Shapes of Deer

October 4, 2018
Photo: Shenandoah National Park

Driving back from town yesterday in the early evening, I saw more deer by the road in more places than I could count. Seeing so many deer made me think of this passage from Divining with Animal Guides.

The Scottish goddess Cailleach Bheur roams the hillsides herding giant deer and drinking their milk. Cailleach, under various spellings, has been characterized as a deer, hare, cat, grain, serpent, gray mare, mountain, stone, and hag goddess, or as a hag goddess alternating with a maiden alter-ego. The pervasive characteristics of this deity are: female, old, and very large (even giant). I believe Cailleach is a word for a pre-Celtic concept of ancestress, and hence we should expect to find many Cailleachs. The deer Cailleach may be a reindeer, since milk and herding are part of her lore. Reindeer were indigenous to northern Scotland up to the thirteenth century. Alternatively, the deer Cailleach may be linked with Red Deer, who also live in groups and are larger than other European deer species. Another possibility is that the deer Cailleach could be an Irish Elk, a huge species of deer (not elk) that inhabited much of western Eurasia through the Ice Age. It is speculated that the changing climate could not support the Irish Elk, but the species was able to Into the Mist survive in isolated pockets throughout the Neolithic, documented in the foothills of the Ural Mountains even in historical times. The male Irish Elk had beautiful, formidable antlers.

The Scottish word for shape shifting, fith-fath, literally means to take the shape of a deer. It is easy to see why deer, having such a fey quality, would be equated with this concept. Deer are crepuscular creatures, active in the gray periods of the day, and seem to appear and disappear at will. I once stood next to a doe in an open forest and did not see her, so invisible did she make herself. It was almost like she transformed herself into a tree. I have heard many anecdotes about women changing themselves into deer—always women for some reason—and I have even witnessed this phenomenon myself.

Megaloceros (Irish Elk) from Lascaux Cave. France, 17,000
BCE.

How Do Wild Animals Weather the Storm?

September 15, 2017
Anhinga at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Photo: Euku.

The US has experienced two major hurricanes over the past two weeks, and like many people I have been following the news on these events closely. The last statistics on fatalities that I found report that seventy-one people died in hurricane Harvey and eighty-one in Irma. More than half of the Irma fatalities occurred in the Caribbean. Death tolls from these storms are expected to continue to rise.

As devastating as these hurricanes were, I couldn’t help but compare the loss of life to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, where over 1,800 people died. One of the reasons that many people in Katrina’s path refused to evacuate was that they did not want to abandon their pets. Storm shelters were not allowing pets and buses were refusing to transport people accompanied by animals. This time around shelters were prepared to accept people accompanied by animals and animal shelters were also poised to help evacuees who could not leave with their pets.

So dogs and cats, as well as people, fared better in these major hurricanes than in previous ones. Many people are asking, what about wildlife in the regions where hurricanes made landfall?

Six toed cat at Hemingway House. Photo: Avarette.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, on the south Texas coast, was hit hard by Harvey and is closed until further notice. Major damage occurred at the visitor information center, and it may turn out to be a total loss. Public viewing platforms also suffered damage. A full assessment of damage has not occurred yet due to unsafe conditions for grounds crews. A problem with flooding in this area is almost inevitable petroleum and other chemical contamination as well as debris that could potentially harm wildlife. Refuge spokespersons report that major beach erosion occurred but that the saltwater marshes, major migratory bird habitats, suffered no obvious damage. The good news is that whooping crane migration to this area does not begin until next month. About half of the critically endangered whooping cranes winter at the Refuge.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in southwest Florida also suffered major damage to buildings and boardwalks. The Sanctuary is closed and there is no word yet on when it will be reopened. Again, an assessment of damage to the Sanctuary will not be completed for some time for reasons of safety, in this case the major hazard being fallen trees and unsafe structures. On Big Pine Key, deer have been spotted since Irma tore through. It is unknown what effect the hurricane had on the population of the rare Key deer species. On Key West, Hemingway’s famous six-toed cats evidently survived the storm just fine.

Whooping Crane family at
Aransas NWR. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife.
Birds and animals have a number of survival mechanisms for dealing with catastrophic hurricanes, which is not to say that they all necessarily survive. Many birds and small animals retreat into tree cavities, which provide wonderful shelter provided that the tree does not topple or floodwaters do not reach the cavity. Migratory birds are aware of tropical storms across great distances and will adjust their migratory schedules to avoid major storms. Some migratory birds fly into storms and survive, and they may even hang out in the “eye” until the storm breaks up. In both of these scenarios, surviving birds may be pushed very far out of their natural habitats. A bigger problem for bird survival than immediate deaths from wind and rain is the loss of habitat. Bird habitat is vanishing at an alarming rate due to human development, pollution, and global warming, so habitat loss from hurricanes can have a big impact.

Here are the links for updates on damage assessments at Corkscrew and Aransas.

Have you seen information yet about the webinar I will be leading on Mastering Moon Energies?

Elen of the Ways

September 23, 2016
Photo: USFWS.
Photo: USFWS.

Again from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

An increasingly popular conception of the Deer Goddess goes by the name of Elen or Elen of the Ways. Knowledge about this goddess was disseminated through the research of Caroline Wise(1) on Elen of the Hosts, who appears in a short section of the Welsh Mabinogion. While researching ley lines in Britain, Wise discovered this passage:

…Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for that reason they are called the Roads of Elen of the Hosts, because she was sprung from the Island of Britain, and the men of the Island of Britain would not have made those great hostings for any save for her.(2)

The “hosts” refers to the army that utilized Elen’s roads. Elen of the Hosts is a historical figure, the queen of a usurper in the Gaulish Empire who assassinated the Emperor Gracian. Also known as Saint Helen (and not to be confused with the Saint Helen who is mother of the Emperor Constantine), she is reputed to have established Christianity in Wales. Wise theorized that the roads of Saint Helen were created by migrating reindeer, and that the Elen of the Hosts described in the Mabinogion is conflated with an older deer goddess. The most convincing part of her argument, from a scholarly point of view, is the prevalence of deer words sounding like Elen in many European languages. My Google translator confirms that “eilit” is Irish Gaelic for “doe,” while “jelen” is Polish for “deer” and “elen” is Bulgarian for “deer.” “Elain” is Finnish for “animal.” The Dictionary of Word Origins has this to say about the English word “elk”:

The Indo-European base *ol-, *el- produced a number of words for deer-like animals – Greek elaphos ‘stag,’ for example and Welsh elain ‘hind,’ not to mention English eland.(3)

“Elen” may be a root Indo-European word for “deer,” and if so would be an appropriate appellation for the Deer Goddess. If the roads of Elen were established by reindeer, however, it is doubtful that a reindeer goddess was worshiped on the British Isles at that earlier time by that name, since the large scale Indo-European migrations, unlike those of the reindeer, were fairly recent.

The most compelling case for Elen as a deer deity is the number of people who attest to connecting strongly with a deer goddess by this name. Chesca Potter seems to be the first modern artist to channel Elen as Reindeer Woman in the 1980s, but Elen is probably now the most commonly depicted Horned Goddess.

(1) Caroline Wise, “Elen of the Ways,” andrewcollins.com, http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/articles/elen_1.htm accessed July 9, 2016.

(2)The Mabinogion, translated by Gwen Jones and Thomas Jones, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 77.

(3) John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, (New York: Arcade), 197.

 

Further Reading

Wise, Caroline. Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways. London: Eala Press, 2015.

Sentier, Elen. Elen of the Ways: Following the Deer Trods Hants, UK: Moon Books, 2013.

Reindeer and the World Tree

September 16, 2016
Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.
Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

 

More from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

The stag of Artemis being in fact a reindeer raises questions about the four stags who nibble on the branches of the Germanic world tree, Yggdrasil. This is the tree that holds the nine worlds, three each in the lower, middle, and upper regions. A snake nibbles at the roots of the tree, an eagle claims the high branches, and four deer browse the foliage. These animals create balance by tempering the growth of the ever-growing tree. The deer are identified as stags in the only source that mentions them, the Prose Edda, so this is not a case of a picture being misinterpreted, at least not in modern times. It is curious that reindeer would not be prominent in the mythology of the Norse, when reindeer memory survives as far south as Greece. Another stag, called Eikthyrnyr, lives atop a tree called Laerad in Odin’s upper realm of Valhalla. Eikthyrnyr munches the leaves of Laerad along with a nanny goat named Heidrun. From the udders of Heidrun flow mead. From the antlers of Eikthyrnyr flow the waters that make up the rivers of the worlds. Eikthyrnyr could also be a reindeer doe. Default male bias being the pervasive affliction that it is, assertions of maleness in animal deities must be entertained with skepticism. The presence of so-called stags where we would expect to find reindeer, amid the absence of mention of any does, suggests either naiveté or a patriarchal rewriting of mythology.

Artemis and the Reindeer Doe

September 9, 2016
Herakles capturing the Ceryneian Hind as Artemis and Athena look on. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.
Heracles capturing the Ceryneian Hind as Artemis and Athena look on. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Here is another short excerpt from my forthcoming book about animal divination:

In antiquity the deer familiar of Artemis was a reindeer, which some confuse with a stag. Both horned and hornless does are depicted driving the goddess’s chariot. These does are magical and can run faster than an arrow. A fifth doe, called the Ceryneian Hind, was too fast even for Artemis to catch, but the doe was later given to her by one of the Pleiades sisters, Taygete. The third labor of Heracles (Hercules) involves capturing the Ceryneian Hind and bringing her alive to Mycenae, a city in the Argolis region of the Peloponnese. This quest, which takes exactly one year, begins at the temple of Artemis in Oenoe (the Oenoe located in Argolis). Though the journey begins and ends in about the same place, Heracles chases the Hind through the upper Balkan region and into Hyperborea, a vaguely defined place in the north. The indomitable Hind then leads Heracles south to the temple of Artemis atop Mount Artemisium, where she allows herself to be captured. This is a shaman’s journey, an initiation into the cult of Artemis. The giant Hind, with her gold antlers and brass hooves, may have been a statue in the temple with those features.

The Deer Shifters: Another deer article from the past

September 2, 2016

deerlarge

Several years ago a North Country man shot and killed a member of his hunting party, the girlfriend of his son. This is an all too frequent tragedy, not worth a mention anywhere but the local news. The man said he thought the girlfriend was a deer, which is also not so unusual. More perplexing is that the woman was standing not far away from the shooter and was immobile, leaning against a tree. Regardless, the victim’s family and the prosecutor believed this was an accident, and the shooter was offered a reduced prison sentence that left some observers looking askance. Was it plausible that a sober man with good eyesight could accidentally shoot a person at close range, no matter how crazed he was to “get his buck”?

Or, could the victim-hunter – thinking about the deer, struggling to perceive the deer, trying to get in the mind of the deer, willing the deer to come closer – actually have turned into a deer? This alternative may seem more fantastic than the first, yet I have seen women (always women for some reason) momentarily turn into deer.

Moreover, I once received validation of sorts for my perception, during a women’s ritual. I glanced over to the woman beside me and saw that she had turned into a deer, and I thought I must be mistaken. This woman was very infatuated with bears, and I would never have associated her with deer. She was not fazed by this, however, explaining that her Cherokee great-grandmother had believed her to be attuned with the deer and had lobbied unsuccessfully to give her a deer name.

In the story of Sadb and Oisin the Irish heroine Sadb is turned into a fawn by one of her father’s enemies. She evidently retains the power to change back and forth, because she becomes the lover of the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill after he spares her cervid form during a hunting expedition. The enraged druid changes her back into a doe, this time permanently, and in this form she gives birth to their son Oisin. The child appears human in all ways, save for a fawnlike forelock of hair, yet he can run as fast as a deer. (A slightly different version of this story appears in my book Invoking Animal Magic.)

The Scottish hag Beinne Bhric changes into a gray deer, echoing legends of the Cailleach Bheur, the giant crone who keeps a herd of magic deer. The generic Scottish word for a shape-shifting charm, fith-fath (fee faw), literally means to take the shape of a deer.

Make no mistake: women can take the shape of deer, at least some women can. It is the stuff of legend, but nonetheless true. Serious inquiry has not been made into the qualities of the children of doe-mothers, but perhaps this is how shape-shifting ability is passed on. If you think you might be part deer, make your way carefully in the woods.

 

Sources:

Celtic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook. Shaftsbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

Call of the Deer

August 19, 2016
Bugling elk. Photo: US Forest Service.
Bugling elk. Photo: US Forest Service.

The deer family is composed of deer, caribou, elk, and moose. Con Slobodchikoff, in Chasing Doctor Doolittle, describes communication within the deer family (and many other species). He says regarding elk:

The bugling starts off as a long, eerie low-frquency screeching sound, followed by a series of three or four shorter sounds kind of like someone scratching glass on concrete. The first time one of my graduate students, newly arrived from the East Coast, heard this sound on a dark evening in the mountains he was startled and disoriented.… I told him he had heard the aggressive call of a male elk (Cervus canadensis), advertising his presence to other males and perhaps also to any females that happened to be nearby. When you hear it for the first time, it can be pretty terrifying.

Here is a male elk bugling:

 

Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) Close portrait with frontal view of stag roaring during the rut, with mouth open. England. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques.
Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), England. Photo: Arturo de Frias Marques.

Dr. Slobodchikoff goes on to discuss the call of the Red Deer stag:

Although red deer (Cervus elaphus) are similar in size and shape to elk, and in fact were thought for a long time to be the same species of animal, their calls are very different. Red deer are found in Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. They have a roaring call that advertises their aggressiveness toward other males, and they make this call during the mating season when they are guarding a harem of females. Depending on the size of their opponents, the males can vary the base pitch of their roars, making the roars sound deeper when they are faced with a larger opponent. This gradation in the base pitch of the roars probably conveys information to challengers about the males’ willingness and ability to fight to defend her harem.

 

Source:
Con Slobodchikoff, Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012) 185-186.

Diana and the Deer

August 12, 2016
Diana. Photo: Leochares.
Diana. Photo: Leochares.

August 13 marks the start of an ancient Roman festival to Diana. Torches were carried in processions in honor of the goddess with the aim of averting storms which might imperil the ripening harvest. The torch is one of Diana’s symbols, as she is the goddess who governs light.

Thinking of Diana as goddess of light fits with another of her symbols, the deer. In earlier posts I wrote about how deer migrations are so closely aligned with solar rhythms that in many cultures deer goddesses are also sun goddesses. Many other animals have rhythms ruled by the sun that are noticeable to us, of course, but deer were once a staple in the human diet.

Really Big Deer

July 22, 2016
Irish Elk from Lascaux cave painting.
Irish Elk from Lascaux cave painting.

The Scottish goddess Cailleach Bheur roams the hillsides herding giant deer and drinking their milk. Cailleach, under various spellings, has been characterized as a deer, hare, cat, grain, serpent, gray mare, mountain, stone, and hag goddess, or as a hag goddess alternating with a maiden alter-ego. The pervasive characteristics of this deity are: female, old, and very large (even giant). I believe Cailleach is a word for a pre-Celtic concept of ancestress, and hence we should expect to find many Cailleachs. The deer Cailleach may be a reindeer, since milk and herding are part of her lore. Reindeer were indigenous to northern Scotland up to the thirteenth century. Alternatively, the deer Cailleach may be Red Deer, who also live in groups and are larger than other European deer species. Another possibility is that the deer Cailleach could be an Irish Elk, a huge species of deer (not elk) that inhabited much of western Eurasia through the Ice Age. It is speculated that the changing climate could not support the Irish Elk, but the species was able to survive in isolated pockets throughout the Neolithic, documented in the foothills of the Ural Mountains even in historical times. The male Irish Elk had beautiful, formidable antlers.

The Scottish word for shape shifting, fith-fath, literally means to take the shape of a deer. It is easy to see why deer, having such a fey quality, would be equated with this concept. Deer are crepuscular creatures, active in the gray periods of the day, and seem to appear and disappear at will. I once stood next to a doe in an open forest and did not see her, so invisible did she make herself. It was almost like she transformed herself into a tree. I have also heard anecdotes about women changing themselves into deer – always women for some reason – and I have even witnessed this phenomenon myself.