Antlered creatures hold a central place in our imaginations.
It’s an image familiar from popular culture: a stag with head proudly lifted, antlers encircling the sun or some other radiant symbol. The shining stag has become a mute symbol of everything from hunting-themed video games to alcoholic beverages— but it has roots in a more glorious past, in which it drew us, even against our will, to something greater than ourselves.
Antlered creatures, whether the stags seen in the rock carvings of ancient Europe, the deer of Native American myth, or the reindeer who thronged Eurasia after the last ice age, hold a central place in our imaginations. As the necessary prey of our earliest hunts, they were central to survival, their appearance compelling and mysterious. Teasing and tempting, they lured hunters deeper into the unknown wild. Their impressive presence carried an aura of power and mystery, while their antlers, suggestive of the radiant beams of the sun or the branching of trees, spoke of the cycles of life and death. Little wonder then that stag imagery and tales are found across the world from earliest times. Antlered beasts have shown us where and how to live, held up the heavens, and ultimately, become the vehicles of our transcendence. Through the magic of pursuit and flight, they carry us out of ourselves and into the great beyond.
The Great Migration
One of the most impressive migrations in history was lead by the burgeoning reindeer population of three thousand years ago. After millenia of hunting the massive herds, humans managed to domesticate certain reindeer. Now they could be ridden, used to pull sleds and set out to lure their wild cousins. In a sense, the process of domestication was mutual — now humans were following the herds full time, rather than simply intercepting them as they passed. Not only did the reindeer bring humans into a new way of life, but they opened up vast swaths of the earth’s surface to them. Starting in northeast China, the original reindeer herders spread from the Pacific to the Urals, from Mongolia to the Arctic.1
Perhaps it is a memory of this vast movement that lies behind the tales of antlered beasts leading people to a new homeland, common amongst the tribes of the Eurasian steppe.2 The leader of reindeer migrations is often a mature doe — the only female cervid who is antlered.3 Her memory might lie behind he occasional mentions of antlered females in myth: the Greek Ceryneian Hind, the horned does of medieval romance, and the Miraculous Hind of the Hungarian origin myth. This last creature, shining white with golden antlers and the sun on its breast, appeared to two hunters and then led them to a bountiful land to start a great nation. Later, the creature (now a stag) appeared in New Year’s songs, described as arriving from heaven with the sun between its horns, the moon on its chest and a star on its forehead.4 A traditional shaman’s chant describes the same “miracle stag” as straddling the earth, holding up sun and moon with its antlers.5
The association of the antlered one and the sun can be traced back to the art of ancient Eurasia. Stags combined with sun discs or with sun rays were a common motif in Neolithic and Bronze Age art, where their oversize antlers became “trees of life,” sometimes sprouting animal heads and birds.6 In the 3000-year-old “reindeer stones” scattered over ritual sites from Manchuria to the Altai mountains, reindeers with curving, stylized antlers seem to race up to a sun disc above.7 In continental Europe, rock carvings show stags or antlers in conjunction with sun discs: stags bear the sun between or just above their antlers, or their antlers merge into the rays of a sun image.8 In Britain, a sun wheel and antlers on a Romano-Celtic grave may have been symbols of rebirth,9 while a pre-Roman coin depicts an antlered god with a sun wheel between his horns.10
Hunt for the Sun
These sun-crowned stags spoke of life and power, and in later tales, their appearance proved irresistible, tempting hunters to the chase. The Ceryneian Hind and the magical harts and hinds of medieval tale had an implied sun imagery (golden antlers, white coats, jewelled brows) that made them compellingly attractive.11 This link between the antlered beast, the sun and the hunt is made explicit in the Siberian myth of the Elk Goddess. An antlered “Animal Mother,” she lived at the base of the World Tree and in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. There, every night, she took the sun between her horns and carried it off into the forest. Darkness resulted until a hero killed her and brought back the sun (only to have to repeat the feat the next night).12
Something like this story may lie behind the centuries-old Abbots Bromley horn dance, still performed with an ancient set of reindeer antlers. Originally done at the turning of the year, it could reflect an ancient rite celebrating the return of the sun.13
The Hungarian doe led her people to a new world with the sun on her horns, the Elk Goddess forced her hero to chase the sun nightly and the shining Ceryneian Hind (rumoured to come from a land where the sun shone all day) led the hero Hercules on a year-long chase.14 The white harts and hinds of medieval lore led hunters into adventurous quests, or, carrying radiant crucifixes instead of the sun between their horns, lured sinners to unexpected forest conversions.15 Farther afield, among the Huichol of Mexico, the Sacred Deer turned the hunt into a pilgrimage, his antlers “holding open the portal” for his followers as they made the dangerous passage to the holy land of the peyote16 or to a sacred mountain to re-enact the birth of the sun.17
Sacrifice and Transcendence
Antlered creatures have led us to new lands, offered us the sun, new life, and spiritual salvation. But they’ve also led the Wild Hunt, a legendary gathering of the dead. At the darkest time of the year, the lost souls of the Hunt rode above the ground on spectral steeds. Placated, they might offer riches or boons, but they were more likely to scoop up unsuspecting souls and force them to join their
harrowing, endless ride.18 A dark echo of the hunt of the sun-bearing stag, the Wild Hunt offered death and darkness rather than light and life. Yet the imagery of flight has prompted some to see the Wild Hunt as a memory of shamanic trances and spirit flight in Norse and Siberian religion.19
The link to spirit flight is suggestive, because one of the destinations of such flight in Siberian herding culture was the sun — and it was achieved on the back of a reindeer. To the symbol system of antlers and the sun we must now add flight: for reindeers have always flown. The Eurasian reindeer stones show the animals with forelegs outstretched, bodies elongated, and huge swept-back antlers, flying to the sun discs above them. Scythian and Siberian images of the same period show reindeer with incised wings and solar circles or sunbeams.20 The same flying reindeer were tattooed on Bronze Age mummies buried near the Altai mountains. The branching of their antlers resembles feathers, and on some tattoos the antler tips end in birds’ heads.21
Thousands of years later, a Siberian summer solstice ritual offered each tribe member a chance to fly to the sun on the back of a reindeer. Sitting on a consecrated reindeer before a designated “gateway to the sky,” the tribe member would enter a trance in which he felt the reindeer become winged and fly. Transported “to a land of plenty near the sun,” he received “blessing, salvation, renewal” before landing back in the mundane world to feast the longest day of the year.22
Shamans could make this trip without the need of an actual reindeer. Instead, they “turn[ed] into a... reindeer” and flew to the sun on their own, dressed in antlers and a feathered cloak, beating a reindeer skin drum. In a sense, their power was a result of an experience analogous to joining the Wild Hunt — they had previously re-enacted and identified with the death of a reindeer whose spirit lived on in them.23 Having followed him into death, they were able to fly into new worlds. Similarly, the Huichol Sacred Deer led his people to the site of his own death, where his body had first become the peyote. Re-enacting that death by shooting the plant with arrows, pilgrims could then take advantage of his sacrifice and ride the drug-that-was-the-deer to a new life.24
Civilizations developed other ways to get to the sun. In the meditative archery of ancient Turkey and India, arrows were aimed at shining discs, with the imagery of piercing the sun to reach an unnameable beyond.25 In late Roman times, the sun-god’s chariot bore emperors aloft to the sun, the natural destination of the soul freed from the wheel of fate.26 But the tradition of following the stag who bears the sun has an even longer history and reflects our inescapable rootedness in the natural world. To be more, to reach higher, we must unite ourselves all the more deeply with the forces of earth and the wild, forces which are always branching outward, rising upward, like a crown of antlers. It is they that sweep us from one world, one state of consciousness, to the next. That is why, for much of human history, the journey of transcendence was not governed by human will or won by human hand, but instigated and led by the antlered ones, those most ancient messengers from the more-than-human world.
1Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 6.
2“Hungarian Prehistory” in Wikipedia, at http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_prehistory, cited July 14, 2011.
3Vitebsky, Reindeer People, p. 24.
4Fred Hmori, “The Legend of the Wonderous Hind” at www.whitestag.org/program_spirit/ legend/ethnic_stories_of_the_white_stag.html , cited July 14, 2011.
5Adam Makkai, ed., In Quest of the Miracle Stag: An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1996, pp. 21-23.
6Anatoli I. Martynov, “The Solar Cult and the Tree of Life,” Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1985, pp. 13, 21-23.
7Vitebsky, Reindeer People, pp. 6-7.
8Miranda Green, The Sun Gods of Ancient Europe, B. T. Batsford Ltd., 1991, pp. 54-55, 125.
9Green, Sun Gods, p. 125.
10Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell, 1991, pp. 164-5.
11Ari Beck, “Where the White Stag Runs: Boundary and Transformation in Deer Myth, Legend and Song,” Realms of Fantasy, No. 53, June 2003.
12Esther Jacobson, The Deer Goddess of Ancient
Siberia, E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1993, pp. 194-5.
13Hutton, Pagan Religions, p. 329.
14“Ceryneian Hind,” in Wikipedia, at http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceryneian_Hind, cited July 18, 2011.
15Suzetta Tucker, “Saintly Encounters with Deer,” at “Christ Story Bestiary,” at http://ww2.netnitco. net/~legend01/stag.htm, cited July 14, 2011.
16 Carolyn E. Boyd, “Shamanic Journeys into the Otherworld of the Ancient Chichimec,” Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 7, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 158-9.
17 Brant Secunda, “Dreamers of the Sun: Huichol Shamanism,” at http://blog. danceofthedeer.com/2010/04/dreamers-of-thesun-huichol-shamanism, cited on July 14, 2011.
18 Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson, “The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host,” Lecture to the Cambridge Folklore Society, 1992, cited at www. theapricity.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-10148. html on July 14, 2011.
19 Liam Rogers, “The Wild Hunt,” at White Dragon, http://whitedragon.org.uk/articles/hunt. htm cited on July 14, 2011.
20Martynov, “The Solar Cult,” pp. 13, 21.
21 Vitebsky, Reindeer People, p. 9.
22Ibid., pp. 11-12.
23Ibid., pp. 12-13.
24Peter T. Furst, “Huichol Religion,” Encyclopedia of Religion, Ed. Lindsay Jones, Vol. 6, 2nd ed., Macmillan Reference USA, Detroit, 2005, p. 4152.
25Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, “The Symbolism of Archery,” Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 5, No. 2., Spring, 1971, pp. 1-2.
26Jean Rhys Bram, “The Sun,” Encyclopedia of Religion, E. Lindsay Jones, Vol. 13 ,2nd ed., Macmillan, 2005, p. 8840.
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