2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000 year old statue that some believe represents proof of widespread prehistoric goddess worship. Excavated on August 7th, 1908, the figurine has since become a true modern icon, and is being celebrated with a special exhibition at Vienna’s Natural History Museum.
Venus of Willendorf
“The first and only statuette of her kind before the French Venus of Lespugue and the Russian Venus of Kostienki joined her two decades later, the lady from Willendorf still attracts crowds. “I think a lot of visitors come to the museum just to see the Venus,” said Mr Antl-Weiser. But where she came from and whether she represented a goddess or women’s elevated place in society remains a mystery … “we can’t prove that women played a predominant role during this period and that these female statuettes honoured them. There are many other statuettes [from that period] representing animals, part-humans and part-animals or asexual human beings.” Rather than being a goddess, the Venus of Willendorf could have been part of a ritual or a belief shared by several tribes over 20,000 years ago. Although excavated at opposite ends of the continent, the French and Russian venuses are similar in form to their Austrian sister. “They could have been expressions of a single belief that spread through Europe,” said Ms Antl-Weiser.”
Though we don’t know the true name for this goddess, the Venus of Willendorf’s image is venerated once again throughout the West. You have Venus of Willendorf-shaped soap, coffee mugs, jewelry, refrigerator magnets, wands, t-shirts, and chocolate treats. While the once-popular theory of a matriarchal golden age (which the various “Venus” figurines played an important role in) has come under scholarly fire since its hundred-year heyday (1870s through the 1970s), the Venus remains an important key to understanding the minds of our ancient ancestors. Not to mention the cultural and religious shifts that came in the wake of her, and similar finds, discovery.
So happy anniversary to the lost goddess, found once more. Oh, and if you happen to be in Austria anytime soon (you lucky devils), the special exhibition will run through February.