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.

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The One Big Mistake: Deeds of Odin

Odin, the chief ruler of the gods, was tall and old, wise and reverend. His beard was white and long, and he seemed to be forever brooding deeply over the mysteries of life and death. He had only one eye as he sacrificed the other to obtain great wisdom.

Every morning, Mimer drank a draught with the Gjallar-horn. The then young Odin had deep desire to receive the wisdom and strength which the mead alone can give. He entreated Mimer to give him a draught in exchange for one of his eyes which was cast into the well.He then drank the Gjallar-horn he became worthy to rule over gods and men. Thus Odin taught to all men that self-sacrifice is required to obtain wisdom and power.

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 “Odin” (1825-1827) by H. E. Freund

As Odin sat brooding in Asgard two ravens perched on his shoulder. Their names are Hugin (“reflection”) and Munin ( “memory”). When day dawned Odin sent them forth, and they returned at eve to whisper in his ears all the doings of men. Thus was he called Rafnagud (“raven-god”). He had also two wolf dogs named Gere (“the greedy”) and Freke (“the voracious”).

Odin invented secret runes, which have magical influence. For nine whole nights he hung on the high branches of Ygdrasil, pondering and searching out the secrets of the mind and of the Universe. The power of runes was before the beginning of man. They are mixed with fate and they have  power over death and the world beyond. Runes there are to ward off strife and care, to charm away sickness and disease, to blunt the foeman’s sword, to break fetters that bind, to still the storms, to ward off the attacks of demons, to make the dead to speak, to win the love of a maid, and to turn away love that is not desired, and many more.

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Odin with Hugin and Mugin.
A Norse mythology image from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript

From the moon-car in heaven, Odin also drank the song-mead which was in the pitcher that Hyuki and Bil had carried from the secret well on the mountain. Vidfinner is the sworn watchman of Hvergelmer and the Rivers Elivagar. One day,he broke his oath of fealty to the gods and fled from his post. Then raging heavenwards he attacked the moon-god, whom he killed and burned. His son Hyuki fought against him and suffered a fierce wound. For this dread crime Ivalde was condemned, but he fled towards Surtur’s deep dales and unto the dwelling of Suttung, son of Surtur, the giant sentinel of Muspelheim. For Surtur and his clan were at enmity with the gods of Asgard. To Suttung, Vidfinner gave the previous skaldic mead he was rewarded the hand of Gunlad, the giant’s daughter, in marriage.

Odin, seeing all that happened as he sat in his high throne, resolved to recapture the mead by cunning.  So he set out to visit the hall of Suttung (“the mead wolf”). The realm of Surtur is difficult to reach, and full of peril for the gods. It lies in the dark underworld which is lower than even Hela. Suttung’s hall is within a mountain to which, in a deep abyss with only one entry, and it is guarded by a fierce dwarf sentinel.

Odin secured the confidence of the dwarf, who promised to help him. He bored through the mountain a narrow tunnel through which Odin might escape in eagle-guise. Thus, having completed his designs, Odin went towards the door of the dwelling of the great fire-giant Suttung.

Odin arrived to a great feast to welcome Vidfinner , the wooer of the giant-maid Gunlad. Odin assumed the form of Vidfinner. A high seat of gold awaited the expected wedding-guest, and when Odin entered in the form of Vidfinner, he was welcomed with ardour. As he sat at the feast, Gunlad came forward and gave him a draught of the stolen mead. Meanwhile,  the real Vidfinner reached the door of Suttung’s hall and came to know that Odin was within. He was filled with wrath and sought to denounce Odin so that he might be slain by the giants. But the dwarf sentinel created an illusion, and opened a door on the side of the mountain which showed a lighted hall within and the wedding guests as they sat around Suttung’s board. Gunlad was at Odin’s side. Vidfinner leapt towards the vision of the high god of Asgard and thus dashed himself against the rock. The door was shut behind and the mountain swallowed him.

Ere the wedding feast was ended Odin had spoken words which caused the giants to suspect him. But he retired with Gunlad to the bridal chamber, and there he found the precious mead which Vidfinner had robbed from the moon-god. Then Gunlad came to know that her lover was Odin, but she helped him to make his escape in eagle-guise. So Odin flew through the tunnel which Heimdal had made, and reached Asgard in safety with the precious mead.

Although Odin conferred great good upon gods and men by retrieving the mead, he inadvertently brought forth a disaster when Surtur, issuing forth to avenge the wrong done to Gunlad, set the world aflame. Because good can never follow evil, even although it is accomplished for the sake of good.

The Divisions of the Universe: Nine Worlds of the Ancient Norse

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THE Asa-gods built Asgard, the celestial city set high above the heavens. It stands upon a holy island in the midst of a dark broad river flowing from the thunder-vapours that rise through the great World-tree from Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”), the mother of waters.

A dark and lofty wall protectes Asgard, and the great boiling river breaks angrily at its base. There is no entry-way apart from Odin’s mighty gate. If anyone who is unworthy cross the river unscathed by the vafer-flames and wants to open the gate of Asgard, he would be caught suddenly by a chain which which crushes him.

In the middle of Asgard is Idavoll, the Court of Judgment, in which the gods’ divine affairs are discussed and arranged. There was set the great golden throne of Odin, the chief ruler of Asgard, and around it are placed twelve golden seats for the gods who sit with him in judgment, and to whom the All-father gave power to rule and to issue decrees. Another stately structure is built as a sanctuary for the goddesses called Vingolf (“the abode of friends”).

There was also smithy which are furnished with anvils, hammers and tongs. With these the cunning elf-smiths, Ivalde’s sons and Sindre’s kinsmen, made for the gods every instrument they need. On a green place in the celestial city were found the golden tablets with which was played the Game of the Gods. This was in the Golden Age, which lasted until there came from Jotun-heim three giant maids, who brought corruption. In Midgard lived a race of dwarfs. In the deep, dark mould of Ymer’s body they swarmed , going here and there with no purpose or knowledge. All the gods gave the dwarfs human shape. There are also the the Trolls, who have power to change their shape.

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English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847, by Oluf Olufsen Bagge

The wonder of the Universe is the great ash tree, Ygdrasil, the Tree of Existence, which nourishes and sustains all spiritual and physical life. Its roots are spread through the divisions of the worlds that fill the yawning gulf, and its boughs are above the high celestial city of the gods. It grows out of the past,  lives in the present and reaches towards the future.

The World-ash has three great roots. One root reaches the realms below Midgard – it receives warmth and life in the glittering plains from the deep fountain of Urd where Hela the goddess of fate and of death, lives. Another root reaches the egg-white well of Mimer, who is Wisdom and Memory. The last root is in gloomy Nifel-heim, where it finds hardening sustenance in Hvergelmer, the fount of primeval waters, ice-cold and everlasting.

The souls of good men go to the realm of Urd. Near to it, in the underworld, is Mimer’s grove, where the race which will regenerate the world of men live. Below Nifel-heim are the nine divisions of torture in which the souls of the wicked are punished.

The roots of the great World-tree suck up the waters of the three eternal fountains which,  mixed together, give imperishable life. In the well of wise Mimer the fibres are made white with the holy mead which gives wisdom and poetry, and also is the very elixir of eternal life.

On the high branches of Ygdrasil, which overshadow Asgard, sits a wise eagle, and between its eyes is perched a hawk named Vedfolner. On the topmost bough is Goldcomb, the “cock of the north”, which awakens the gods from sleep and puts the demons to flight. From Hela then answers the red cock, whose fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil.

The great World-tree bears a more painful burden than human beings understand. In the well of Hvergelmer, in the black realm of Nifel-heim, is the corpse-eating dragon Nidhog (“the lower one”), which chews constantly at the root. Above the tree, four giant harts are biting its buds and its leaves. Age rots its side and serpents gnaw its tender fibres in the dark underworld. Because, there is never a good which is not approached by evil, and there is never a growth that doesn’t experience decay and the passing of time.

Up and down the World-tree runs constantly the squirrel Ratatosk, which bears gossip between the eagle on the highest branches and the dragon Nidhog at the root, and is thus forever cause strife. Greatly dreaded is Nidhog, who flies to the rocks and cliffs of the lower world with the bodies of dead men beneath its wings.

The three Fates, who are called Norns, are Urd and her two sisters–Urd, (“present”), Verdande (“past”) and Skuld (“future”). The Norns sprinkle the great ash-tree each morning with precious mead from Urd’s fount of life, so that its leaves forever be green. From there comes the honey-dew, which drips upon the world and is stored by the bees. And in Urd’s fountain are the two mystic swans which are the ancestors of the swan race in Midgard. The Norns are spun  the fates of men and women. There are also Dises, who are maids of Urd, unto whom various duties are assigned. The Hamingjes are those Dises who are guardians of men through their lives, and appear to them in dreams to give warnings and noble counsel. There are also the sweet elf-maids who have care of babes unborn in the fair realms of Urd, and find them kindly mothers in the world of men; and there are maids who conduct the souls of the dead to Hela’s glittering plain.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin

The souls of the dead are judged in Helaand rewards and punishments are meted out by Odin. There is only one road therer from Asgard for all the gods save Thor, and that is over the curved bridge Bif-rost (“the rainbow”) which has its foundation beyond the edge of the world of men. The southern span reaches to the fount of Urd in the realms of green verdure that never. know decay. Bif-rost is built of air and water, and is protected by red fire flaming on its edge. Frost giants and mountain giants always seek to capture the bridge, so that they may ascend to Asgard and overcome the gods; but its sentinel, Heimdal, is constantly on guard against them. The gods set Heimdal, son of the waves, to protect the bridge forever against the enemy. He is clad in silvern armour, and he wears a  burnished helmet with ram’s horns. His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day the length of a hundred leagues, and he listens so keenly that he can hear the grass growing. He sleeps as little and as lightly as a bird. When the giants and monsters come to assail the gods at Ragnarok, Heimdal shall blow a thunderblast on Gjallar-horn which is hidden in the deepest shade of the World-tree.

Every day the horses of the gods thunder over Bif-rost as they descend to and return from the lower-world. Except for Thor, the thunder god – he cannot travel this way because the fire of his thunder chariot might set the bridge aflame and destroy it. He has to wade across the four great girdling rivers in the underworld to reach Hela’s glittering plains.

 When the gods come unto Hela they descend from their horses and take their seats in the Thingstead. The dead are then brought before them. Down the valley of thorns the dead came – the feet of the wicked were torn and bleeding. When they walked over on boards, the unjust amongst them were sorely wounded and covered with scars, so that their bodies dripped blood.

Those who are justified pass to the eternal realms of Hela, where joy prevails, because they have lived upright lives, brave and also because they worshipped the gods and gave offerings in the temples. But those who are condemned are sent to Nifel-hel, the region of torture. They are judged to be unworthy if they injured others by falsehoods or wicked deeds, if they were adulterers, or murderers, or despoilers of graves, or cowards, or were traitors, and profaners of the temples. Those who are to share eternal joy are given to drink from the horn of Urd, which imparts to them enduring strength. The doomed are given a draught of burning venom which changes them to monsters. Their tongues are then for ever bereft of speech and they can only moan.

The happy dead then meet lost friends and ancestors from the earliest years of the world while the doomed are driven towards Nifel-hel by elves, who carry thorny rods with which they lash those who falter or seek to turn back. Their first punishment is received when they  pass through the regions of eternal bliss, and see the joy of the blessed which they can never enjoy. Then they cross the rivers which girdle Hela, and climb towards the dark mountains of Nifel-hel. Then they enter the Na-gates and die the second death. Punishment is given in the nine realms of torture according to the sins that were committed. Some are seized by the dragon and some by the birds of prey, according to their deserts. Others are tempted for ever by illusions of sinful things they sought in life, and there are those who are torn to pieces by the great wolf.

In the Venom-dale is a river called Slid, and it is full of daggers and sharp spears. Through it must wade the perjurers and murderers and adulterers, who are continually suffering new and fierce wounds. Others sit together on benches of iron, while venom drips on them, within a hall which is full of unberarable stench. Traitors are hung on trees and cowards are drowned in pools of foulness.

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Doepler, Emil. ca. 1905. Walhall, die Götterwelt der Germanen. Martin Oldenbourg, Berlin.

Naglefar, the “ship of death”, lies in the Gulf of Black Grief, in the outer regions of Nifel-hel, fastened to a dark island with chains that shall not sever until Ragnarok (“the dusk of the gods”). The warriors who are slain in battle, or drowned at sea, are brought  to Valhal in Asgard by the maids of Urd, who are called Valkyries. They are horsed on swift steeds, and first they pass to Hela, where the gods give judgment and reject the unworthy. Then they are carried by the Valkyries over Bif-rost, and the hoofs of their steeds resound in Asgard. In great Valhal the heroes feast with Odin in eternal triumph and happiness.

Now these are the divisions of the Universe. In the midst is the earth, Midgard, which is encircled by the ocean. On high, and above all else, is Asgard, and below it is the realm of white elves, who flit between the branches of the great World-tree. Then Vana-heim, the home of the Vana-gods, is in the air and in the sea; and in the depths of the western sea is the hall of Æger, god of Ocean. Alf-heim, the home of elves, is to the east. In the lower world, below Nifel-heim, are the Nifel-hel regions of torture, and under Midgard are the Hela realms of Mimer and of Urd. Far below the path of the gods towards Hela’s fields of bliss are Surtur’s deep dales on the borders of Muspel-heim, where the great giant Surtur, the swarthy sentinel, keeps watch with his flaming sword. Jotun-heim is to the north and the east, beyond the world’s edge.

From the Body of a Giant: Ancient Norse Story of Creation

At the very beginning there was nothing. Then a vast and empty gulf opened in space. The  length and breadth of this gulf was immesurable and its depth was beyond any of our comprehension. That gulf contained the beginning of everything.

Then, one by one, our homes were formed. On the north was Nifel-heim, the home of misty darkness and freezing cold. On the south was Muspel-heim, the luminous home of warmth and of light. In middle was Nifel-heim, the great fountain from which all waters flow. The great fountain was named Hvergelmer (“the roaring cauldron”) from which surged twelve tremendous rivers called Elivagar which washed southward towards the gulf. These rivers flew from their source to great distances before the venom that was swept with them began to harden until they congealed and became ice. The rivers grew silent and gigantic blocks of ice formed.

That part of the gulf laying northward was a region of horror and of strife. Heavy masses of black vapour enveloped the ice, and within were screaming whirlwinds that never ceased, and dismal banks of fleeting mist. But southward, Muspel-heim glowed with intense radiance, and sprayed forth beautiful flakes and sparks of shining fire. The intervening space between the region of tempest and gloom and the region of warmth and light was a peaceful twilight, serene and still.

When the sparks from Muspel-heim fell through the frozen vapour, completed by the heat was sent there by the might of the All-father, drops of moisture began to fall from the ice. It was then that life began. The drops were quickened and a formless mass took human shape. Thus came into being the great lumbering clay-giant named Ymer. Ymer was rough and ungainly. As he stretched himself and began to move about, Ymer was tortured by the pangs of immense hunger. He searched for food, but there was nothing he could eat. The whirlwinds went past him and the dark mists enveloped him like a shroud.

More drops fell through the gloomy vapours and formed a gigantic cow, which was named Audhumla (“void darkness”). Ymer saw the cow standing in the gloom beside blocks of ice and groped weakly towards it. He found that milk ran from its teats in four white streams. He drank and drank until he was filled with the seeds of life. Then a great heaviness came over him and he lay down into deep sleep. In his sleep, sweat gathered in the pit of his left arm, from which a son named Mimer and a daughter named Bestla were formed. From Mimer the Vana-gods were descended. A monstrous six-headed son, who was the ancestor of the evil frost giants, the dreaded Hrimthursar, was born from under the feet of Ymer.

Then Ymer was awoken by Audhumla, the great cow, because she could not find anything to eat. She had been surviving by licking the huge boulders that were encrusted by salt and rime. In one day, hair of a great head appeared in the boulders. On the second day, when Audhumla returned to the boulder, a head of human semblance was laid bare. On the third day a form leapt forth. He was beautiful, nimble and powerful. He was Bure, the first of the Asa-gods.

In time, more beings followed. Mimer, who is Mind and Memory, had daughters, the chief of whom was Urd, Goddess of Fate and Queen of Life and Death. Bure had a son named Bor, who took for his wife Bestla, the sister of Mimer. They had three sons: the first was called Odin, the second Ve – also known as Honer, and the third Vile – also known as Lodur and Loke. Odin became the chief ruler of the Asa-gods, and Honer was chief of the Vans until Loke, the usurper, became their ruler.

Ymer and his sons were moved with wrath and enmity against the family of gods, and soon warfare broke out between them. The fierce conflicts were waged through the long ages as the earth was formed until the sons of Bure prevailed. When Ymer was stricken down, the victors leapt upon him and slit open the bulging veins of his neck. A great deluge of blood gushed forth, and the whole race of giants was drowned except Bergelmer (“The Mountain-old”) who took refuge on the timbers of the great World-mill with his wife and remained there. From these are descended the Jotuns, who for ever harboured enmity against the gods.

When Ymer was dead, the gods set forth to frame the world. They laid Ymer’s body on the mill and ground it. The stones were smeared with blood and the dark flesh came out as mould producing the earth and the gods shaped it to their desire. Rocks and the mountains were made from Ymer’s bones. His teeth and jaws were broken and flung the fragments forming pebbles and boulders. The ice-cold blood of Ymer became the waters of the vast engulfing sea.

The gods then set Ymer’s skull over the earth to be the heavens. At each of the four corners they put as strong dwarfs East and West and North and South as guardians. The skull of Ymer rests upon their broad shoulders.

Mundilfore, who cared for the World-mill, aspired to rival Odin. He had two beautiful children, Mani (moon)  and Sol (sun). Mundilfore’s presumption angered the gods and, to punish him, they took his two children away from him to drive the heavenly chariots and count the Years for men.  They sent Sol to drive the sun-chariot. Her steeds are Arvak, which is “Early Dawn”, and Alsvid, which signifies “scorching heat”.  They enter the eastern heaven at Hela-gate, through which the souls of dead men pass to the world beneath.

Then the gods set Mani, the handsome youth, to drive the chariot of the moon. With him are two fair children whom he carried away from earth – a boy Hyuki, and a girl named Bil. They had been sent out in the darkness of night by Vidfinner, their father, to draw song-mead from the mountain spring Byrger, “the hidden”, which broke forth from the source of Mimer’s fount. They filled their pail Saegr to the brink, so that the precious mead spilled over as they raised it on the pole Simul. When they began to descend the mountain, Mani seized them and took them away. The spots seen on the fair-faced moon are Hyuki and Bil.

The sun and the moon are pursued by gigantic wolves. Skoll, “the adherer”, chases the sunand Hati, “the hater”, who races in front of “the bright maiden of heaven”, in ceaseless pursuit of the moon.

Skoll and Hati are giants in wolf-guise. They were sent forth by the Mother of Evil, the dark and fearsome Hag, Gulveig-Hoder. She lived in the Iarnvid, the black forest of iron trees, on the world’s edge, which is the habitation of a witch family dreaded both by gods and by men. Hati, who is also called Managarm, “the moon devourer”, feeds on the blood of dying men. The seers have foretold that when he comes to swallow the moon, the heavens and the earth shall turn red with blood.

Nat (Night), is the daughter of the Vana-giant Narve (“the Binder”). Her hair is dark and her eyes are soft and benevolent. She brings rest and refreshment to the weary, and sleep and dreams unto all. To the warrior she gives strength so that he may win victory, care and sorrow she loves to take away. Nat is the beneficent mother of gods. She married three times. Her first husband was Nagelfare of the stars, and their son was Aud of bounteous riches. Her second husband was Annar, “Water”, and their daughter, Jörd, the earth-goddess, was Odin’s wife and the mother of Thor. Her third husband was Delling, the red elf of dawn, and their son was Dagr, which is Day.

Vindsval, son of gloomy Vasud, “the ice wind”, was father of Winter, and the mild and beneficent Svasud was the sire of Summer.

Finally, the sons of Bure saw two logs of wood. One log was from an ash tree, and from it the gods shaped a man named Ask. The other, which was an alder tree, was shaped into a woman named Embla. The gods gave them mind and will and desire, and from them the entire human race descended. They live in Midgard, “middle ward”, and Mana-heim, “home of men”.