This article briefly looks at female representation from Palaeolithic to Classical times, with a Mediterranean focus. It aims to highlight important examples and the general questions they raise about gender roles and religious beliefs in the past. It is one of a series of brief articles by Hidden History Travel exploring different themes related to archaeology, artefacts and travel.
Representations of women are amongst the most admired works of ancient art and are important to understanding gender and religion in the past. Examples date back to the Palaeolithic era, some 40,000 years ago, and throughout prehistory they have a widespread distribution across Europe and Asia. By historic times, many are known to represent female deities such as Cybele, Artemis and Venus, but their relationship to earlier examples is a fascinating and often contentious area of debate.
One of the best-known Palaeolithic examples is the so-called ‘Venus of Willendorf’, found in Austria and dated to about 25,000 BC. The original is small enough to fit in one’s hand, but the woman’s body is represented as rounded, generous and well-fed with exaggerated breasts, buttocks and vulva. It seems the artist wanted to emphasise both female sexuality and plentiful food within a single object. Archaeologists have thus speculated that the figurine symbolised related concepts such as fertility, reproduction and abundance, perhaps holistically in both nature and the community.
Naming her ‘Venus’ is stretching an association with the much later Roman goddess, whose charms included sexuality and success, but the misnomer has remained popular and is commonly extended to all portable female figurines displaying similarly exaggerated features. This exaggerated form of female representation appears quite common from prehistory until the Bronze Age around 3000 BC, but labelling them all as ‘Venus Figurines’ can be questioned as an overly simplistic categorisation. It also adds preconceptions to our understanding of female representation in any particular place and time.
The Mother Goddess
Prehistoric ‘Venus figurines’ have been variously interpreted as fertility symbols, lucky charms or toys, or as images of goddesses, priestesses, worshippers, ancestors or matriarchal rulers. The biggest debate has focused on the idea of a universal concept behind their production; that is, a widely shared set of beliefs amounting to the earliest form of religion. Advocates of this have proposed that they all represent a primal, all-embracing deity referred to as a ‘Mother Goddess’, variously associated with creation, nature and nurture.
The concept of an ‘Earth Mother’ as a primal virgin goddess from which everything arose is found in many later mythologies and could have prehistoric antecedents, but this does not mean that all ‘Venus figurines’ should be interpreted in the same way – archaeologists are rightfully wary of such generalisation.
Excavations of a Neolithic town at Catal Hoyuk, in central Turkey, have been especially important in exploring the Mother Goddess debate and continue to demonstrate the interpretive challenges inherent in prehistoric artefacts. One of the site’s many figurines, that of a seated woman flanked by two animals and dated to about 6000 BC, initially seemed to exemplify the veneration of a cosmic female or ‘Earth Mother’ controlling the forces of creation, life and death. Recent work has recognised more evidence for male and non-gendered representation at the site, perhaps favouring a divine couple or family rather than a singular, supreme female divinity.
Fat Ladies of Malta
The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta produced an extraordinary flowering of Neolithic culture around 3000 BC. The artistic repertoire featured obese female figurines and statues although, in fact, their gender is not always clear. They are associated with megalithic structures generally seen as centres of worship, thus promoting religious connections.
Some archaeologists have argued that Neolithic Malta was an important, international centre for the Mother Goddess cult. Recent work, however, is stressing how the cultural meaning of concepts such as ‘fertility’ can vary between societies, and how the Maltese evidence becomes more valuable if we can allow it to show us the particular, localised set of beliefs which produced it. For example, we might ask if the artistic ‘Sleeping Lady’ figurine represents a mother goddess, a departed ancestor, or death as eternal sleep. More on Malta…
Birthing Figurines of Cyprus
Around 3800 BC, Cypriot culture flourished with the first use of its native copper resources, a valuable material with which the island became synonymous. At the same time, there arose a highly distinctive Cypriot sculptural tradition comprising human representations in pottery and stone. Some figurines are recognisably pregnant or giving birth, and it can be argued that they all originally linked fertility with child-bearing. They may have been used as pendants or aids by women to help them deal with pregnancy and childbirth, and may have also held a more general symbolic value related to the fundamental survival and continuance of the community. Their categorisation as ‘Venus figurines’ feels particularly attractive in Cyprus since the island became the chief cult centre and mythological birthplace of Aphrodite/Venus by Classical times, but how far can we reliably ‘read back’ from later historical sources? More on Cyprus…
Another notable collection of female figurines comes from the Cycladic Islands of Aegean Greece, where an artistic high point in marble sculpture appeared in the Early Bronze Age around 2800 BC. Their form differs from earlier ‘Venus’ types by being noticeably slender and geometric, with smaller breasts, smooth planes and sharp angles. The arms and legs are well represented and the long neck supports an upward tilted head. Her whole form and posture appear lighter and more alert than her ponderous Stone Age predecessors, which could reflect a different view of women or a different view of the world in general. As such the Cycladic figurines remain important to a discussion of Bronze Age cultural changes, the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ religions, and the spread of Indo-European peoples. More on the Cyclades…
The Cretan Snake Goddess
The ‘Snake Goddess’ has become one of the most famous works of Minoan art, and a significant artefact in Minoan studies. Dated to about 1600 BC, when Minoan culture was flourishing on Crete, the original figurine was made of faience and stood to a height of 34cm. She is usually interpreted as representing either a goddess or a priestess, or as a magic charm and votive offering. Snakes can be linked, by comparison with ancient Egyptian and Greek beliefs, to earthly powers, rejuvenation and fertility. The figurine’s bare breasts might also link her with fertility.
When first discovered in 1903 the ‘Mother Goddess’ theory was fashionable and had begun to inspire ideas about matriarchies in ancient societies. Female representation in Minoan art is still central to discussions about gender roles in the past, and the so-called ‘Snake Goddess’ also stands on our present threshold of understanding between prehistoric and historic religion; that is, between the unwritten and the written past. More about Crete…
An apparent dominance of female representation in prehistoric art has been equated by some with female dominance or power in society, and to the existence of wide-ranging matriarchal or matrifocal societies prior to the emergence of patriarchies. Most archaeologists point out, however, that the artefactual record is incomplete and not fully representative or understood.
Fundamentally, any sacred status as goddesses does not necessarily imply increased social status for women, but modern feminist thinking is naturally keen to explore such perspectives. Mythology has often been used to support matriarchal theories by reading them as memories of earlier times when not only goddesses but also women in society were dominant. The myth of the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors, is a classic example although their actual existence remains debatable.
Different cultures, regions and states have forever created their own deities, and there have been cross-cultural equivalences and assimilations, so that by the time of the first written references to female deities there is already a bewildering array of names. The earliest sources are Sumerian and Egyptian texts of the third millennium BC which both indicate a polytheistic pantheon. Important goddesses such as Sumerian Inanna and Egyptian Mut, whilst not the only female deities, may have held ‘mother goddess’ status and seem to be ancestral or influential to later fertility goddesses such as Babylonian/Assyrian Ishtar, Phoenician Ashtart, Anatolian Cybele, and later Egyptian Isis.
The Artemis of Ephesus may also be included here; her famous statue with its multiple ‘breasts’ or ‘polymastic garment’ and its animal iconography is Roman in date but the Ephesian cult had earlier origins at the intersection between ancient Greek and Near Eastern cultures.
In Greek mythology Gaia was regarded as the primordial mother goddess of the Earth who brought forth the sky, Uranus. Together they were the ancestors of the Greek pantheon. The most popular mythological account of Aphrodite’s birth was that she arose from sea foam around Uranus’s castrated genitals to become the goddess of procreation, sexuality and feminine beauty. Ancient historians such as Herodotus and Pausanius recognised a Near Eastern derivation for Aphrodite in Assyrian and Phoenician fertility goddesses such as Ashtart. In the Graeco-Roman pantheon she acquired wide-ranging powers and epithets, but it is mainly her association with love and beauty that has inspired artists from Praxiteles to Botticelli, and has made her the world’s most famous nude.