Myriad Meanings of “Venus” Figurines

For several decades archaeologists have been debating the meaning of female-form figurines from the Paleolithic. In a classic paper (pdf), Sarah Nelson surveyed the various meanings that had been attributed to these “Venus” figurines by mostly male archaeologists, and unsurprisingly found them lacking. She noted that an archaeological mythology had sprung up around these highly diverse forms, and that the sexualized construction of them as “fertility fetishes” or “mother goddesses” was not particularly insightful. These figurines are in fact enormously diverse, not only in form but also in time and space. In Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic (pdf), Karen Jennett catalogued all this diversity and concluded that we may never know their various and polysemic meanings.

Given all this variation, inscrutability, and perhaps insolubility, I was surprised to see Science’s Michael Balter reporting on yet another attribution of meaning, this one coming from a presentation given last week at The European Paleolithic Conference. In what can only be characterized as confirmation of the obvious, the presenters argued that the early figurines “represent the overall idea of femaleness.” In addition to this bombshell, the presenters noted that the figurines present “female nakedness in all its splendor.” For the sake of charity, I am going to assume they said more and that something (new, important, or provocative) has been lost in Balter’s summary translation of the proceedings.

All attributions of meaning to these figurines face the same difficulties, the first of which is that the people who produced them were animists whose worldviews were profoundly different from our own. Ascribing meanings to these objects should begin with this consideration. If we did this, we would straightaway realize that even classing them as “objects” is problematic. Judging the issue by ethnographically known animists, it seems likely that these figurines were infused with life, force, or power. They were not simply inert or material objects.

The second problem arises from our ethnohistoric awareness that figurines which appear similar and somewhat uniform to us can carry vastly different, and divergent, meanings for the people who make and possess them. The classic example of this comes from the Great Plains tribes, many of whom created and curated anthropomorphic rock figurines. Despite their outwardly apparent similarities in form, these figurines carried different meanings for tribes that lived in close proximity with one another. Consider these:

Stone-Anthropomorph

Tonkawa-doll

Figurines similar to these could be found all over the Great Plains and bordering areas. Some were simply children’s play things or dolls. Others were thought to be powerful anthropomorphs and were kept in medicine bundles. Still others were sacred tribal objects and subject of collective ritual such as the Kiowa Sun Dance or Kado, which was centered on a stone figurine known as T’aime. In this 1911 article (open), Hugh Lennox Scott describes it:

The principal element in the Kado is the Taimay which is an image brought originally to the Kiowa from the Crows by an old Arapaho, and all the keepers of the Taimay have since been of the blood of that old Arapaho.

The Taimay is in the likeness of a small person, or doll, without legs. Its head is a small round stone covered with deerskin painted to resemble a person. It wears a shell gorget and has an eagle feather on its head: its body is made of deerskin and has short eagle body feathers hanging down all over it.

When used in the dance, the body is tied to a staff about six feet long, stuck in the ground, in front of a cedar screen, which is opposite the main door, in the rear of what corresponds to the altar place, though there is no altar. This cedar screen makes a retiring place for the participants in the dance.

When not in use the image is kept rolled in various wrappings in a parfleche with a moon painted on it. The first wrapping is a white polecat’s skin that was captured from the Pawnee about forty-nine years ago; the second is the skin of an antelope; the third is of calico. This whole bundle is then put into the parfleche.

If we didn’t have this description from informant and observer based ethnohistory, what kind of meaning might we ascribe to this “doll” if found in an archaeological context? We almost certainly would not be able to guess its meaning or significance to the Kiowa, or to the Arapaho or Crow before them. We face similar kinds of difficulties with Paleolithic female figurines. At some point, we simply need to realize that these meanings will probably never be recovered.

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6 thoughts on “Myriad Meanings of “Venus” Figurines

  1. Frans Couwenbergh

    Dear Cris,
    Again a post on an (for me) interesting subject: “Meanings of venus figurines”.
    “Myriad of meanings”: so an humanosophic meaning is sorely missed here!
    You state: “These figurines are in fact enormously diverse, not only in form but also in time and space.” But what they have in common is, that they all date from some 35.000 ya on (time) and are only found in Europe and (later) in the Middle East (space). — The Great Plains puppets may have other meanings, so I let them out of consideration.
    They all date from the time after the unset of overpopulation in prehistoric humanity. In ‘brody’-terms: they are from AGR-origin, not from GH-origin. They date from the time that men organized their own male initiation rituals deep in sinister cave halls, and that women no longer could free wander around in a boundless area. It was in ice age times: glaciers advanced from North and AMH-groups were forced together into refugia in southern France and other warmer places.
    Women needed to make more economically use of the plant food (such as peas and beans) of their narrowed territory. They cherished the places where those plants occurred, weeded the useless vegetation, asked their men to fell some trees perhaps. And … they choose the nicest peas and beans from the harvest and gave them back to the (female) Great Ancestor of the place. And see: the Great Mother rewarded this behaviour with even more of those nice peas and beans in the next season!
    Here we are witness of the first form of offering that will be characteristic for all later agricultures and that will get such horrible forms when men take over the power in agriculture and rituals.
    And here we are witness of the first form of idolatry: praying to gods images. Because the women, in their affection to the Great Mother, made images to praise Her female fertility.
    As to the noteworthy switch from the realistic Willendorf statuettes into the more ‘design’-Gonnersdorf style, mentioned in the article of Balter, : it reminds me of the switch from the realistic cave painting from Magdalenian to the geometric style of the Neolithicum – Gonnersdorf-style being a prefiguration …

  2. Cris Post author

    Frans,

    They do not all date from 35,000 years ago and they are not all found in Europe. They date from 43,000 years ago to 16,000 years ago — a time spread of 27,000 years. They are found in Europe, Eurasia, the Near East, and the Mediterranean. That is an enormous spatial thread.

    Given this enormous time and space spread, it isn’t surprising that they come in many different forms. If you would read the Jennett article I linked, this would be apparent.

    You are also mistaken about the transition from foraging to agriculture, which began to occur about 12,000 years ago and was an uneven process that occurred in various parts of the world. Thus, all these figurines were made by foragers and not by agriculturalists.

    As for the story you are telling about women, men, rituals, caves, mothers, idolatry, and ancestors, I’m not aware of any data or evidence which can be fitted together in the way you are telling it. We simply don’t know these things.

    The long and short of it is that I don’t agree with any aspect of your story.

  3. Frans Couwenbergh

    Recently I read an interview in Der Spiegel with sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. In the end of it he uttered his hope on the ‘second Enlightenment’. The thinkers of the first were great but didn’t dispose yet of real scientific insights. Even thinkers as Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, Marx and Engels, didn’t. But since the sixties results of fieldwork and microbiology provide our thinkers with scientific insights. Scientists however have to move forward on narrow paths, scrupulously basing themselves on quotations and citations, even parroting each other, to maintain their scientific credibility. Also our philosophers and humanist thinkers are in default – reason why I name myself humanosopher. The ‘core business’ of philosophers is – in my opinion – thinking big, reading and overseeing the evidences of the scientists, using the stuff and building for us the Big Story of humanness, as the modern alternative for the unenlightened and suppressing Adam-and-Eve-story – that remains in charge as long as it is not been challenged by a modern Big Story project: Wilson’s hoped-for ‘second Enlightenment’.
    You, as an anthropologist and philosopher, young enough to not being entrenched and old enough to have overview, and interested in so many relevant subjects, you filled me with hope. You read the book of Hugh Brody: the first who opens a glimpse of light – be it no more than a glimpse – on the essential difference between GHs and AGRs: between the determinative 95% of our GH-past and the frustrating 5% of our AGR-past. For me it was the definitive validation of the transition that overpopulation caused: it made males into warriors, it ended the GH-equality between genders, it made GHs to AGRs, it brought stratification, it made religious experiencing of the world into patriarchal and collectivist monotheisms, it made free humans into slaves.
    The long and short: you don’t agree with any aspect of this view. Wilson must wait for another philosopher.

  4. Juggernaut nihilism

    Frans,

    There is nothing wrong, from a literary standpoint, with painting a picture of an imagined prehistory or of positing single causes for the transition to the time when we began to emerge from the fog. Telling the story of how we got from there to here is vastly important for social and individual psychology, and is a noble pursuit. We’re all better off thanks to the Joseph Campbells of the world. But it’s also to important not to confuse it with science or scholarship.

    I lament our society’s allergy to the metanarrative as much as anyone. Hell, I still read Spengler. But, as you allude to with the Adam and Eve reference, a big problem in our world is that our mythologies no longer sync up with our experience and knowledge of the world. So while it is important to do the work of re-writing a meaningful story that provides people context for their experiences and impetus for forward motion (since scientists and rationalist philosophers have never managed to suggest a convincing and meaningful replacement for the mythologies they destroy), it is just irresponsible, when speculating about the dark past, not to face the truth about what we do and don’t know, and what the data show, regardless of how internally consistent our narrative is.

  5. Elle

    Thanks for links to both papers, they are excellent. I think one of the problems with ascribing religious meaning to these ancient female figurines, is that our modern society has completely lost all ability to incorporate the pure feminine in our current religious practices. We simply don’t know how anymore.

    This, I think is due to the overwhelming prevalence of institutional male monotheistic religions, which have persistently stamped out any rise of feminine spiritual expression. These are religions which were developed and written exclusively for men, by men, about men and the male perspective of spiritual experience. They lack even a shred of female input. Women were and still are expected to experience their spirituality only in this prescribed way.

    In his book, “Did God Have a Wife?”, archaeologist William Dever takes on the subject with the full weight of archaeological discoveries to support him. Such as the unearthing of thousands of goddess statuettes probably representing Asherah) in ancient Israel, which were created and used during a time that the Bible leads us to believe that the society was strictly monotheistic. He feels these statuettes, along with the rampant evidence of home altars, points to a female folk religion, which still exists in some parts of the world.

    In the majority of ancient polytheistic cultures, both male and female deities existed. Both sacred genders had their own temples, so the individual worshipper had a freedom of choice, which our modern society curiously lacks. There is no local temple of Isis in my town, or anywhere near me, lol.

    So, in my opinion, the true meaning of the prehistoric female figurines will remain hidden by the mists of time.

  6. Cris Post author

    I agree that the various polysemic meanings of these figurines are probably lost to us, though I suspect our best evidence for how they might have been conceived will come from hunter-gatherers or animists. In these societies, women have quite different roles, statuses, and respect. Agriculture changed everything for women, and eventually led to the rampant religious patriarchy we see in so-called “modern world religions.” When property concepts develop, women get taken along for an often unfortunate ride.

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