For me, the goddess, the female deity, is not one but many; she has reached across all cultures worldwide, has had many aspects and attributes, and has been known by many different names. For example there are cultures which have not recognised a deity or deities, but rather, female spirit beings, which may be represented in certain land features, or by living creatures: particularly animals or birds. Or there may be a female-centred spiritual way of life which is not part of any religion…
I find it remarkable that the female principle has existed all around the world for at least 800,000 years and probably earlier, (as shown in the cupule and a meander line engraved into a rock wall in central India). She is symbolised by the multitude of beautiful little figurines created by prehistoric women. Symbols of the goddess/female principle include certain parallel line arrangements, the circle, spiral, meander, vulva, rainbow (arch, double arch), net motif, and many others. Not only had these ritual female figurines first appeared at least by 400,000 years ago, but also they became quite numerous 30,000 years ago, and continued to be produced until around 6,000 years ago when patriarchal Indo-Europeans brought the female-centred era to an end and replaced it with the dominant male gods and symbols still present today. As for the female principle, she has been present for as long as humanity – for over three million years! Although patriarchy endeavoured to destroy her by sending her underground 6,000 years ago, she has persisted and today is slowly being rediscovered.
She is One and she is Many…
The early female figurines (made by women for women’s rituals?) are imaginative, sophisticated in form and proportion, and may have displayed important ritual meanings for those who made and viewed them. Sensual in shape and touch, they are made to fit comfortably in the hand, or for placing upright in soil or vessel; and they are small, easy to carry around by the hunter gatherers who were often on the move. The materials (such as various stones, animal bones or terracotta clay) used in their making were very durable, allowing fine details to be included in their creation by those skilled artists, using simple stone tools. It is likely that women with their nimble fingers were the sculptors, as the time taken to create any fine details would have demanded great skill and patience.
Both the 25,000 year old French Lespugne figurine and the 22,000 years old German Willendorf figurine display similar bodily features: bowed heads looking downwards; thin shoulders and featureless arms each framing large, elongated full breasts; wide bulbous hips/buttocks; strong thighs, which are elongated ovals; while lower legs and feet are lacking in detail. Sexual characteristics are not overly obvious.
Therefore the shapes of these sculptures emphasise strength and overall nurturing qualities rather than erotic or childbirth aspects. The string apron which emphasises the Lespugne figurine’s buttocks may have denoted her single status, according to Elizabeth W Barber1, who argues that a young woman’s full figure at this time suggested that she was strong and hardy, able to care for and assist all in the clan. Numerous other figurines symbolised the act of childbirth (the 35,000 year old Hohl Fels figurine), or wise woman (the Willendorf figurine), or death and regeneration (Cycladic stiff white goddess).
It is simplistic, insulting and ignorant to describe any prehistoric female figurine as a ‘Venus’2. For example, the purpose of the above figurines was to evoke female strength and endurance, wisdom and regenerative qualities – rather than mere eroticism – as male or conservative female researchers would have it!
1. Barber, Elizabeth Wayland, (1994) Women’s Work; The first 20,000 years. W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London.
2. The fictional myth that humans are innately violent, were always warlike, with wars as inevitable, still promoted by many Western researchers simply is not true. For example, see Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: a history of violence and humanity (Penguin 2011).
To be continued: I first discovered the little Old European prehistoric female figurines and their related female ritual symbolism in Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas just as I had completed my Visual Arts degree in 1993, and was about to leave Monash University. It was stunning to find that they had been prominent in the lives of prehistoric women for so long, not just in Europe, but also in surrounding regions. The question is: if they were so plentiful here, were they also present in the rest of the world – in the Hidden Worlds (India, East Asia, South-East Asia), or in the New Worlds (the Americas, Oceania, and Australia?)