The Goddess of Willendorf and Does My Uterus Make Me Look Fat? by Molly


editMollyNov 083

 “Loving, knowing, and respecting our bodies is a powerful and invincible act of rebellion in this society.”
~ Inga Muscio

I do not remember the first time I ever saw her, but I do know that I have loved the Goddess of Willendorf sculpture for many years. When someone uses the phrase, “Great Goddess” or “Great Mother,” she’s the figure I see. To me, she honors the female form. I love her full-figure and the fact that she is not “perfect” or beautiful. I love that she is not pregnant* and what I like best is that she is complete unto herself. She is a complete form, not just a headless pregnant belly. She represents a deep, ancient power to me.

In a past post for FAR, I wrote:

I have a strong emotional connection to ancient Paleolithic and Neolithic goddess sculptures. I do not find that I feel as personally connected to later goddess imagery, but very ancient figures call to something deep and powerful within me. I have a sculpture of the Goddess of Willendorf at a central point on my altar. Sometimes I hold her and wonder and muse about who carved the original. I almost feel a thread that reaches out and continues to connect us to that nearly lost past—all the culture and society and how very much we don’t know about early human history. There is such a solid power to these early figures and to me they speak of the numinous, non-personified, Great Goddess weaving her way throughout time and space.

via Echoes of Mesopotamia by Molly Meade |.

Ancient goddess figures are commonly and frustratingly described as “fertility figures” or as pregnant, but most of IMG_2252the early sculptures do not actually appear pregnant to me, rather they are simply full-figured. One of the things I love about the Willendorf Goddess is her air of self-possession. She is complete unto herself. She may be a fertile figure, but she is not clearly pregnant and she does not have a baby in her arms, which indicates that her value was not exclusively in the maternal role. Early goddess figurines are usually portrayed alone, it is only later that we see the addition of the baby figure at the mother’s breast or in arms. Logic would indicate that if ancient figures were indeed fertility figures, the presence of a baby would actually be more indicative of fertility than a large-breasted woman is, particularly since pregnancy, notably in ancient times, is not a guarantee of a live baby and the generativity babies represent.

…to associate the goddess with ‘fertility’, and even ‘earth mother’, again limits the image of woman to a fertile mother – the creature the patriarchal male created, his baby-making machine. What’s happening with all these descriptions is that the goddess is being limited to areas where women, in the patriarchal male-seed era, were confined. There seems to be a patriarchal veil of prejudice preventing the goddesses being seen as the source of wisdom, magic, fate, inspiration, change and spirituality – none of which need have anything to do with having babies, or making plants grow. Yes, women have babies, but that’s not all they do, or are.

–Julia Stonehouse, Father’s Seed, Mother’s Sorrow

The earliest known goddess figures are independent of specifically maternal imagery, it is only later that we begin to see Goddess defined in relationship to children or as exclusively maternal. I think this reflects a shift that women continue to struggle with today, in Goddess religion as well as personal life, with the mother role seen as exhaustive or exclusive. In contemporary society, the only mainstream representation of the Goddess that manages to survive under public recognition is the Madonna and Child and here, not only has Goddess been completely subsumed by her offspring, she is no longer even recognized as truly divine.

The Willendorf Goddess has been a potent affirmation for me many times in my life. One Mother’s Day, my then four-year-old son found a little green aventurine Goddess of Willendorf at a local rock shop: “We have GOT to get this for Mom!” he told my husband and they surprised me with it that afternoon. It still makes me get a little teary to look at it, because it was such a beautiful moment of feeling seen and acknowledged by my little child.  When I found out I was pregnant for the third time, my husband surprised me with a beautiful Goddess of Willendorf pendant. I was holding onto that pendant during the ultrasound that told us that our third son no longer had a heartbeat. During my labor with my little non-living baby, I wore and held onto the pendant. It went with me to the emergency room and I could feel the solid, reassuring weight of her against my chest when dressed in a hospital gown, IV fluids moving into my arm, while blood continued to spill from me as my body said goodbye to my baby. I buried a Goddess of Willendorf bead with my baby’s body and put a matching one on his memorial necklace.

On Mother’s Day the following year, right after finding out I was pregnant with my rainbow baby girl, my husband bellypicturegave me a beautiful new Goddess of Willendorf ring. I was little scared to wear it, because what if the ring too, became a sad reminder of a pregnancy lost, but wear it I did up to and through the moment when I caught my sweet little living girl in my own grateful, be-ringed hands.

The website from which the ring was purchased disappeared and I didn’t see another ring like it until I became a retailer for Wellstone Jewelry. While on the phone making an order, I requested one of their Venus of Lespugue pendants. The woman on the phone told me, “we don’t sell very many of those. She seems to make people uncomfortable. In fact, we used to make a ring too. A Venus of Willendorf ring, but no one ever wanted her. I think because she is ‘too fat’ and she makes people feel weird.” Oh my goodness, I replied, I think I have one of your rings! I emailed her a picture of my hand and sure enough, though discontinued, I’d coincidentally gotten one of the last of the rings ever made. 1057

What does this have to do with my uterus making me look fat? Well, I’ve had the experience of wearing my ring and having another woman, a wonderful, peaceful, gifted, gentle healer of a woman, laugh at it, like it was a joke ring. My mom sold a pottery sculpture version of the Willendorf to a man at a class and he laughed at this wonderful image as well, saying, “this is hilarious.” Hilarious? Because she is fat? Or, is it something else? Several years ago, I read a post online titled Does My Uterus Make Me Look Fat? and I thought of my beloved Goddess of Willendorf, She of the Ample Uterus. While I can no longer locate the article itself, I remember the mention that even pre-teen girls have a slight swell to their bellies. The author of the post essentially said, “duh, a completely flat belly IS NEVER POSSIBLE. THERE IS A UTERUS IN THERE.” When I read it, I thought about women not liking the Goddess of Willendorf ring because she is “too fat.” And, I thought of a couple of quotes I saved from the Our Bodies edition of Sage Woman magazine (Spring, 1996):

…so it has been: women’s power has declined as woman’s belly has been violated and shamed…5,000 years of patriarchal culture has degraded belly, body, woman, the sacred feminine, the soul, the feminine sensibility in both women and men, native peoples, and nature–all in a single process of devaluation. Because our belly is the bodily site of feminine sensibility, our patriarchal culture marks the belly as a target of assault, through rape, unnecessary hysterectomies and Cesarians [sic], reproductive technology, legal restrictions on women’s authority in pregnancy and childbirth, and belly-belittling fashions, exercise regimens, and diet schemes…a culture that literally hates women’s guts

–Lisa Sarasohn, The Goddess Ungirdled

And:

Our bodies are vessels of the sacred, not the homes of sinful urges. Our bodies create and sustain the sacred. And that sacredness does not equate with any artificial notion of bodily perfection. All of us are fit habitations for the divine, no matter what the diet doctors, fitness gurus, health good fanatics, New Age healers, and the fashion police try to force on us. If we don’t take our bodies into account in our expression of [our religion], then it becomes a mere shadow of itself. When we are fully present in our bodies [women’s religion] becomes a three-dimensional, vibrant, fully fleshed-out expression of the divine…

–DeAnna Alba in How to Flesh Our Your Magick

Even though I am a goddess sculptor myself, I have never been able to make my own version of the Goddess of Willendorf that satisfied me. I tried polymer clay, I tried pottery clay, I tried making my husband make one for me. None of them were right. Finally, my husband said, “why don’t you just make one using your own style?” This was the epiphany I needed and it worked! I successfully used the same technique and structure I use for all of my sculptures, but with a Willendorf-twist and I finally made a figure I’m proud of. My husband made a mold from my sculpt and cast her in pewter and I wear her as a pendant when I need to feel powerful and confident. Her uterus might make her look fat, but to me, she is one of the most powerfully affirming images of womanhood I have ever encountered and there is nothing funny about her.

March 2014 022

Your body is your own. This may seem obvious. But to inhabit your physical self fully, with no apology, is a true act of power.”

–Camille Maurine (Meditation Secrets for Women)

Molly Meade is a priestess, writer, teacher, artist, and activist who lives with her husband and children in central Missouri. She is a doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College and the author of Womanrunes: A guide to their use and interpretation. Molly and her husband co-create at Brigid’s Grove: http://brigidsgrove.etsy.com and she blogs about theapoetics, ecopsychology, and the Goddess at http://goddesspriestess.com.

 *There is some disagreement about whether or not the Willendorf goddess is pregnant or not and many people do describe her as pregnant. However, I feel confident she is not intended to depict pregnancy.

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Categories: Childbirth, Divine Feminine, Goddess, Goddess Movement, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Herstory, Spirituality, Women's Power, Women's Spirituality

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36 replies

  1. Another interpretation, a medical one, is that the Woman of Willendorf was modelled on the
    owner of the Sedge & Bee Tavern, A buxom widow who sampled her wares so copiously, she
    developed cirrhosis of the liver and it’s accompanying ascites.

    Vale Colleen McCullough

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    • This has made me laugh all day! If in fact a non-troll comment, it says a lot more about “medical interpretations” than it does about the Willendorf Goddess, who apparently would have been about 29,000 years ahead of her time. ;) It is interesting that goddess imagery is so threatening/disruptive, that all logic must be scrambled into knots in order to come up with “medical interpretation” that denies the goddess.

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      • If you are so confident that the Woman of Willendorf is not intended to depict
        pregnancy, then why are you disparaging of an alternative explanation?

        You seem to be rejecting out of hand a logical suggestion that some of the many
        figurines of females that have been unearthed by archaeologists over the decades
        may have been manikins for the purpose of medical diagnosis. Particularly in
        cultures where direct patient contact and physical examination was considered
        inappropriate.

        I offered my comment knowing full well that it does not follow the consensual ‘party line’
        about this artefact. However, it suppresses discussion when you (and another) imply
        I am a troll and reject the suggestion I have made from the bias and comfort zone of your
        own belief. Patriarchial patterns are insidious, aren’t they?

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  2. I have not been pregnant but I agree with every word you write here.

    I find it sad that in recent decades it seems that women as a group in the US and Europe are becoming less accepting of their bodies not more if diet phobias and the popularity of plastic surgeries are any indication.

    PS I agree that the Venus of Willendorf and her sisters are not pregnant. This suggests that women whole and in many roles were being celebrated, not just the biological capacity to give birth.

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    • Thanks, Carol! I believe in the book I cite in my post, the author also points out that *fertility* was unlikely to be a central issue of concern to ancient people, at least of human women. Before birth control, many women may have been more concerned with inhibiting fertility than increasing it!

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  3. Love this article!!!

    Susun Weed wrote that she thought Venus of Willendorf represents the woman’s body at menopause, which I thought was an intriguing interpretation.

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  4. Molly, I agree with your premise that Willendorf and the other Ladies were not pregnant, but then transitioned to pregnant in later forms. They were and are fecund representations but are so much more, just as we are magnificent incarnations of possibilities.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Cynthia

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  5. In art history, the Willendorf, or what’s called “steatopygous” type goddess figurines are considered as representing the need for food and fertility. After the discovery of agriculture, the idea of goddess gradually becomes more complex, for instance, like Aphrodite (Love) or Pallas Athene (Wisdom). In Crete and Mycenae, the Great Goddess herself transforms into Demeter, Goddess of Grain, along with her seed, Persephone, which would suggest that even more than fertility, the need for food was directly expressed in the overweight of the prehistoric goddesses.

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  6. This post is a healing balm and a needed corrective to me after spending three hours in a mall yesterday trying to find a bathing suit! Thank you!

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  7. It’s only recently that the acceptable female figure is age 19, size 0. (See any popular girl singer, model, or movie star.) A woman “with some meat on her bones” was strong enough to run a household, farm, do whatever work needed to be done. This is, I suppose, a sort of metaphysical fertility.

    Does the person who thinks Mme. Willendorf is modeled on a tavern owner have a clue?? The figure was discovered in Willendorf, Germany, near the Danube River, and dates back to the Upper Paleolithic (25,000 years ago). Not many taverns in Paleolithic Europe.

    I used to make little fat goddesses out of glow-in-the-dark Fimo (a plasticky modeling clay) and engrave symbols from The Language of the Goddess (by Marija Gimbutas) on them. I sold some and gave a lot more away. It’s cool to have one in the bedroom window and see her glowing when you go to bed at night.

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    • I make them too! I made a dozen little Willendorf travel goddesses for my women’s group this year for Solstice. They’re wonderful.

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    • Barbara, Willendorf is in Austria. It’s beautiful wine growing country. I visited there about 25 years ago in the summer with a full moon. Magical landscape.

      I suspect the person that left the tavern comment might be a troll. It was just such a bizarre comment to make.

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      • But of course it’s Austria. What was I thinking?? Duh. I should also have called her Frau Willendorf, not Madame. That’s what I get for reading and commenting first thing in the morning, eh? Thanks, Mary.

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    • Absolutely, Barbara! The tavern comment has actually made me laugh all day. ;)

      Your figures sound lovely!

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    • Maybe 15 years ago, I fashioned a Goddess of Willendorf, one of the very few goddess figures I’ve ever molded from clay or fimo. This was a part of a coven project. Each of us crafted a sacred object and then left it somewhere around town. I placed my Willendorf next to a spring that was sacred to me, in a little niche, so that it would take a while for someone to find it. But not long…it was gone within the week, a blessing for someone else.

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  8. I know she isn’t pregnant! I always joke that she is me, naked. She looks like a woman post pregnancy. I love this post. It really speaks to the way I feel about her. I love the old goddesses as well. They feel so complete and strong. They represent every woman, in all of her aspects. Thanks for sharing your story. I love knowing other women love her as much as I do.

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  9. Molly, the photo of the Willendorf Goddess on your altar brings a big smile to me. My large, Germanic, breasts look just like hers. But she wears them so comfortably and confidently that it brings me joy just to see her. I also have the same type of shell on my altar to help me centre. Maybe it’s living at our centre that leads us to “goddess-liness.

    Thank you for your post

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  10. I also love Paleolithic art and recently read a book on some cave art in which the author hypothesized that Paleolithic societies were remarkably stable over tens of thousands of years because the art is so consistent and that the people must therefore have been happy to continue without significant change over all that time and because the art itself seems to be so joyful and have so few depictions that represent violence. It does seem to be evidence that an essential key to a happy, stable society is respect for women’s healthy, robust bodies, and therefore the women themselves, as represented by the Venus of Willendorf and so many thousands of similar statues. I love the pendant you made – she is beautiful and powerful!

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  11. When I began doing Goddess workshops, one of the first I offered (around 1988) was on the Maiden, Mother, and Crone. For the Mother, I chose the image of the Goddess of Willendorf. In the guided visualization I created, I asked the participants to visualize themselves as the Goddess of Willendorf and broadened the definition of Mother Goddess using the metaphors of GARDENING (“It is summer now, and your harvest is beginning to hang heavy from vine and limb…Let the Mother’s power flow through you, the power to sustain what is begun. Feel your own power to nurture, to give, to nourish what is important to you.”); SEXUALITY/SENSUALITY (“See how your hands caress your breasts. You are the full moon. You are the sun at noon in the heat of the day. You are summer’s first fruits, the tomatoes and cucumbers, the sweet corn and zucchini, the raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, the first abundance of Mother Nature. Taste these fruits sweet on your tongue. Feel the warmth of the summer sun on your skin. Let Her power of flow through you, the power of Her for whom all acts of love and pleasure are rituals. Feel your own erotic power, the pleasure you experience through your own senses.”); and CREATIVITY (“You are the wellspring of all creativity…See your belly smeared with red ochre — as it would be in prepatriarchal times — the life-giving color of blood, the red fire of creativity. Feel your power to invent and create — poems and chants, visions, and sculpture, children and homes. Let your own creative power flow through, your ability to manifest what you envision, to reap what you sow.”) What’s hard for many women in our time is understand that probably all of creativity was represented by those paleolithic and neolithic goddesses, not just giving birth. I hate putting “just” in front of the word “birth,” because for me it was one of the most miraculous experiences of my life. It’s patriarchy that necessitates such language, so that all women feel empowered by this image. In matrifocal cultures this would be understood, since birth is often the metaphor for all creativity.

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  12. The flip side of bearing children is losing children. I think what really moved me about this post was how you created a ritual to help you through your miscarriage. That is just wonderful, particularly when you consider how deplorable our society is in handling miscarriage. I think if the artist who originally created the statue could see what you have done and how you have been empowered by this art, well, that artist would be pretty blown away. Thanks so much for this post.

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  13. I just have to add: Anonymous Was a Woman. There is no reason to assume the artist who created Her was a man.

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  14. This post truly moved me– loved the connection between the Goddess of W.’s belly and our own bellies. So interesting that there has been a reluctance to embrace her and how women’s power too has been suppressed for so long. Beautiful creation of her by you. I’ve always been fond of this particular Goddess but I think now even more so. Thank you.

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  15. I”m creating a sculpture of the Goddess of Willendorf for my intro to studio class. It’s a soft sculpture made of cloth with printed images of woman throughout history that have allowed women to be where they are now. My teacher was coming around to talk to every person about their project. And he told me, “I don’t think your project makes sense because you’re putting the images of powerful women of history on a sculptural figure that was only idolized because she was a fertile figurine.” and i became pretty confused and almost even changed my whole project. All morning i’ve been thinking about it and the reason i chose to make this art piece based on the Goddess of Willendorf is because she’s beautiful and to me personally she isn’t just an object of fertility but the beginning of the empowerment of women. And i agree i think society has been manipulated to believe that the only thing you can see from this figurine is fertility when there’s so much more to it than that. I think it’s difficult for men to see artwork in women’s points of view. I don’t think the fact that i am making the Goddess of Willendorf out of the faces of important women’s faces is diminishing what they did but rather it shows how women have grown in society over the years and the fact that he could only see the fertility aspect of the Goddess of Willendorf shows how much more society has to grow to view women as not just the reproductive gender.

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    • Kathy, I think your teacher’s response is pretty typical for our society. It used to be during pre-patriarchal times that biological fertility was the all-encompassing concept/metaphor for all creativity, while now — because of the diminishment of women, the dualistic understandings of male and female, as well as the asexuality of our culture’s Christo-centric God, who created ex nihilo — fertility is just what little women do with their bodies, while great men create with their minds.

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  16. This is my thought process on why the Willendorf Goddess is so voluptuous: Early man had magical thinking, and had no idea that men took any part in producing a child. Therefore, a woman was seen as magically producing a child from her own belly, and since producing new life was so miraculous, of course their god was cast in a woman’s form. The Great Mother is the source of new life, all life, not just human babies – she gives rise to the crops of the earth, the fruits on the vine, the offspring of game animals. Early man also saw a woman with fat stores as having an increased survival mechanism, and a heavy woman would have been greatly prized and considered the most beautiful. So of course they gave those attributes to their Goddess. She is a fertility Goddess, but her fertility is not necessarily specifically about the ability of a woman to produce children and provide future generations, but about how the magic of the Great Mother can create and sustain the universe for her children. At least, that’s how I see it. Their Goddess is a fertility Goddess, but the variety and abundance of her fertility is precisely why She is so sacred.

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