The Venus of Willendorf

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


c. 24,000-22,000 BCE
Oolitic limestone, 4 3/8" (11.1 cm) high
(Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna)
The most famous early image of a human, a woman, is the so-called "Venus" of Willendorf, found in 1908 by the archaeologist Josef Szombathy [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] in an Aurignacian loess deposit in a terrace about 30 meters above the Danube river near the town of Willendorf in Austria.

The earliest notice of its discovery appeared in a report by the Yale anthropologist George Grant MacCurdy (1863-1947) who happened to be in Vienna in the summer of 1908. Although the greater part of the collection of finds from the site had not yet been unpacked, MacCurdy reported excitedly that before he left Vienna Szombathy had very kindly shown him a single remarkable specimen - a human figurine, full length, carved out of stone [see BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The statuette, which measures about 11.1 centimeters in length, is now in Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum. It was carved from a fine porous oolitic limestone not found in the region and so must have been brought to the area from another location. It may well be the case that the carving, which was presumably done with flint tools, was not done locally.

When first discovered the Venus of Willendorf was thought to date to approximately 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, or more or less to the same period as the cave paintings at Lascaux in France. In the 1970s the date was revised back to 25,000-20,000 BCE, and then in the 1980s it was revised again to c. 30,000-25,000 BCE. A study published in 1990 of the stratigraphic sequence of the nine superimposed archaeological layers comprising the Willendorf deposit, however, now indicates a date for the Venus of Willendorf of around 24,000-22,000 BCE.

Her great age and pronounced female forms quickly established the Venus of Willendorf as an icon of prehistoric art. She was soon included in introductory art history textbooks where she quickly displaced other previously used examples of Paleolithic art. Being both female and nude, she fitted perfectly into the patriarchal construction of the history of art. As the earliest known representation, she became the "first woman," acquiring a sort of Ur-Eve identity that focused suitably, from a patriarchal point of view, on the fascinating reality of the female body.


When first discovered, the statuette was identified as "Venus." Szombathy refers to her as the "Venus of Willendorf" in an article published in 1909 [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. A year or so later, MacCurdy refers to her as the "so-called Venus of Willendorf" in Smithsonian Report for 1909 (published in 1911) [see BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The name "Venus" had first been used, in a tone of mocking irony, in 1864 by the Marquis Paul de Vibraye who described a headless, armless, footless ivory statuette he discovered at Laugerie-Basse in the Vèzère valley in the Dordogne as a "Vénus impudique" or "immodest Venus" (now in the Musée de l'Homme, Paris).

The Marquis, of course, was playfully reversing the appellation of "Venus pudica" ("modest Venus") that is used to describe a statue type of the Classical Venus which shows, in the Capitoline Venus for example, the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view. The inference the Marquis makes is that this prehistoric Venus makes no attempt to hide her sexuality.

The name "Venus" was subsequently adopted by Édouard Piette (1827-1906) [see BIBLIOGRAPHY], who used it to describe an ivory figurine, of which only the corpulent torso survives, found in 1892 in the "Grotte du Pape" at Brassempouy in the Department of Les Landes and now in the Musée St. Germain-en-Laye.

She was originally nicknamed la poire - "the pear" - on account of her shape. For Piette, the name "Venus" may have come to mind in this particular instance because of the emphatic treatment of the vulva's labia and the prominent, slightly protruding pubic area, which he tastefully refers to as "le mont de Vénus" - the mound of Venus (or mons pubis). "Venus" has since become the collective term used to identify all obese Palaeolithic statuettes of women.

The ironic identification of these figurines as "Venus" pleasantly satisfied certain assumptions at the time about the primitive, about women, and about taste. Venus, of course, was the Classical goddess of sexual love and beauty.

Known to the Greeks as Aphrodite, statues of her nude proliferated in the Mediterranean world from the 4th century BCE on, beginning with that carved by Praxiteles for the sanctuary on the Island of Knidos.

From the Praxiteles model there developed a type of freestanding female nude that came to be known as the "Venus pudica" or "modest Venus," mentioned above, whose pose shows the goddess attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area from view.

Two well-known examples of this type are the Capitoline Venus (in the Museo Capitolino in Rome), and the Medici Venus (in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence)

In the 15th century, the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli revived this same pose in his painting The Birth of Venus and initiated a renewed interest in the Classical Venus.

Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1484-86 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)

So familiar is she in the west, that the name Venus instantly conjures in the mind an image of a tall, erotically curvaceous, nude young woman whose primary identity, as every heterosexual male recognizes, resides in her physical and sexual body.

The Classical and Renaissance Venus's physicality and sexuality, though, are treated with a high degree of civilized restraint. In comparison with the "Venus" of Willendorf, the breasts of the Classical Venus are small, her pubic area is undefined (no indication of the vulva, no definition of the labia), and her stomach, hips, and buttocks are given no particular emphasis.

In other words, she exhibits a tasteful, civilized response to female sexuality that involves both the display but also the suppression of its more physical aspects.

The beginning of "history" - the shift from the prehistoric to the historic, a step marked by the advent of writing - also marks for some the move from the primitive to the civilized. The Willendorf figurine nicely illustrates the contrast. Her bulging, bulbous body, large breasts, ample abdomen, and vulva slit manifest unrefined, uncivilized, "primitive" taste.

She also exhibits, in ways that are at once appealing (to most women, perhaps) and threatening (to most men, perhaps), a physical and sexual self that seems unrestrained, unfettered by cultural taboos and social conventions. She is an image of "natural" femaleness, of uninhibited female power, which "civilization," in the figure of the Classical Venus, later sought to curtail and bring under control.

To identify the Willendorf figurine as "Venus," then, was a rich, male joke that neatly linked the primitive and the female with the uncivilized and at the same time, through implicit contrast with the Classical Venus, served as a reassuring example to the patriarchal culture of the extent to which the female and female sexuality had been overcome and women effectively subjugated by the male-dominated civilizing process.

By naming her "Venus," a set of associations is brought to the image that influences our response to what we see. In one respect, she becomes a negative image, a "failed Venus" who, by the standards of the Classical Venus, is not beautiful and is not sexually attractive.

The name "Venus" also encourages us to judge her as a piece of sculpture against the standards of idealized Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art, where she again fails miserably.

There is also a sex/gender conflict; between female and feminine. From a patriarchal western culture point of view, the Classical Venus is both sexually female and also feminine in terms of gender. According to current theory, while sex is biological, the product of nature, gender is to be understood as social, the product of nurture or culture.

The nurture and culture paradigm that has been defining the feminine in the west since the Greeks is a patriarchal one. The feminine, in terms of gender identification, as it has come to be identified in western culture, is arguably partially, or even wholly, a male construction.

The "Venus" of Willendorf is visibly biologically female, but she is not feminine; the name "Venus" imposes upon her a gendered femininity that she does not have, so again she fails.


Nowadays, in the captions to illustrations of her in books, the word "Woman" is sometimes substituted for "Venus," a switch that has contributed, together with the current growing sensitivity to the visual representation of women, to a shift in how she is perceived.

One effect of this name change is to remove her from immediate identification as a goddess and to think of her in more mundane, human terms. This demystification allows us to approach the figure more on its own terms and, without the encumbering preconceptions provoked by a name, gives us a better chance of interpreting its meaning.

The sculpture shows a woman with a large stomach that overhangs but does not hide her pubic area. A roll of fat extends around her middle, joining with large but rather flat buttocks. She is not, as Luce Passemard has pointed out, steatopygous (that is, possessing protruding buttocks) [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. Piette had been the first to use the term steatopygous to describe the "Venus" figurines, regarding it as a racial feature that he related to the appearance of women in African tribes such as the Bushmen, Pygmies and Hottentots (KhoiKhoi) [see BIBLIOGRAPHY]. The implication that Aurignacian people may have been African in appearance influenced subsequent interpretations.

Her thighs are also large and pressed together down to the knees. Her forearms, however, are thin, and are shown draped over and holding, with cursorily indicated fingers, the upper part of her large breasts. Small markings on her wrists seem to indicate the presence of bracelets. Her breasts are full and appear soft, but they are not sagging and pendulous. The nipples are not indicated.

Her genital area would appear to have been deliberately emphasized with the labia of the vulva carefully detailed and made clearly visible, perhaps unnaturally so, and as if she had no pubic hair. This, combined with her large breasts and the roundness of her stomach, suggests that the "subject" of the sculpture is female procreativity and nurture and the piece has long been identified as some sort of fertility idol.

A characteristic of all the Paleolithic "Venus" figurines exhibited by the Willendorf statuette is the lack of a face, which for some, arguing that the face is a key feature in human identity, means that she is to be regarded as an anonymous sexual object rather than a person; it is her physical body and what it represents that is important.

From the front, the place where her face should be seems to be largely concealed by what are generally described as rows of plaited hair wrapped around her head.

Close examination, however, reveals that the rows are not one continuous spiral but are, in fact, composed in seven concentric horizontal bands that encircle the head, with two more half-bands below at the back of her neck. The topmost circle has the form of a rosette. The bands vary in width from front to back to sides, and also vary in size from each other. Cut across the groove separating each band at regular, closely-spaced intervals is a series of more or less lozenge-shaped deep vertical notches, some wide, others narrow, that extend equally into the band above and into the band below. These notches alternate between bands to produce the effect of braided or plaited hair. That it is intended to be understood as braided hair seems clear, although it has been suggested recently that the figure is in fact wearing a fiber-based woven hat or cap [see BIBLIOGRAPHY].

When seen in profile, the impression is that the figure is looking down with her chin sunk to her chest, and her hair looks more like hair; longer at back and falling and gathering like real hair might on her upper back. Some find it significant that the number of full circles is seven; many thousands of years later seven was regarded as a magic number.

Such elaborate treatment of hair is extremely rare in Paleolithic figurines, and the considerable attention paid to it by the sculptor must mean it had some significance. In later cultures, hair has been considered a source of strength, and as the seat of the soul.

Hair also has a long history as a source of erotic attraction that lies, perhaps surprisingly, not so much in its color, style, or length, but in its odor. The erotic attraction of the odor of hair is obviously rooted in the sense of smell, which plays a considerable role in sexual relations. Though greatly diminished in the modern world, smell was paramount in establishing an erotic rapport with a mate, as it still is among animals. In this context, the hair of the woman or goddess represented in the "Venus" of Willendorf figurine may have been regarded as erotically charged as her breasts and pubic area.

Another characteristic of Paleolithic "Venus" figurines is the lack of feet. In the archaeological report of her finding, the Willendorf statuette is described as perfectly preserved in all its parts, so it appears she never had feet.

It has been suggested that possibly the intention was to curtail the figurine's power to leave wherever she had been placed.

A more common explanation is that because the statuette served as a fertility idol, the sculptor included only those parts of the female body needed for the conception and nurture of children. Even if she had feet, though, it seems unlikely that she was meant to stand up. This is even more true of the other Paleolithic figurines.

Nor it seems was she ever intended to lie in a supine position. In fact, her most satisfactory, and most satisfying, position is being held in the palm of the hand. When seen under these conditions, she is utterly transformed as a piece of sculpture. As fingers are imagined gripping her rounded adipose masses, she becomes a remarkably sensuous object, her flesh seemingly soft and yielding to the touch.

What her identity and purpose may have been, why and for what reason she was carved, becomes an even more pressing question. If we dismiss all associations with goddesses and fertility figures, and assume an objective response to what we see, she might be identified as simply a Stone-Age doll for a child.

But this strikes us as unsatisfactory, not the least because of the very high degree of artistic ability exhibited in the sculpting of her forms. Compared with the other Paleolithic figurines in this group, the "Venus" of Willendorf is a remarkably realistic representation of a fat woman.


And she does appear to be fat rather than pregnant; a condition, it has been suggested, due to eating large quantities of fat and marrow, and a sedentary life.

Whatever it was she was eating that caused her to become so fat, the suggestion that she must have led a life of relative leisure in order to gain so much weight offers a clue to her status. The question is: Is this what women in the Stone Age looked like? Or did they look more like Raquel Welch in the 1960s movie "One Million Years B.C."?

If what the archaeologists tell us is true, that Stone Age societies survived through hunting and gathering, the chances are the women looked more like Ms. Welch than Ms. Willendorf whose obesity would have greatly impaired her ability to move around foraging and gathering.

The chances are, a Stone Age woman, much like the women in hunter-gatherer tribes today (such as the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa), would not have had the opportunity to get that fat, unless, of course, she had some special status. She evidently did not need to gather, or hunt, but must have been catered to and had her needs met by others.

Significantly, none of the few Paleolithic male figures in sculpture or in engraved images is shown corpulent. If the woman of Willendorf was a special female, who might she have been?

The life-like treatment of both the overall form of a fat woman and such details as the figure's knees and the dimples where the upper arm meets the chest, has caused at least one writer to suggest that a real women served as the sculptor's model.

If this were in fact the case, that the "Venus" of Willendorf is not an idol or a goddess but an actual woman, then she was clearly a woman whose specialness is indicated by her obesity and also by the fact that someone, a man or a woman, went to great pains to produce a likeness of her. But the likeness, if such it is, is noticed only in the torso and perhaps in her hairstyle; otherwise she has no face, unnaturally thin arms, and no feet.

The fact that numerous examples of this type of female figure, all generally exhibiting the same essential characteristics - large stomachs and breasts, featureless faces, miniscule or missing feet - have been found over a broad geographical area ranging from France to Siberia, suggests that some system of shared understanding and perception of a particular type of woman existed during the Paleolithic.

Images of women, mostly figurines of the same type as the "Venus" of Willendorf, all dating to the Paleolithic period, far outnumber images of men. This has lead to speculation about the place of women in Stone Age society.

Some have argued that these female figures denote the existence during this period of a prominent female deity identified usually as the Earth Mother or the Mother Goddess. On the basis of this assumption, it has been suggested that, unlike today, women played a considerably more important, if not dominant, role in Paleolithic society; that possibly a matriarchy existed and women ruled.

The "Venus" of Willendorf may be a representation at once of the Mother Goddess and a special living woman; one represented in the form or guise of the other, although which came first is impossible to know. Lacking written documentation, such claims are difficult to support or refute.


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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