“The language of Ma the primal mother: The evolution of the female image in 40,000 years of global Venus Art” by Annine van der Meer
Reviewed by Geraldine Charles
“Venus” is the operative word here – the name was originally given to those figurines dating from the Palaeolithic, the vast majority of which portray women. In the early days of such finds they were, perhaps ironically, named “Venuses”, as many would be considered most unattractive by more modern Western standards. Or perhaps it was because of the often exaggerated sexual or fertility characteristics, but in either case the name tells us more about the archaeologists of the time than it does the figurines themselves, not to mention that the assumption seems to have been that the figurines were made by men, for their use and enjoyment, and certainly not by women, for their own purposes. As Kaylea Valdewettering* believes, “… we act as colonizers and appropriators of the past.”. These ancient statuettes remain, of course, the subject of debate.
Annine van der Meer shows us so many of these wonderful figurines, not to mention large numbers of more recent “Venus” depictions, from around the world, and not just the West, tracing a history of the depiction of the female form. I love the way she is reclaiming the “Venus” name with this work.
Many of us have noticed startling similarities in the poses of figurines from widely-separated geographical areas, and Annine takes this further, showing us more of the iconography which seems to unite them, including not only the Palaeolithic figurines but through into the Neolithic and beyond, showing a surprising continuity in many cases.
In Part One, the author deals with the period from 40,000 BCE until the year dot, a time when hunter gatherers roamed the earth, or at least that part of it that wasn’t frozen solid. Around 10,000 BCE the most recent Ice Age ended and as agriculture began to spread throughout the world, we start to see a very different iconography of the female form, with patriarchal ideas dominating.
Part Two looks at around 10,000 BCE to the year 0, but now we’re following themes… and of course a decline in the status of women isn't hard not to see, reflected in the art and almost inextricably woven into our culture… so much so that until very recently we seem to have been unable to recognise what lay right before our eyes.
This isn’t a book to sit and read from cover to cover, although I suppose you could! I’ve had the great pleasure of dipping into it, getting fascinated by a topic or theme and finding that an hour or so has passed. Or used the index to learn more about a particular goddess image, only to discover far more than I expected. I have no doubt that it will be read and used until it almost falls apart, rather like my copy of Marija Gimbutas' "The Language of the Goddess", to which the book makes an excellent companion. Very rich in images, The Language of Ma is a pleasure to use, and I also enjoy the concept of "Language" as used here, including as it does both the language of the art itself, and our own use of words and imagery to describe and appropriate it to our own needs and desires.
In a word - indispensible!
You can read more about Annine van der Meer and the book on her website, which is in Dutch but with a fair amount of content in English.