Female Figurines and a Cult of the Great Goddess in Prehistoric Europe (Part I)

Goddess. Fertility Statue. Art. All of these are designations that have been applied by various scholars to the graven and painted prehistoric images of women. Although any interpretation is conjecture based upon a particular reading of the material and culture, the most readily given label (and the one most readily contested) is that of “goddess” or fertility image, as evinced by the frequent naming of these statues as a Venus. Identifying and locating the true purpose of these figurines has since nearly become a study unto itself, with scholars and researchers from various disciplines proposing and negating hypotheses and theories. However, if these symbols are to be correctly understood then they must be examined in the context in which they once operated and not at a general level.

The essential problem with this type of analysis is the simple fact that their culture is still not fully understood. In light of this dilemma, to say that there was once a universal cult of a Great Goddess is not quite prudent, but nor is it altogether untrue. However, given the early prominence of goddesses in Mediterranean pantheons, it seems likely that there were several goddess traditions (perhaps with a common genesis) stretching back into prehistory that emerged as the social view of women altered in tandem with a cosmological shift during the early Neolithic.

Marija Gimbutas once wrote that the most obvious place to seek the origin of the Great Goddess would be at the dawn of agriculture.i How, then, to explain the proliferation of female figurines that date to the Paleolithic?

One possible answer may lie in the sheer volume of figures and traits they share, such as heavily emphasized bellies, breasts and buttocks, featureless faces and tapering legs that seem to have no feet. Although problematic, it can be generalized that the figurines from the Paleolithic era meant something, as these images appear in various styles and positions for over thirty thousand years. Again, to ascribe to them any type of power is conjecture, but the fact remains that they do proliferate all over Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Laussel Venus
The Laussel Venus (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

One example from the Upper Paleolithic is the Laussel Venus, a limestone relief found carved over a cave that retained traces of red ocher. The figure is eighteen inches tall with one hand on her protruding stomach while the other is upraised and holds a bull horn or crescent.ii Many scholars believe this shelter to have been a place of ritual, and the very nature of the figure, head slightly inclined towards the horns/moon, may have been meant to communicate something to the prehistoric peoples. The hand of the Laussel Venus that rests on her corpulent belly has “fingers pointing toward her vulva”iii which could indicate a relationship to the horns, and all of the symbols could point to one particular meaning.

Gimbutas and others may be right to assume this was a ritual area,iv but given the location of the cave during the Upper Paleolithic the shelter may have been not a place of sacred seclusion, but one where menstruating women could congregate away from the other members of their group. Given that these people were hunter-gatherers they would have been closely attuned to the seasons and would have recognized that monthly bleeding was attuned to specific phases of the moon, especially since numerous modern studies have shown that the menstrual cycles of women who live in close proximity will synchronize.

Thus the Laussel and other figurines of this type may have been “menstruants” not only because such a shelter would have been a safe locale for bleeding women, but also because the lack of detailing on certain areas of the figures are consistent with later menstrual taboos. Indeed, such taboos decreed that menstruating women “could not touch anything [and] mouth, eyes and hair all came to exude ominous powers.”v Even the large bellies could be an exaggerated representation of abdominal bloating, and red ocher may not have symbolized a spiritual connection so much as it alluded to blood.

Another possibility as to the origin and meaning of Paleolithic figurines is a further form of self-representation, but one of pregnancy rather than menstruation. This theory purports that the figurines were created by women who were pregnant and that the distorted body shape is the result of an optical illusion.vi Indeed, if a pregnant, average-size modern woman looks down at her body, she finds a “strongly foreshortened view of the upper frontal thorax and abdomen”vii and that her breasts loom large. Furthermore, if the same woman looks over her shoulder and under her arm to see her backside, what she sees is remarkably similar to the Paleolithic figurines.

Even the tapering legs and small to nonexistent feet make sense in this context, as a pregnant woman has difficulty seeing the farthest parts of her body. The misrepresentation of height and width is thus the result of a woman’s own vision of her anatomy,viii which means even stylistic variations can be explained by cultural differences in self-examination.

However, if this theory is accurate then we must recognize the cognitive autonomy of these prehistoric women in documenting and preserving this state of being. This, then, begs the question — why? It seems likely that if these figurines were made by women during various stages of pregnancy, they had a very pragmatic purpose as obstetrical aids, models that allow gestation time to be calculated or to ensure reproductive success. Either way, the function of these figurines is practical and grounded, not spiritual.

The spiritual potential of the figurines only arise with a cosmological shift as the Old Stone Age gave way to the Neolithic. This shift was part of a larger, more major shift that occured all over Europe, including the Mediterranean, over the course of generations. Gordon Childe was the first to coin the term “agricultural revolution” and as much the transition to the early forms of horticulture and agriculture took several generations, so did the cosmological shift. As the modern growth of a goddess-oriented cosmology, born during the critical years of the Women’s Movement,ix has shown, any significant social change can bring about a change in ideology and belief systems. To assume that such human adaptability did not exist in prehistory is ludicrous — it seems more likely that as human manipulation and exploitation continued to evolve, so did their understanding of natural processes.

During this time when social changes were occurring at ever increasing intervals, the female figurines became increasingly more complex and detailed, with incising, molding and carving more the norm than the exception. This may have been the result of more time availability or the specialization of the craft within a set group, but there may also be another underlying reason. Women were still gatherers in the Neolithic Period, but were also beginning to cultivate plants. This type of control over the reproduction of the land may have, over the course of generations, led to questions about human reproduction. Where once the ability to conceive and bear another person may have been considered an innate female power, the coming of agriculture, animal domestication and human control over an admittedly limited amount of natural forces could have made Neolithic people question their world.

If they could control what the earth would yield, was there then something that controlled them?

[Bookish Note: Part II, which examines cosmology shifts and the figurines as religious or spiritual artifacts, will be posted in two weeks.]


iGimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess.Harper & Row: New York, 1989. 141.
iiTeubal, Savina J. “The Rise and Fall of Female Reproductive Control as Seen through Images of Women.” Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today. Ed. Karen L. King. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997. 285.
iiiTeubal, “Rise and Fall,” 286.
ivGimbutas, Language, 141-142.
vTeubal, 287.
viMcCoid, Catherine Hedge & LeRoy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, June 1996. 319-326.
viiMcCoid & McDermott.
viiiMcCoid & McDermott.
ixChrist, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess. Routledge: New York, 1997. 3.


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