In many European mythologies the deer was associated with woodland deities. Two tales of Artemis, the Greek goddess of wilderness, tell of her wrath and retribution visited upon those who trespassed into her domain. By controlling the weather she kept King Agamemnon’s fleet bound for Troy confined to port, to avenge the killing of a stag sacred to her. Another hunter, Acteon, used a stag’s pelt to sneak up on Artemis whilst she was bathing in the forest. As punishment for seeing her naked, she changed him into a stag and sent him back into the woods to be hunted down and killed by his own hounds. Other woodland goddesses, such as Diana, the Roman equivalent of Artemis, were similarly associated with deer and their perceived qualities of gracefulness and swiftness.
In Irish mythology Finn mac Cumhail, the legendary leader of Ireland’s heroic band of warriors known as the Fianna, cornered a beautiful white deer, which his hounds then refused to dispatch. That night Finn was visited by the goddess Sadb, who explained that a spell had turned her into the deer Finn had chased, a spell from which his love could release her. Though they became lovers, the magician who cast the spell reclaimed Sadb when Finn was away repelling a Viking raid on Dublin, and though the Fianna searched the land, Sadb could not be found. Some years later however, another of Finn mac Cumhail’s hunting sorties tracked down a naked, long haired boy whom once again his hounds refused to kill. The boy did not know his father but knew his mother to be a gentle hind who lived in fear of another man. Details of the story convinced Finn that this was his son, and he named him Oisin, meaning fawn. Oisin too became a heroic Fenian warrior, though he also inherited some of his mother’s gentler arts and was acknowledged as Ireland’s greatest poet.
In Celtic religion the stag was a symbol for the god Cernunnos, “The Horned One”. Cernunnos was often portrayed with antlers himself, and was a god of the forest and wild animals. He was also seen as a god of ‘Plenty’, and the large Celtic ‘Cauldrons of Plenty’ often featured deer motifs amongst their ornate decoration. The magnificent Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, shows an antlered man alongside a deer and other wildlife. Though this is often regarded as a representation of Cernunnos, his pose in a half lotus position suggests he could also be a Celtic shaman.
Though different species of deer, as well as wholly magical versions, played their part in different mythologies, in northern Europe the reoccurring theme of the deer as animal of the hunt, and specifically the chase, revolved around the red deer. These animals, especially the antlered stags, were large, alert and swift beasts against which royalty, aristocracy and other wealthy patrons could pit their wits. Laws and taboos denied the common folk access to this bounty, though we are all familiar with mediaeval outlaws like Robin Hood who risked severe punishments for the taste of venison. The word venison originally applied to the meat of any of the wild animals of the chase, including wild boar for example, the word being derived, via the French, from the Latin ‘venari’ meaning ‘to hunt’.
When antlers were not kept as a hunting trophy this hard material was carved to make early jewellery and buttons, and continues to be used to make handles for anything from hunting knives to walking sticks.
Two of Britain’s greatest mediaeval playwrights drew on deer folklore in their plays. Christopher Marlowe mentioned the belief that “The forest deer being struck runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds.” In The Merry Wives of Windsor William Shakespeare writes
“There an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;”
Though Herne’s oak was certainly a local landmark in Windsor great park until 1796, there appears to be no mention of a deer-like Herne in folklore prior to Shakespeare, though he has variously been associated with the leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ or with Cernunnos, the Horned One.