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Ars Longa, Vita Brevis June 11, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
Tags: , , , , ,

Or: “Art is long, life is short.” In mid-May German archaeologists  announced that they had found a piece of three-dimensional art, a little figurine carved out of mammoth ivory depicting a naked woman, in the Hohle Fels Cave, a region that has already yielded interesting human artifacts, including the oldest known musical instrument, a flute. The style resembles the famous Venus of Willendorf and other fertility figurines, but “Venus” is only ca. 24,000 years old, and the newfound little statuette is older than any other three-dimensional depiction of a human, going back ca. 40,000 years.  Here are some dates to put this find into perspective: About 150,000-200,000 years ago Cro-Magnon humans traveled out of Africa to colonize the rest of the world. Cave art have been found dating back 75,000 years, and 40,000 years ago we humans were still sharing Europe and the Middle East with the last of the Neandertals.

Venus of Hohle Fels











Why is this so fascinating? Another headless, big-breasted figurine found in Europe—what is significant about that? Some commentators can’t get over those big breasts, and the exaggerated genitalia, and talk about “pornographic” images. Like many other conversations about art, those comment reveal more about the beholder than about the work of art. We have no idea what these little figurines were for. But we do have so many of them (albeit from a later time period) that we may be able to speculate: Certainly it might be that they were made by men, and for men, to add something tangible to their fantasies during lonely times—and what of it? I would assume that if there is anything that remains stable in the human condition, it is a natural preoccupation with sex. But in the archaeological community it hasn’t been the sexual aspect that has been accentuated, but the fertility symbolism: These figurines are not only “voluptuous,” they are apparently pregnant. For ancient cultures this may have been far more significant as a symbol of the fertility of the tribe, the herds, and nature itself, than being a sex-symbol  (then again, one does not preclude the other. We’re just so used to the Victorian and post-Victorian mindset where sex is dirty…) .

Thanks to scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and Gerda Lerner who have studied ancient cultures centered around female fertility, we may see these little figurines as stylized images of creative power. According to Gimbutas and Lerner, the worship of female fertility is linked to what is probably the oldest religion in the world, the worship of the Mother Goddess. Archaeological evidence seem to indicate that there was indeed a time, dating back some 8,000 years and beyond, where the Goddess worship was widespread all over the ancient world, and (according to Lerner) this would imply that the Goddess’s human representatives, the priestesses, would have had a prominent presence in the social structure.  Scholars don’t like to use the term matriarchy, because we have no evidence that women actually ruled in those ancient times, but there is enough evidence to suggest that women did play a more integrated role in society. So scholars prefer to talk about matrifocal or gynocentric values.  Now, thanks to the new find of the little figurine, added to the other Venus figurines from a later date, we can perhaps move this tradition back an additional 30,000 years, and speculate that a matrifocal system may have been in effect among the Cro-Magnon humans, even as the hunters outwitted or outcompeted the Neandertals. As Lerner would say, patriarchy has only been around for some 3500 years—but for most of our time as humans, we have been matrifocal. (We will talk about all this in my Fall 2009 class, Phil 125, Philosophy of Women, by the way!) Just for the record, in my personal opinion patriarchy is not the source of all evil, as it has often been presented by radical feminism, but it is a thought-provoking idea that a tradition preceding patriarchy can perhaps be anchored that far back in time, thanks to this new piece of evidence.

But we need not take sides about patriarchy and Goddess worship to see an additional significance to the little figurine: As a work of art, which it indisputably is, it speaks to us from across 40,000 years about the human capacity for symbolic thinking: Our language, our gestures, our artifacts, and the very ways we think utilize images and expressions to signify other images and expressions. The little headless figurine is probably intended to symbolize something: maybe Woman as such, maybe Fertility, maybe Mom, or Sweetheart, maybe the Goddess who Gives and Takes Away—we don’t know.  What we do know is that she has meant something—to he or she who carved her, and to the generations who kept her in their tribe. The little statuette has reached out, beyond the lifetime of the artist, to the future—which is what good art does. And that brings me back to the Latin proverb (translated from an even older Greek saying): Art is long, life is short. Life may be a lot longer for most of us than what the artist who carved the figurine could expect—some 30 years at the most. Still, each lifetime is not long enough to accomplish everything we’d like to accomplish, and experience and understand all there is to understand. But art ties generations together, and makes our short lives link up in a common experience transcending the individual lifespan. And thanks to the little figurine, Art just got a whole lot longer.



1. Richard Gilbert - September 14, 2009

I do not think that this figurine is a representative of a “goddess”. I can’t help but look at my own religion and ask myself if I carry around figurines of my God. I don’t and I can’t imagine why anybody who carry around a figurine of a god. I do see how people wear necklaces of crosses and crescent moons and such but no actual figurine of a god. I believe that these figurines are exactly that… figurines! Dolls for little kids to play with. As Freud says, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”

2. Brittney Peebles - October 5, 2009

I agree with Richard above and believe that the figurine is not a Goddess but just a regular sculpture for that time period just like we have sculptures of women and men with clothes and with out clothes. The only difference, I believe, is that they weren’t ashamed of being naked back then rather they embarrassed it and saw it as art. As for the pregnant part of the women figurine i also believe that it is another way of expressing there idea of art and the beauty of creating life.

3. Sarah Massaro - October 6, 2009

This figurine was obviously very important to someone. It has lasted this long for a reason. Once again we have a figurine that has no head, do you really think that people back then objectified womens bodies the way they do today? I find that really hard to believe. It makes a lot more sense to me that the reason she does not have a head is because she is sacred. She has life in her; they did not know what it took to become pregnant. What they did know was that people came out of vaginas and when people died they decomposed into the earth, hence MOTHER earth. (Again that whole idea of the maiden mother and the crone) I think that it is hard for people today to understand that, being that the patriarchal society we live in has no respect for its natural resources like women or the earth. We see these fertility goddesses very often with the same pattern, no head and pregnant. I don’t think that the people 30+thousand years ago had just a pregnancy fetish. Sometimes we have to step outside ourselves and realize that it is very likely that during that time people had an entirely different view of women than they do now.

4. Veronica Hand - October 15, 2009

those who are even passively familier with the bible ( or Heston films for that matter) will note that both the new and old testiments denounce idolatry repeatedly. This (And many other sorces) tells us that idolatry was a big deal in the ancient world, so why not in the cro-magnen?
Ancient Egyptians (some of the most famous idoliters) would throw out the brains of deceaced pharos; which to our modern opinions would be the holy of holies, in their embalming process, they did not know what it did. In the same vein, I’d assume the head of this goddess was not relivant to her station in their eyes, her important parts are emphasized for us.
A quick note about ivory, ever held it in your hand? Better yet, ever killed an animal with tusks using spears? Ivory’s level of difficulty to attain was higher than that of precious metal’s today. Of course this carving was holy- it probably took several weeks to create, if not longer, and out of a material that members of the tribe had died to attain.

5. Joey LiMandri - November 2, 2009

I think if this indeed were a Goddess figurine, closer attention would be paid to the details. As we’ve seen in subsequent eras, females in power would have elaborate paintings done or memorials erected in their honor. To me, this might be just a doll. However, classroom discussion brought about an interesting observation: a small head with enlarged breasts and genitalia could mean the absence of a brain. I agree with this theory in that woman could have possibly been seen as outlets through which Gods were born, simply to produce offspring and that’s about it. Perhaps woman were thought to be too stupid to object to this type of treatment. And if that was indeed the case, this could be one of the first forms of propaganda. If little girls were to play with these dolls, this message could have been ingrained into their brains.

6. Charlotte Ferguson - December 1, 2009

I think the figure may be a women and what she looks like when she is going to have a child. I don’t think it is a goddess. This may have been a way to tell how far a long the women is in her term of child birth. As well as a way for young girls to learn about their bodies. I just don’t see women being that importants in a mans world. Unless we can reproduce for a man then we can not be worth anything. Maybe men used this to make their wives upset. Well this maybe a goddess for the women to get them out of the life they live. I think these were just made for a source of money and teaching. But not a goddess.

7. Haley Schimmer - December 6, 2009

After many classroom discussions and observations of these photographs, I have discovered that I like the idea that these could be for worship of goddesses. I really enjoyed reading about Lerner’s discoveries and how they relate to women in the ancient world. I believe that these figures were created to represent the goddess. I agree with one of the statements above, that women were not depicted as they are today in result of a partiarchal society. The continuous findings of the pregnant figure with little or no head must represent something sacred. It seems to me that people of ancient times worshiped the gods in which they believed held their resources. I dont see how these sculptures may be evidence of any different, especially that of mocking women.

8. Giovanni Khuri- Phil 125 - December 9, 2009

Art is absolutely useful in discovering the past. Without art many of histories’ greatest stories would not have been told. Besides guessing what the true meaning of a work is what makes art so enjoyable. I have seen these types of figurines in a Art History class before and I agree it is an object of worship. The emphasized parts of the figurine clearly indicate that it symbolizes fertility. Although I am not an art historian these figurines seem to say something about the culture who created them. Exactly what they are saying is a question posed to the viewer.

9. Robin - January 17, 2010

This is a True Fertility Goddess.She is preganat,carved from metal..she is 2″ high,is painted in red to lrepresent blood..Due to age some is missing.At her base is very detailed female parts,very risque but beautiful carved art.She still has some old caked on dirt from where ever she was found,which is unknown.

10. Robin - January 17, 2010
11. Kristina - September 20, 2010

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis… At first this quote confused me a bit, but after I thought about it, it makes total sense. The literal meaning, “Art is long, Life is short is so true. Art does last forever, and life doesn’t. Artifacts have been found from thousands of years ago and will continue to pop up as archaelogists find them! The statue that is spoken about in this blog is a major symbol of matriarchy.
This symbol is supposed to indicate that our ancestors lived in a matriarchal society. This is very difficult for me to comprehend since our more recent history indicates that it was a patriarchal culture and in some ways, our lives are highly dominated by men. The fact that there has yet to be a female president is a pretty decent example of a country run by men. It just seems silly for me to believe that women have ALWAYS been placed on such a high pedestal, when it doesn’t even seem that women are completely equal to men even in this day and age….

12. Emily Johnson - December 8, 2010

I read the first two comments on this from 2009 and have to disagree with what they are saying. I believe that figurines like these hold a lot more power in their symbolic meaning than some of us would like to believe, especially when it comes to contemporary religious values. They [figurines] were created in such an early time in history, without regards to any other social institutions influencing them. Where I’m going with this is that during the Mother Goddess tradition there were no other traditions. Versus a society like ours, where we are inundated with so many religious and social institutions, it’s hard to identify with just one.

As simplistic as it sounds, these figurines were the only form of tradition at the time that this was created, and I believe it is a pure symbol of ancient tradition before the rest of the world happened!

In regards to Professor Rosentand’s comment about this figurine being labeled as “pornographic” by some viewers, I have to agree that art DOES in fact reveal a lot more about the beholder who comments than those that don’t. In my latter paragraph, I mentioned outside social influences. Our society would automatically look at something like this as pornographic because anything in regards to “sex” is automatically sexualized and deemed taboo. I was fascinated learning about the Mother Goddess tradition in our class and find figurines and history from this time period with utmost intrigue.

13. niki novak - December 8, 2010

Hmmm glorification of the female body? Is that so hard to believe? No, the body is beautiful. However the facts surrounding this artificate is what makes me believe that this had to have been sacred to who ever created it. The figurine was made out of ivory, not rock not clay. This figurine was also not created with a head and had enlarged womanly features, representing the obvious importance to the creator behind the art. Would a man or woman today create a figurine for their wives or sisters in pure gold? something diffucult to obtain? I believe this object supports other findings in regards to the goddess tradition. I believe the creator of this artifact wanted and new that this piece would last beyond their stay on earth, that is why i believe it must have been holy. You only make the best for the best.

14. Raquel M. Gonzalez - November 14, 2011

I think this statue could possibly be a fertility goddess. I have seen ancient male statues with exaggerated phalluses that were supposed to represent fertility gods so why wouldn’t this represent a fertility goddess? This little statue reminds of the movie “The Witches of Eastwick”. In the movie, Cher’s character is a sculptress of goddesses called “boobie dolls”. They were very round with large breasts and a belly. Except for the size of the head, the sculptures in the movie resemble this statue.

15. Mohammad Qassimyar Phil 125 - December 5, 2011

though i understand what gerda is trying to say i do not agree with her philosophy. i do not believe societies all worshiped a mother goddess before a version of a male god. it is completely not permissable to make such outrageous conclusions from such little evidence. sure there are statues being found but what connection does that have to do with a female goddess. lets say in the distant future a man finds a barbie. he should have no right to make wild assuptions that we all worshipped some sort of barbie goddess. even though her statements make sense after, the root of her argument in flawwed. her philosophy is like a grand building with no foundation. once something shows that the statues are not all representing goddesses, her building will come crashing down. i agree more with the statues representing a pregnant women but i can’t see them all representing female goddesses

16. Paul J. Moloney - December 6, 2011

Speaking of goddesses, it seems at least coincidental that a city dedicated to the goddess Athena produced three of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known.

17. Arturo Villanueva - December 7, 2011

I do not agree with Lerner on this issue due to the fragile foundation that she builds her theory on. Their could have been soldiers in those times that went on long journeys and did not get to see their wives for long periods of time. The figurines couldve have made to keep a memory of their significant other during hardships.

18. Keeli Kleinfeldt - November 10, 2012

Philosophy can go any way because most things are not based on concrete information. In this case, I do agree with the theory that women were gynocratic figures at this time. All though the figurines could have just been used as sexual figures for men, I see that as a secondary use of the female figurines. I feel as if they were used as a type of worship for the citizens. Some of them not being clothed, shows me that there was possible worship of the natural woman. So, i think the theory here is incredibly possible and relevant.

19. Tina Le/ Phil 125 - December 5, 2012

I find it fascinating that this figurine had the possibility as representing a Goddess or that was simply a piece of art that women praised. It’s fascinating to know that the real purpose for this figurine is unknown, and it is open to interpretation. Because of its unique and curvy figure, the figurine could definitely be pregnant and could symbolize a woman’s hopefulness of becoming pregnant. The reason why I’m connecting this figurine to be a possible piece of worship is because I recently learned in my Art History class in African and Oceanic art that many women of African culture would carry about a wooden doll. These women would treat these dolls just like how they would treat a human baby. The purpose for this is because this specific group of women had unsuccessful pregnancies so the dolls represented the babies they could not bear. This connection ties in with the scholars, Marija Gumbutas and Gerda Lerner because whether it is about a mysterious pregnant figurine or a wooden doll to represent a child, these images were all created through the creative power of fertility and femininity. I would not necessarily point out with such ease that European figurine could represent a Goddess, but I feel comfort to suggest that this figurine was used just like how the Africans used their figurine- as a creative power of hope and luck to bring another life into this world.

20. Nina Rosenstand - December 9, 2012

Good points, Tina and Keeli.

21. Who’s Afraid of the Willendorf Venus? – Body Impolitic - Laurie Toby Edison: Photographer - December 15, 2013

[…] a 2009 post on the academic blog, Philosophy on the Mesa, Nina Rosenstand, a professor of philosophy at San […]

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