The Venus of Willendorf

I really enjoyed the movie we watched about the Chauvet Cave, and early humans. I think it’s fascinating to know that the human species were around 40,000 years ago and creating art. One piece of art mentioned in the movie was the Venus of Willendorf. The Venus was a small sculpture, measuring about 11 centimeters tall, that was found in Austria in 1908. Joseph Szombathy found the Venus in an Aurignacian loess deposit. The figurine is made of oolitic limestone, and was colored with red orche. The sculpture shows a woman with a large stomach that overhangs, but still shows, her pubic area. A roll of fat extends around her middle, joining with a large buttocks. Her thighs are also large and press together all the way to her knees. Her forearms, however, are thin, and are shown holding the top part of her large breasts. Her genital area appears to be deliberately emphasized. For all the detail that is given to her body, none is given to her face. She does not have a face, and her head is instead wound with seven braids. The Venus of Willendorf has been dated to approximately 28,000 BC, and is the earliest known image of a woman. The figurine now resides in Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum.
There are a few ideas about what this figurine was. The first, is that she symbolized a goddess of fertility with her enlarged genitals, and the red orche symbolized the life giving menstrual blood. The second idea is that she served as a good luck charm. The men would have carried her on their hunts as a reminder of their mates back at home, and as a charm for success during the hunt. Something that adds to the good luck charm idea is that her hair is wound in seven braids, a number that would come to be thought of as a magical number in later years. The third idea is that Venus represented a mother goddess, as evidenced by her obesity. Women in a hunter-gatherer society would not have had the opportunity to get as obese. Some people wonder however, if she was based off of a living woman. The figurine shows such detail, including the dimples where her arms meet her chest, that many people believe there was a model. For a woman to be so overweight she must have had a very special status, which brings about the question of who she would have been? Was she a leader or were women in general held higher in Paleolithic society? We may never know.

One thought on “The Venus of Willendorf

  1. I also think it is interesting how overweight the statue is portrayed as. In a time where food was scare, and diseases such as rickets, that were linked to malnutrition, were rampant, the idea of a women being obese, even by modern standards, is a curious one. While clearly meant to have something to do with fertility, or even pregnancy, based off the shape and size of the stomach, hips and beasts of the figurines, archaeologists are not sure where the image of obesity arose from. Many of our ancestors subsisted on a hunger-gatherer lifestyle, which meant there the food found was shared, largely based on fruits and vegetables, and that most members of the community were very active. All of these factors fed into very few ancient people being even overweight, let alone obese. Obesity did not become common, or even rare, until the beginning of agriculture, accompanied with a decrease in general movement and a surplus of food. There is still no clear answer on where the inspiration for the figures on the statues came from, whether it be from females that held great status and therefore were given an excess of food, or from a portrayed form of pregnancy.


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