Red deer have become something of an icon of the Scottish Highlands. It is an impressive animal, and it’s hardly surprising that it features in so much folklore. Other deer species also make a regular appearance in the world’s myths.

Our relationship with many animals, including deer, goes back a long way. At Star Carr in Yorkshire archaeologists discovered  head-dresses made from red deer skulls. These 11,000 year old artefacts were perhaps used to help in hunting, for shamanic rituals, or both.

The Gaelic for red deer is fiadh ruadh. In the Highlands people once called them ‘fairy cattle’ and people believed fairies milked them on mountain tops.

In many European mythologies the deer was associated with woodland deities.  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. He was then hunted down and killed by his own hounds. Diana was another woodland goddess and the Roman version of Artemis. She was also associated with deer and this animal’s perceived qualities of gracefulness and swiftness.

Irish mythology tells of Finn mac Cumhail. Finn was the leader of Ireland’s heroic band of warriors known as the Fianna. He cornered a beautiful deer, which his hounds then refused to dispatch. They took her back to Finn’s land and she regained her true form as the beautiful Sadhbh. They married, but Finn then had to leave to defend his country. While he was away the druid who had first turned her into a deer did it again. Though the Fianna searched the land, they could not find Sadhbh.

Some years later another of Finn mac Cumhail’s hunting sorties tracked down a fawn. Once again his trusty hounds refused to kill their quarry. The fawn turned into a boy and Finn realised that this was his son; he named him Oisin, meaning fawn. Oisin too became a great Fenian warrior.

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. 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.

Different species of deer, as well as wholly magical versions, played their part in different mythologies. Even so, 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 and aristocracy could pit their wits. Laws and taboos denied the common folk access to this bounty. Even so 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 is derived via the French, from the Latin ‘venari’ meaning ‘to hunt’.

When antlers were not kept as a hunting trophy people carved this hard material to make early weapons, tools, jewellery and buttons. It 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;”

The antlered Herne was seen as a local version of the global Wild Huntsman myth.

 

Paul Kendall

(Updated by Dan Puplett – November 2020)

 

 

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