I have sixteen cool pictures of deer (reblogged) on my Tumblr site.
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:
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.
Con Slobodchikoff, Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012) 185-186.
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.
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.
The fable about reindeer living at the North Pole is almost true. They don’t live right on the Pole, but indigenous migrating wild herds today live in or near the Arctic Circle, and semi-domesticated herds reach only a bit further south. In North America, migrating caribou species, which are similar to reindeer, live in northern Canada and Alaska. The non-migrating Boreal Woodland Caribou, extending into the southern Canadian provinces, and the Wild Forest Reindeer of the Russian Altai-Sayan region (bordering Mongolia) are endangered.
Reindeer migrate in late spring from taiga to tundra, where they have their babies relatively isolated from predators. After giving birth, the females shed their antlers. Males by this time have long disposed of their heavier antlers, which would make the dangerous spring migration across hundreds of miles more cumbersome. Females and juveniles keep their antlers through the winter to dig through snow and brush seeking nourishment. An elder doe leads the herd on the trek north. Reindeer hooves are well adapted to ice and slippery bog, and reindeer are strong swimmers. In the northern territory the calves fatten with the rest of the herd on lichen and other tundra vegetation. During the fall and winter, in the scrubby forests of the taiga, they will also eat berries, willow, birch, grasses, and other forest plants. Their eyes undergo structural changes as the year darkens, allowing them to utilize the light waves they screened out during the glaring arctic summer.
Next week: Reindeer in the Ice Age.
I’m studying deer this summer and will be sharing tidbits now and then about this magical animal. This is a Sumerian copper plaque dating to about 2500 B.C.E. from the temple of the goddess Ninhursaga. It shows Imdugud, also known as the Anzu Bird, protected by two stags. Imdugud has a lion head and the body of an unknown bird. Imdugud is identified in Mesopotamian literature as male, though this particular image looks like a lioness to me. Imdugud is the bird who steals the Tablet of Destinies from the god Enki. Eventually Enki recovers the Tablet with the help of his turtle familiar. Enki is called the “Stag of the Abzu.” The Abzu refers to the underworld freshwater kingdom that fed the marshland of southern Sumer and the stag is probably the Mesopotamian Fallow Deer, but the title is still cryptic to me.
Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Is the “stag” that accompanies Artemis really a reindeer doe? A new article I have at Moon Books Blog explores this tantalizing question.
The webinar Mystick Path of the Deer is on track for Monday, January 12th.
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.
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.
Learn more about deer magic in the upcoming webinar,
The Mystick Path of the Deer
Few things are more exhilarating than running through the woods on a spongy trail and hitting your stride. I was moving in that effortless state of freedom on a late afternoon run when my partner pulled up suddenly and commanded me to stop. We were in a large open stand of pine with little undergrowth.
“Don’t move,” my partner whispered.
“I don’t see anything,” I replied.
“Shhh! Right in front of you,” he said – and then I saw it. A large doe a few feet away, standing perfectly immobile. She was relying on her coloring and her stillness for camouflage, and I would have passed close by her if I had not been alerted. Yet I am a fairly observant person. I can’t help but wonder if pine trees change into deer when they have a hankering for movement, or if deer swiftly turn to pine when they need to disappear.
Can you spot the spotted deer in the forest? It takes a willingness to move between worlds, and by acquiring this depth of perception you greatly enhance your psychic abilities. The upcoming webinar The Mystick Path of the Deer will focus on better understanding and attuning with this remarkable creature.
The Mystick Path of the Deer
Monday, January 12, 2015
7:00–8:00 pm Eastern Time
Attend live or stream later