Reflecting on the Ancient Wisdom of the Deer

Deer, Antlers, Wildlife, Buck, Mammal

The deer’s antlers are possibly the most visible characteristics that have made it the figure of a spiritual superiority Like a crown, the antlers grow beyond its body, bringing it closer to the sky. In many cultures, the deer is a symbol of spiritual authority. During a deer’s life the antlers fall off and grow again and the animal is also a symbol of regeneration.

Roe Deer, Capreolus Capreolus, Doe

The deer’s fleetness of foot and its longevity are also often commemorated in different cultures. Out of the shin-bone of the fawn, flutes (tibiae) were made which seem to have given forth feeble sounds — whereas Sardinians used to make good ones out of the leg-bones of flamingoes; Pindar’s lyre is described as outringing all the others, even as the Etruscan trumpet outblares this flute. The skins of deer were worn at Bacchic festivals, and one of the five performers holds the body of a stag aloft.

In one of the Jataka tale, Buddha has reincarnated into the form of a deer. The story originated in India around the 4th century BCE, hailing the merits of compassion, empathy and Karma.

Ossian playing his harp, by François Pascal Simon Gérard, 1801

In some Scottish and Irish tales deer are seen as “fairy cattle” and are herded and milked by a benevolent otherworldly woman such as a bean idhe or the goddess Flidais who can shapeshift into the form of a red or white deer. In Ireland, The Cailleach Bheara (“The Old Woman of Beare”), who lives on an island off the coast of County Cork, takes the form of a deer to avoid capture and herds her deer down by the shore. The Beare peninsula is also associated with the islands in the western sea that are the lands of the dead. Other Celtic mythological figures also have connections to deer. The name of the legendary poet Oisin literally means “young deer” or fawn. His mother, Sadhbh, was turned into a deer by a druid, Fear Doirche. When hunter-warrior Fionn was hunting he caught her but did not kill her, and she returned to human form. Fionn gave up hunting to settle down with Sadhbh. Sadhbh was soon pregnant, but Fer Doirich turned her back into a deer and she returned to the wild. Seven years later Fionn found his child. Cernunnos, the Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth and the underworld, has deer or stag antlers.

In the Poetic Edda  poem Grimnismal, the four stags of Yggdrasil are described as feeding on the world tree. Early suggestions for interpretations of the stags included connecting them with the four elements, the four seasons or the phases of the moon.

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Artemis with a Stag. (Diana of Versailles). 1st – 2nd Century, C. E. (Discovered in 1792 in Rome).

In Greek mythology, the deer is particularly associated with Artemis, the virginal huntress. Callimachus, in “Hymn III to Artemis”, mentions the deer that drew the chariot of Artemis:

in golden armor and belt, you yoked a golden chariot, bridled deer in gold.

For the Huichol people of Mexico, the “magical deer” represents both the power of maize to sustain the body and of the peyote cactus to feed and enlighten the spirit. Animals such as the eagle, jaguar, serpent and deer are of great importance to the Mexican indigenous cultures. For each group, however, one of these animals is of special significance and confers some of its qualities to the tribe.

For the Huichol it is the deer that holds this intimate role. The Huichol hunt and sacrifice deer in their ceremonies. They make offerings to the Deer of the Maize to care for their crops, and to the Deer of the Peyote to bring them spiritual guidance and artistic inspiration.

The stag is one of the most common motifs in Scythian art as the swift animal was believed to speed the spirits of the dead on their way.

The “Cernunnos” type antlered figure or “horned god”, on the Gundestrup Cauldron

There are two epigrams about the death of deer, one more strange than the other. The first, by Apollonides, relates how a herd of deer sought refuge from their snow-clad mountains in the moist warmth of a river and were held fast there, to the delight of the country-folk, by a sudden frost which covered the river with ice. Tiberius Illustrius tells the fate of a dorkas which, escaping from hounds into the sea, is drawn to land by fishermen in their nets ; and in Didot III  is an epitaph on a hind which was captured in similar fashion. Xenophon says that one can sometimes drive stags into the sea, an occurence which is frequently observed, since deer are excellent swimmers. Macedonius has a quatrain about a certain Codrus who caught a swift deer out of the waves of the sea. The myth of Saron is connected with a stag which took to the water of what was afterwards the Saronic Gulf; he pursued it into the waves and was drowned.


Reflecting on the Ancient Power of the Wolf

The wolf’s nature as a predator makes it both a symbol of the warrior and the devil. The popular trope of the ”Big Bad Wolf” is a development of this while the identification of the warrior with the wolf through totemism gave rise to the notion of lycanthropy, the mythical or ritual identification of man and wolf.

In Proto-Indo-European mythology, the wolf was presumed to be associated with the warrior class, who would “transform into wolves” upon their initiation. In some northern European and Native American cultures, wolves were sometimes associated with witchcraft. In Norse mythology the volva (witch) Hyndla and the giantess Hyrrokin are both portrayed as using wolves as mounts, while in Navajo culture, wolves were feared as witches in wolf’s clothing. The Tsilhqot’in believed that contact with wolves could cause mental illness and death.

Norse mythology has at least three prominently malevolent wolves, in particular the giant Fenrir and his children, Sköll and Hati. Fenrir is bound by the gods, but is ultimately destined to grow too large for his bonds and devour Odin during the course of Ragnarok.  Fenrir’s two offspring devour the sun and moon at Ragnarök. The wolves Geri and Freki, Odin’s faithful pets,  were alluded to in the kenning “Vidrir’s hounds” in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I, verse 13, where it is related that they roam the field “greedy for the corpses of those who have fallen in battle”.

The warriors went to the trysting place of swords,

which they had appointed at Logafiöll.

Broken was Frodi’s peace between the foes:

Vidrir’s hounds went about the isle slaughter-greedy.

In Ancient Greece, mount Lykaion is a mountain in Arcadia where an altar of Zeus was located. It was the home of Pelasgus  and his son Lycaon, who founded the ritual of Zeus practiced on its summit. This seems to have involved a human sacrifice, and a feast in which the man who received the portion of a human victim was changed to a wolf, as Lycaon had been after sacrificing a child. The sanctuary of Zeus played host to athletic games held every four years, the Lykaia.

In Rome, the she-wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus is commemorated in the last of the Cyzicene epigrams, and Ion mentions the wolf-hounds which were traditionally, responsible for the death of Euripides. Strato, on a certain disreputable occasion, compares himself to a wolf that finds a lamb standing at the door and waiting for him. As to its voracity, Diphilus, an early comic poet, calls the inhabitants of Argos wolves; Lucilius accuses one Gamus of having the appetite of five wolves.

A Baltic legend says that the establishment of the Lithuanian capital Vilnus began when the grand duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling near the hill. Lithuanian goddess Medeina was described as a single, voluptuous and beautiful huntress who was unwilling to get married. She was depicted as a she-wolf with an escort of wolves.

The existence of a ritual that provides one with the ability to turn into a wolf. Such a transformation may be related either to lycantrhopy itself, a widespread phenomenon, but attested especially in the Balkans-Carpathian region, or a ritual imitation of the behavior and appearance of the wolf. Such a ritual was presumably a military initiation, potentially reserved to a secret brotherhood of warriors. To become formidable warriors they would assimilate behavior of the wolf, wearing wolf skins during the ritual. Traces related to wolves as a cult or as totems were found in this area since the Neolithic period, including the Vinča culture artifacts: wolf statues and fairly rudimentary figurines representing dancers with a wolf mask. The items could indicate warrior initiation rites, or ceremonies in which young people put on their seasonal wolf masks. The element of unity of beliefs about werewolves and lycanthropy exists in the magical-religious experience of mystical solidarity with the wolf by whatever means used to obtain it. But all have one original myth, a primary event.

Wolves were generally revered by Aboriginal Canadians that survived by hunting, but were thought little of by those that survived through agriculture. Some Alaska Natives including the Nunamiut of both northern and northwestern Alaska respected the wolf’s hunting skill and tried to emulate the wolf in order to hunt successfully. First Nations such as Naskapi as well as Squamish and Lil’wat view the wolf as a daytime hunting guide. The Naskapis believed that the caribou afterlife is guarded by giant wolves that kill careless hunters who venture too near. The Netsilik Inuit and Takanaluk-arnaluk believed that the sea-woman Nuliayuk’s home was guarded by wolves.

According to the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first creature to experience death. The Wolf Star, enraged at not having been invited to attend a council on how the earth should be made, sent a wolf to steal the whirlwind bag of The storm that comes out of the west, which contained the first humans. Upon being freed from the bag, the humans killed the wolf, thus bringing death into the world. the “birth” and “death” of the Wolf Star (Sirius) was to them a reflection of the wolf’s coming and going down the path of the Milku Way known as Wolf Road.

The Man of the Sun: The Story of Quetzalcoatl

“[Men] lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all devils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace.” – Hesiod.

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“Allegory of Summer”, by Jerzy Szymonowicz (c. 1660 – 1711)

In Greek mythology, Astraea was the goddess of innocence. She was the  daughter of the Titans Astraeus, god of dusk, and Eos, goddess of dawn. Her name meant “star-maiden” and she was on the earth alongside humans during the Golden Age of Man. When the Iron Age dawned, bringing along misery and wickedness, Astraea sadly abandoned the earth and went to the skies where she transformed into the constellation virgo. When Astraea returns to Earth one day, she will once again bring the utopia that was during the Golden Age, bringing an end to human suffering.

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Quetzalcoatl, as depicted in the Codex Magliabechiano (16th century).

In Aztec mythology, Quetzalcoatl was regarded as “The Father of the Toltecs,” and, legend says, was the seventh and youngest son of the Toltec Abraham, Iztacmixcohuatl. Quetzalcoatl became the ruler of Tollan and, by his enlightened sway and his encouragement of the liberal arts, did much to further the advancement of his people.

Quetzalcoatl’s reign had lasted for a long enough period for the cultivated arts to develop to a satisfactory level when his country was visited by Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca gave him a draught of pulque, which intoxicated him. The doom pronounced upon him was banishment, and he was compelled to leave Anahuac.

As a new age dawned Astraea left earth, taking away the last remaining innocence known to mankind, leaving behind only emptiness. Quetzalcoatl’s exile brought about more peculiar changes upon the country. He threw away his treasures, burned his palaces, transformed the cacao-trees into mosquitoes, and banished all the birds from Tollan. His people, nonplussed at these unexpected happenings, begged him to return, but he refused. He proceeded to Tabasco, the fabled land of Tlapallan and, leaving on a raft made of serpents, floated away to the east. In the native pinturas it is noticeable that the solar disc and semidisc are almost invariably found in connection with the feathered serpent as the symbolical attributes of Quetzalcoal. The Hopi people of Mexico symbolise the sun as a serpent, tail in mouth.

A slightly different version of this myth is perhaps closer to Astraea’s story. It says that, in sadness, Quetzalcoatl threw himself upon a funeral pyre. His spirit rose  upward and were changed into birds of brilliant plumage. His heart also soared into the sky, and became the morning star. As Quetzalcoatl died when the star became visible, the ancient Mexicans gave him the title “Lord of the Dawn.” When he died he was invisible for four days, and for eight days he wandered in the underworld, after which time the morning star appeared and he achieved resurrection. He then ascended his throne as a god.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Quetzalcoatl is that which regards Quetzalcoatl as a god of the air. He is connected with the cardinal points, and wears the insignia of the cross which symbolises them. He has a protruding, trumpet-like mouth, for the wind-god blows. His figure suggests whirls and circles. His temples were built in circular form.

American archaeologist and ethnologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837 – 1899) perceived in Quetzalcoatl a similar dual nature. “He is both lord of the eastern light and of the winds,” he writes (Myths of the New World) “Like all the dawn heroes, he too was represented as of white complexion, clothed in long, white robes, and, as many of the Aztec gods, with a full and flowing beard. . . . He had been overcome by Tezcatloca, the wind or spirit of night, who had descended from heaven by a spider’s web, and presented his rival with a draught supposed to confer immortality, but in fact producing an intolerable longing for home. For the wind and the light both depart when the gloaming draws near, or when the clouds spread their dark and shadowy webs along the mountains, and pour the vivifying rain upon the fields.”

An explanation of the origin of Quetzalcoatl is that which would regard him as the Man of the Sun, who has quitted his abode for a season for the purpose of teaching mankind arts which represent the first steps in civilisation. He fulfilled his mission and was displaced by new, invading, deities. Quetzalcoatl was represented as a traveller with staff in hand and, under his rule, the fruits of the earth flourished more abundantly than at any subsequent period.

Several tribes tributary to the Aztecs were in the habit of imploring Quetzalcoatl in prayer to return and free them from the intolerable bondage of the conqueror. Notable among them were the Totonacs, who passionately believed that the sun, their father, would send a god who would free them from the Aztec yoke. On the coming of the Spaniards the European conquerors were hailed as the servants of Quetzalcoatl, thus in the eyes of the natives fulfilling the tradition that he would return.

The titles bestowed upon Quetzalcoatl by the Nahua show that in his solar significance he was god of the vault of the heavens, as well as merely son of the sun. He was alluded to as Ehecatl (“The Air”), Yolcuat (“The Rattlesnake”), Tohil (“The Rumbler”), Nanihehecatl (“Lord of the Four Winds”) and Tlauizcalpantecutli (“Lord of the Light of the Dawn”). The whole heavenly vault was his, together with all its phenomena.