theory (despite its dire biases), they revived his primeval matriarchies and the belief that ‘mother-right’ was important in early religion:
[The] female body was a symbol of cosmological significance ....
If the female body was one of the most widespread and elaborate images of the Old Stone Age, and a symbol for the various forces of nature and the various aspects of culture, would it really be so far from the mark to believe that the figurines actually embody aspects of the Paleolithic worship of a goddess?
In their interpretations, feminist writers imagined the first religion as the deification of the female. The SHE-body is now a multivalent, multi-purpose symbol which can be utilized both for the understanding of and worship of a goddess-figure.
This is the viewpoint of the goddess-books published from the 1970's to the early 1990's, many of which went whizzing off into quasi-mystical realms
the mystery of the female body is the mystery of birth, which is also the mystery of the unmanifest becoming the manifest in the whole of natureArchaeology definitely takes a back seat. And prehistoric women are transformed into “some kind of super-beings revered by submissive males for their femaleness and their ability to produce children”.
And all because the stupid men didn't know about the birds and the bees:
It is plausible, though not certain, that the first humans were unaware of the exact role of the male in procreation, not having established a causal relationship between coitus and parturition. Thus, their attitude toward the female, apparently weaker than the male, but mysteriously able to produce life, was ambiguous: a profound respect, if not veneration, and, at the same time, a kind of terror in the face of incomprehensible, even magic or divine, powers. The statuettes called ‘Venus callipyges,’ ["of the beautiful bum"] of the well-known Lespugue type, are a decisive argument in favor of this thesis, because, in these representations, a divine maternal power is undeniable [and it is] probable that primitive humanity regarded divinity, whatever that was, as feminine in nature.
The only problem with this overheated argument is that the largest group of Venuses represent non-pregnant adult females. Instead of simply being obese or pregnant, many figurines appear to be young, pre-pubescent girls who have very small or no breasts and diminutive fatty deposits -- which surely means that the Venus figurines must represent different aspects of womanhood, not just motherhood.
So, serious studies nowadays reject fertility, ritual, feminine power or prestige, and cast about for other, lesser meanings to explain the variety of Venus figurines. They could be good-luck amulets, for example, or initiation figures, obstetrician teaching tools, puppets, priestesses, witches, or banshees to scare away strangers. A Venus-in-hand might help a woman in childbirth, or calm a fretful man like a string of primordial worry-beads. Finally, Venuses might mean nothing at all, being examples only of Palaeolithic experimentation with the technique of carving.
Girls Will Be Girls
The 1966 "Man the Hunter" conference changed the way anthropologists thought about hunter-gatherer societies. New research showed that such societies were sexually egalitarian, and thus the idea that men and women were once equal finally took root. Studies began to demonstrate women's contributions to subsistence. The he-manly mammoth hunter, beloved of 19th century prehistorians, turned out to be a dud as the main food provider -- though there is an undoubted cultural value in sharing meat and the prestige it bestows upon men with strong hunting skills. Analysis showed that women produced an average of 2/3rds of the calories for the group, a result of their highly-skilled gathering forays. During those forays, incidentally, women also often caught small game, thus producing protein-munchies as well as veg and nuts.
Possibly, it was the women's contributions -- and not the big-game of male hunters -- that assured the survival of the species.While !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, Australian desert Aborigines and polar Eskimos, of course, are not carbon copies of our Palaeolithic ancestors, they do share important features in social behaviour and values. Since they have never been in contact with each other, it's very likely that the shared features reflect a common social and environmental situation ... and thus it's reasonable to assume that European Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers had similar social organisation, values, and ways of thinking.
I suggest that one should make use of what we know about contemporary hunter-gatherers in order to imagine the motivations of prehistoric artists:
A centrality of women, or a special relevance of them or even a state of gender equality, has very probably been an important adaptive factor in the emergence of Homo sapiens out of all the different evolutionary experiments attempted by non-human Hominids. In simple terms, human evolution may well have acted on the gender that most invested in reproduction, nurturing and caring, a concept often [proposed] by female evolution scientists, but stubbornly ignored by their male colleagues and museum directors, who continue to display the evolution of Man the Hunter, with small women squatting in the background.**The Venus figurines may well reflect women's centrality (not political power) in the human adventure. The figurines range from realistic to symbolic representations of women but, regardless of the degree of realism, all or some female attributes are emphasised: breasts, vulva, and the natural female pattern of fat distribution on legs, hips and buttocks. These are clearly the attributes the carvers wished to emphasize.
If we accept that prehistoric artists represented forms that were important for them, carving a Venus was a way of expressing emotions and sharing them with others, just as contemporary artists, singers and dancers do. This is not art for art’s sake or aesthetics, it is communication.**
Will we ever know what they were saying?
No, I don't think so.
As my dissertation supervisor used to say, "That, Judith, is not an archaeological question."
* Citations in this section from Marianna Torgovnick, Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstacy (1997) 37-39.
** Piero P. Giorgi, "A new interpretation of female symbols and figures produced in prehistoric Europe: the hypothesis of the centrality of women", in Valcamonica Symposium 2007.
Other Main Sources
On fertility cults, Emmanuel Anati, "The Question of Fertility Cults", in (A. Bonanno, ed.) Archaeology and Fertility Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, 1985, 2-16. On Venuses, Alexander Marshack "The Female Image: a 'Time-factored' Symbol, in Proc. Prehistoric Society 57 (1991) 17-31; Patricia Rice, "Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood?" Jrl. Anthropological Research 37 (1981) 402-14; once again, I have made much use of K.D. Jennett's paper Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic (2008).
Above centre: 3 views of the ceramic Vestonicka Venus, credit Petr Novák, Wikipedia
Middle centre: 3 mammoth-ivory Venuses from Avdeevo, Collection of the Museum of Anthropology, University of Moscow. Photo L Iakovleva ("Les mammouths", Dossiers Archéologie - n° 291 - Mars 2004).
Above left: Ostrava-Petrkovice Venus (Czech Rep.), carved in haematite (sic). Photo: T. Powell, Prehistoric Art.
Above right: Savignano Venus (Italy), in steatite
Lower left: Mammoth-ivory 'The Armless' Venus from the caves of Balzi Rossi (Liguria, Italy)
Bottom left: Mammoth-ivory Venus of Lespugne.
Bottom right: Mammoth-ivory Venus from Yeliseevichi (Russia). Photo: Vladimir Gorodnjanski, 2006
Footnote left: for a sense of scale (cm.), two mammoth-ivory Venuses from the Grotto of the Venuses, Parabita (Sarento, Italy).