Venus Figures are small bone, ceramic or stone carvings which exhibit exaggerated female breasts and hips. The term ‘Venus figure’ is strictly used as a metaphor for the female form. These carvings predate the mythological Venus – the Roman goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility – by thousands of years.

Venus figures are unique and hold artistic and cultural significance simply by being the earliest representations of humans in sculptural form. They also mark humanity’s earliest use of ceramic materials.

Venus Figures have been found all across Europe. Map Credit: Natural History Museum of Vienna.

The majority of these mysterious figurines date from the Upper Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) period between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. This period contains the first archaeological evidence of small-scale human settlements along with more complex social organization. Numerous cave paintings, petroglyphs and carvings and engravings on bone and ivory indicate a blossoming of the arts during this period.

Personal Discovery

My first introduction to these figures came in the 1990s when I noticed a friend wearing what she called a ‘goddess’ amulet on a chain around her neck. I was immediately struck by the silver charm’s robust proportions as my friend told me what she knew about the origins of the figure.

Many years later, when I encountered some of these ancient female figurines in European museums, my curiosity was once again piqued. While it was fascinating to visually examine such ancient sculptures and try to imagine the world of their creators, I wanted to understand why these objects were created and what purpose or significance they had within their respective cultures.

Popular Examples

Archaeological evidence of unique female carvings has been found from Morocco to Russia, but the most studied figures are of European origin. Of these, the oldest is known as the Venus of Hohle Fels which was unearthed in a cave in southwest Germany in 2008.

Figure 1 – Venus of Hohle Fels.. Age: 35-40,000 BCE. Photo Credit: H. Jensen. © Universität Tübingen.

The Venus of Hohle Fels is carved from mammoth ivory, is 2.4 inches in height (6 cm) and is dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago. It is the oldest undisputed example of Upper Paleolithic art and figurative prehistoric art. This tiny sculpture is particularly celebrated because it’s believed to be the earliest known depiction of a human. There is also evidence that the Venus of Hohle Fels may have been worn as an amulet.

Figure 2 – Venus of Willendorf. Age: 25-30,000 BCE. Photo Credit: Don Hitchcock 2008.

The Venus of Willendorf was discovered in 1908 in Austria during an archaeological excavation. The 4.4 inch (11.1 cm) high figure was carved from limestone, and was covered with a thick layer of red ochre when found. There has been a great deal of speculation about the decoration on the figure’s head. Its face is covered in what might be rows of plaited hair or a woven hat or headdress.

Figure 3 – The Venus of Moravany can be seen at the Slovak National Museum in the capital Bratislava. Photo Credit: Don Hitchcock 2008.

The Venus of Moravany was found sometime before 1930 by a farmer plowing a field near the village of Moravany nad Váhom in northwestern Slovakia. The figure is just under 3 inches (7.6 cm) tall and was carved from mammoth tusk. It dates to around 23,000 BCE.

The Venus of Moravany – side view. Photo Credit: Don Hitchcock 2008.

The Venus of Moravany as depicted on a Slovakian postage stamp . Date of Issue 20 October 2006.

Academic Research

According to the research undertaken by Alan F. Dickson and Barnaby Dickson and summarized in Venus Figures of the Upper Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness, there has been a great deal of debate among archaeologists pertaining to the function of these carvings within ancient civilizations. Some researchers have argued that the figures were carved by men, while others believed women created them in the image of their own bodies.

Previous research had indicated 5 possible areas for interpretation:

1) The statuettes might be realistic depictions of actual women.

2) They might be ideal representations of female beauty.

3) They could represent fertility symbols.

4) They might have religious significance and be depictions of priestesses.

5) They could represent images of ancestors.

Findings

Dickson and Dickson suggest three possible cultural roles for Venus figurines.

Firstly, a minority of images may have been intended to represent young, sexually attractive adult females. These might truly be considered as “Venuses” in the conventional sense.

Secondly, a subset of figurines represented changes in body shape during pregnancy and might be symbols of fertility.

Thirdly, the figures depicting corpulent and often middle-aged women, may not have been “Venuses” in any modern or conventional sense. They may, instead, have symbolized the hope for survival and for the attainment of a well nourished – and reproductively successful – maturity during the harshest period of the major glaciation in Europe.

Final Words

Whether goddess or Mother Earth figures, these mysterious carvings are a fascinating reminder that for thousands of years humans have sought divine intervention as a means of overcoming the ever present dangers of famine, illness and natural disaster.

peace~henry

Header Image: Venus of Kostienki

Special thanks to Don Hitchcock. You can check out his very informative site Don’s Maps by clicking here.

 

Posted by Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

48 Comments

  1. My curiosity was piqued too Henry as I knew nothing of these figures. Whatever the explanation for their creation may be, they are examples of the human need to create things which are not of immediate utilitarian value, going back all those thousands of years. I wonder what that says about us. Thank you for this corner of history, and art.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

    1. Hi Marios,

      Yes, as you say, the people of this ancient period had enough free time to create objects that those of us living today would call ‘art’. I find it fascinating to see how these early sculptors viewed their own humanity. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Like

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  2. Fascinating. I didn’t realize they were so old. And carved into mammoth bone too! Extraordinary. Have any equivalent male figures been found?

    Liked by 3 people

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    1. Hi Denzil,

      That’s, of course, a great question. The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel which is dated at around 38,000 BCE is the oldest known male figure (although anthropomophic) according to the British Museum, but male figures are much rarer than the female figures.

      https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-lion-man-an-ice-age-masterpiece/

      The fact that the vast majority of small sculptures from this period are clearly female with exaggerated breasts and hips leads most researchers to conclude that these figures were created as female goddesses which could help to sustain life by providing plentiful food supplies and aid in fertility.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  3. I have a collections of them. Depends on what you read. As far as what I know they represent the Goddess and were worshiped for their abundance. People kept the statues, of all sizes, from very small to large, for the benefits and gifts they brought to all.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Hi @hitandrun1964,

      I suspected you would have some information to share about the Venus or goddess figurines. It does seem the logical conclusion to assume these figures were seen as female deities which bring all the abundance of life as you’ve mentioned. It’s a fascinating period of history to explore. Thanks for your insights!

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  4. Hi. These are beautiful objects. Humans were creative many, many thousands of years ago. Thanks for this interesting essay.

    Neil Scheinin

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Hi Neil,

      Yes, it does seem that humans have been creating what we would view as art objects as long ago as 50,000 BCE. I’m particularly fascinated by the way early civilizations saw themselves in the bigger scheme of the universe. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  5. Intriguing possibilities as to their purpose, Henry. Like Denzil, I wonder if carvings of the male have ever been found for that period.
    I tend to agree with researchers who have argued that the figures were carved by men. They may not yet have realized their role in human propagation and prayed for fertility among their female members.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

    1. Hi Rosaliene,

      Yes, it’s a fascinating period in history, at time when people were becoming more settled and developing their own mythologies based on their changing view of their role in the universe. As I commented to Denzil, there have been discoveries of male figures such as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel which is dated at around 38,000 BCE, but they are much rarer than the female figures.

      https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-lion-man-an-ice-age-masterpiece/

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. Thanks for the info and link 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous post, Henry!

    I learned a lot, it was entertaining and I am still fascinated.
    I never realized man was on earth when the mammoth was, that man is so very prehistoric.
    … and to think I attributed Venus to Roman myth, only.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

    1. Hi Resa,

      It’s somehow soothing to me to imagine humans creating works of art as early as 50,000 years ago. It seems to be an innate part of the way we make sense of the world around us. Venus was, however, a goddess created by the Romans after the earlier Greek goddess Aphrodite. Archaeologists have merely borrowed the title as a way to describe these much earlier female figures. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. Thank you, Henry!
        It really is a wonderful post!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Bravo, Henry. Great article. I appreciate how you’ve presented information about the ancient carved female figurines in such a respectful way. To my eye and from what I’ve read they represent prosperity and fertility. They are personal household goddess representations. I like how they are authentic looking female figures unlike the portrayals that the media manipulate us with daily. I am amazed at how this beautiful art was created so long ago and they are durable enough to remain (until they were discovered in the earth) until the present day. Thanks, Rebecca

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Thank you Rebecca! I’m definitely drawn to these figures due to their natural beauty, history and innately in a way that I can’t quite express.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. Humans need the nurturing feminine archetype, especially at our present moment in history.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. I totally agree Rebecca.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautiful. I miss my Venus of Wilendorf key chain! I wonder what I did with that….

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. Oh, I’d love to have one of those 🙂

      Like

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  9. This takes me back to some of the art history courses I took in college. I really enjoy mysteries like this!

    Liked by 2 people

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  10. Happy to revive previous mysteries for you. Thanks!

    Like

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    1. Thanks. I share your fascination with these figures!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. I think art of the body is a beautiful thing and can represent so many things, as you mentioned; fertility, femininity, masculinity (all the lovely greek male statues). It is something to try to get in the mind of those people all those years ago and wonder what it meant to them.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. My wife ‘bares’ a striking resemblance.
    My Down Under fertility goddess 😎

    Liked by 2 people

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  12. This is an interesting read Henry and is a good summary of the thoughts on what the Venus figures might represent. One question that I’ve always had is why most of the figures are corpulent? I find it hard to believe that any hunter-gatherer could have maintained this sort of body weight unless their clan was providing extra food for some reason. Maybe that was the case, but personally, I agree with the point you make about the figure representing an “ideal” of some sort, whether fertility or the hope of survival. And BTW, I find the lion-man equally intriguing: the beginnings of belief? Nice post. ~James

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

    1. Hi James,

      While archaeologists must hypothesize based on their knowledge of early humans during this period, it seems common sense to surmise that the corpulent figures are a representation of a bountiful harvest/food security that could lead to a well-fed population. Your thoughts are much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  13. Not to sound vulgar but the first figure’s breast look almost like the head of male’s genitalia. Maybe the figure represents both male and female. Either way, it is new to me and interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. That’s an interesting observation @phillygirl77, and as good a guess as any. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      Like

      Reply

  14. Hello! I have nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award! You can find out more about it in my latest post on my blog 🙂 Keep it up, I really enjoy reading your blog!

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

    1. That’s really nice, thank you. However, I don’t recognize or participate in such awards.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. Well you can recognize the fact that I appreciate your work 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Simeon–I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. I totally appreciate your support! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Quite an interesting historical / archeological topic, the fertility issues in the prehistoric times. And I like how you put the image of Slovakian stamp (I am still a big fan of stamps, being a collector, i.e. philatelist from the very early age). In Croatia, my homeland we also have some interesting Venus figurines, but the most famous prehistoric figurine in my country is Dove from Vucedol by the town of Vukovar, Eastern Croatia…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Hello Ianus,

      Thank you for sharing your insights on European Venus figurines. Also, thanks for introducing me to the Vucedol dove, an ancient ceramic piece from what is now Croatia. The photos I found online are fascinating and reveal a high level of artistic ability and interesting symbolism. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

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      1. Yes, that dove is one of the most famous symbols of eastern Croatian archeology. I was once in city of Vukovar, from where the Vucedol culture originated, and bought myself an original replica of small Vucedol´s dove from home based artists.
        And this is the website from the new Vucedol´s museum (http://vucedol.hr/en/)…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks Ianus. I will check out the link you’ve shared.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. This is an excellent and well-thought-out post, Henry. I think one thing that might be interesting to do is to look at similar (not exact, but similar types) of figures from different areas and see what turns up. I think your thoughts about fertility for the group as a whole and abundance in crops, etc. is a very important one that will withstand the test of time. That seemed to be key throughout the world. One of my degrees is in Archaeology, and I know that I have seen figures not necessarily full-bodied women, but joyfully full-bodied people of both sexes, fat dogs and other animals, and other symbols that lead us to realize that survival, and not just survival, but the ability for the tribe or culture to continue to exist past a season or a year or two. It is as much a concern for all of us today as it might have been then, only then they did not have the technology (somewhat) that we do today or the tools (another issue that has been deceiving to modern cultures).

    And of course we all know that all of our theories are just that. If the people could speak to us from the past, wouldn’t it be wonderful? I am certain that their cultures were so much more than we can begin to imagine, as we look at those times from our cultural-enriched lives and times. I so appreciate your writing. That is a great job of presenting several different possibilities and it was very well presented. Thank you very kindly.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Hi Anne,

      Thank you for sharing your insights. I’m very happy to share your curiosity of ancient civilizations in an effort to learn how to create better societies today. Thanks for your support!

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

  17. Bi, Henry.
    Apologies for being off topic but It seems you have pulled your post on the Coronavirus. Will you tell me why?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. After receiving some (at least partially valid) criticism, I decided that the post’s timing was perhaps insensitive. It was never my intention to point fingers or assign blame to people who are sick. I will follow the scientific data being gathered and perhaps publish an updated post on this topic once the current epidemic has subsided. Thanks for asking.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

      1. Fair enough …
        You might be interested in reading the comments on my blog by a chap called Tildeb.
        I don’t know how on point he is but some of what he writes might be valid-.
        Regards
        Doug.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it was my reflection on Tildeb’s comments to my post that caused me to second guess the timing of my post while the Coronavirus- 2019 nCoV is still spreading. While I firmly reject her assertions that my arguments are totally ideological and without scientific merit, perhaps republishing an updated article with further evidence to support my hypothesis at a later time would be more sensitive to those who are suffering the effects of the illness at the moment. Thanks again for inquiring!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Excellent, Henry. I look forward to your updated post.
        Regards.

        Like

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