Saturday, 28 February 2009

The Venus of Willendorf

Women in Prehistory

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


The concept of an Earth Mother or Mother Goddess or Great Goddess derives primarily from the Greeks. In the Theogony, written in the early 7th century BCE, the poet Hesiod named the "deep-breasted" Earth Gaea, "a firm seat of all things for ever," who, after emerging out of Chaos, brought forth "starry Ouranus" (the sky), Mountains, the sea, and, after having lain with Ouranus, a number of non-cosmological Titans.

Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) in the Timaeus (40e) calls her Ge. According to Pausanias in his Description of Greece (2nd century CE), there was an altar and sanctuary dedicated to Gaia (the Gaeum) at Olympia (V.14.10), and another, known as the Gaeus, near Aegae in Achaia (VII.25.13). There was also a sanctuary of Earth the Nursing-Mother near the entrance to the Acropolis in Athens (I.22.3).

The Romans worshipped her as Tellus, or Terra Mater, whom Varro (116-27 BCE) called "the Great Mother."

Tellus or Terra Mater (detail from the Ara Pacis Augustae, Rome)
image source

In De rerum natura, the Latin poet Lucretius (died c. 55 BCE) calls the earth Tellus and refers several times to her as Mother Earth or the Great Mother, stating that "she alone is called Great Mother of the gods [Magna deum Mater], and Mother of the wild beasts, and maker of our bodies" (II.597-599).

The cult of the Great Mother [Magna Mater], later identified with the mother-goddess Cybele (and by the Greeks as Rhea), was established in Rome by the 3rd century BCE. The Greek satirist Lucian (120-c.190 CE) mentions the "Great Mother" in his dialogue Saturnalia (12).

A measure of her prominence in the pagan world is the space St. Augustine (354-430 CE) devotes to attacking her worship in The City of God Against the Pagans (VII, 24).

Largely suppressed during the Christian period, she emerges again in the 18th century when references are made to the female Earth as Mother Goddess.

Interest in the Earth Mother and the Great Mother increased significantly in the 19th century. Besides the classical sources attesting to her worship, the 19th century became aware of the many contemporary tribal peoples who worshipped the Earth as a female deity.

In 1861, in the first volume of his book Das Mutterrecht ['The Mother Right'] [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jacob Bachofen (1815-1887) argued that the matriarchate or gynecocracy found among tribal peoples, where authority in both the family and the tribe was in the hands of the women, was to be associated with the worship of a supreme female earth deity.

When these ideas became meshed with Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, laid out in 1859 in his On the Origin of Species, there emerged the view that human evolution must have passed through an earlier matriarchal stage.

Though controversial, this view posed no serious threat to patriarchal order. Indeed, in the context of arguments developed by the social Darwinists in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, it nicely demonstrated the superiority and evolutionary "fitness" of patriarchy over matriarchy. The fact that matriarchy was to be found in the contemporary world only among "primitive" tribal peoples only served to substantiate this claim.

It was against this background of ideas that archaeologists working at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century saw the newly discovered Paleolithic "Venus" figurines, and which permitted an interpretation of them as representations of the Mother Goddess.

Despite the lack of evidence, beyond the appearance of the figurines themselves, ancient Greek cosmogonies, and the spurious connection with much later tribal practices, numerous scholars have nonetheless felt free to extend the idea of an Earth Goddess or Mother Goddess into the prehistoric past and to claim that Stone-Age peoples had believed in her as a universal deity.

Other scholars, however, have rejected these ideas as a basis for interpretation and have pointed out, for example, the lack of obvious signs of divinity in the figurines. But, again, lacking written documentation these claims either way are difficult to support or refute.

Although the paradigm of the "Venus" of Willendorf as Mother Goddess persists, in recent years the figurine has also been interpreted as possibly functioning in a more gynaecological context, perhaps serving as a charm or amulet of some kind for women in connection with fertility.

At the time of its discovery, the statuette showed traces of red ochre pigment, which has been thought to symbolize, or serve as a surrogate of, the menstrual blood of women as a life-giving agent, as is the case in later traditions.

The emphasis given to the "Venus" of Willendorf's vulva and the possibility that the red ochre served as a blood substitute suggest that the figurine may have served some purpose in connection with female menstruation.

If the "Venus" of Willendorf was made to function within this sort of context, it would place the figurine emphatically within the sphere of the female. This would increase the possibility that it was carved not by a man, but by a woman.


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