The so-called “Venus of Willendorf” is a neolithic figurine, dating from about 2300 BCE. She’s been variously interpreted as goddess, children’s doll, pornography, decoration, and probably just about everything else one can imagine.
A few years ago, I bought a scale replica of the figurine. Although the image has appeared everywhere in recent decades, many people are unaware of how small she is. She’s about 4.5 inches (10 cm) in length, and nestles perfectly in the palm of a hand. Most people who hold her this way feel an immediate sense of comfort and connection. It’s like she belongs there, and it’s not easy to put her down again or pass her along to someone else.
We may never know exactly what was in the minds of the first people who made and appreciated this figure. It was long before recorded history, and it is likely that most of our modern categories, like “religion” and “art”, can be projected backward to that time only with great risk of misunderstanding. But when I put aside the academic analysis and the cultural speculation and simply hold the figurine, I feel a sense of connection with those people from long ago. The tactile experience, it seems, cannot have changed that much over the millenia.
It’s actually somewhat difficult to find a proper replica of this piece. The modern temptation seems to be to make her larger and attach her to a pedestal so she stands upright. People seem to want something to admire from a distance, standing on an altar or on the mantle over the fireplace. The original doesn’t stand, she nestles.
If she was a goddess (and my Pagan heart tells me she was, and is), then she was a goddess to touch, not to view from a distance. She’s a talisman of comfort, a connection with mother that stays with you, even when it is cold and dark. I don’t imagine she was worshipped (in the way modern people worship, gazing from afar in piety), but I feel that she heard many a silent prayer of the heart from those who held her, all those long centuries ago.