Re: Ancient female figurines (was Medieval Dragons, dog/snake, Gree

From: Jean Kelly
Message: 17764
Date: 2003-01-18

Jean Kelly:
I once
showed a
> picture of one of these figures - the Venus of Willendorf, IIRC -
to a
> doctor, and asked him what his opinion would have been had this lady
> presented herself at his surgery. He said that her blood-pressure
> have given him cause for concern, and it was also possible that her
> might make her arthritic. Given these conditions, pregnancy might
be rather
> difficult. Finally, it was impossible to tell whether the figurine
> was supposed to be pregnant - as my doctor friend put it, there
might be
> anything under all those rolls of flesh. However, he did add that
> the fat might be indicative of someone who had in the past given
birth to
> several children.
> Nevertheless, given that the societies that produced these
figurines were
> supposed to be hunter-gatherers and so forth, out on their feet all
> long, how could anyone, even someone who might have given birth to
> children, have put on so much weight?

Cort Williams:
>>it is not uncommon for plumpness to be considered both
attractive and a sign of fecundity. This might be particularly true
in a society where food gathering was more difficult, and a skinny
woman could mean an undernoursihed woman that may have more
difficulty nursing healthy offspring. Also, larger hips would have
been very advantageous in the process of surviving childbirth in the
days before modern medicine.

Glen Gordon:
>>Taking both your statements, there may be a solution. "Fat" here is used
as a means to convey "large". Remember, if this goddess is to be viewed
as the creator of all things, she must be very large to have given birth
to the heavens, the land and the waters below. To convey her cosmic
magnitude, fat would be the only way I can think of to show this.

Jean Kelly:
Whilst there's much in what Glen says, I'm not sure that I can wholly accept
his theory that the societies who produced figurines of oversized ladies
also envisaged a goddess giving birth to the cosmos - it would depend, for
one thing, on what exactly was meant by the term "cosmos". The earth
goddess Gaea was supposed to have given birth to Ouranos, the heavens - but
what do "earth" and "heavens" mean in this context? According to one school
of thought, they are astronomical terms, "earth" designating the ecliptic,
and "heavens" designating the celestial equator, which were supposedly
separated, giving rise to the tradition about the "parents of the world"
being thrust asunder. On Level VIa at Çatal Hüyük is a shrine depicting a
spreadeagled woman giving birth to a bull, and I have wondered whether she
might represent an early form of the Hurrian Gê, whether the bull might be
an early form of Ouranos, her son and husband, and whether the whole
sculpture is therefore an early portrayal of the birth of the cosmos. The
lady, however, is not depicted as particularly corpulent.

This brings me back to the point about weight. Whilst I can see the force
of the arguments about childbearing hips, and also being able to produce
nourishment for one's children, I would still like to know how anyone in a
hunter-gatherer society could have had access to the sort of food that would
have caused so much weight-gain. They didn't spend their days
couch-potatoeing, snacking on doughnuts, burgers and cheese-and-onion
sandwiches; a diet of elderberries, hazel-nuts and bison-steaks, followed by
a long walk to the next hunting-site, surely couldn't have resulted in all
the Weight-Watcher rolls of flesh that are depicted in the various portraits
and figurines. How could the various artists, whoever they were, have
envisaged the concept of "fat" or "large" if the societies in which they
lived were not capable of producing fat or large people, and if the only
people whom the artists ever saw were always thin? Have studies on
skeletons ever produced any evidence of overweight?

However, as Cort says:
>The prportions of many of these "venus" figurines are not just obese,
but vastly out of proportion with the human figure to the point of
medical impossibility. Certain aspects i.e. breasts, buttocks, are
enlarged far more than others. This points against them
being "portraits" of some kind, not to mention the dificulty in
explaining why we don't find similar representations of men, less
rotund women, children etc., but instead a preponderance of female
figurines with these clear and repeated exaggerations.

Fair point. I did once come across a theory according to which the
portraits were actually self-portraits, the exaggerations caused by (perhaps
normal-sized) women looking down at their own physical features, and then
trying to reproduce them.

I have sometimes wondered, too, whether the rolls of flesh might have been
meant to designate age, rather than weight.

>And, finally, how do we know that the figurines were supposed to be divine?

Glen Gordon:
>The fact that there is a sufficient amount of these figurines shows that
there was a great enough importance placed on them to rule out just idle
obsessions with fat woman, otherwise we should see fat men, fat children,
skinny children, skinny men, medium-sized people, people with clothes on,
people on a picnic, etc. :)

Well, we do see hunting-expeditions featuring stick-thin people on some
cave-painting! And there are people wearing clothes in the La Marche
series - including (just to confuse the issue) the apparently rather
overweight lady known as Athena.

>the predominence of the same Venus-like fertility goddesses
across different cultures right from the dawn of history, with the same
sorts of associated symbols and legends, emphasizes a common prehistoric
origin hands down.

It's not the antiquity of the figures that I question, but the part that
they played in the ancient consciousness. Could they have symbolized the
divine entity that gave birth to at least part of the cosmos, as you argue?
Possibly: but I'm not entirely convinced.

Jean Kelly