The Woman of Willendorf

There has been much speculation over the meaning and purpose of the Woman of Willendorf. Image by Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Woman of Willendorf, formerly called Venus of Willendorf, is the name given to a small statue found in 1908. The statue takes its name from the small Austrian village, Willendorf, near where it was found. Measuring only about four inches high, it is estimated to have been created between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago.

Hundreds of these tiny statues have been found in various parts of Europe. The Woman of Willendorf and many of the other small female figurines were originally called “Venuses,” although there is no association with the goddess Venus, whom they predate by several thousand years.

Today, in academic and art circles, she is known as the Woman rather than the Venus, to avoid inaccuracies.  

For years, archaeologists believed that these figurines were fertility figures – possibly associated with a deity – based upon the rounded curves, exaggerated breasts and hips, and obvious pubic triangle. The Woman of Willendorf has a large, rounded head – although she lacks any facial features – but some of the female figurines from the Paleolithic period appear without a head at all. They also have no feet. The emphasis is always on the form and shape of the female body itself.

The features are extremely exaggerated, and it's easy for us to ask ourselves, as modern individuals, why our ancient ancestors might have found this appealing. After all, this is a statue that doesn't look like quite like a normal feminine body. The answer might be a scientific one. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California cites the concept of the "peak shift" as a possible solution.

Ramachandran says this concept, one of ten aesthetic principles that stimulate our visual cortex, "describes the way we find deliberate distortions of a stimulus even more exciting than the stimulus itself.” In other words, if Paleolithic peoples were mentally able to respond positively to abstract and exaggerated images, that could have found its way into their artwork.

Although we will never know the intent or the identity of the artist who created the Woman of Willendorf, it’s been theorized that she was carved by a pregnant woman – a woman who could see and feel her own rounded curves, but not even get a glimpse of her own feet. Some anthropologists have suggested that these statues are simply self-portraits. Art historian LeRoy McDermitt of Central Missouri State University says, “I conclude that the first tradition of human image-making probably emerged as an adaptive response to the unique physical concerns of women and that, whatever else these representations may have symbolized to the society which created them, their existence signified an advance in women’s self-conscious control over the material conditions of their reproductive lives.” (Current Anthropology, 1996, University of Chicago Press).

Because the statue has no feet, and cannot stand on her own, she was probably created to be carried on one’s person, rather than displayed in a permanent location. It’s entirely possible she, and the other figures like her which have been found all over much of Western Europe, was used as a trade commodity between tribal groups.

A similar figurine, the Woman from Dolni Vestonice, is an early example of performance art.

This Paleolithic statue, which features exaggerated breasts and wide hips, is made of kiln-fired clay. She was found surrounded by hundreds of similar pieces, most of which were broken by the heat of the kiln. The process of creation was as important – perhaps more so – than the end result. Dozens of these statues would be shaped and created, and placed in the kiln for heating, where the majority would shatter. Those pieces that survived must have been considered very special indeed. 

Although many Pagans today view the Woman of Willendorf as a statue symbolizing the Divine, anthropologists and other researchers are still divided as to whether or not she is truly a representation of some Paleolithic goddess. This is in no small part due to the fact that there is currently no evidence of a pan-European pre-Christian goddess religion.

As to Willendorf, and who created her and why, for now we’ll just have to continue speculating.

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Wigington, Patti. "The Woman of Willendorf." ThoughtCo, Mar. 13, 2017, Wigington, Patti. (2017, March 13). The Woman of Willendorf. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "The Woman of Willendorf." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2018).