There is no question that the role women play in society has transformed significantly throughout the course of history. Some cultures were centered on the female entity as a symbol of life and fertility, while others strayed towards a more masculine focus. In many ancient cultures, it seems as though women were revered in a sacred light. Although there are scarce written records, if any, left behind by those people, we can draw conclusions about women in society based on the remaining pieces of visual art in existence today. Also, by looking at the composition, technique, and structure of these works, we are able to get insight on what the technology and culture in daily life were like in those far-away times. Just a few great examples of this concept can be observed in sculptures such as Venus of Willendorf; Snake Priestess and other snake goddess figures; and the numerous remaining Cycladic figures. There are some similarities among these pieces, but at the same time, each one is highly unique in its representation of the culture it ties into. Given proper examination and attention, the stories of the way these ancient peoples lived can be told through their artwork.
There are a few major similarities between the three types of figures in question. Firstly and obviously, all of the sculptures are of women. They are clearly given that portrayal by the emphasis –some greater than others – on their sexual organs. Each figure had been stylized and idealized in appearance, depicting women who would have been thought to be outstandingly beautiful through the eyes of their society. They are dressed very minimally (or not at all) in order to showcase their feminine figures. Although various sizing for some of these statues have been discovered, Venus of Willendorf, the Snake Goddesses, and the Cycladic figures were all found in votive sizes. This indicates that they were used in ceremonies and rituals which were sacred to their society.
Venus of Willendorf is unique in many different ways. This sculpture was discovered near the Danube River in Austria by archaeologist Josef Szombathy (Exaggerated Beauty). Dating back to between 24,000-22,000 BCE, she is the oldest existing piece of famous art known to mankind. There is only one known figure of her kind that has been discovered thus far. Venus is carved out of a type of oolitic limestone and painted with red ochre. This limestone is not indigenous to the area in which she was found, indicating that the stone was brought from a different area.
Her face is masked by a woven covering, but that is the only clothing she sports. She is depicted with her arms across her chest: a defensive stance. Venus of Willendorf’s figure is very plump and round, like a “sacred pebble”. This is highly indicative of the Early Stone Age practice of collecting stones and pebbles whose shapes appeared to be important or useful in some way (Janson 27). Venus’s sexual organs are the most distinctly pronounced of the three sculptures in question, which is highly suggestive of her purpose as an omen of fertility. As stated in “Venus of Willendorf: Exaggerated Beauty”, “…in Paleolithic people terms, the parts that mattered most had to do with successful reproduction – the breasts and pelvic girdle. Therefore, these parts were isolated and amplified by the artist’s brain.” A symbolic image of health, fertility, and longevity would be longed for in an emerging society, such as the one which Venus of Willendorf originates from.
The Cycladic Figures are also highly unique. They were created by people of the Keros-Stros culture, which existed for about 1,450 years or so. There were many variations on Cycladic art, but the most common standing female figures associated with the culture were created between 2600 – 2400 B.C. They can be categorized into the Early Cycladic archaeological time frame (Higgins 53). The figures were made of marble – as opposed to the Venus of Willendorf’s limestone material – and were originally given a bit of color with paint. However, just like Venus, they were considered to be very important through the eyes of their society.
As stated by Higgins, “…the statuettes made in the Early Cycladic period of the local coarse-grained marble are without question the finest products of the Aegean Bronze Age” (58). The type of Cycladic figure in question stands up straight with its arms across its chest – as Venus of Willendorf does. She has no facial features aside from a nose, and the distinction on her sexual organs is much less than those of Venus and the Snake Goddess. The majority of the Cycladic figures were discovered at grave sites, leading many people to believe that they were used as a sacred element of death and burial rituals. They are also thought to be symbols of fertility, life, and rebirth (Papadimitriou “Cycladic Art Museum”).
There are several interpretations of the Snake Goddess figure in ancient art. Found on the island of Knossos, the Snake Goddess is an image commonly identified with the Minoan culture, and – more specifically- the Minoan snake cult. Many of the recovered pieces date back to around 1750 B.C., making her the youngest of the three sculptures in question (Janson 63). She was fashioned by an artistic process called “faience”. Faience is a non-clay ceramic technique in which the piece is created with a quartz or sand-based material and obtains a lustrous glaze; In Egyptian culture, it was representative of life renewal (“Faience Technology”). All of the recovered figures were incomplete in some way, so much speculation was made as to the complete appearance of these figures. The Snake Goddess stands tall, naked from the waist up, grasping two cobras in her hands.
Her breasts are greatly pronounced, as those of Venus of Willendorf are. It is speculated that the Snake Goddess figurines were used for religious purposes as sacred images. Snake handlers were often attributed with having supernatural abilities and presence (Foster 73). Because of this sacred presence she is given, one can also assume that she can be associated with the fertility idols found throughout the societies of ancient culture.
Each of the aforementioned pieces of artwork tells a story about the cultures from which they originated from. Not only do they display what the technology was like in that age, but they depict what was important through the eyes of society. In each, it is very clear that women played some sort of sacred role in the daily lives of the people. It is very clear to see the matriarchal dominance in the ancient world. Although they are portrayed very differently, each woman represented fertility, life, and longevity of the people and their cultures.