Notes on the Symbolism of Deer
A sacred animal with the spirit of gentleness and softness, a messenger, a shaman; maize and femininity personified.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.
Within the extensive imagination of myths, legends and cosmogonies, there are animals that, for one reason or another, carry symbolic or archetypical characteristics: the lion, the eagle and the snake are some examples. In the same way, the deer is a symbol of many things, the personification of virtues and a character of legends and myths.
The deer’s antlers are one of the characteristics that have made it the figure of a spiritual superiority, according to some. Like a crown, the antlers grow beyond its body, bringing it closer to the sky and making it sacred. In many cultures, the deer is a symbol of spiritual authority. During a deer’s life the antlers fall off and grow again and the animal is also a symbol of regeneration.
In the Christian imagination, the deer is a symbol of piety, devotion and of God taking care of his children: men. The legend of Saint Eustace, for example, tells the story of the Roman general who, before becoming a saint, was out hunting and came across a magnificent and enormous deer. When Eustace looked at the animal’s eyes, the light of Christ shone out of them and the voice of God spoke to him through them. Placido, the Roman name for the saint, gave up hunting and became a Christian.
In Celtic tradition there were two aspects of the deer: the feminine element, called Eilid in Gaelic, the female red deer, symbolizing femininity, gentles and grace. It was believed that the deer called to men from the kingdom of the fairies to free them from the trappings of the earthly world and taking them to the world of magic. Deer often turned into women in such legends in order to avoid being hunted. On the other hand, there was also Damh, the masculine element, which was also related to the sacred and to forests, independence, purification and pride. The stag is the king of the forest, the protector o all other creatures.
For the native tribes of North America, the deer was a messenger, an animal of power, and a totem representing sensitivity, intuition and gentleness. Some groups would entrust the hunt to the deer, which was also associated with fertility. There is a Cherokee legend that tells how the deer procured its antlers after winning a race against a rabbit. The animals of the forest wanted to know which of the two was the fastest, but the rabbit cheated before the race and the deer won its antlers.
In Buddhism, the deer symbolizes harmony, happiness, peace and longevity. When a male and a female deer are represented together (often beside the Dharma wheel) it is a direct allusion to the first teachings of Buddha near Varanasi. In one of this former lives, Buddha was a golden deer that spoke to men. According to that tradition, deers are by nature timid and serene animals and their presence in a place represents the purity of a kingdom bereft of fear. There are also Tibetan legends in which deer help men to solve problems.
For the wixaritarie people who inhabit central Mexico and are more commonly known as huicholes, the deer is an animal that translates the language of the gods for men. For the huicholes, the deer is the first shaman or mara’kame that later becomes an interlocutor between the shamans and other gods. The deer is closely linked to two plants: its heart is a peyote – the animal and the plant are one in essence – and corn, which is a deer and is represented by its antlers. In this tradition there is an infinity of deer and the most important are the original five, which are located at the five cardinal points (the blue, red, white, black and yellow deer). The reproductive cycle of the deer is connected to the huicholes’ ritual calendar.
The deer, which is related in many traditions with kindness, softness and gentleness, is, in one way or another, an animal that is connected to the gods and the sacred. One of the reasons for this could be its physical characteristics – its stare, its agility, its speed and its antlers— which inspire those values and symbols in the imagination of humans and in its metaphorical nature.
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