Saturday, December 7, 2013

Venus of Laussel - Part II

In my last post, I introduced the Venus of Laussel.  In today's post, I'll discuss some interpretations of this interesting Upper Paleolithic carving.

As mentioned in my previous post, Venus figurines shared similar characteristics showing naked females with exaggerated breasts, bellies, hips, thighs, and vulva with poorly-developed hands and feet and generally no facial features.  So why were naked obese women a popular subject for artistic expression in the Late Stone Age?

Over the years, archaeologists (and others) have proposed a number of explanations - some more widely accepted than others.  And it may well be that different figurines, which we lump together today, represented different things to the different groups they belonged to at the time.

Images of figurines and their geographic origins.  (1) Willendorf’s Venus (Rhine/Danube), (2) Lespugue Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (3) Laussel Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (4) Dolní Věstonice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (5) Gagarino no. 4 Venus (Russia), (6) Moravany Venus (Rhine/Danube), (7) Kostenki 1. Statuette no. 3 (Russia), (8) Grimaldi nVenus (Italy), (9) Chiozza di Scandiano Venus (Italy), (10) Petrkovice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (11) Modern sculpture (N. America), (12) Eleesivitchi Venus (Russia); (13) Savignano Venus (Italy), (14) The so-called “Brassempouy Venus” (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (15) Hohle Fels Venus (SW Germany).

Some have speculated that they were representations of actual women.  A problem with this interpretation is that Venus figurines show stylized conventions and typically don't even show facial features.  Other carvings and painting have shown that our ancestors could be excellent artists and realistically depicted animals, for example, but, perhaps there was a taboo against realistically depicting people.

Others have claimed that they were ideal representations of female beauty or even primitive pornography.  I'm personally a bit skeptical of this interpretation.  Forgive me if this offends, but were our ancestors so different that men preferred obese naked women to thinner ones?  Some of the Venus figurines are more "attractive" than others (at least to my modern sensibilities) but others hardly seem to have been made to represent any standard of physical beauty.

One researcher has suggested that they represent self portraits of women and their artistic conventions are from women looking down at their own bodies and seeing them from that perspective.  Just my opinion, but this idea seems a bit far-fetched to me.

The most accepted idea regarding these figurines is that they are a representation of fertility and had a "religious" significance, perhaps representing a mother or Earth goddess (when writing was developed, we do see that virtually all cultures had a concept of such a goddess so it's certainly not a stretch to speculate that this idea was shared by our more primitive ancestors).

The Upper Paleolithic humans lived during the peak of the most recent ice age.  Europe, at the time, was a very different place than it is today.  Southwest France, where the Venus of Laussel was found, was steppe grassland with short summers and long, severely-cold winters.

Survival was tough. The diet was primarily meat-based and you had to find it and kill it in order to eat.  As mentioned in the last post, the Gravettian Culture which existed in France at the time is noted for its distinctive blades which were used for spearing big game migrating across the grasslands.

Women living to middle-age, surviving multiple childbirths, and being what we today would consider overweight were rare events.  The Venus figurines, with the large, often-sagging breasts, large belly (which may indicate pregnancy), prominent vulva, and fat hips and thighs may have symbolized the hope of tribal success in the form of fecundity of their females and an abundance of food.  What archaeologists call a fetish - an object to which is attributed "supernatural" power.  It may also represent a mother or Earth goddess who could provide such bounty.

What about the wisent horn the Venus of Laussel is holding?  Remember that?

So what does the horn and 13 notches represent?

Again, a diversity of opinions among archaeologists.

Since there are traces of red ochre staining the figure, some have argued that the 13 notches represent the approximate number of menstrual cycles in a year (365 days / 28 days/cycle).  Another representation of fertility (once the menstrual cycles end, so does fertility).

One interesting speculation is that the notched wisent horn is an ideophonic scraper like the güiro - a Latin-American musical instrument.  Basically, you cut notches in a stick, a gourd, a bone, an animal horn, etc. and then rub over it with a stick to produce sound.  Here's a recording of a modern güiro. Perhaps it was an instrument played in a ceremonial context associated with these Venus figurines.

The final speculation I want to discuss is the real reason I wrote this post.  I'm teaching an Ancient Astronomy course this semester and one of the topics is looking at any astronomical knowledge that may have existed in Paleolithic cultures.  The Venus of Laussel is a topic of discussion.

Alexander Marshack, a self-trained archaeologist who was appointed as Research Fellow at the Peabody Museum at Harvard (an interesting guy), presented a very interesting argument in his landmark 1972 book The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation.  In it, he argued that the horn symbolically represents the crescent Moon and the 13 notches represent the fact that there are approximately 13 lunar cycles in a year.  As Marshack writes:

"If this is so, then it is possible, but not yet proven, that the 'goddess' with the horn is a forerunner of later Neolithic, agricultural variants.  She was the goddess who was called 'Mistress of the Animals,' had a lunar mythology, and had associated with her signs, symbols, and attributes, including the lunar crescent, the crescent horns of the bull, ... the vulva, the naked breasts,...

The count of thirteen is the number of crescent 'horns' that may make up an observational lunar year; it is also the number of days from the birth of the first crescent to just before the days of the mature full moon."

In the book, of course, Marshak presents a lot of other evidence for lunar notation in Paleolithic artifacts.  It's an interesting speculation.  Unfortunately, given the distance of these ancestors from us today, and their lack of a written language to tell us what they really believed, these ideas will likely remain in the realm of speculation.

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