Oh the rising of the sun and the running of the deer,
The days are short, the night is long, the turning of the year.
–The Holly and The Ivy (alternate version)
A number of years ago, I visited friends in Perthshire, Scotland. My first morning there, I woke very early, as often happens after intercontinental travel. I walked out into the garden just as the sun was rising and came upon a large stag who seemed just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. We looked at one another for a long moment, and then he turned, jumped effortlessly over a stone wall and bounded off into the rose gold light. It was a magical image that has stayed with me ever since.
“The Holly and The Ivy” is an old song, written when the running of the deer (the hunt) was essential to survival, especially in winter. In many times and places, symbolic meanings have been attached to deer:
- in medieval times, the stag was a symbol for Christ, who tramples and destroys the Devil. The stag was believed to trample and destroy snakes, a symbol for Satan;
- deer antlers are the only mammalian appendages capable of repeated rounds of regeneration; every year they are shed and regrow. Perhaps this is the reason why the stag became a symbol of regeneration;
- the Insular Celts held deer as supernatural animals, “fairy cattle” that were herded and milked by a localised and benevolent fairy giantess (a bean sìdhe) in each district, who could shift shape to that of a red deer (Wikipedia, “Deer in mythology”);
- deer also play a magical role in the story of St. Patrick, who was said to have been transformed into a deer to save him from his enemies;
- the transformation of man into deer also appears in the Greek mythology, when Artemis transforms Actaeon into a stag after he sees her bathing nude in a pool. Actaeon, as stag, is torn to pieces by his own hounds.
While reverence for the deer may be planted deep in our ancestral memories, deer no longer hold the spiritual and life sustaining value that they used to have. With loss of habitat and destruction of their natural predators, deer have moved into the hearts of our cities, where they have become a nuisance and a danger. When deer are rampaging through our gardens on a daily basis, they don’t seem like magical creatures. We wish they would just go away. We talk about “the deer problem”. Our attitude towards these beautiful and graceful creatures has become conflicted: we are “of two minds”.
Next time: “Deer in the City”.