Laussel Venus - Upper Paleolithic Goddess with a Horn

Is the Laussel Venus a Goddess of Fertility, Hunting, Wine or Music?

Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, ca. 25,000 Years Old
Laussel Venus, Upper Paleolithic Bas-Relief, Aquitaine Museum, Bordeaux, France. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Venus of Laussel, or "Femme a la corne" (Woman with a Horn) is what scholars have named the carved bas-relief of a woman found on a limestock block that fell from the walls of the Upper Paleolithic Laussel cave in the Dordogne valley of France.

Why is she a Venus?

The 45 centimeter (18 inch) high image is of a woman with large breasts, belly and thighs, explicit genitals and an undefined or eroded head with what appears to be long hair.

Her left hand rests on her belly, and her right hand holds what looks to be a large horn--perhaps the core of a horn of a buffalo (bison). The horn core has 13 vertical lines etched onto it: the undefined face appears to be looking at the core.

A "venus"is an art history term for a relatively life-like drawing or sculpture of a human being--man, woman or child--found in many Upper Paleolithic contexts. The stereotypical (but by no means the only or even the most common) venus figure consists of a detailed drawing of a woman's lush and Rubenesque body but lacks details for her face.

Laussel Cave

Laussel is a large cave near the town of Laussel, in the municipality of Marquay in the Dordogne Valley of France. One of five carvings found at Laussel, the Venus of Laussel was carved onto a limestone block that had fallen from the wall. There are traces of red ochre on the sculpture, and reports suggest that it was covered in the substance when it was found.

Laussel Cave was discovered in 1911, and scientific excavations have not been conducted since that time. The Upper Paleolithic venus was dated by stylistic means as belonging to the Gravettian or Upper Perigordian period, ca. 29,000 to 22,000 years ago.

Other Carvings in Laussel

The Venus of Laussel is not the only carving from Laussel Cave, but it is the best reported.

The other carvings are illustrated at the Hominides site (In French); brief descriptions extracted from the available literature follow.

  • The "Femme a la Tete Quadrillée", ("Woman with a Gridded Head"), is a bas-relief of a woman with her head completely covered with a grid representation, perhaps of a net or handkerchief. It measures 39x38 cm (15.3x15 in).
  • The "Personnages Opposes" (Opposed Persons) or "Carte à Jouer" (Playing Card) venus is a very strange image, that of two women positioned facing one another, as the Queen in a playing card does, and may represent a woman in labor.
  • "Le Chasseur" (The Hunter), is missing its head and arms and illustrates a young, slim man or woman.
  • The "Venus Dehanchée" (The Ungainly Venus) or Venus of Berlin, also holds a horn in her hand, but in 1912 it was sold to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin where it was destroyed during World War II. A mold impression of the sculpture still exists.

The Laussel venus and all of the others, including the mold of The Ungainly Venus, are on display at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.

Possible Interpretations

The Venus of Laussel and her horn have been interpreted in many different ways since the sculpture's discovery.

Scholars typically interpret a venus figurine as a fertility goddess or shaman; but the addition of the bison core, or whatever that object is, has stimulated much discussion.

Calendric / Fertility: The best known interpretation from Upper Paleolithic scholars is that the object the Venus is holding is not a horn core, but rather an image of the crescent moon, and the 13 stripes cut into the object are an explicit reference to the annual lunar cycle. This, combined with the venus resting her hand on a large belly, is read as a reference to fertility.

The tallies on the crescent are also sometimes interpreted as referring to the number of menstrual cycles in a year of a woman's life.

Cornucopia: A related concept to the fertility is the precursor of the classical concept of cornucopia or Horn of Plenty.

This interpretation relies on the identification of the horn as a symbol of food, or abundance, and, according to this interpretation, the tally marks represent a hunter's score of animals slaughtered.

Cornucopias are related to fertility as well: the idea is that procreation occurs in the head, and the horn represents the, um, fertilizing function of a bull.

Priestess of the Hunt: Following along with that theory, some scholars have argued that the Laussel Venus is actually holding a magical wand to help aid a hunter trap a pursued animal. This version sees the collection of drawings found at Laussel together, as different vignettes of the same story.

Drinking horn: Another idea put about by some scholars interprets the horn as a drinking vessel. This concept argues that the horn is thus evidence for the use of fermented beverages, based on the combination of the horn and the clearly sexual references of the woman's body. This ties in with shamanistic notions of the goddess, in that shamans are thought to have used psychotropic substances to reach into alternative states of consciousness.

Musical instrument: Finally, the horn has been interpreted as a musical instrument, possibly as a wind instrument, a horn indeed, in which the woman would blow into the horn to make a noise. Another interpretation has been as an idiophone, a rasp or scraper instrument. The player would scrape a hard object along the incised lines, rather like a washboard.

The musical instrument idea agrees with all of the above interpretations that the Venus of Laussel represents a magical or shamanistic figure, as the playing of music is also associated with shamans.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Upper Paleolithic , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

da Silva CM. 2010. Neolithic Cosmology: The Equinox and the Spring Full Moon. Journal of Cosmology 9:2207-2010.

Duhard J-P. 1991. The shape of Pleistocene women. Antiquity 65(248):552-561.

Duhard J-P. 1992. Les figures féminines en bas-relief de l'abri Bourdois à Angles-sur-l'Anglin (Vienne).

Essai de lecture morphologique. Paléo:161-173.

Huyge D. 1991. The "Venus" of Laussel in the light of ethnomusicology. Archeologie in Vlaanderen 1:11-18.