As I discussed in a previous post, the connection between the seclusion of girls at puberty and Venus figurines is not yet a subject which has found the respectability among academia. However, it is still a useful exercise to see how these ideas stand against more acceptable views on the prehistoric figurines. There have been two papers from the last year on Venus figurines, available on the web which I would like to briefly review in this post.
The Venus: Mother or Woman?
University of Manitoba
Journal of the University of Manitoba Anthropology Students’ Association, Vol 29 (2011)
I read the above paper titled The Venus: Mother or Woman? with great interest. The author makes a very valid point in a succinct manner about the need for a move away from more traditional viewpoints on the subject.
In order to unearth the true meanings behind the fascinating Venus figures of the Upper Paleolithic, one must move away from the paradigm which casts the Venuses as fertile mothers, instead considering other possible explanations of their existence. (p. 6)
Some theories about Palaeolithic Venuses are very limited in scope and only explore the visual qualities which meet the eye. Few theories are rather androcentric and even see the figurines as pornographic. I wholeheartedly agree with the author that Professor McDermott brought a new perspective to this lively debate about what these figurines represent. However, I feel that we are not doing justice to his theory if we are to treat it as the basis for a gender-centric discussion about the figurines. The theory doesn’t explain why men didn’t make similar objects, as frequently, representing themselves without face or feet despite the fact that among art mobilier from these prehistoric times, many three-dimensional objects have been uncovered. This may mean that these figurines transcended the gender and represented a more symbolic theme. Secondly, there is no way of proving that these women themselves made the figurines or someone else, possibly even a male, created them. Thirdly, we should not look at our prehistory through a glass coloured by our gender-centric biases. In other words, what is important is not rather a non-sexist view but objectivity encompassing a broader explanation. Such explanation should take into account not only obvious features of the figurines but also the possible symbolic meanings attributable to them.
On the other hand, the fertility symbolism associated with Venus figurines may still have some relevance. To see the persistence of this association, we only need to see the next article published by two scientists about which we would discuss in a following section. I, too, believe that there is no direct association between the figurines and fertility. However, there may be some form of relevance of fertility which permeates through another symbolic meaning. For an example, if these figurines were related to puberty rites as the articles previously published in this website hypothesize, the figurines could have ended up serving as protective amulet for pregnant women or wish-conferring talisman for women yearning for children. Even if the figurines had nothing whatsoever to do with puberty, they could still have served for such purposes through storied personage/s probably represented by these figurines. Thus, we cannot be completely sure that these figurines, in no conceivable manner, were associated with fertility as the deep history doesn’t easily divulge her secrets. Whatever opinion which fits most of the known facts about Venuses can be somewhat more plausible than a view explaining only one aspect of their existence.
Another sad facet of anthropological interpretations of the figurines tainted by modern gender-biases is selecting a favoured one from many possibilities. An example for such an instance related to ‘fertility symbolism’ is frequently occurring ideomorphs of ‘pubic triangle’. Are we sure that the prehistoric relatives of ours meant exactly what we think these signs to represent? Can it be a primitive chastity device which bothered both men and women? In the mind of hunter-gatherer man, perhaps, the chastity of his woman might have been more prominent than some life-giving symbolism. In prehistoric cave art, there aren’t many occasions where male organs had been depicted in isolation. Why, then, did these early relatives of ours depict ‘female signs’ in isolation. Treating caves as female by the Paleolithic men and women could be one explanation. Could then these ideomorphs be symbolic of a pledge of chastity from women to men or some supernatural force? We cannot be sure.
There can be so many unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions that would naturally come to a critical mind about these arts and artefacts from our distant past. Future archaeological and anthropological researchers may try to further investigate these issues. Unless they rid themselves of prejudicial views, their task may not get any easier.
In the final analysis, as the author of the above article says, first we should unshackle ourselves of more traditional viewpoints if they are burdened with our prejudices.
Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?
Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson
Journal of Anthropology
Volume 2011 (2011), Article ID 569120, 11 pages
As the title of the paper suggests, two authors try to reaffirm, at least for some of the figurines, the veracity of fertility hypothesis which the previous author hadn’t felt comfortable with. In the following discussion, the attractiveness aspect of these figurines will be overlooked as the proper noun “Venus” for these figurines only serves as a convenient label.
We suggest three possible roles for Venus figurines. Firstly, a minority of images may have been intended to represent young, sexually attractive and nulliparous adult females. These might truly be considered as “Venuses” in the conventional sense. Secondly, a subset of figurines represented changesin body shape during pregnancy and might be symbols of fertility. Thirdly, the figurines, depictingcorpulent 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 thus reproductively successful) maturity, during the harshest period of the major glaciation in Europe.(p.15)
Again, we may be forced to ask why the glaciations and harshness of environment only led to making Venuses not her male counterparts with similar frequency. It is very probable that these Paleolithic men also wished to be well-nourished and, as the driven males through the law of ruthless selfishness of gene are supposed to do, had surely been longing to be reproductively successful. Dr. Patricia Rice in her insightful analysis first argued to remove the fertility label attached to these figurines by pointing out the womanhood celebrated by these figurines. Instead of expert opinions that Dr. Rice relied on, the study in focus used contemporary university students to evaluate the age category and attractiveness of the figurines. One problem with such analyses is the loss of symbolic meanings or other plausible cultural and phenomenological nuances associated with the figurines.
Moreover, how certain are we that these figurines represent the physical forms of Paleolithic women, made to scale and betraying their age? How crucial is the facial features in determining the age of a person from the physical appearance? Why should we expect these women to be average persons with body forms conforming to every other woman of a perceived age? For an example, couldn’t there be a youth with a corpulent body shape? What is the likelihood of these figurines representing some storied personage or personages from these prehistoric periods?
The article clearly states that there can be more than one reason for the existence of Venus figurines. This repeats a very strong point which many authors on this subject expressed in different ways by proposing multitude of hypotheses. With one such view, discussed elsewhere in this web site, it is argued that these figurines were associated with the seclusion of girls at puberty. Can this hypothesis stand the conclusions of the authors of the article in focus? I believe it can. The seclusion of girls at puberty hypothesis attempts to neither assign an age to the women who were represented by these figurines, nor make it the exclusive interpretation for all such figurines. It only looks at the symbolic meaning of these figurines and accepts that there can be other figurines, not falling within the groups of figurines which are faceless and feetless, made for different purposes. The hypothesis can easily explain many of the characteristics of group of Paleolithic Venuses showing neither facial features nor feet. It can account for their obese looks and apparent incisions. It is also very widely accepted that red ochre found on some figurines can result from their association with puberty rites. The diffusion of puberty rites across the globe, too, should not be ignored. This may indicate a history of, at least, 40000 years. This sort of antiquity can comfortably sit within the prehistoric setting of Venuses. It can even merge with the widely-accepted altered-state-of-consciousness hypothesis about the origin of cave art signalling the Creative Explosion. With all these compelling reasons, if we still choose to ignore it, we should have some sound reasons to do so.
 The connection between the views on Venuses and our religiosity or lack of it expressed in this website is only secondary to the author’s strong belief in the connection between puberty rites and the symbolism encompassing prehistoric Venus figurines.
 See p.147 of Cave Art by Jean Clottes,Phaidon,2011
 Prehistoric Venuses: Symbols of Motherhood or Womanhood? Journal of Anthropological Research, 37(4), 1981