Venus figurines are small sculptures depicting the female form that were created during the lithic periods. They are named after the Roman goddess of love, Venus, due to their association with fertility and the female body. Most have wide hips and legs that taper to a point. Arms and feet are sometimes absent, and the head is usually small and faceless.
Various figurines exaggerate the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or vulva. Though many other examples it is not found. Depictions of hairstyles can be detailed, such as Siberian examples, where even clothing or tattoos may be indicated.
These figurines date back to the paleolithic and neolithic eras, with the majority of them originating from Europe. They were crafted by early human societies using various materials such as stone, ivory, clay, and bone. The exact purpose and meaning behind these figurines are not fully understood, as they were created by cultures that did not leave written records. However, several theories have been proposed to explain their significance. Including:
expression of health, fertility, child birth or nurturing;
grandmother goddesses and cycles of life; or,
self-depictions by female artists.
One anthropologist, Randall White, disapproves of the name “Venus”
He states the name is metaphorical. There is no link between the ancient figurines and the Roman goddess Venus. It could be interpreted as a primordial female goddess though. He says the perception is derived from the fact that attention is directed to certain features common to the figurines. Primarily, sexual characteristics such as breasts, stomach and buttocks. He states the term has been westernized rather than reflecting the terms of the original makers and owners. Since the original names and owners are unknown. Even though some are against. The name of the venus figurine has persisted.
History of discovery
In 1864, a french nobleman found the first modern day venus, giving the category its name. The Vénus impudique. It was found at Laugerie-Basse in the Vézère valley. This valley is one of the many important Stone Age sites in and around the commune of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. In Dordogne, southwestern France. Other figurines have been found here. Including the magdalenian venus. A headless, footless, armless, venus with strongly emphasized vulva. The figurines were found in both open-air sites and caves.
Name first use
In the mid to later part of the 1800s. La vénus impudique, venus impudica, or immodest venus was then contrasted to the ivory figurine to the Aphrodite of Knidos. A Greco-Roman sculpture, from 400bc, depicting venus covering her naked body with both her hands.
By the early 20th century, as more figurines were being discovered. A general belief among scholars was that the figurines represented an ancient ideal of beauty. Since then, considerable diversity in opinion has arisen from different archeologists and paleoanthropological studies. Regarding significance and function of the venus figurines.
Like many prehistoric artifacts, the exact cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Though, most commonly Archaeologists speculate they are symbolic of security and success, fertility, and/or a mother goddess.
They are mostly women with exaggerated body shapes. What did you think they are?
The majority of Venus figurines are depictions of women, and follow artistic conventions of the times. Like using lithic blades and bladelets for cutting, and pieces of clay and stone for sculpting. Most display a similar body shape with the widest point at the abdomen. Female reproductive organs are often exaggerated. And, sometimes, head and limbs, are neglected or broken off. Even void of detail. Sometimes, the figurines even represent pregnant women. While others. Show no indication of pregnancy.
A couple of Interpretation(s)
1) McCoid and McDermott have suggested that because of the way these figures are depicted, such as the large breasts and lack of feet and faces. These statues were made by women looking at their own bodies. They suggest that women during the period would not have had access to mirrors to maintain accurate proportions. This theory also provides an explanation as to why many of the Venus figures do not have faces or heads, as the creators would need mirrors to do so.
Other scientists have argued this theory by suggesting that alternatives, such as puddles, could have been used as mirrors.
2) Recently, another modern interpretation, comes from Johnson et al. Here, they argue that differences in the statues can be said to relate to human adaption to climate change. This is because, the figurines are seen as obese or pregnant in art from 38,000 to 14,000 years ago. A period when nutritional stress arose, as a result of falling temperatures. Accordingly, they found a correlation between an increase in distance from glacial fronts, and a decrease in obesity of the figurines. Colder ares required more nutrition. Being said, over nourished women may have been a sign of beauty.
It’s important to note that these theories are speculative, and the true purpose and meaning behind the Venus figurines remain open to interpretation. Additionally, not all prehistoric figurines depicting women necessarily fit the “Venus” archetype. There are considerable variation in their forms, and styles. Across different regions and time periods. One thing is for sure, it was a rare, considerably relevant early form of art.
Overall, these prehistoric Venus figurines provide valuable insights into the beliefs, cultural practices, and artistic expressions of our ancient ancestors. Even though their exact symbolism and significance may never be fully understood.
Fagan, Brian M., Beck, Charlotte, “Venus Figurines”, The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, 1996, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195076189 pp. 740–741
White, Randall (December 2008). “The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation” (http://blogimages.bloggen.be/evodisku/attach/166144.pdf) (PDF). Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. 13 (4): 250–303. doi:10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z (https://doi.org/10.1007%2Fs10816-006-9023-z). S2CID 161276973 (https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:161276973).
McDermott, Leroy (1996). “Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines”. Current Anthropology. 37 (2): 227–275. doi:10.1086/204491 (https://doi.org/10.1086%2F204491). JSTOR 2744349 (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2744349). S2CID 144914396 (https://api.semanticscholar.org/CorpusID:144914396).
Benigni, Helen, ed. 2013. The Mythology of Venus: Ancient Calendars and Archaeoastronomy. Lanham, Maryland : University Press of America.
Johnson, Richard J (1 December 2020). “Upper Paleolithic Figurines Showing Women with Obesity may Represent Survival Symbols of Climatic Change” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7902358). Obesity a Research Journal. 29 (1): 11–15. doi:10.1002/oby.23028 (https://doi.org/10.1002%2Foby.23028). PMC 7902358 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7902358). PMID 33258218 (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33258218).
Venus figures from the Stone Age – with excellent pictures of most of the figurines (http://www.hominids.com/donsmaps/venus.html)
Wikipedia contributors. (2023). Venus figurine. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_figurine