Featured Image: Manisa Relief, Akpinar, Turkey: app. 1,400 BCE.
Considered in Classical times to be the first statue of Cybele
Rediscovered in a cave outside Schelklingen in Germany’s Swabian Jura, the 35,000 – 40,000 year old Venus vom Hohlen Fels (Venus of Hohle Fels) is one of the two oldest known pieces of figurative art. (The other, the 40,000-year old Löwenmensch or “Lion-Man,” was also found in the region). Nicholas Conard, the University of Tübingen archaeologist whose team found her in September 2008, says “You couldn’t get more female than this… this is about sex, reproduction.” The loop where her head should be suggests the 6cm figure was worn as a pendant. Scholars theorize her abundant breasts and prominent vulva represent hopes for a well-fed and fertile community. Jill Cook of the British Museum in London says the Hohle Fels Venus “shows that people at this time in Europe had reached a stage in development of the brain which enabled objects to be symbolised and abstracted. You’re dealing with a mind like ours, but simply a different time and environment.”
A century before the Hohle Fels find, archaeologists working in Willendorf found an 11cm high figurine which soon became one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of Paleolithic Art. At an estimated age of 27,000 to 30,000 years, the distance between the Venus of Willendorf and the Hohle Fels Venus is as great as that between the present day and the birth of agriculture. Yet we still see the swollen breasts and belly, the rounded thighs and the exaggerated pubis. The limestone from which she was carved is not local to the area: scholars believe its most likely origin is the area around modern-day Brno, Czech Republic, a distance of some 125 miles (200km). She was tinted with red ochre, a clay earth pigment still used by contemporary artists. The concentric bands which cover the statue’s face may be the earliest evidence of basket weaving.
The Brno region may have been a center of Her worship. In 1925 archaeologists found the world’s oldest known ceramic object near the small village of Dolni Vestonice. Roughly contemporaneous with the Willendorf Venus, the 29,000-year old Venus of Dolni Vestonice was made from a single piece of clay fired at 500 to 800℃ (900-1400℉). Her head was originally decorated with four feathers: two slits scratched from her eye-slits to her chest suggest she may have been depicted as crying. Hundreds of other terracotta figurines — mostly lions, bears, mammoths and other Ice Age mammals — were found in the area. It is noteworthy that the people of Dolni Vestonice put their most advanced skills into crafting objects for their Gods, a path their descendants would follow in building great temples and cathedrals. It is also noteworthy that after Dolni Vestonice ceramic technology disappears from the archaeological record until it reappears in China 10,000 years later.
Two hundred centuries after the Dolni Vestonice kilns went cold, there was a thriving community on the fertile Anatolian plains of modern-day Turkey’s Konya Province. The Çatalhöyük settlement held as many as 10,000 people living in clean if closely packed mudbrick houses. They painted murals on their walls and buried their dead beneath their floors: they hunted game, raised sheep and cattle and cultivated grain. And, between 7,500 and 10,000 years ago, they carved a corpulent woman with her hair tied back in a bun holding her breasts. Archaeologists found her in 2016 beside an obsidian ornament in what they believe to be a ritual placement. Lynn Meskell of Stanford University suggests the statue represents an older woman, whose full figure symbolizes great wisdom.
7,000 years ago Neolithic farmers crossed the water from Sicily and landed on Malta. 1,500 years later their descendents built great temples of standing stones from the island’s coralline limestone. They also built numerous statues which have been described as the “Fat Ladies of Malta.” Today scholars are discovering that this Goddess presided not only over fertility but death — something which should surprise few Polytheists. 4,800-year old graves found at the Tarxien temple complex show bones buried with obese ceramic statue figures. Within a century or two after the Tarxien complex was built the complex-builders were gone for reasons which remain unclear: the people who came to the island decades later had a much less artistically impressive culture, save for their ability to make bronze. With that it would appear that the Paleolithic Venus cult — a religion which lasted 10 times as long as Judaism, 15 times as long as Christianity, and over 20 times as long as Islam — had finally come to an end.
But appearances can be deceiving. An interesting variant of the Paleolithic Venus was found at Çatalhöyük. This 8,000-year old Venus sits on a throne between two large felines: the head of a baby emerges between her legs. 5,000 years later a Balkan tribe named the Bryges migrated to western Anatolia. There they honored a local Goddess as their state deity. They named this deity Matar Kubelya, Mother of the mountain. Later the Greeks considered Her an aspect of the earth Goddess Rhea and the harvest goddess Demeter. Following their oracles, the Romans enlisted Her aid in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC). After defeating Hannibal they brought Her cult to Rome and honored her in Her preferred custom, with statues that depicted her seated between lions, as the Magna Mater, the primal nature goddess honored by Phrygia in ancient ecstatic rites, the queen whose priests emasculated themselves in Her name, the great and terrible Mother Cybele.
4 thoughts on “The Old Goddesses”
The two lions motif keeps on and on after that point. All over the Levant, Middle East, India, Europe, and so on. Even Freya was said to have a chariot drawn by two cats. An odd thing for Snorri to add, but I believe it is from the same ancient goddess. Amazing how the Neolithic farmers’ ancient religion had its continuity in various ways.
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Good piece, Kenan, but I have to say that everything we thought we knew about Çatalhöyük is now tainted by this piece of news: “Famed Archaeologist ‘Discovered’ His Own Fakes at 9,000-Year-Old Settlement.”