Venus Figurines

Whenever I’m having one of those days in which I’m really not that happy with how my body looks, I simply find a little time to go and look at the following women.  I get to sit and think about what constitutes beauty through the ages.  It’s a nice balancing thought pattern which allows me to feel a bit more balanced about myself.  And if that doesn’t work, there’s always ice cream…

Enough of those Neapolitan fantasies: perhaps what I really wanted to do was to introduce a few of my favourite figurines to you:  they are collectively known as Venus Figurines and date from Prehistoric periods centred round Europe, which is a very long time ago (the Upper Paleolithic, or Late Stone Age, 40,000 – 10,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture) and some of them are quite striking.   They are commonly named after the place which they were found and range from 4cm – 25 cm tall.  The figurines are carved from soft stone, including limestone, bone or ivory or made from clay and fired.  They are called Venus figurines after the Roman goddess Venus, since the prehistorians of the early 20th century assumed they represented an ancient ideal of beauty.

The first is my favourite:

The Venus of Brassempouy, or ‘Lady with the Hood’  is just a head.  But what a head ;p She was discovered in a cave in France,  and she’s about 25,000 years old.  Dang she looks good for her age:

Venus of Brassempouy

Venus of Brassempouy

Venus of Brassempouy reconstruction

Venus of Brassempouy reconstruction

The Lady from Brassempouy is quite young in these terms, and a lady of a goodly number of years more is the one from Galgenberg: a slender figure made from green serpentine rock who has been interpreted as dancing, clocking in at a wonderful 30,000 years old. Tina Turner eat your heart out.

Venus of Galgenberg

Venus of Galgenberg

The next youngest I want to show you is more typical of the Venus figurines, with certain characteristics being exaggerated over others: I introduce the Venus of Lespugue, she’s dated between 24 – 26,000 years old, so be kind:

Venus of Lespugue

Venus of Lespugue

Another Lady in Limestone is the famous Venus of Willendorf: ’nuff said.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf

And again, from Siberia, carved from Mammoth Ivory and about 23,000 years old:

Mal'ta Venus

Mal'ta Venus

The Venus of Maravanny is the same age:

Venus of Maravanny

Venus of Maravanny

The Venus of Laussel is somewhat younger, notching only 20,000 candles on her cake: She’s carved in relief form on a piece of limestone, rather than as a single figurine, and holds a horn or cornucopia with thirteen marks or bands. These have been suggested as representations of the cycles of the moon in a year, or as days between the first crescent and the full moon:

Venus of Laussel

Venus of Laussel

And finally the last one of the bunch: the youngest Lady so far, sitting down for a change, I introduce the Venus of Morunz at a mere 11,000 years old:

Venus of  Neuchatel-Moruntz

Venus of Neuchatel-Moruntz

So there you go, some lovely ladies to look at, wonder about and if you’re anything like me, be fascinated by.  But, about that wondering about lark:  what were they made for?  and why exaggerate certain features over others?  ‘Tis in essence a difficult one, and one that the clever bods haven’t finished working out for themselves yet.  There are many different discussions and theories which have been put forward,  but in essence they boil down to an emblem of security and success, fertility icons or a direct representation of a Mother Goddess or local goddess.  They are mostly discovered in settlements, rather than in burials, and at Mal’ta they are found only on the left hand side of huts.  So perhaps not a secret amulet but something proudly displayed within a household.  The site in Gargarino has been interpreted as having female figures as a form of warding amulets.

There is some discussion that the figurines are a direct representation of a genetic disorder called Steatopygia which made women look something like this:

Woman with Steatopygia Traits

Woman with Steatopygia Traits

Compare the photo above, which was taken in 1960, to the Venus of Willendorf and the similarities of body form and hair (which is called peppercorn hair) are striking.  It is a genetic trait which seems to have been widespread through the period that the figurines were being carved.  The trait allows for the storage of fat reserves within the body, to enable survival during periods of little food.  It still exists within some remaining African hunter gatherer tribes, but not through communities which have adopted farming (including ourselves).  Two still living tribes have women who occasionally have this genetic trait: the Khosian of South Africa and the Andamanese.   Sharing at least steatopygia and peppercorn hair, the two groups could indeed be genetically related. Another possibility is that both groups have lived hunting-gathering lives in harsh environments until only a century or so ago and so have preserved traits that were once universal or widespread among Homo sapiens.  (In essence if you think that your bum looks big in that dress now, just think what it would have been like then…)

The apparent obesity of some of the figurines is now widely accepted as being connected with a kind of sympathetic magic, a desire for food in plenty to ensure that the group survived secure long enough to expand and be successful.  I can quite relate to that: having enough to live comfortably and never to want seems an instinctive thing.  perhaps these beautifully enigmatic figurines were a way of expressing and simultaneously ensuring fulfillment of that need.

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