The Mysteries of the Venus Statues
Small figurines representing women were made for thousands of years
History, especially ancient history, tends to be one of those topics people find interesting but irrelevant, but I disagree. You should know I’m on a bit of a history kick and I’m taking you with me for the next few weeks. Beginning with a fascinating article I read by National Geographic that I want to share.
The problem is, I can’t find a link to it online anywhere except for Apple News. Mysteriously, it appears to be missing from Google and the National Geographic website. So I’ll cite it the old-fashioned way. The article I’m talking about today is called Icons of the Stone Age, published by National Geographic History magazine, January/February 2022 edition.
It’s about ancient statues carved out of bones, ivory, and stone to resemble the female body. Over the years, they’ve been collectively referred to as Venus statues. I’ve heard references to them throughout various curiosity-led rabbit holes throughout the years, but I never learned much about them. Turns out, they’re an enigma, even to experts.
What Are Venus Statues?
As the article points out, the female body has been a source of inspiration for as long as humankind has been making art. We see it in various artistic expressions and disciplines in all shapes and sizes spanning pretty much all of human history, or close to it.
Our stone-age ancestors were no different, as evidenced by the over 200 small statues carved to represent the female body — often missing or without a head or face.
Although “statue” might be a little misleading since they’re usually no larger than a couple of inches tall — the largest so far, is about 10 inches — so, “figurines” may be more appropriate. Regardless, these small carvings depicting female bodies with an emphasis on their breasts, hips, and bellies date back tens of thousands of years.
The article points out that our ancient human ancestors became artists about 80,000 years ago, but evidence of the human form used as art didn’t begin appearing until between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago — in the Paleolithic period which lasted from about 2.6 million years ago until about 12,000 years ago.
Most venus statues have been found across Europe, Eastern Asia, and southern Russia. It’s believed the small size of the carvings made them easier to carry, perhaps during migrations or as mementos.
Venus Statue Mysteries
There are some peculiar aspects of these statues that continue to baffle experts. Firstly, many of the Venuses lack distinct faces, if there is one at all. Even when there are, the features are generalized. Yet the lines and curves of the bodies are undeniably and unapologetically female. Each one represents variations of the female body. Some venus statues are slim, while others are curvy with large bellies and hips.
Researchers examining these statues found an interesting discovery regarding the variety of body shapes represented across the known Venuses.
See, most venus figurines appear to have been carved during a time when weather and temperature were erratic, and food was scarce. Researchers realized the Venuses found closer to the glaciers tended to represent more curvaceous women with larger hips, bellies, and breasts. Those found further away from the glacier and ice masses, the proportions decreased.
Although the figurines don’t have defined or distinct faces, one particular quirk shows that the makers paid close attention to detail while crafting the tops of their heads. Though researchers aren’t sure whether the fine details represent hair, or perhaps they are supposed to be headdresses or adornments.
What Do They Mean?
Another part of their mysteriousness (is that a word?) is that there are significantly more of these carving representing females rather than males. Plus, they’ve been found all over Europe and further, with thousands of years between their creation, versus during a short time span or central area.
This means that they must have had some significance to our ancestors, whatever they are. Some experts over the years theorize the Venuses may represent fertility goddesses given the emphasis on the female form and lack of faces. Though this assumption has been challenged recently as the term, Venus comes from the Roman era when Venus referred to a particular goddess, and these carvings predate Roman times.
Another argument says the figurines were carved by women. The idea is, they carved them from the first-person perspective while looking down on their own bodies. Sometimes, perhaps, while pregnant. This might explain why the faces aren’t shown.
Other researchers argue that it’s clear each Venus carving represents a specific woman, and as such, they may be ceremonial or commemorative. Or perhaps they are a link between the living and the dead.
Lastly, since the body types seem to relate to locations and weather, some researchers believe they are symbols of survival while living in harsh climates. The idea was that more robust women had better chances of survival, carrying a baby to term, and probably surviving childbirth during a time with high child mortality rates. However, this doesn’t explain the Venuses representing slimmer women. In the end, we may never know their real significance.
Until recently, it was assumed ancient handprint cave art was done by men, but it turned out, the hands more likely belonged to women. We may never know the purpose or intention of the Venus figurines. Yet, their existence reminds us of a different time when women clearly played a significant role in society.
Today, we’ve grown used to living in a patriarchal society. Any other societal system feels foreign, yet, plenty of evidence indicates that we once thrived in egalitarianism and matriarch systems. Do the Venus statues support this idea considering female figurines and representation is staggering compared to what has been found of males and that they were carved throughout at least 20,000 thousand years.
It’s hard to imagine living any other way, with other systems or norms. The truth is, we’ve lived a million different ways, tried all kinds of lifestyles, we have advanced and been pushed back, and started over from square one. Now isn’t permanent, it’s fluid and ever-changing. That’s what these Venus carvings remind me of.
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