|A corner of my Nature Spirit altar is dedicated to the deer spirits. Behind a jawbone is an image from a Solstice card I kept and a candleholder of silhouetted stags.|
My recent post about cleaning a deer skull I found generated some interest in that spirit animal and my experiences with it. It made me want to write something more in depth about my evolving relationship with deer spirits and the lore surrounding them.
My relationship with deer truly began as a little girl. I was lucky enough to grow up on an acre of land with a forest behind our home. On many an early evening or morning, a white tailed deer or five could be found grazing or passing through. My father built bird feeders and even a deer/turkey feeder once. I was enthralled by the nature spirits who came to feast. Dad was a hunter and taught me much about deer – how their tails go up as a warning; how the males rub their antlers on trees at certain times of year; what they eat; what their droppings and tracks look like; even their sounds. They are very sensitive to humans and their animal companions. They are wary of cat piss and too many dogs. The smallest crack of a twig underfoot will send them dashing away from you – always graceful through unseen trails, thorns, and deep snow. My fascination has continued into adulthood. Walking through the forest during winter can teach you much about them and their survival adaptations. And when I came upon their dead – either hanging upside down from a tree on a hunter’s property or ripped open by dogs in a field – it was humbling. I encountered death in a visceral way with deer that I had never seen before. My parents quickly removed or never showed us our dead pets. I only ever saw dead family members after the embalmers did their work, turning people into temporary dolls without a hint of blood or foul smell. My father stopped hunting shortly after my sister and I were born because he just didn’t have the time, and we weren’t allowed to handle raw meat for fear we’d get sick. To see a dead deer up close – it was the closest I’ve ever been to death on such a scale. We are similar in size, after all – each a large mammal. Our guts and brains melt away into goo as well, if given the chance…
Then there is my dietary choice. As a vegetarian, I began to relate to their eating habits. Plenty argue that eating meat connects humanity to the natural cycles, but by relating to a deer as a vegetarian, I realize that my diet is not so far removed from nature. I often tell people that, in this life and at this time (sans survival scenarios), I am connecting to nature as the deer. I do my best to eat local and sustainable food – but I’m aware that my hooves will trample creatures from time to time. I can be very peaceful and not cause bloodshed, but if attacked I have my antlers to defend myself with. I eat plants and will one day be cut down – either by a predator or time itself. And when my body rots, the other plants and animals will take me back into the Earth Mother. I am not the hunter – I am the hunted who knows there are predators in the wood and I must be careful. It keeps me humble and alert. It is simply a different way to connect with nature – no more or less valid than the deeply spiritual experience of the hunter and meat eater.
Meditation has brought the deer closer to my soul, finding me an ally in the spirit world. At first it just kind of happened out of the blue. Deer would show up – bucks and does. Sometimes the deer would transform into humanoid shapes and talk or laugh. More recently, when I encounter frightening things or have nightmares, the buck comes and waves his antlers, sometimes shredding the shadow. I’ve ridden his back a couple times and he loves offerings of apples. Once, while meditating in the forest behind my parents’ home, I opened my eyes to see a herd of deer around me – a harem, it seemed, guarded by one buck. He looked at me and made his gutteral call several times, the mist rising from his nostrils like smoke. He stamped his front left hoof in the ground, bringing up soil and leaves. This was no helpless herbivore – this was a warrior and guardian. I stared back in awe and fear but did not move. He could have charged. They could have stampeded over me if they wanted. After a minute that felt like an eternity, the herd slowly melted back into the forest as if they never were. Truly, of all the times I’ve encountered deer in some spiritual vicinity, this, and the day I found the whole deer corpse, stand out among the most influential.
Learning about the lore surrounding deer has been informative and transformative. Like North America, Northern Europe also has deer but they are generally of the red variety. There is also evidence that reindeer existed in Scotland in prehistoric times and some connections have been made with other cultures, who herd them, and the legends of the Celts. Could such a practice have existed in antiquity? Could it have remained in the Celtic imagination and transformed through the ages? Although we often think of boars and, especially, cows with regards to the Celts, findings by archaeologists lead them to conclude deer were the most widely hunted creature and thus held much importance. Many stories that feature the eldest animals, such as the Eagle and Salmon, also feature the stag.
Some scholars assert the existence of deer cults lead by women in northern Scotland. The lore surrounding Flidais, a lusty spirit/Goddess/character of Irish fame, connects her to deer, leading some to suspect deer cults existed there in the misty, pre-Celtic past. Unfortunately, many compound her with Artemis so it’s very difficult to know more about her without finding parallels in other cultures or relying on UPG. The old stories are rich with giant women and wee women who herd and even milk the deer as cattle. These same women can even transform into deer. While there is only so much information out there on Flidash, stories abound about Cailleach spirits. I pluralize because, the more I study, the more it seems there is more than one and that Cailleachs are very localized. They control the weather for certain regions (especially wind, snow, and storms) and herd deer. Often, they’re shown as protectors of the deer. Hunters must ask for permission before taking one of her herd. In some stories, she gives the hunters very specific descriptions of who to kill, and punishes those who don’t listen or don’t ask permission. To me, this shows that there was a definite understanding that hunters should be responsible and not decimate the herds. If too many deer were taken, or if only a certain kind were taken, the population would weaken and there would be less food in the future as a result.
The Fionn legends are filled with deer: Ossian’s mother, for example, was turned into a deer and some stories say she was in this form when she gave birth to him. The symbolism even enters into Arthurian legend. Merlin is said to have ridden a deer when he went mad.
Finally, deer have some connection with the Otherworld and death. Some of it is connected with Cailleach traditions (poor weather brings death, winter can represent death, she kills disrespectful hunters, etc), some through the general otherworldliness of deer (they are often very quiet and shy; legends connecting them to the fairy realm), and through what is observable – the cyclical nature of their antlers and their being hunted and sometimes sacrificed.
I have a little altar to the Nature Spirits that is always changing. Soon, I’ll need to expand it in some way to make room for the deer skulls I’ve obtained. It’s important to me that I continue to work with the deer spirits. I definitely feel a strong connection and want to work on learning more and deepening my relationship with them.
References and further reading: The Driving of the Cattle of Flidais, Book of Leinster. Brock, Juliet Clutton & MacGregor, Arthur. "An End to Medieval Reindeer in Scotland." Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1988), pp. 23-35. Carr-Gomm, Philip & Stephanie. The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition. Fireside (1994). D'Este, Sorita & Rankine, David. Visions of the Cailleach: Exploring the Myths, Folklore and Legends of the Pre-eminent Celtic Hag Goddess. Avalonia (2009). Freeman, Mara. Kindling the Celtic Spirit. Harper Collins (2000). Geddes, Arthur. "Scots Gaelic Tales of Herding Deer or Reindeer Traditions of the Habitat and Transhumance of Semi-Deomesticated 'Deer', and of Race Rivalry." Folklore, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1951), pp. 296-311. McKay, J. G. "The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians." Folklore, Vol. 43, No. 2 (1932), pp. 144-174.