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Mystery of the Venus Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic

Posted October 30th, 2011 at 10:03 PM by Gile na Gile

There was a time when I was supportive of the Venus figurines as evidence of cult worship, but it appears I had been misled by the extreme popularity given to the work of a single researcher; Maria Gimbutas. Her interpretation of them as evidence for a Palaeolithic "Earth/Mother Goddess" was but one of many and is, in fact, not at all taken seriously nowadays by the archaeological community. As the years unfold, in fact, this theory is beginning to look increasingly like a product of her time - being picked up and elaborated upon by feminist writers in the early 70's in an attempt to depict a prehistoric "Golden Age" characterised by a dominant female hierarchy and a male sub-class enthralled by the mystique of women's fertility.

Gimbutas in the "Language of the Goddess" and "The Civilization of the Goddess" went on to infer the existence of a pre-Indo-European early matriarchal order that preceded the Bronze Age civilisations and was indeed displaced by them. This theory was given further mileage by Robert Graves whose "White Goddess" and the "Greek Myths" similarly assumed the existence of old matriarchal civilizations in the Aegean, such as Minoan Crete, that were displaced by northern invaders whom we know today as the Mycenaeans. Gimbutas' reading of the Venus figurines as representations of a "Great Mother Goddess" at the heart of a fertility cult was also picked up and further popularised by Jean Auel in her "Clan of the Cave Bear" books and by New Age/Mysticist type writers, such as, Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor in works, such as, "The Ancient Religion of the Great Cosmic Mother of All" and "The Great Cosmic Mother".

Many archaeologists are apparently exasperated by this popular misconception and it appears that there is no consensus on the horizon as to what purpose they actually served. Patricia Rice for example breaks them down into four categories based on age and pregnancy;

(1) young women up to 15yrs old (23 per cent)
(2) pregnant women between 15 and 35 (17 per cent)
(3) mature nonpregnant women (38 per cent) and
(4) women older than 35 (22 per cent)

Click the image to open in full size.

There is a popular belief that the majority of them depict pregnant women and therefore are a form of veneration to the mysterious female power of fertility, but clearly this is not the case, as the numbers here testify. A further reason why this Paleolithic ignorance concerning female fertility may have been assumed by writers of this era was perhaps the then popularity of the view expressed by Bronislaw Malinowski in his "Argonauts of the Western Pacific" (1923) that the indigenous seafarers of the Kula Ring made no causal connection between insemination of the male seed and pregnancy. Reviewers have since concluded that these Papua New Guinean islanders knew that male insemination was necessary, but that it was not the only condition; fertilisation could only be complete if the seed were consummated by the presence of a spirit entity.

Leaving these conjectures aside, others have again argued that anything which enhanced fertility during the Ice Age would be counter-productive for the group as the harshness of living conditions would have promoted behaviours which sought to put a check on population growth. Then there is Karl Absolon who excavated a number of the figurines at Dolni Vestonice. He seems to regard them as evidence of stone age erotica;

"This statuette shows us that the artist has neglected all that did not interest him, stressing his sexual libido only where the breasts are concerned - a diluvial plastic pornography".

The oversize buttocks and breats common to many of them are here interpreted as perhaps fanciful wish fulfillment on the part of early male artists. Following this, there is Abbe Brueil who sees in the steatopygia a faithful depiction of African Bush women.
In addition, I was reading about one of the Venus figurines (c.25,000 BCE) recently and researchers managed to identify the fingerprints of a child on the cast - indicating that it was not perceived to be a "sacred object". It might just as well have been a doll or a plaything.

Also, given the ubiquity of the sun as the primary god/deity in so many animistic thought systems, you would imagine that at least some of the contemporary cave paintings in Lascaux etc would carry depictions indicative of it's worship or reverence. Not only is the majority of Paleolithic art concerned with the faithful non-abstract depiction of indigenous wildlife; wild boar, auroch, tigers and lions etc., but the oft-cited "birdman" and "shaman" drawings can be convincingly shown to be "over-interpreted" to the point of inferring complexity where in fact none exists. This to me is the result of the over-complexity of our own age and a Ph.D system which requires "original" research creating a feed-back loop wherein each successive interpretation of Paleolithic thought must be more elaborate than the next.

How can we ever be sure what people were thinking of or how they viewed the world so long ago? We can't, all we can do is make best guesses given the evidence before us and then maybe try and imagine being born into a world that hasn't been explained for us; we can at least envy them that mystery.

Contrary to the alleged abstractions that they were capable of, I'm getting a feel for a much more grounded visceral experience. Most of the cave paintings are direct representations of the most important creatures that surrounded them. The figurines, too, are plain and unadorned; just seemingly simple attempts to fashion from clay man's other great pre-occupation; woman. It is the life around them that they are concerned with - not inanimate objects; there are no idols as yet on the scene. They just seem to have a firm grip on what's most important. In sum, very practical people I think.

The emergence of language and abstract thoughts create their own separate reality and this process of reification renders the "true" as that which occurs between your ears and not what transpires in front of you. These people weren't dizzied by too many abstractions, in my opinion, but were grounded and secure. This is not to say they were "brutish" though, Chomsky's notion of a universal grammar allows for the full range of conceptual ability to be present - it's just that the linguistic circuits to put those thoughts and concepts into the form of speech with which we are familiar appears to be absent, and were in fact yet evolving. They are living, it seems to me, on an emotional plane, which, as Georges Bataille says in reference to the experiencing of a pre-symbolic, "gives things a sort of thickness".

As time wears on, I think evidence from genetics, in particular, mutations of genes concerned with the Broca speech region, will demonstrate that a fully formed complex language as we would be familiar with it today - i.e., an advanced recursive grammar - was in fact largely absent among the peoples of the Upper Paleolithic, which, when it is considered, makes the creation of the Venus figurines even more remarkable, and in some ways, even more provocative.

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Total Comments 6


  1. Old Comment
    The Venus figurines (c.25,000 BCE) are not necessarily connected to the Greek or Roman Venus/Aphrodite.
    Posted October 31st, 2011 at 05:21 AM by Thessalonian Thessalonian is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Well, it follows from Gimbutas thesis that that is precisely the type of genetic development which we may expect to see happen. But, there's such a vast chasm of time separating the syncretism of the Greek and Roman pantheons from pre-existing localised cults that any links speculated back to the Paleolithic would be tenuous in the extreme. It can scarcely be proven definitively but that is not to say it didn't happen.

    Have you read Graves 'Greek Myths' where he tries to demonstrate how the female deities were displaced by the male deities of the conquering Hellenes who had overrun, according to him, the older "matriarchal" civilizations of the Aegean?

    If the figurines were in fact symbols of a ubiquitous earth/mother type goddess which was exclusively worshipped then they would it seems have been an antecedent or precursor form of Hestia, Aphrodite, Athene and so on. By the time these deities were crystallised into the form in which they have been preserved for us in the Greek myths the original earth/mother goddess from whence their attributes were originally derived would have been largely effaced and displaced.
    Posted October 31st, 2011 at 05:59 AM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  3. Old Comment
    I belive that some of those deities had original attributes and traits attached to them. I don't believe in the copy-paste theory, especially after I discovered ancient meanders in Mitla, Mexico, which resemble ancient Greek patterns. Human minds think alike. There is no need for influence in order to create something similar or even identical. It all comes down to imagination and creativity.
    Posted October 31st, 2011 at 09:57 AM by Thessalonian Thessalonian is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Yeah, there are many examples of similar characteristics of deities being shared by cultures who could never have been in contact but I guess the point here is that there's a certain type of female dominated (or oriented) social institution, specifically one connected with rites of fertility, which are, it seems, (or maybe) the direct genetic descendent of the type of thinking which accounts for the Venus Figurines.

    It's their sheer preponderance on the archaelogical register over and above other types of representations. What is that suggestive of, if anything? Was there an inevitable way of thinking which captured such a disparate geographical and chronological timeframe? Why were unconnected hunter-gatherer groups separated by such vast swathes of time and space consistently coming up with this type of representation and this alone (with few minor exceptions)?

    There was it seems a certain orientation given to primitive subjectivity centred most likely around fertility which didn't just disappear at the end of the Palaeolithic. It had to be carried over in some shape or form into the agricultural era and the devlopment of settled sites wherein the first cults emerged. The extant myths are just like an echo of this age which is otherwise lost to the historical record outside of the few fragments of archaeology.

    What are these meanders in Mexico?
    Posted November 1st, 2011 at 09:59 PM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Check out Mitla, Mexico: Palacios de las Grecas.
    Posted November 2nd, 2011 at 01:22 AM by Thessalonian Thessalonian is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Anna James's Avatar
    I tend to see the figurines as a Mother-Goddess representation, but without the matriarchal society - the last hypothesis lays on nothing I've seen so far but assumptions.
    OTOH, if the said figurines are merely representations of the emotional occupation of the Paleolithic males, then the said males were merrily and unabashedly getting off on big, fat females with ginormous bums; which doesn't make complete sense to me, because there were bound to exist males that liked slimmer shapes with smaller hips, etc; besides, in the same logic we have to view the Priapus-type Greek figurines as a result of women showing interest in big phalluses - but we have evidence that the exaggerating on the said organs was with ritualistic aim in mind /fertility cults/, not with an aesthetic one.
    Anyway, the subject is interesting and deserves attention. Thank you for the many sources you refer to in your blog, I may search out one or two of them.
    Posted December 6th, 2011 at 09:51 PM by Anna James Anna James is offline

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