Rethinking the Venus of Willendorf

What was the prehistoric artist celebrating when he sculpted the Venus of Willendorf?  Did he or she perceive her as a deity, an ideal, as representative of female members of the society, or the most essential fact of society?  What meaning has been, and what do we, ascribe to such artifacts in our current understanding of ancient homo sapiens?  And finally what vestige of the so explicit statement of the female gender role persists in modern human civilizations?

Who carved it?  What would the role of the individual who carved it have been in the society of which he or she lived?  Let’s use the pronoun ‘he’ although there is little to warrant that.  He was obviously a member of the society with few if any, or any other, functional responsibilities – probably a retiree, one recuperating from injuries, or a precocious youngster not yet burdened by the ubiquitous duties of survival.  I opt for him being incapacitated by injury or age to thus possess what little leisure was available in such a society to devote to an activity that had no survival benefit.  What were his motivations whether intentional or instinctive, and what could he have been thinking as he carved?

A prehistoric culture of artists could not survive.  His role was an adjunct to the more basic essentials of the society, an unauthorized observer and storyteller documenting the culture.  Whether wittingly or accidentally he was an outsider looking in on his own culture.  And what did he report?  Although the artifact is clearly human, it is not a person per se; people have faces, hands, and feet.  This was a ‘type’ of woman he beheld.  It was in some way most representative to him, unlike the most beautiful, the strongest, or most grotesque.  He was not a frivolous voyeur of the unusual because whatever his background, he was of the society itself and as such stuck to a role and was very aware of everyone’s’ roles that had resulted in a survivable unit.  We can anticipate that these roles included hunters and warriors, with individuals probably adapting to either role as required,  children up to puberty who would spend time role playing both for fun and future, healthier of the women and children who would have been scrounging the locality for edibles and firewood and maintaining a livable abode.  Women that were heavy with pregnancy or nursing the young would have more stationary roles at the center of the community.  They were the nucleus of a community, its center in space, and its future in time.  They were what was considered worth feeding and defending.  They were the reason for the community’s existence as a unit rather than a mere collection of contributing individuals with peripheral independent roles.

Prehistoric homo sapiens did not depict themselves other than tangentially in relation to a role they obviously considered as significant.  We have accurate portrayals of animals of prey but not people.  Where people are depicted, there is no attempt, or at least a vain attempt, at accuracy.  These Venuses are no exception.  People have faces, hands, and feet.  The Venus of Willendorf does not.  She depicts an essential role in their society, a gender role not as occupied by a specific person.  It is not a sexual role that would be personified by a slender nymph, but a matriarchal role that was the cohesive force of the society.  The woven basket or cap that eliminates a face and other eliminated personal features indicates a role into which a person with those additional attributes might be fitted.  Every society has gender roles which are idealized typical behavior patterns of members of the society; these change over historical periods of time.  They need not be sexist or misogynistic stereo types with associated pressures enforcing them, but they may devolve into such.

The significance of the role exemplified by the Venus of Willendorf artifact seems evident.  It is an honored role more worthy of depiction than the many other roles of the society.  The fact that she is often considered to have been a goddess shows that the depiction is universally honored as complimentary rather than degrading.  That is a contemporary view of a prehistoric society which is very unlike our view of similar female conformation today, whether as a role or a person.

Every society is exemplified by its roles and requires a compatible set of roles to survive.  But these evolve into a compatible set over time if the society survives.  It’s like thermalization in a material substance that forces an equilibrium situation.  When that evolution happens quickly in response to changes in habitat, whether by natural forces or emerging technology, those who play revered roles that exhibit some level of control over the society by establishing mores and taboos, may forcibly resist role definition and specification changes.  One could cite the authority of the Supreme Court of the United States as such a role enforcer in society.  One could almost say that they were enforcing the Venus of Willendorf role on a modern American society that has long since seen itself as having evolved toward gender equality.  Women are fully educated in every branch of knowledge, practice law, theorize in the sciences, ride and train racehorses, play professional sports, serve as priests, hunt, fish, go to war, become astronauts, wear pants, cut their hair, hide their periods, have others do the more menial aspects of raising children, etc.  The significance of the role of woman as child bearer and sole nurturer has been diversified almost out of existence except in the mind of those few like Amy Coney Barrett who sees the role of the ideal woman as “seductive but not a whore, well married but not erased, working but not too successful, not to crush her man, thin but not nervous by food, staying indefinitely young without being disfigured by plastic surgeons, thriving mom but not hoarded by diapers and schoolwork, good housewife but not a traditional nunice, cultured but less than a man, that happy woman who is always waved under our nose, the one we should make the effort to be like, except she looks like a lot of trouble for nothing much, anyway never ran across it, anywhere. I bet she doesn’t exist.”[1]

So here we are with the Venus of Willendorf having been given a pretty face.

[1] Photos et Emotions, May 25 at 1:47 PM.

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