Happy Mothers Day! To celebrate we present you with the oldest image of a human which is of a woman. Found in Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna (Natural History Museum), the figure is of currently know as the “Venus” of Willendorf, and it dates from a staggering c. 24,000-22,000 BCE. Created out of Oolitic limestone and colored with red ochre the tiny figure stands a mere 4 3/8 inches (11.1 cm) high.
The purpose of the carving is the subject of much speculation. It never had feet and does not stand on its own. The apparent large size of the breasts and abdomen, and the detail put into the vulva, have led scholars to interpret the figure as a fertility symbol. The figure has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair, or a type of headdress.
This statue is an important icon of prehistory. Archeologists have suggested many different ways of understanding its significance for the nomadic society which made it. The first suggestion is that it was a “Venus figure” or “Goddess,” used as a symbol of fertility. Apart from being female, the statue has an enlarged stomach and breasts, its pubic area is greatly emphasized, probably serving as a representative of procreativity, and the red ochre pigment covering it has been thought to symbolize or serve as menstrual blood seen as a life giving agent.
The second suggestion is that the figurine may have served as a good luck charm. Its diminutive size led archaeologists to assume that it may have been carried by the men during their hunting missions in which it served not only as a reminder of their mate back at home but also as a charm to bring them success in their hunting. This is further strengthened by the facelessness of the figurine giving it an air of mystery and anonymity which suggests that it may have been of more importance as an object rather than as a person. Also, the figurine’s hair is braided in seven concentric circles, seven in later times being regarded as a magic number used to bring about good luck.
A third possible significance put forth is that of the figurine serving as a mother goddess (earth mother or female deity). This comes from a suggestion that the statue was a woman whose specialness was indicated in her obesity since women in a hunter gatherer society would probably not have had the opportunity to get as obese.
The nickname, urging a comparison to the classical image of “Venus,” is now controversial. According to Christopher Witcombe, “the ironic identification of these figurines as ‘Venus’ pleasantly satisfied certain assumptions at the time about the primitive, about women, and about taste.” Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott hypothesize that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits.
With all the suggestions that have been put forward about the significance of the sculpture, tentative conclusions can be made about the social, political and religious beliefs of the foraging society in which it was found. The use of the figurine as a deity suggests the practice of religious ceremonies to ensure the success of the tribe. As an earth goddess, it may have played the role of ensuring a continuous supply of food in the society. Along with this comes a possible belief in magic if the figurine was intended to ensure hunting success. Politically, it can be speculated that women due to their nurturing capabilities might have had an esteem role in the society. The society may have thus been more matriarchal rather than patriarchal as suggested by Jacob Bachojen (1815-1887), “Matriachate or gynaecocracy 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” (Witcombe).
The figurine was found in 1908 by an archeologist named Joseph Szombathy in a Aurignacian loess deposit near the town of Willendorf in Austria.