Dreams, Images of the Feminine, and the Venus of Laussel: What Paleolithic Venuses Tells Us Today
This month’s MythBlast Series highlighted text is Joseph Campbell’s Myths To Live By. I leafed through my copy in Portuguese and nothing struck me. I like to think about things that make me curious to know more, and apparently there were no triggers there. Therefore, I decided to dive into the English edition, which is richly illustrated. And right away an image from Chapter II, The Emergence of Mankind, took my breath away. There it was, emerging from limestone, a Venus that I had not yet been introduced to: the Venus of Laussel.
My mind was filled with images of other elder figurines I already knew. I confess that, whenever I travel, if I know there are any of these Paleolithic ladies nearby, I make certain to pay my respects. This was the case with the Venus of Willendorf, my favorite, at the Natural History Museum in Vienna (Naturhistorisches Museum). Twice I’ve been mesmerized for hours in front of that tiny 11.1 cm figurine. More recently, in 2020, I paid tribute to the charming Dame à la Capuche or Vénus de Brassempouy, a 3.65 cm miniature in the shape of a female bust, carved in mammoth ivory, with the delicate and precise representation of hair or a cap. It is housed in the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, also known as the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, one of the main French archeology museums located at the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the department of Yvelines, about 19 km west of Paris. On the same occasion, I visited the space where another Paleolithic celebrity is located, the Venus of Lespugue, a 14.7 cm ivory figurine that is in the Musée de l’Homme, in Paris. It was not on display at the time, due to repairs being made to the building next door. The grand old lady was too precious to risk suffering any microfractures due to eventual building shakes.
And to my delight, in the original edition of Campbell’s book, there was the Venus of Laussel, also known as “woman with a horn”. I immediately tried to find out more about her. It was discovered in 1909 by Dr. Lalanne, in the so-called “Grand Abri,” located at the archaeological site of Laussel in the town of Marquay, in the French Dordogne. It is currently housed in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, the center of a famous wine region in southwest France.
Dr. Lalanne described it as a 46 cm figurine carved from a block of hard limestone, depicting a naked woman with a bison horn in her right hand. The head, like dolls in the anthroposophy tradition, has no traces of a face – a common link between the Venuses in general. Shaped in profile, it has an elongated and elegant neck. From the chest sprout two long breasts, oval and heavy. Dr. Lalanne defined her belly as something pronounced but well proportioned. The right arm falls naturally along the torso, with the hand finely detailed. Except for the head, the whole body is polished.
A naked woman… While reading Campbell’s book I suddenly realized that on the previous night I had a dream in which a woman would participate in a female ritual with Indian women. She was unclothed, which seemed natural in such a ritual, but the Indian women were not totally devoid of clothes, since they had their loincloths and headdresses. Feeling exposed, the woman sought to return to a known shelter in search of something to cover her nudity. In the dream, the woman was ashamed and looking to cover her naked body like Eve in the Bible. I freely associated it with the all too many concerns women have these days, immersed as most are in a competitive world of unprecedented speed due to technologies, a world of work, still with its glass ceilings. And not least, to the current world political situation with its turn to the radical right, and the consequences for women in such positions. In other words, I was thinking about the contemporary social powers that are affecting women in general.
But Campbell highlighted another aspect related to the Venus of Laussel, with its estimated age of 20,000 years: The female natural powers.
And it seems to me important to remark that, whereas when masculine figures appear in the wall paintings of the same period they are always clothed in some sort of costume, these female figurines are absolutely naked, simply standing, unadorned. This says something about the psychological and consequently mythical values of, respectively, the male and the female presences. (xx)
Standing unadorned this way, the naked woman of the dream was in her proper state. Would she remain so in the current times? In my point of view, this issue of identification with feminine and masculine might be often misunderstood in Campbell, due to the spirit of the times he lived in. Accordingly, it’s important to understand well his perspective:
The Woman is immediately mythic in herself and is experienced as such, not only as the source and giver of life, but also in the magic of her touch and presence. The accord of her seasons with the cycles of the moon is a matter of mystery too. Whereas the male, costumed, is one who has gained his powers and represents some specific, limited, social role or function. (36)
Motivated by Campbell’s ideas, I rethought the dream. Was the dream an unconscious suggestion that female natural powers should integrate sociocultural powers to help us cope with the huge contemporary dangers we are experiencing, such as the threat to the environment? I continued reading the passage where Campbell addressed the subject:
In infancy—as both Freud and Jung have pointed out—the mother is experienced as a power of nature and the father as the authority of society. The mother has brought forth the child, provides it with nourishment, and in the infant’s imagination may appear (like the witch of Hansel and Gretel) as a consuming mother, threatening to swallow her product back. The father is, then, the initiator, not only inducting the boy into his social role, but also, as a representing to his daughter her first and foremost experience of the character of the male, awakening her to her social role as female to male. (xx)
This dichotomy between the representations of the feminine and the masculine appears, according to Campbell, in the space where the figurines are found:
The paleolithic Venuses have been found in the precincts always of domestic hearths, while the figures of the costumed males, on the other hand, appear in the deep, dark interiors of the painted temple-caves, among the wonderfully pictured animal herds. They resemble in their dress and attitudes, furthermore, the shamans of our later primitive tribes, and were undoubtedly associated with rituals of the hunt and of initiation. (xx)
I turned back to the dream again. I was sure it was not about returning to the past. The synergy between the two powers would probably be a better conceptualization. Perhaps the oneiric suggestion was for women to be unafraid to bare themselves in order to reconnect with the larger mythical cycles of this ancestral female knowledge. However, they should consider using some of the social clothing related to the masculine principle in order to handle the two powers in the best way possible.
I kept looking at the Venus of Laussel’s image, and my thoughts turned to the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung, whose work Campbell was very familiar with, and with whom he had visited in Switzerland. In Psychologie und Alchemie, Jung defines the horn as a sign of power and strength just as Campbell does. However, Jung goes further, stating that a horn is as much a symbol of the masculine in its power to penetrate as of the feminine, in its capacity as a receptacle or a cup. Therefore, for Jung, it is a unifying symbol, which expresses the bipolarity of the archetype (Jung, 1972, §553).
The final card of the tarot, The World, where the representations of male and female are together in harmony in the same body, came to my mind. Maybe the Venus of Laussel, looking at the horn, is a symbol of the new human psychology, with no divisions of sex, gender or anything of the kind. She might be the symbol for the new mythology of human beings to come, that we—or eventually our children, grandchildren, or people we are one with, will be honoring.
Next December, if everything goes well, I will head to my first conference abroad since the pandemic began in 2020. Synchronously, it will be in Bordeaux, France. And now, thanks to Campbell, I will plan to pay my respects to the lady of Laussel. By holding the horn absolutely naked, simply standing, unadorned, she might be the perfect representation of the coniunctio, the sacred marriage of the inner principles of masculine and feminine, and therefore help us guide ourselves and others in this troubled times.
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