Research And Comparison Of Popular Venus Figurine Theories

Upper Paleolithic period Venus statuettes are the earliest known illustrations of the female form. These figurines usually depict nude women with downturned, faceless heads and are often small in size, making them easily portable art. Other notable features of the Venus figurines include slender arms, large breasts and buttocks, short legs, and disproportional feet. A common similarity amongst many of these statuettes is that the woman is often times prominently pregnant. These female representations were constructed from a plethora of different materials such as limestone, ivory, clay and bone, and occasionally bass-relief carvings on rock surfaces.

Venus figurines date back to between 23,000 and 25,000 years ago and have been discovered across Europe. One of the most recent and notable statuettes – 6 cm high and believed to be about 35,000 years old – was unearthed in Germany from the Hohle Fels Cave (Conard, 2009). The women depicted vary in age, ornation, how they are posed, and how they are shaped. The sole element that all of these figurines share is gender. There are numerous opinions regarding the significance and functions of these Venus statuettes and much debate has ensued from these vastly different and conflicting interpretations. This essay will look at the evidence supporting the self-portrait theory while comparing and contrasting popular alternative hypotheses.

Delporte (1979) has proposed several theories regarding the motivation behind the creation of these objects. One possibility is that these Venus figurines where designed to portray ideal feminine beauty, but he also argues that they may represent actual women. He asserts that they could also have had religious meaning as illustrations of priestesses or acted as symbols of fertility and ancestors. Bray (2004) and others took the plump form of the Venus statuettes to be indicative of obesity in the Paleolithic era. A common assumption proclaims these items to have been crafted by men, but many scholars dispute this theory. McDermott (1996) argued that the Venus figurines were actually created by women to be self-portraits. Rice (1981) believed that these statuettes served to illustrate the various stages of life that these Paleolithic women experienced over the course of their years. Singh (2006) explored the idea that the Venus figurines could potentially be a depiction of the sexually attractive women. Another interpretation, put forth by Farbstein (2010), asserts that these statuettes could have served as tangible representations of priorities and interests within the Paleolithic society of the time.

The assertion that these Venus figurines are all “paleo-erotica” in nature based upon their waist to hip ratios (Guthrie, 2005) has come under heavy fire due to its application of modern biases and behaviors. It has been argued that this exaggerated sexual interpretation removes any true objectivity. A prime example of this occurred just after the Venus statuette of Hohle Fels was discovered. Nature publicly declared it to be “prehistoric pinup” and a “35,000-year-old sex object” with an “explicitly, almost aggressively, sexual nature”. It has become apparent that the persistent sexualization of these figurines needs to be replaced with an improved scientific approach to avoid taking the Venus statuettes out of their original context.

While some believe these human figures to have been made from another individual’s perspective, there is a great deal of compelling evidence supporting the theory that these Venus figurines were created as autogenous (self-generated) portraits intending to convey how these women viewed their own bodies. One key indication that the Venus statuettes where designed to be self-portraits can be found in visual analysis. The vast majority of these artistic renditions of the female form depict the women gazing down upon her own changing form which signifies the self-conscious preoccupations of these upper Paleolithic women. Arguably one of the most notable cases for the self-portrait theory expresses that there were only two ways to perceive the human form before the invention of mirrors – by looking at one’s own body or through observing another individual. Photographic simulations clearly demonstrate that the sight a women sees when looking down at her own body align with the view these artefacts portray when inspected from the same perspective.

Going off of this evidence one can infer that the aforementioned disproportional features which are common in these Venus statuettes, such as height and size distortions, are the product of a self-viewing and thus limited perspective rather than complacent errors in anatomical depiction by a second hand party. Based upon these varying interpretations, their evidence or lack thereof, and the visual information we can evaluate through modern photography and comparison, one can undoubtedly conclude that these Paleolithic Venus figurines must have been ego-centric, or self-generated to some degree.


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16 August 2021
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