• J. W. Barlament

Solving the Mystery of the Venus Figurines

They really need little introduction. The Venus figurines, as they’ve come to be called, are some of the most famous relics from our distant Paleolithic past. Found most often in western and central Europe but in traces all across Eurasia, at least 188 of these female figures — defined by having faceless or tiny heads, if any head at all, and large breasts, hips, thighs, vulvas, buttocks and legs — have been uncovered. Seen variously as sexual objects, evidence of goddess cults, feminist icons or tokens of Ice Age survival, their purpose has been debated for over 150 years. Now, however, the debate may be coming to an end.

the Venus of Willendorf (Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, photo by Steven Zucker)

The first of these famous figures was discovered in southern France in 1864, labelled the “Venus Impudique” (immodest Venus) for its apparent depiction of a nude woman from her chest to her legs. The name very clearly stuck; as did the assumption that the nudity of the women depicted meant the figures must’ve been somehow sexual in nature. The Venus Impudique turned out to be among the youngest figures found, dated to around 14000 BC. Most subsequent figures have been dated to a cluster around 21000–23000 BC, though this may more represent the dumb luck of this age of figurines in getting preserved over the millennia than anything else.

The oldest — the Venus of Hohle Fels from southwestern Germany — dates all the way back to around 35000–40000 BC. That doesn’t just make it old, mind you. That makes it the oldest definitive sculpture of a human being found ever found on Earth.

The most famous — the Venus of Willendorf from northeastern Austria — has transcended archaeology to become an icon of the Ice Age. Dated from around 25000–30000 BC, she sports what appears to be some sort of mask, headdress or face-covering braided hair, with a few small unexplained holes carved into various parts of her footless body.

Although the figurines’ popularity may have retreated with the glaciers, the motif continued in one form or another in the city-states of the ancient Near East. Some archaeologists claim that the fertility goddesses of Mesopotamian religions are continuations of the mythologies surrounding the Venus figurines — though in truth, of course, that can’t be said for certain — but at least in the Neolithic settlements that preceded the great cities of Sumer, some form of the figurine’s memory seems to have lived on.

In Turkey, in one of the most ancient large permanent settlements ever found, the proto-city of Çatalhöyük, a figurine from around 6000 BC was found that continues to strike many as uncoincidentally similar to the figurines of millennia past. This, the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, is a similarly overweight woman, seated on a chair with armrests carved in the shape of two felines (perhaps even lionesses). Some have hypothesized her to be a goddess. Others, an elder woman of high status. But in truth, as for all the figurines that preceded her, no one knows for sure.

the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük (Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Ankara, photo by Kristina Kostova)

And this brings us to the central problem of the Venus figurines; no one knows what they were used for or meant to depict. The initial theory, as proposed by the amateur archaeologist and aristocratic male discoverer of the first figurine, was that they were obviously overtly sexual; either symbols of fertility, objects of arousal or images or sex goddesses; hence the “Venus” moniker. Later theories proposed they may be depicting early versions of the “mother goddess” trope, even though the evidence for such a trope existing before the advent of agriculture popularized the idea of a “fertile earth-mother” and the correspondingly exaggerated fertile mother-goddesses is scarce at best.

Even later on, archaeology began to gain at least some self-awareness that it, as a largely male-dominated field, may have fixated on the sexual aspects of ancient iconography way too much for any kind of accuracy. A new theory therefore emerged that posited that the figurines were actually self-portraits by Paleolithic women. This accounted for the lack of heads, as the women wouldn’t be able to see their own faces, and the exaggerated amounts of fat on the bodies as simply products of the sculptors looking down at themselves. Obviously, though, Paleolithic people weren’t totally ignorant of what their faces looked like. They didn’t have mirrors, but they did have reflective waters. Most of these figurines, too, were painstakingly carved out of stone, which would’ve taken countless hours and considerable skill to create. Would people eking out a living in the Ice Age really have had that kind of time for self-portraits?

Flash forward to 2020, when a team of researchers took a novel approach; trying to discern the figures’ purpose not by analyzing the figures themselves, but instead, the latitudes of the locations in which they were found. Recognizing that the figures came mainly from Ice Age Europe and Siberia, and that those which came afterward may have arisen from maintained cultural traditions from that time, the researchers found that the closer the figures were to the glaciers of their day, the more exaggerated their obesity seemed to be.

At colder temperatures and closer proximity to the glaciers, humans would have less nutrition available to them and need a higher body-fat percentage both to weather the cold and guard against starvation. For women, pregnancy would pose an even greater challenge, as already scarce food resources would need allocated more to them to ensure their child’s survival. And so, the so-called Venus figurines may have actually been models depicting how much fat a woman should put on to have successful pregnancies.

This explains not only the figurines’ obesity, but also their often-exaggerated vulvas, and the lack of facial and limb features; why would essentially instructional models need facial details when they were meant to be applied to all women? Such over-nourished women who were most likely to survive and successfully bear children could have also become cultural ideals and symbols of beauty, yes. But life in the Ice Age was hard. For there to have been so many similar figurines, a common practical purpose is likely, and this posits just that.

What were once thought to be religious idols or perverse objects of fetish, then, seem to have actually been tools for women’s well-being in a time of harsh climates, made with great care by cultures who actually made taking care of their own a priority.