NSFW warning: female nudity in this post.
On August 7th 1908, a workman found this figurine while excavating a Paleolithic site near the village of Willendorf in Austria:
The figurine was about 11cm tall, carved from limestone, and coloured with red ochre. The limestone wasn’t from the same area that the figurine was discovered. It was named the Venus of Willendorf, but it was carved much, much longer ago than the Goddess Venus, or Aphrodite was worshipped. It is estimated to have been carved more than 30,000 years ago, sometime between 30,000 and 22,000 BCE.
It is thought that the Venus of Willendorf could have been carved to represent fertility, as it has somewhat exaggerated sexual characteristics. But a more interesting idea is that perhaps the artist was a Paleolithic woman carving a representation of herself. In the journal article Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines by
LeRoy McDermott, we see an interesting comparison of what the Venus figurine looks like from above, compared to what a pregnant person might see when they look down at their own body:
This idea of self-representation allows us to wonder if rather than being simply an object for reproduction, perhaps the paleolithic woman had the agency to simply be curious about her own body, and create something artistic from it.
Another figurative carving whose original meaning is largely unknown is the Sheela na gig. They depict a woman displaying her genitals in an almost mocking way:
She doesn’t have any visible breasts, so perhaps it is not an erotic carving. There are many theories of why these sculptures exist, from representing a Pagan Goddess, to a protection against evil, or maybe a warning against lust. If you are interested, you can find Sheela na gigs on churches and cathedrals across Europe, especially Ireland and the UK.
What can we learn from The Empress?
When thinking about what The Empress means, I like the idea that she has this agency and freedom to be proud of her own body. In a world where many people are taught to be ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies, The Empress reminds us to nurture ourselves, the way a mother might. Not everyone has a mother like this, but that’s okay. In season 2, episode 3 of Root Lock radio, Weston introduces us to a form of Psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems. Put simply, it is a method of taking all those parts of yourself that you hear inside your head, and making sure that they are giving you helpful messages, rather than criticising you. It can help you to heal from trauma, and be more in tune with your own self.
How might an inner mother, or nurturer look? You don’t have to identify as female to have this inner nurturing figure. Looking at the depictions of the Empress above, we see she has a dress of pomegranates. We saw that with The High Priestess, and it can represent fertility. But fertility doesn’t just have to mean having babies. Not everyone can, or wants to reproduce, and that is valid. Fertility can also be of the mind, of the imagination. You can produce art, or books, or grow herbs. Any idea or opinion you have is you producing something.
The Empress is a very earthy and grounded character, and I sometimes see her as Mother Earth. She is usually depicted with wheat growing around her, which evokes thoughts of the Greek Goddess Demeter. She rules the harvest and agriculture. The Empress has a crown with 12 stars, each representing a month of the year. In this way, she can represent cycles: the seasons, the year, life and death and rebirth. Many people resent these cycles, as they grow older, as they lose loved ones. How can you honour these cycles in your life? Remember that death makes the ground fertile so that life can arise again.
I think possibly the first thing you notice when you see The Empress though, is the female symbol in a heart-shaped rock. That’s the symbol of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the Goddess of Love. The Goddess that the Venus of Willendorf is named for. And I think most of all, The Empress tells us to love ourselves, our friends and family, and the world around us, the way that she, as Mother Earth loves and nurtures the whole planet. So when you pull this card, fill your day with compassion for yourself and others, and let that inner mother take care of you.
What is your inner Empress like? Is she free and proud like the Sheela na gig, or more grounded and earthy?
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