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Breasts in the history of humankind

Vestonická VenušaAlready by the statues of Venus from the Stone Age we can assume the society worshipped fertility and motherhood. Large breasts were supposed to be a symbol of the survival of the family. Even later people celebrated fertility; in India statues had even several pairs of breasts.

Venus of Vestonice, 29,000 to 25,000 years B.C.

For ancient Romans and Greeks lightly dressed or bare breasts were a sign of respectability. Before size they preferred their firmness. To firm up breasts they used to wrap them in fabric to prevent them from moving while walking.

In the Middle Ages they were called lemons, apples in the Renaissance, peaches in the Baroque and the Dutch men in the 17th century called them melons.

In 18th century breasts became the subject of a political struggle. Women should breast-feed in order to limit infant mortality and provide for revival of the society. During wars and revolutions they were even encouraged to expose them to men – soldiers – as a symbol of freedom. Breastfeeding was massively promoted, the breasts were divided between the maternal ones, symbolizing the renewal of family, and defiled, related to nurses that fed most of aristocrats.

Eugène Delacroix - Sloboda vedúca ľud 1830
Eugène Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People,  1830

In the mid-18th century breastfeeding was the principle of egalitarian politics when all women were supposed to breastfeed and fulfil their role of women-mothers. It has also become the theme of romantic works of art. Women with exposed breasts became a symbol of the new republic, although they were excluded from public life. 

In the 19th century in America women’s breasts were also a part of the fight against slavery when black slaves breastfed white children at the expense of their own.

In the 20th century wars breasts often appeared on propaganda materials. Their photographs were sent to men on the front. After the war they were sexual and maternal symbols for increasing the population.

Breasts and breast milk was associated with many female deities – the Phoenician goddess Astarte, the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Greek goddess Gaia, Hera, Artemis and so on. There are also male deities shown with breasts, for example the river god Hapi.

In Christian iconography some pieces depict women with breasts in their hands or on a tray, which is a symbol of martyrdom by chopping off the breasts of, for instance, St. Agatha of Sicily.