Discovery of the First Known Icon of a Goddess

art2useAn Excerpt from the Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines

Whether a goddess or not, the figure at Hohle Fels Cave created a sensation. Finds of Paleolithic Venuses, while never commonplace, are frequent enough that archaeologists were not surprised to unearth another. But stone figures like the Venus of Willendorf have been found with other objects suggesting an age of no more than 30,000 years. Because the Hohle Fels figure was carved of bone, scientists were able to carbon-date it. This showed the figure to be 35,000 to 40,000 years old, 10,000 years older than similar finds. The Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest depiction of the human form ever found. And she is indisputably female.

What does this Venus look like? Like other such works, she is naked and robust, corpulent or possibly pregnant. Her breasts are huge and her pubic triangle exaggerated. Her arms and legs are tiny in proportion to her body, and she has no face. Where the head should be, Venus has a ring, suggesting she was worn as a pendant or amulet. She is only 2¬Ω inches long and weighs less than an ounce.

Is this the image of humanity’s primal divinity? We cannot know what people believed in prehistory, as by definition they left no written records. We do know that since recorded history began, humans have honored goddesses, for among the earliest written documents are hymns to the Babylonian goddess Inanna. But the Hohle Fels figure is ten times older than the oldest religious writing.

We cannot know whether those who carved the Hohle Fels Venus intended to represent a divinity in female form. But we do know that almost every culture since the dawn of time has honored goddesses as well as gods. Then, somewhere around 2,500 years ago, monotheism emerged in the eastern Mediterranean, first in the form of Hebrew tribal religion (which became Judaism), then as Christianity, and finally as Islam. These related religions center their worship on a single male divinity. In doing so, they eliminate age-old reverence for the divine female.

By contrast, no goddess has ever occupied the solitary position in a religion. The difference between monotheism and goddess religion cannot be clearer: No monotheistic goddess religion has ever been found. Every religion that honors a goddess honors a god as well.

Debate rages over whether the honoring of goddesses makes any difference to the lives of real women, with critics pointing out the practice of widow burning in Hindu India, for instance, as proof that placing a goddess on the altar does not necessarily free women from oppression. Similarly, Greek and Roman religion created magnificent images of the feminine divine, yet denied basic rights to women. Patriarchy and monotheism are not identical. One can exist without the other.

There is no question monotheism limits women in religious situations. Only recently have some Christian denominations permitted women to serve as priests, with others holding up the presumed “sex of god” as a reason to deny the pulpit to women. Whether such bias extends beyond the church is a matter of debate, but there is little question that boys who are taught that god looks like them, but not like their mothers and sisters, grow up differently than girls who are taught the opposite. It is probably not surprising that those raised with such an orientation find it difficult to believe that our forebears may have honored divinity in female form and captured her image in forms such as the Hohle Fels Venus. Although it is certainly possible men carved big-breasted women as fantasy sexual objects 35,000 years ago, the greater likelihood is that this faceless woman represents what we call “Mother Nature,” the embodiment in female form of the forces to which human life is subject.

Whether or not prehistoric figures represent goddesses, there is no doubt that once written history begins, we find goddesses sharing the religious stage with gods. Throughout the world, people pictured divinity in female form. Often, divine women acted like human women, especially when they performed the one activity biologically limited to women: bearing children. Goddesses often conceive without a male partner. They are impregnated by wind or ocean waves, by snakes or fiery flames, or simply by their own desire. When they have a mate, the relationship need not replicate those of humans. The goddess may have intercourse with her father or her brother, with a stranger, or with several deities at once. She may be promiscuous. Or she may have one mate with whom she forms a model of the ideal human couple.

Not all female divinities are “mother goddesses.” Goddesses can appear as young nymphs, self-reliant workers, aged sages. They can be athletes or huntresses, dancers or acrobats, herbalists or midwives. We find goddesses as teachers, inventors, bartenders, potters, surfers, magicians, warriors, and queens. Virtually any social role women have played or are capable of playing appears in a goddess myth.

This volume shows the breadth of possibilities associated with the feminine through many ages and cultures. Some figures will be familiar to the general reader, especially those from classical European sources. Others are obscure, recorded only in a single source as, for instance, some native North American stories transcribed from the last speaker of a dying language. Not all would be called “goddesses” by the people who told their stories, for that word generally refers to divine or supernatural beings. Between such figures and mortal women exists a category this work calls “heroines.” Some were originally human women who attained to legendary status: clan ancestors, extraordinarily faithful lovers, self-sacrificing saviors, remarkable queens, bold adventurers, wonder workers. Others represent a halfway category between human and divine. These include women with superhuman powers, spirits of nature, personified abstractions, bodhisattvas, ogres, cannibals, and saints.

Finally, monotheistic religions often have female figures who function in goddess-like ways, giving birth to gods or saving humanity from peril. Although monotheisms deny the existence of goddesses, these figures are listed in this work, because such figures are sometimes submerged goddesses or powerful goddess-like beings. Where such figures are included, the view of worshippers from that religion is clearly stated.

From the book Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines. Copyright © 2014 by Patricia Monaghan. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.