My Encounter with the Venus of Dolní Věstonice by Ivy Helman.

Marija Gimbutas, in her book Language of the Goddess, mentions only one goddess figurine from what was, at the time of her writing, Czechoslovakia (pages 31-32).  That figurine comes from Předmosti, in the very eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic.  However, there are more, and I would like to introduce you to the one that I encountered during a visit to another part of the Czech Republic several weeks ago.

Meet what Czechs refer to as the Venus of Dolní Věstonice.  There is not a lot of information about her, so I have pieced together what I can find.  Said to be the oldest known fired terracotta figurine (some 29,000 years old), she was first unearthed in 1925.  She was found broken into two pieces at the site of the Stone Age settlement known as Dolní Věstonice, in the southeastern part of the Czech Republic.  This settlement, according to Archeo Park Pavlov, was part of the Pavlovian culture, a Stone Age culture local to the area.  

Author’s photograph of a replica of the Venus on display at Archeo Park Pavlov.

As a Stone Age settlement, Dolní Věstonice was an important location for ritual, the arts, trade, and hunting.  At the site, archaeologists have found a ritualised burial of three individuals, two biological males and what the scientists surmise was probably an intersexed individual. Likewise, there is evidence which indicates that some animal burials may have had ritualistic purposes.   In addition, Dolní Věstonice boasted two kilns.  These kilns functioned over 10,000 years before humans regularly fired ceramics for vessels and other domestic uses.  Thus, scholars posit that these were used for ritual and artistic purposes. Furthermore, Dolní Věstonice was a significant trading post.  One clue to this comes from the discovery of the world’s oldest known map, carved on the tusk of a mammoth. (For more, see here.)   Finally, the settlement was located along the route of migratory animals and proved to be an excellent location for hunting.  The presence of fossilised animals, including wolves, deer, horses, and mammoths, imply this use as does the presence of similar animals in the form of clay figurines. These figurines could point to either the site’s importance for hunting and/or its ritual significance. 

Author’s photograph,
Mammoth, Archeo Park Pavlov.

The goddess figurine unearthed there is rather small, only 4.4 inches tall and about 2 inches across. Her appearance is quite similar to other goddess figurines that have been found in other parts of Central Europe.  However, she was sculpted out of one piece of clay, local to the area, while the figurines nearest to her spatially and historically were often carved in stone, antler, or bone.  Recent scientific investigations have found on her a fingerprint of a child or small adolescent and concluded that the holes in the top of her head probably would have held feathers or a headdress rather than herbs or flowers as others have suggested.  

Author’s photograph.
Jewelry made out of animal teeth, Archeo Park Pavlov.

Overall, my understanding of the material at Archeo Park Pavlov suggests that Dolní Věstonice was an important site of ritual activity more than anything else.  Part of that  had to do with its location on the migratory routes of large populations of animals.  The hunt was an important part of Stone Age society, which relied on it for survival.  Widespread agricultural practices did not yet exist in human societies, although there is evidence of the grinding of plant materials at the site.  Speaking of the site’s ritual purpose, most of the burials at the site were staged, most likely for rituals. Although it is also probable, as some conjecture, that some burials ended up together purely coincidently on account of shifting geography.  However, there are too many burials there just to attribute everything to pure coincidence.  These include the burials of animals together, animals and humans together, and highly ritualised burials of humans.  There has also been found a significant amount of decorative items including pendants, rings, beads, headbands, and so on. 

Author’s photograph.
Archeo Park Pavlov from the vineyard above.

Returning to the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, who was she?  Was she a representation of the Goddess?  Is she the bird goddess that Marija Gimbutas so often writes about and toward which the holes in her head point?  Was she a doll for a child as the fingerprint may imply?  Was she part of some sort of fertility cult?  Did she, as some conclude, represent an idealised body form associated with abundance in a landscape of scarcity?

While I’m glad I got to encounter her at Archeo Park Pavlov, it is likely that we will never know the answers to our questions about her.  Her story has been lost to the sands of time.  Whatever she was, the ideas surrounding her were strong enough to have been burnt into clay, when clay was not yet in standard use.  That is a powerful legacy.

May her memory be a blessing and blessed be.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  



Categories: Archaeology, Divine Feminine, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality, Ritual

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. wow! what an interesting piece Ivy! <3

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Ivy, this is an interesting discussion of possibilities. I had not thought of the issue of the meaning in the use of clay rather than stone, antler or bone. I recently heard a lecture on Judahite figurines that discussed where the clay came from, how many people were involved in its production, molded vs sculpted, etc. That adds a whole new dimension.
    Do you know anything about a conference in Prague next May on Witches and Witchcraft organized by a group called Progressive Connexions?

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  3. Fascinating! Thanks for telling us about this ancient goddess and her “neighbors” in burial. And thanks especially for your photos. It’s good to see that the Goddess is older than the standard-brand god. Bright blessings. I hope you tell us more about your work in Prague, which seems to me to be one of the most fascinating cities in the world.

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  4. Ivy, I just commented and the comment disappeared…. fascinating essay – i am particularly struck by the antiquity of the clay figurine – Thank you so much!

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  5. I wonder if you noticed that the image of the Venus of Dolni Vestonice is the same as that of the hill at whose foot she was found, which is shaped like the this Goddess image, lying on her side.
    with blessings

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  6. Wow, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that a kiln was found 10,000 years before clay was regularly fired for ceramic use. Amazing history, there. Thanks.

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  7. Wow, how fascinating! Thank you so much for telling us about the Venus of Dolni Vestonice. I too am struck by the fact that these kilns were used 10,000 years before ceramics were regularly used. It doesn’t seem to me that the figurine would have been a doll because girls usually play with dolls that are shaped like children or young adults and this figure seems to represent an older woman. Interesting. Blessing son you and your work.

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