venus of willendorf

This strange-looking figure, carved out of limestone, was discovered in the remains of a stone age village near the town of Willendorf, Austria in 1908. It’s a bit more than four inches high. Its purpose is completely unknown. It’s believed to have been carved about 25,000 years ago. A figure of a woman, due to the exaggeration of the breasts, belly and genital area, speculation has focused on it being a fertility figure of some kind, and thus has been named “the Venus of Willendorf.” It might also be an example of Stone Age pornography.

Very little is known about the Venus of Willendorf. We don’t know much about who might have made the figure, much less why. The most conventional explanation is that it serves some spiritual purpose, perhaps a representation of reproduction or fertility. That explanation is not without controversy. When originally found, the figure was covered in red ochre, which some anthropologists speculate might be conceptually linked to menstruation or childbirth. But we don’t know for sure.

The Willendorf figure is not unique. Various other “Venus figures” have been found in Europe, many in central Europe but some as far away as Russia. They’re usually ceramics–made of clay and fired somehow. Almost all of them emphasize sexual characteristics of the female figure, such as breasts or rear ends, and a few have holes between their legs to represent the vagina. One such figure, found in Germany in 2008, was made from the tusk of a woolly mammoth, dating it to about 35,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

moravian venus

The “Venus of Moravany,” another similar figure from the same era, was discovered in Slovakia before 1930.

What did these figures mean to the people who created them? Fertility or sex are easy answers, but they’re based on nothing but suppositions. It might be that not all Venus figures are created alike or had the same cultural significance to those who made them. It’s interesting that the Venus of Willendorf seems to depict a woman who is extremely obese. It goes without saying that it was much more difficult to eat oneself to obesity 25,000 years ago than it is today (though of course obesity can be caused by other things, like glandular conditions). Could this be a representation of paradise–a place where food is plentiful and living easier than it  must have been for most Stone Age people?

This figure is interesting because it sheds some light on a very long-ago human past that remains almost totally mysterious today. Humanity had a very long and doubtless fascinating history before writing was invented, but the characteristics of that past are mostly lost to us today. Sometimes they speak to us–in very incomplete terms–through objects such as this.

Today the Venus of Willendorf is in the Naturhistoriches Museum in Vienna, Austria.

The photo at the top of the article is by Wikimedia Commons user Don Hitchcock and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The image of the Venus of Moravany is copyrighted by Martin Hlauka (Pescan), who has authorized it to be used with proper attribution.