Throughout millennia, caves have been revered as sacred spaces, intimately tied to rituals that honour the themes of fertility, childbirth, and the eternal ebb and flow of life.
Symbolizing the passage from the cosmic womb to life or death, caves served as conduits for transformative and magical experiences, where the interconnectedness of life and death was acknowledged and celebrated.
Sacred Figurines and Ritualistic Significance
This respect for female vitality and reproduction is reflected in cave art produced during this period, which frequently features depictions of female sexual organs, not only in the caves themselves but also in the form of tiny feminine statuettes.
An example of this reverence for the feminine and cosmic womb is evident in the Grimaldi/Cavillon cave system in Italy. Dating back to the Gravettian period, these statuettes, with their exaggerated feminine features, hint at a profound connection to fertility, the mother goddess and the female body. Intriguingly, some of these figurines were also found wearing headdresses, much like some of the most elaborately buried skeletons found from this era.
The initial assumption by archaeologists was that these tiny statues represented fertility idols or manifestations of a mother goddess, earning them the moniker "Venus figurines". However, these figures predate the figure of Venus by thousands of years, rendering the term Venus misleading. Consequently, modern scholars now typically refer to them as Women, ie: the Woman of Willendorf.
Symbols of Fertility and Creation
As no written records were made of these prehistoric carvings and artworks, the motivations behind their creation remain clouded in mystery. Questions linger about whether men or women crafted these figures, and what exact role they played in their societies - were they objects of ritual, luck or artistic expression?
Most interpretations however suggest that these figurines are testaments to a time when the ability of women to bear children imbued them with a near-magical significance.
Women, who could conceive, birth, and nourish new life from their bodies at the time were viewed as sacred beings, wielding a superpower beyond the reach of men. Thus, the sexual organs and breasts of women were revered and held sacred.
The Rise of Patriarchy
Sadly, the veneration of femininity and the powers of motherhood, fertility, and creation — and even destruction — faded with the advent of patriarchal societies.
Even Louis Jullien, the amateur prehistorian who discovered the figurines prioritized personal gain over the preservation and scholarly exploration of these significant historical treasures. He clandestinely removed several pieces and took them with him to Canada between 1895 and 1900 despite the legal and ethical obligations to preserve cultural heritage.
Jullien instead of placing these artefacts in a museum where they could be publicly accessible and studied, opted to keep the pieces in his personal possession and continued to sell them privately.
This unauthorized removal of the statuettes from Italy deprived the world of valuable archaeological evidence and hindered our understanding of women in prehistoric times. It is unfortunate that Jullien prioritized personal gain over the preservation and scholarly exploration of these significant historical treasures - and it wasn’t until the 1994s that the collection resurfaced again when one of Jullien's daughters sold most of the statuettes to an antique dealer.
Today, these tiny but powerful figurines stand as silent witnesses to a time when the feminine was deeply revered, offering us a unique glimpse into the profound reverence for women in our ancient past.