This article appeared in the North Clare Local in January.
Christmas has been and gone, and the decorations have been put away for another year. One of the most perennially popular motifs has been the leaping deer. Deer are among the most symbolic and mythologised of all animals, especially the stag.
The sight of stags rutting each autumn is an awesome one. While humans hunted deer, there seems to be a certain respect for their noble quarry. This is probably best expressed in the famous Landseer painting, The Monarch of the Glen.
Our wonderful old pound coin was adorned by a proud silver stag, and indeed deer featured prominently in Irish mythology. The legendary warrior Fionn McCumhail was once out hunting with his men and they chased a white doe through the forest. They cornered her, but his hounds refused to attack, and she slipped away. Later that night, he was visited by a beautiful woman, who told him her name was Sadhbh and she had been transformed into the same deer by a wicked druid. They married, but she was snatched away by the Druid and could not be found. Later Fionn found a boy in the forest who claimed his mother was a deer. The boy became Oisin (of Tír na nÓg fame).
In general, most legends about deer focus on stags. The symbolism of the noble and brave stag is too good to resist, and many Munster families have this animal in their crest. In ancient times, kingship was often defined by the hunt for a stag. The boundaries of the kingdom would be where the hunt ended, and the man who slayed the stag would be king. Families with the stag in their crest (like O’Sullivan, McCarthy, and O’Keeffe) were part of the Cashel Eoghanacta dynasty, which dominated Munster until the arrival of the Normans.
In heraldry, the stag often represents strength, and also the power of one who can fight, but chooses not to.
Ireland is far from the only land where the stag is a proud symbol. Deer feature prominently in mythology all over the world. The sons of Nimrod, Hunor and Magar gave chase to a mysterious white stag in the ancient region of Scythia (ancient Eastern Europe). The stag led the brothers in two different directions, and Hunor founded the land of the Huns and Magar the land of the Magyars (modern-day Hungary).
A similar tale is told in Japan, where two brothers hunting an elusive white stag quarrel over their direction. One goes west, the other heads for the east, and the brother who travels eastward founds Japan.
The white stag, or hart, is a mythical beast in the line of the unicorn. While white deer do exist due to albinism, the white hart was said to be a fairy creature, able to pass between the worlds. Rich in symbolism, they were adopted by the English king Richard II as his personal emblem. Today the name largely lives on in pubs, and the White Hart is the fifth most common pub name in England. Premier League soccer team Tottenham Hotspur also play their home games at White Hart Lane.
Stags’ antlers have long been a symbol of fertility and strength, and in Europe, there are wide range of “horned gods”, varying from the English literary invention Herne the Hunter to the ancient Celtic deity Cernunnos. Very little is known of the latter, and the majority of these horned gods are so ancient that the details of their existence are very vague. It’s no coincidence that in Christian times, the pagan symbolism of the horned god was turned into devil worship. However, in Christianity, the stag is often a symbol of Christ, trampling his enemies.
Ancient Germanic people worshipped stags, and Saint Aldhelm (of modern day south-east England) complained of shrines where the “foul snake and the stag were worshipped with coarse stupidity”.
Santa is well-known for his sleigh pulled by reindeer, and to the Saami people of northern Finland, these creatures are important source of meat and clothing. Indeed, it’s thought that the legend of Santa’s flying reindeer arose when people observed the animals, high on fly agaric (magic mushrooms), leaping around. The god Groma pursues a reindeer, Meandash, through the sky. He’s already shot the deer with two arrows, and when he shoots a third, the world will end. Another Saami legend tells the story of an evil woman transformed into a white reindeer, who travels the tundra luring men to their deaths. She is only defeated when her husband attacks her with cold steel.
For our ancestors across the world, there was something extremely primal and ancient about the adoration of the stag. These noble animals often proved themselves to be a worthwhile foe in the hunt, and the respect felt for them lingers on in modern symbolism.