Venus of Laussel

Was She 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 in French) is a Venus figurine, one of a class of objects found in Upper Paleolithic archaeological sites throughout Europe. The Laussel Venus was carved into the face of a limestone block found in 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 have been 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 an ancient buffalo (bison). The horn core has 13 vertical lines etched onto it: the undefined face appears to be looking at the core.

A "Venus figurine"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 which lacks details for her face, arms, and feet.

Laussel Cave

Laussel cave is a large rock shelter located near the town of Laussel, in the municipality of Marquay. 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 of the excavators 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, between 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 what seems to be an overhead view of two women seated facing each other, but the overall image is that of a single body with two heads, similar to the way a face card is illustrated in a deck of playing cards. Scholars suggest this may represent a woman giving birth or one woman being assisted in labor by another.
  • The 24 cm (9.4 in) block on which "Le Chasseur" (The Hunter) is carved is broken and only the torso and part of one arm remains. The body illustrated is a that of a young, slim man or woman.
  • The "Venus Dehanchée" (The Ungainly Venus) or Venus of Berlin, holds a curved object in her hand, perhaps another horn core. 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, and the block measured 43x38 cm (17x15 in).

    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: Perhaps the most common 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 notion of fertility is that the curved object may be a precursor of the classical Greek myth of cornucopia or Horn of Plenty. The story of the myth is that when the god Zeus was a baby, he was tended by the goat Amalthea, who fed him with her milk. Zeus accidentally broke off one of her horns and it magically began spilling out unending nourishment. A horn core's shape is similar to that of a woman's breast, so it may be that the shape does refer to unending nourishment, even if the image is at least 15,000 years older than the story from classical Greece.

    The male side of cornucopia fertility holds that the ancient Greeks believed that procreation occurred in the head, and the horn represents male genitalia. Some scholars suggest that the tally marks might represent a hunter's score of animals slaughtered. Art historian Allen Weiss has commented that a fertility symbol holding a fertility symbol is an early representation of art about art, in which the figure of Venus contemplates its own symbol.

    Priestess of the Hunt: Another story borrowed from classical Greece to interpret the Venus is that of Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. These scholars suggest that the Laussel Venus is holding a magical wand to help aid a hunter trap a pursued animal. Some consider the collection of drawings found at Laussel together, as different vignettes of the same story, with the slim figure representing a hunter being assisted by the goddess.

    Drinking horn: Other scholars have suggested that the horn represents a drinking vessel, and 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 also 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.

    Bottom Line

    What all of the above interpretations have in common is that scholars agree that the Venus of Laussel clearly represents a magical or shamanistic figure. We don't know what the carvers of the ancient Venus of Laussel had in mind: but the legacy is certainly a fascinating one, perhaps because of its ambiguity and unsolvable mystery.

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