The Venus of Willendorf was carved of stone, found in Austria and dates back to 25,000 B.C. – these are nearly indisputable facts.
The Venus of Willendorf is a fertility figure – that we had trouble digesting. In fact, we had trouble with many of the reference books we had acquired on female imagery in early cultures because they were quick to label all female forms as fertility figures, as if woman before or after her fertile years no longer had a purpose in society. And what of women who chose not to give birth?
We pondered this, simmering it slowly as we continued sculpting our interpretation of the Willendorf, presenting her with our prayer bead chains and in altar form. Was her full body and huge breasts the result of being pregnant? Why were we so drawn to her?
Late one night, just as we were closing up shop, Sabrina announced: She’s not a pregnant woman, she’s an old woman. And very well fed! This was the beginning of our mythology for the Venus of Willendorf, that she was not a fertility figure but, rather, a Grand Old Matriarch.
We spent the next couple of hours imagining a culture that 27,000 years ago met its five basic survival needs and was able to support a craftsperson, a culture that appreciated sculpture, and questioning: Who was the carver? Why did they carve a woman? (We know only patriarchy). Was the carving a commission by the Grand Dame herself? Are other Willendorfs waiting to be found? Where are the male forms? Will they find an Old Man carving?
Finally we understood why we were drawn to her: she represents to us woman in her Grandmother years. Woman with all her fullness and softness. Woman with all her wisdom and peace. Woman with her magnificent endurance and forgiveness. Woman with her eternal passion for nurture… And upon realizing that, we knew how absolutely appropriate it was that she anchor our prayer beads, not as a symbol of new life, but as a symbol of Grandmother, nurturing the multitudes of us already living.
This is our story of how we came to understand the Venus of Willendorf.
Further reference materials for those interested in the female role in ancient cultures must include Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, a profound reference of female imagery and symbolism from the matriarchal era of Old Europe, with a brilliant forward by Joseph Campbell, and When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone.