Thursday 22 December 2011

The Venus of Willendorf

In a museum in Wien, Austria, there is a little limestone statuette. They call her the Venus of Willendorf.

She isn’t large; only eleven centimetres from head to shin, about big enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand, and that (for reasons I’ll go into in a moment) is significant. She’s also old; very old, as it happens. She was carved between twenty seven and thirty two thousand years ago. Imagine that for a moment. At the time she came into existence, the Pyramids were seven to eight times as far away in the future as they are in our past. The human race was yet to discover agriculture. And yet someone made her, with such extreme care that she remains a work of art to this day.

So what’s so special about her, anyway?

At first sight, she looks like a fat naked woman, with huge breasts and abdomen, and a very carefully carved vulva with prominent labia. Her thighs are thick and lifelike, her large buttocks flat and also lifelike, and her stick-thin arms, which hold on to her upper breasts, bear the clear representation of ornaments akin to bangles on the wrists. She does not have feet, and never did; the feet aren’t broken off, they just never were carved. And she does not have a face. Instead, what covers her head is a series of seven carefully carved concentric circles, for all the world like coils of braided hair. She is a thing of beauty, above all else. But she’s not just a thing of beauty.

While it’s impossible to tell precisely why she was made, it’s possible to conjecture; there are enough clues available that such conjecture isn’t blind guesswork. For one thing, she’s not alone; the period she was made has sent down to us many other stylised representations of women, and only of women. But, while some of the other carvings are less and some more detailed than the Willendorf Venus, they lack the clues that she gives us.

Take another good look at her; and think of the era in which she was made. Back then, humans lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, and life was really nasty, brutal and short. One would be lucky to live till one’s mid-thirties, and there was never any certainty over whether one would live to see the next day. And remember, always, that biologically, a human being is no more than a way for a gene to create another gene. That’s behind the urge to reproduce, an urge which most of us give in to this day. If you aren’t sure whether you’ll live to see tomorrow, it makes sense to reproduce today while you still can. Doesn’t it?

And, who carries out the actual business of reproduction? The man can donate his sperm, but it’s the woman who bears the baby in her womb, brings it forth from between her legs, and cares and nurtures it as long as needed. The woman is the well-spring of life; as it were, the “sacred feminine”.

Suddenly, the Venus doesn’t look like a morbidly obese woman any more; with her swollen breasts and her swollen belly, at which she seems to be looking, she appears to be a lovingly depicted and somewhat exaggerated vision of a pregnant woman, and her meticulously carved vulva is the gateway of future life to come.

And it’s also significant that she was found covered in red ochre paint, as of menstrual blood. Menstruation must have been a most significant occasion in women’s lives, if only because it would stop if she conceived, and was pregnant; and, of course, pregnancy was the very essence of her femininity, the state where she could do what no man could ever do: give birth to a new human being.

Also, remember that the Venus is small, only large enough to be held in a hand. In fact, she seems designed to be held in a hand, her curves sensual and rounded, the flowing lines desiring, almost, to be stroked. Obviously, she wasn’t meant to be left somewhere. She was meant to be carried be, if one might say so, loved.

Therefore, I suppose it’s pretty logical to assume that the Venus was meant as a paean to femininity, a song of praise to womanhood. Let’s assume that for the moment and see where it gets us.

The first thing we should remember, of course, is that imperative to reproduce I mentioned a while back. Since it’s hardly likely that people of the time were so dumb that they hadn’t worked out the connection between sexual intercourse and childbirth, it seems logical to assume that sex itself would come to have a special and highly significant, probably ritualistic, place in the society of the time.

And that, directly, leads us to something that – modern legalities aside – should be realised; after the onset of sexual maturity, virginity is a highly abnormal state. We’re programmed to have sex for a reason; and that reason is, primarily, the continuation of the species. Whether said sex is heterosexual, and directly concerned with propagation, or homosexual, and concerned with societal bonding, the fact is that virtually all of us are programmed to have it, and to enjoy it.

Logically, then, since giving birth was a precious and extremely necessary thing for the societies of the time, virginity was not only useless but actively harmful, since it wasted valuable sexual energies. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that being a virgin was pretty much tantamount to being a traitor, because it imperilled the group. And it’s more than likely that young men and women were ritually deflowered and initiated to sex as soon as they reached sexual maturity.

It’s most likely that the reverence for virginity (which is still sputtering along in today’s so-called modern society) is a much more recent phenomenon, one that grew with the emergence of settled communities and the concept of property. Obviously, a nomadic hunter-gatherer society can’t afford to have personal heritable property, or even defined family groups. It’s more likely than not that such societies brought up their children in common, and the children belonged to the group in common. But once a society settled, and became property oriented, a man had to have a reason to work for the future. If he had children, he needed to have a reason to work to pass on the fruits of his labours to the children. And why should he work for children he wasn’t sure were his own?

The solution, therefore? Get hold of the woman early, as soon as she becomes sexually mature, and control her so that she has sex exclusively with you. Whatever children she brings forth into the world will be yours, and therefore worth caring for. And in order to control her sexuality before she is yours, turn her virginity into an iconic state, instead of the stigma it was. Once you make her the custodian of her own virginity, your battle's won.

The attitude is just the opposite, in fact, of that shown by the Venus of Willendorf.

Men are the weaker sex biologically. We live shorter lives, and carry more genetic defects. Men are the weaker sex sexually as well; women have stronger sex drives than men, and biologically are programmed to that as well. The imperatives of reproduction ensure that. And, subliminally, men are aware of it, and, I suspect, faced with the raw sexuality of a woman, they’re terrified.

It wasn’t always like that though. Once upon a time, men and women were perfectly aware of each other’s respective sexuality, and rejoiced in it.

The Venus of Willendorf tells us it’s so.

Further reading: (A detailed physical description of the statuette)
(A site with photographs of her from various angles, and a description of how she was found)

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