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 the 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 ;-)

31 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 1 person

    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!

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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 2 people

    Reply

    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 1 person

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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 1 person

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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 1 person

    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 1 person

    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 1 person

    Reply

    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 1 person

    Reply

    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 1 person

    Reply

  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 1 person

    Reply

  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 1 person

    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.

      Like

      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 1 person

    Reply

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

      Like

      Reply

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