Ranging much of the Indo-European and Proto-Indo-European world, and more broadly approximately 4,000–25,000 years ago, one senses echoes of an image now almost entirely evaporated into the time before humanity’s earliest memories or histories. Though not at all clear today, with some trepidation and humility, one may venture to describe this widespread image as maternal. Were one to consider only two works from the era in question, they might be the “Venus” of Willendorf of Paleolithic Europe and the Upanishads of ancient India. Both the Venus and the Upanishads may not only stand as artifacts of humanity’s deep past, in the form of sculpture and literature, but as indications of the mental landscape common to all human beings.
Measuring little more than four inches high, carved from limestone in ca. 25,000–20,000 BCE, the “Venus” of Willendorf was discovered in Lower Austria (Humanistic 5). This particular Venus, one instance of a number of female figurines discovered around eastern Europe, may grant a clue as to the cultural and psychological state of Paleolithic humans in that region — including, or especially, as an indication of what these people thought of women generally and of Woman in the abstract. In this era women “secured food by gathering fruits and berries” and “acted as healers and nurturers.” Additionally, “the female (in her role as child-bearer) assured the continuity of the tribe … As life-giver, she was identified with the mysterious powers of procreation and exalted as Mother Earth” (Humanistic 4). Embodying not only practical concerns but cosmic vision, as well, the Venus and her counterparts may indicate not only the ways in which prehistoric human communities viewed women, but the way in which they saw themselves in relation to the world around them.
Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann suggests as much in The Great Mother, describing the ostensibly prevalent mother-imagery of eastern Europe as an indication of the psychological development of prehistoric humans: the conscious ego emerges from the automatic unconscious mind in much the same way a child is gestated and birthed by their mother; while the child develops through separation, individuating themselves from their mother (a stage Neumann sees in the subsequent prevalence of father- and hero-imagery), the child begins in close relation to their mother — their contingent origin. A number of figurines like the Venus of Willendorf “show the female nude with pendulous breasts, large buttocks, and a swollen abdomen, indicating pregnancy” (Humanistic 4); moreover, perhaps these maternal images are related to the numerous caves and their art which prehistoric humans carved and painted (Lascaux and Chauvet, for instance), harking back to one’s biological womb in order to evoke the sense of a more cosmic womb which gave rise to all of nature, humanity included.
Neither the Venus nor the caves contemporary with her carving are self-explanatory, meaning that explanations such as those offered by Neumann are merely speculative. However, in a roundabout way, Neumann’s analysis and the explicitly maternal contents of the Venus and her counterparts may testify to these artifacts’ place in human (or at least Indo-European) development. Though their meanings are not immediately obvious, the Venus and the caves stand as precursors to the thought and culture of subsequent societies, a kind of civilizational womb, mother to the peoples and cultures to follow in the Neolithic era and beyond. The Venus of Willendorf, then, may serve as a reminder not only of the mysteriousness and obscurity of much of human history and prehistory, but as a concrete reminder of humanity’s contingency, deriving its contents from an origin which is beyond memory or history and yet which sits at the very root of much of the present.
The Upanishads of ancient India may capture this maternal cosmos in a literary vein. Initially orally transmitted from the eighth to sixth centuries BCE, these 250 prose commentaries on the more ancient Vedas capture the essence of Hinduism: pantheism, which, in the case of Hinduism, “identifies the sacred not as a superhuman personality, but as an objective, all-pervading Cosmic Spirit called Brahman.” The Hindu view “that divinity is inherent in all things” and that “the universe itself is sacred” (Humanistic 65) seems fairly cogent with the prehistoric maternal cosmos at which the Venus and her caves hint, perhaps being a distant descendant of this worldview. Consider the Hindu cosmology as a whole:
“In every human being, there resides the individual manifestation of Brahman: the Self, or Atman, which, according to the Upanishads, is ‘soundless, formless, intangible, undying, tasteless, odorless, without beginning, without end, eternal, immutable, [and] beyond nature.’ Although housed in the material prison of the human body, the Self (Atman) seeks to be one with the Absolute Spirit (Brahman). The spiritual (re)union of Brahman and Atman — a condition known as nirvana — is the goal of every Hindu. This blissful reabsorption of the Self into Absolute Spirit must be preceded by one’s gradual rejection of the material world, that is, the world of illusion and ignorance, … achieving liberation of the Self and union with the Supreme Spirit” (Humanistic 66).
A vision startlingly similar not only to Neumann’s own model of the emergence of consciousness but to human reproduction, this Hindu cosmology and its literary exploration in the Upanishads may evoke similar phenomenal states as those sought by the prehistoric populations who carved figurines like the Venus of Willendorf and who occupied and painted caves such as Lascaux and Chauvet. Furthermore, the Bhagavad Gita, the most popular Indian text next to the Upanishads, serving as something of a commentary on the latter, further explicates this theme in its conversation between Arjuna, who feels dissociated from and adrift in the world, and Krishna, a manifestation of Brahman who calls his interlocutor to abandon desire for this or that particularity and to instead embrace the whole of existence — Brahman, the whole of which everything and everyone is a part (Humanistic 66–67).
Both the Venus of Willendorf and her caves on the one hand, and the Upanishads and their adjacent literature on the other, are ancient enough as to have created numerous varying and even contradictory interpretations. Neither piece is self-explanatory. And yet both stand at the basic origins of much of modern human thought and culture, perhaps even of humanity’s overall psychological development. If serving as nothing more than a hint at humanity’s mysterious contingency (as in the case of the Venus), or in exploring that contingency from an existential and psychological perspective (as in the case of the Upanishads), both the Venus of Willendorf and the Upanishads secure themselves as landmarks and staples of human history, and thus as deserving of recognition and preservation in the overall narrative of human origins and development.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition: Prehistory to the Early Modern World. 7th ed., vol. 1, McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.
Image: Lascaux cave, interior. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.