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Home  /  Religious Studies  /  Thomas Shoemaker  /  Courses & Programs  /  World Religions  /  Extras  /  The Ancient Goddess

Images of the Ancient Goddess

Long before the advent of Abraham (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) or the arrival of the Aryans in the Indus River Valley (ca. 2000 B.C.E.), or the rise of the Pharoahs in Egypt (3000 B.C.E.), there was religion. Cro-Magnon humans appeared approximately 100,000 years ago, expanding beyond Africa sometime around 60,000 years ago. Some time after, figures began to appear in the areas in which they lived.

The figure below left was discovered in Spring 2009 in a cave in Germany. Referred to as the "Venus of Hohle Fels," this two-inch figure is the oldest figurine yet discovered, dating to 35,000 years ago. (Clicking on these images will give you the full-sized version.) The oldest, that is, unless ...

The figure below right was discovered in 1981 at a site known as Berekhat Ram, in the Golan Heights (the disputed area between Israel and Syria). It is about an inch and a half tall, and some claim its shape (including breasts and arms) is the result of intentional tooling. If so, it is a remarkable find, since it was discovered between two layers of ash, allowing it to be dated to sometime around 250,000 years ago. That would make it the artwork of an earlier hominid species.

Next are images of five of those figurines that date from 20,000 B.C.E. or earlier.

The first, the Venus of Galgenberg, dates to 30,000 B.C.E. It was discovered in Austria, and appears to be dancing. She has no facial features, but her vulva is clearly indicated.

The second, known as the Venus of Willendorf, was also found in what is now Austria, and dates to 22,000-24,000 B.C.E. She is remarkable for her lack of features (no hands or feet, and her face is covered with some kind of headdress), which makes what she does have stand out -- her very large hips, belly and breasts. It would seem she is pregnant.

The third was carved on the outside wall of a cave entrance in France. This figure, known as the Venus of Laussel, dates to about 23,000 B.C.E. Again, she has no facial features and her feet are not carved -- we are drawn to her right hand -- which is holding what appears to be a horn, such as from an ox -- and her left hand, where the fingers are placed on what looks to be a very pregnant belly. On the horn are thirteen lines. They may represent the number of children she has had, or they may represent the number of lunar cycles in a solar year, or they may represent the number of menstrual cycles in a solar year.

The fourth, excavated from the site known as Gagarino in western Russia, dates to ca. 22,000 B.C.E. She is remarkably similar to the figure of Willendorf.

The fifth is the figure of Lespugue.

Similar figurines from the same time period have been found in France at Monpazier, Sireil, Brassempouy, and Tursac. Also in trhis time frame is the Savignano Venus of Italy.

What conclusions can we draw? There are no masculine figurines from this time frame, which may mean there were none, or only that we haven't yet found any. If there are none, we still are not certain -- this could simply be evidence that men liked women. But it is noteworthy that these images seem not to focus on individual features, or even the erotic per se, but on the power to create life. Some have concluded that the creation of such figures may indicate a religious perspective: awe at the life-giving power of the feminine. There is not yet any evidence to make that more than speculation, however.

It takes into the next several milenia to begin to sense that behind the figures. The images immediately below were created in the time between 20,000 B.C.E. and the time of the Aryan migrations (around 2,000 B.C.E.)

The impact of the above images is that they are from a wider geographical area -- from India to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to Canaan to Turkey. The first two figures are from Catal Huyuk in what is now south-central Turkey, and date to 6000 B.C.E. They were located in shrines. In the second, she is seated between two cats (lionesses?) and is in the act of birthing. (An article from Gnosis magazine is available online.) This area is not far from the steppes of Russia from which the Aryans would migrate. In the Hebrew Bible (= "Old Testament"), Abraham's ancestry is from nearby Haran -- but 4,500 years later.

Next, dating to 4,500 B.C.E. is the Lady of Pazardzik (located in what today is Bulgaria). Her image is stylized like a bird -- and that motif will be part of many other fiures from this time. Like many of the earlier figures, her buttocks and hips are exaggerated. On her body are engravings of apparently symbolic shapes.

The fourth image is from Mergarh, India. Dating to 3000 B.C.E., she has clear features, but still has the exaggerated hips and bust.

The fifth image is from Ur -- the very site that Abraham is said to have left in order to go to Canaan. This woman has the features of what seems to be a reptile. She is nursing a baby. She dates to 4,000 B.C.E.

The images below are all from the ancient Near East -- Sumeria, Babylon, Syria, and the land of Canaan.

Similar figurines from the same time period have been found in France at Monpazier, Sireil, Brassempouy, and Tursac. Also in this time frame is the Savignano Venus of Italy. But what can we make out of it all?

Writing was invited rather recently in human experience, so we do not have conclusive evidence about the way people thought until around 2000 B.C.E. But it is significant that the earliest written narrative was a collection of clay fragments with a cuneiform text (the picture above at far right). These fragments were discovered in a temple for the worship of Inanna in Sumer. Samuel Noah Kramer spent a lifetime assembling the pieces of the tablets and deciphering the language. The result was the story of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Here is described her achievement of power. her marriage to the shepherd boy Damuzi, her journey to the underworld, and more.