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Most historical relics found by archeologists are “just” several thousand years old because of how harsh the various environmental factors can be on man-made creations. That’s why finding figurines, tools, and cave paintings that are more than just a few thousand years old is such a major discovery.
This is exactly why the Venus of Willendorf is so special. Approximately 25,000 years old, this is one of the very few relics we have of that time and one of just several windows back in time we have to see how people used to live back then.
What is the Venus of Willendorf?
Even if you haven’t heard of the Venus of Willendorf before, it’s likely you have seen it. This famous figurine represents a woman’s body with very pronounced physical and sexual characteristics, including huge breasts, very thin thighs, a large belly, and braided hair. The figure has no legs.
The figurine is called the Venus of Willendorf because it was found at Willendorf, Austria in 1908. The man who made the discovery was either Johann Veran or Joseph Veram – a workman who was a part of the archeological excavations conducted by Hugo Obermaier, Josef Szombathy, and Josef Bayer.
The figurine is nearly 4 and a half inches tall (11.1 cm) and is made out of oolitic limestone with a red ochre pigment. It is fascinating that this material isn’t found naturally in the area of Willendorf, Austria, which probably means that the figurine was brought there by a nomadic tribe.
Is This the Only Such Figurine?
While this is the most famous such figurine, there are roughly 40 similar smaller figurines from that period that have been found up until the early 21st century. Most are of female bodies and just a few portray men. There are also some 80+ fragmented figurines found from the same period.
The exact dating of most of these figurines falls in the Upper Paleolithic Gravetian Industry period which spans between 20,000 and 33,000 years ago. The Venus of Willendorf is believed to be somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000 years old, with some of the other found figurines being either slightly older or slightly younger than her.
Is This Really Venus?
Naturally, this figurine doesn’t really represent the Roman goddess Venus as that religion was not created until a few thousand decades later. However, she is colloquially called that because of the region she’s been found in and because one theory is that she represents an ancient fertility deity.
Other common names of the figurine include the Woman of Willendorf and the Nude Woman.
Which Civilization Created the Venus of Willendorf?
People during the Upper Paleolithic period weren’t in the habit of establishing what we’d call towns or cities today, let alone large-scale localized civilizations. Instead, they were nomadic people who roamed the land in small bands and tribes. They are generally called Paleolithic People and are the ancestors of many of today’s European civilizations, countries, and ethnicities.
Is the Venus of Willendorf Self-Portrait?
Some historians such as Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott hypothesize that the Woman of Venus may actually be a self-portrait by a female artist.
Their logic is that the proportion of the statue and others like it are such that it may be made by a person who couldn’t accurately see her body from afar. These historians cite the lack of mirrors and other adequate reflective surfaces at that time. They also cite the lack of facial features as a sign that the artist didn’t know what their own face looked like.
The counterargument to that is that even though mirrors and reflective metals weren’t a part of people’s lives at the time, calm water surfaces are still reflective enough. Besides, people could still see what other people’s bodies looked like.
Most historian’s consensus is that the forms of the Woman of Willendorf are intentionally made in such a way and are not a self-portrait. The fact that there are many figurines that look like that further collaborates this theory.
What Does the Venus of Willendorf Represent?
A fertility symbol, a fetish, a good-luck totem, a royal portrait, a religious symbol, or something else? Most historians view the figurine as a fertility symbol or a fetish, possibly of an unnamed goddess of that time.
It is also possible that the figurines represent certain people from that time – many of the ancient nomadic tribes were matriarchal in structure so these figurines could be “royal portraits” of the matriarchs of certain tribes.
Another theory is that this body type was simply the “beauty norm” at the time and people loved and revered women with such bodies. The lack of defined facial features on the figurine seem to collaborate with that theory – the figurine didn’t represent any particular person or deity but was just a beloved body type.
The Ideal Female Form?
Was this really the ideal female body type at that time? Artifacts such as the Venus of Willendorf seem to point to that.
On the other hand, the hunter/gatherer people from that time tended to live a nomadic life and such a body type doesn’t really agree with a nomadic lifestyle.
A likely explanation is that people at the time revered this body type but that it wasn’t really attainable for most women at the time as food was scarce and physical activity was a commonality.
It is also possible that most tribes’ matriarchs had such a body shape while the rest of the women in the tribe didn’t. It’s also possible that even the matriarchs rarely achieved such luscious forms, and it was just their goddesses that were depicted that way.
Regardless of the exact representation and uses of the Venus of Willendorf, the fact remains that this figurine, and the others like it, bring to life a period in our history that for the most part remains obscure. Its age and detail make it one of the most intriguing artefacts ever found by archeologists.