Figurines of the Stone Age: Miniature Great Mother of the Paleolithic

Civilizations primary arising from agriculture have often believed that the creator of all things is the feminine element. Earth, the source of life, was imagined as the holy and fertile mother who was the matrix of all creation. In many myths of ancient civilizations, such as Babylonian or Hebrew, there are echoes of worship and faith in Magna Mater – the Great Mother, the creator of the world, which naturally resulted from her feminine ability to give life. In pre-patriarchal times, goddesses – not gods – were supposed to be  supreme powers. Hence there are many stories about the goddesses-creators of the world (Leeming 1999). However, with the rise of patriarchal cultures, they were supplanted in favour of more desirable tales about almighty gods and their male prophets.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) “St. George Striking the Dragon” Photo from: Fox, M.

From Matriarchy to Patriarchy

The etymology of the word matriarchy is derived from Latin and Greek: mater, matris – mother and arche – power (Jabłońska 2010). The period of matriarchy dates back to the Upper Paleolithic, and can still be observed in the late Neolithic period – the younger Stone Age – when a visible transition to patriarchy follows. In the Bronze Age, patriarchy is definitely dominating, which is associated with changes in the understanding of higher beings and religion in general. The way of life in the matriarchate differs significantly from the one prevailing in the patriarchate. At the time of patriarchy, life and culture were dominated by venerating harsh and ruthless male divinities (Ibid.) – warriors who slay the bodies of snake-like monsters. Simultaneously, the latter were associated in many myths with the female aspect, present in the elements of water, fire, earth and air (Absalon, Canard 2006:15-23). The tradition of the male creator god continues in monotheistic religions. In Judeo-Christian culture it is Yahweh, and for Muslims it is Allah (Jabłońska 2010).

Magna Mater and her Origins

The beginnings of Mother-Earth veneration were already visible in the older Stone Age, when the Paleolithic hunter worshiped the Moon, observed its phases and cyclical nature. The lunar worship of that time was undeniably associated with devotion to life and fertility, and thus dedicated to womanhood and menstrual cycle that has always corresponded to subsequent phases of the Moon (Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:31-32; Frazer 1971:378- 381).

Diana the Moon Goddess.” Photo from: The Phases of Diana

Echoes of the Paleolithic connection of Magna Mater with the worship of the Moon resound in the pantheon of ancient lunar goddesses; the moon lady is Syrian Astarte and Egyptian Isis or Hathor with the ears and horns of a cow symbolizing the Moon. The next incarnation of the Great Mother is Babylonian-Assyrian Ishtar, similar to Sumerian Inanna (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010; Żak-Bucholc 2003, “Astarte” 2010) and the Greek Selene – the personification of the Moon par excellence. In Roman mythology the goddess was known as Luna – the Moon. Her cult was associated with the cult of Artemis, in Roman mythology most often associated with Diana – the goddess of fertility and moonlight, and with the Greek Hekate – the goddess of death and magic. The most common attribute of lunar goddesses was the lunar sickle in their hair (“Artemida” 2010; ”Diana” 2010; ”Selene” 2010). Diana herself even took the form of the Moon and sailing into the cloudless sky, she looked with pleasure at her beautiful reflection in the calm shimmering surface of the lake, the mirror of the goddess (Frazer 1971:366-367). It is not surprising that today many scholars consider Paleolithic lunar worship as the source and foundation of all subsequent mythology (“Bóstwa lunarne” 2010).

Goddess in the Darkness of Caves

Lascaux cave paintings. Caption from “Lascaux Cave Paintings Discovered” (2009). In: History Channel.
Wounded Bull, Man & Bird, Lascaux Cave. Photo from: Ancient History Encyclopedia.

At the time of lunar worship, the female element hid in the dark, underground channels of cave-sanctuaries. From her womb all creation was born: mammoths, horses and bison are still emerging from the underground wells and are swirling in the colours of the cave ceilings – a gift from the Mother Goddess, which was invoked by magical rituals of the Paleolithic hunter (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:32-39; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:30-33). The naturalistic art of Paleolithic is dominated by the animal which had a sacred dimension at that time. Compared to realistically depicted images of animals, man was represented very schematically, and even in a caricatural way. On the verge of a flourishing matriarchate, among a few anthropomorphic performances, the image of a naked woman definitely dominates (Nougier 1989:39; Osińska 2004:14-16).

Palaeolithic Venus

Commonly known as Paleolithic Venus, female representations in the form of small sculpture or relief do not bring to mind ancient goddesses of beauty. Still the name of the statuettes refers to the famous statue of Venus of Milo, because, like the statue itself, figurines of Paleolithic Venus are basically devoid of arms (“Wenus Paleolityczna” 2010). The so-called Venus figurines occur across Eurasia from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Baikal, and given that the creators of these carvings were separated by hundreds of kilometers, it is remarkable that so many of statuettes share the same traits (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

They are generally quite small with sizes typically ranging from 2.5 cm to 10 cm though a few examples are as large as 24 cm but they are mostly small enough to be held in the hand (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). The most common material used to carve these statuettes is mammoth tusk, horse teeth, hematite, antlers, bone, limonite and stone (Ibid.). A very small number of sites produced clay figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of ceramic art. Some of their features are greatly exaggerated while other are absent or downplayed (Ibid.).

Upper Paleolithic Europe with some locations of sites where Venus figurines were found. 1. 1. Brassempouy, France; 2. Lespugue, France; 3. Laussel, France; 4. Grimaldi Caves, Italy; 5. Dolni Vestonice, Czech Republic; 6. Pavlov, Czech Republic; 7. Willendorf, Austria; 8. Avdeevo, Russia; 9. Kostenki, Russia; 10. Gagarino, Kazakhstan. Map from Soffer et al. 2000 .

Paleolithic Venus image is dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics: exaggerated buttocks, abdomen, thighs and womb may indicate a body deformed by frequent births (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Due to such characteristics, Paleolithic figurines are sometimes referred to as Steatopygian Venus figures as they expose body features typical of African women, namely an excessive fat accumulation in and around the buttocks (“Steatopygia” 2020). Additionally, it is quite common for the figurines to be faceless with poorly defined arms (hence their name) and legs and a silhouette that is tapered at the top and bottom. The carvings often lack defined hands and feet (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Bias interpretations

Venuses’ physical appearance provoke different interpretation (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

Venus from Savignano, Italy (c. 25 000-20 000 BC). Photo from Biologus.eu. Figurine with a silhouette tapered at the top and bottom . The middle depiction is displaying steatopygia.

They may stand for :

  1. fertility symbols,
  2. mother goddess,
  3. paleoerotica,
  4. self-portraiture,
  5. beauty standards,
  6. protective talismans,
  7. good luck amulets playing religious and ritual functions,
  8. ancestors,
  9. women throughout the lifespan,
  10. puppets, dolls,
  11. witches keeping strangers away (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).
Venus of Gagarino (c.20,000 BCE) Among the oldest art of Russia. Photo from: Venus Figurines

Those bias interpretations result from different aspects of gender(Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). There were androcentric (men as creators of figurines with an objectified understanding of representations of females) and feminist interpretations and approaches to the subject (Ibid.). Moreover, great number of found figurines and their realistic features contrast with the scarcity of depictions of males whose representation are usually schematic, stylised or abstract (Ibid.).

Notion of Motherhood and Self-Representation

Statues are characterized by the lack of facial features, which may indicate their character and purpose; Venus is not a beauty with individual features, but a notion of motherhood in general (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Simultaneously, her major features express respect and reverence for a woman as a source of life and refer to the cult of fertility. In the image of Paleolithic Venus, one can see a goddess taking care of women during pregnancy and childbirth, which was justified in the period of low birth rate and high mortality among new-born children (Ibid.).

Venus of Willendorf. Photo from: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the figurines may have been self-representations by female creators (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). This assumption is supported by statuettes’ proportions (Ibid.). Their bodies were shaped as if they were observed from the top down (Ibid.). At the time for a woman to know what she looked like, she could only look down upon herself (Ibid.). That would explain lack their faces, smaller heads, and why legs seem to disappear (Ibid.).

Worldwide worship

Due to a wide number of Paleolithic female statuettes – from Western Europe to Siberia – the conclusion is that their worship was highly widespread in the whole contemporary world (Jabłońska 2010; Nougier 1989:9,39; “Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006). Venus figurines are one of the most distinctive components of Stone Age material culture and the earliest examples of art created in the human image (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Those remarkable statuettes were created in Upper Paleolithic 50 000 – 10 000, mostly by Gravettian people who spread out all over Europe around 33000 to 22000 or even 17000 BP(Ibid.). Some statuettes have been found inside dwellings, in pits, some come from cultural layers (Ibid.).  They were first brought to the attention of modern society during 1890s when they were discovered in southwestern France and northern Italy by Edouard Petite and Salomon Reinach. The oldest was discovered in 2008 in Germany, dated to over 35 000 years old (Ibid.).

Venus of Kostenki; c. 23 000 BC. Photo from: Senko, K. N. Venus of Kostenki. Upper body decorations – linear wedge-shaped notching looking like bandeaux, usually present on Eastern European figurines with headgear. When such clothing is absent, it is probably replaced by the hands folded on top of the breasts (e.g. Venus of Willendorf).

Palaeolithic fashion

Photo by Cohen (2003) Fragment of a Venus from Kostenki (c. 23 000 BC) with the rope-like coil around both wrists hanging on the belly.” In: Venus figures from the Kostenki.

Decorations on the Venus bodies suggest some of them might represent clothing (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).It was generally thought that Venus, if dressed, should have worn animal furs, leathers or hides (Ibid.).According to information from burials, the dead were fully clad with abundance of bracelets and necklaces (Ibid.). Venus figurines reflect plant based textiles and basketry (Ibid.). According to undertaken studies, there are at least three different types of dressed female depictions: different headgear, body bandeaux and at least one type of skirt (Ibid.).

Venus of Brassempouy , France 22 000 BC; head covering: stylized and indistinct in detail, rather hairnets or netted snoods. Photo from “The Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic Era”. In: Ancient Origins.

Venuses’ dressing underlines the importance of textile industry in Upper Paleolithic cultures, which must have been associated with women, and stood for their prestige in a society (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).Similar value can be given to basketry: apparently weaving of textiles, plaiting and coiling of baskets were dominant female occupations employed already in Upper Palaeolith (50 000-10 000 BP). It is the earliest evidence of technologies such as textile – usually much more associated with the later Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (Ibid.).Factually, the stone age probably produced more wood tools and fibre artefacts than lithic items (Ibid.).

Venus of Lespugue, France, 26 000 BC : belts attached to string skirts, low on the hips with a high attention to detail. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 7. In: In. Slide Share.

No detail is accidental

The figurines of  the Upper Paleolithic may be unclad or partially clad and the modelling of their bodies differs. Such a depiction is not random but rigidly patterned within one particular type (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015). Among a massive number of figurines, they represent a female image of different functions; each has got its own symbolic meaning conveyed by the pose and underlined body parts (Ibid.). No detail is accidental; their creators made a selection of attributes and human identity (Ibid.). The Venus body becomes a medium to reflect social differences, also by means of their attire (Ibid.). Paleolithic imagery associates the wearing of clothing with a category of women whose attire included basket hats or caps, netted snoods, bandeaux, string skirts, and belts (Ibid.). These garments may have been of a ritual wear, which served as a notion of distinct social categories (Ibid.). Creators of clad Venuses must have been well familiar with the art of making textiles and fiber technology in general, or they could have been guided by such experts (Ibid.).

Venus of Laussel, France, on the left (c. 25 000-23 000 BC) and Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Czech Rebublic, on the right (34 000-26 500 BC) with highly abstracted horizontal lines girdling the body . Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 6. In: In. Slide Share.

Venus from Laussel

Among most famous prehistoric statuettes of Venus of the Paleolithic period there is undoubtedly the relief of Venus from Laussel, Aquitaine, dating from 22 000 to the 18 000 BC. Currently, the object, commonly known as Venus with the Horn, is a part of the collection of the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. An iconographic analysis of the relief indicates a close relationship between Venus, the lunar cult discussed above and the mystery of the Great Mother. While the naked woman’s left hand rests on her swollen womb, in her right hand she holds a buffalo’s horn with thirteen cuts. A woman’s womb may stand for the matrix of all creation, while the horn is interpreted as a crescent moon – a symbol of chthonic and lunar powers (“Kult lunarny” 2009; Wenus paleolityczna” 2010; Burda, Halczak, Józefiak, Szymczak 2002:32; Osińska 2004:14-16, “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:9). The thirteen marks on the horn refer to the thirteen days in which the moon is in the growing phase and the thirteen lunar cycles making up the solar year. All this testifies not only to the Paleolithic knowledge of the lunar month, but also to the fact that makers of the relief must have understood the connection between the woman’s menstrual cycle and the lunar month (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

Venus of Moravany, Czech Republic (c. 24 000-24 000 BC) Statuette dominated by obesity and excessive exposure of sexual characteristics. Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 4. In: In. Slide Share.

The buffalo horn held by Venus of Laussel is also of great iconographic significance: horned animals such as a bull, cow or buffalo are often attributed to fertility goddesses and were once used as sacrificial animals. It was believed that their blood was a source of purification, spiritual strength and life. Menstrual blood was interpreted similarly, given that the lush shapes of Venus with a horn were once covered by a red layer of ochre (Nougier 1989:9; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006).

There are apparently complicated relationships between women, Paleolithic Venuses, red colour, the Moon, fertility cycle, the first attempts to control nature and the very first beliefs.

“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, Austria (c. 28,000 –25,000 BC ). Her heads depicted with radially or spirally produced hair gear or a fiber based woven cap or hat with a knotted center, which looks like a coiled basket with circuits encircling the head. Photo from Photo from “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines” Slide 2. In: In. Slide Share.

One of the most famous Paleolithic female mothers, Venus of Willendorf, also has traces of red dye. Dated to the period between 32 000 and 30 000 BC, it is now kept among the collections of the Naturhistorisches Museum, in Vienna. The figurine is one of the first images of this type found by archaeologists, thanks to which it became a kind of an ambassador of the prehistoric art. Like her Paleolithic sisters, Venus of Willendorf boasts a lush shape of thighs, hips, buttocks, breasts and abdomen with a clearly enhanced womb. The author did not show the woman’s face (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2016; Pastuszka 2010). Her whole head is adorned with a haircut in a form of rollers surrounding most of the head with concentric circles (Szombathy 2010), or a round-like headgear (“Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Pastuszka 2010; “Wenus z Willendorfu” 2010). As it is described above, it may have been also a kind of a head cover. Unlike most figurines, the Willendorf statuette has the outline of small arms falling on the chest (Ibid.).

Venus figurine from Kostenki, Russia (c. 23 000-21 000 BC). Like in the case of Venus of Willendorf, Venus of Kostenki features a coiled basket around the head but with extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck.

Venus’ Evolution from Paleolithic to Neolithic

Venus of Lespugue, France. Photo from: Venus Figurines.

In addition to the two Paleolithic figurines described more closely, one should also mention the mammoth Venus of Lespugue and Venus of Kostenki, the burnt clay Venus of Dolni Vestovice, the serpentine Venus of Savignano or the ivory Venus of Gagarino. Regardless of the origin and material from which they were made, the number of figurines found proves their mass production, and so a large demand for this type of product. Findings of single statues in houses, near hearths and in sacrificial places could testify to their relationship with domestic worship. Probably prehistoric Venus was used in rites of ancestor and fertility cult as art products associated with the household. As it is mentioned above, there is also a theory that they served as votive gifts, fetishes, or – due to their small size and convenience – they may have been amulets.

Venus of Dolni Vestonice , Czech Republic. Photo from: Venus Figurines.

When the Paleolithic passed away, the image of the Great Mother gradually evolved acquiring new values in Neolithic (Jabłońska 2010; “Paleolityczne Wenus” 2006; Nougier 1989:25). In conjunction with that evolution, we cannot reject Magna Mater’s firmly sexual connotations. At the beginning of Neolithic, some artistic streams formed more abstract and stylized expressions in sculpture that existed and developed alongside more naturalistic expressions  – clothing disappears but sexual attributes remain (Soffer et al. 2000; Vandewettering, K. R. 2015).

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