One of the animal rites mentioned in my previous post involved a group of Roe Deer that we saw from our window a few years ago. On the day after publishing the post, my partner came in looking very pleased, having just seen a pair of Roe Deer in the wood for the first time in eight months (though admittedly we saw a pair three months ago across the valley). Since then I’ve been ruminating about what those deer were up to in 2008, and what they signified for us.
I’ll begin by retelling the brief story. We looked out of our window and in the stillness of that early wintry morning saw a group of five Roe Deer standing in the field. There was some gentle head butting. Then one of the does started to race round a fallen conifer, at considerable speed. A buck was standing a bit higher up the slope of the hill, with his head raised, and muscles tensed. Each time the buck came round the tree, she hurtled past, close beneath him, almost brushing his jaw. We, of course, felt privileged to witness this intimate scene. The Doe’s circling of a Tree of Life, felt like a ‘showing’ for the Winter Solstice, which was less than forty eight hours away.
Some months later we stopped seeing them in the wood, and then heard that someone had found discarded deer parts in a field. ‘Our’ deer family had evidently been shot. Later, in October 2009, a woman friend who was staying with us, and had not heard this story, dreamed that a deer kid came out of a wood and sat on her lap. A Doe and Buck were watching from the edge of the wood, so she took the fawn over to them and walked away. Given what had happened, and having seen very young Roe Deer kids at close quarters a couple of times -they are incredibly beautiful!- the sharing of this dream meant a lot to me.
So to ruminate. Firstly, in terms of the natural history, since Roe Deer courtship normally occurs in July and August, I’ve been puzzled by the timing of what we saw that morning. Marc Baldwin, the naturalist I asked about this, was quite jealous. Apparently, only a handful of other people have witnessed what biologists call the false rut. This is a less intense version of what goes on in the summer, and usually occurs between late September and late October. Though it has been seen as late as January, Marc could only find one reference in the U.K literature to a record in December, and that was in 1985 in the New Forest. The false rut is thought to involve sexually precocious kids (immature females), and yearling bucks that reach their annual sexual zenith later than mature males, in whom spermatogenesis usually ceases by September. One theory is that it might be throwback to a time when Roe Deer used to rut in the autumn like other species of deer. I don’t get particularly excited by rarity per se, but was pleased to be able to contribute a useful record.
As I was mulling this over I came across a video of a talk about the symbolic significance of deer, well stags and their horns actually! Oxford historian Diane Purkiss spoke on ‘the Undomestic Witch; Scottish Witches, Fairies, and Old Religion’, to the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Her argument is that although most of those convicted – and horribly executed- as witches in Scotland, were caught up in low level neighbourhood aggravation, the testimony of a small but significant minority -the undomestic witches– includes consistent references to pre-Christian beliefs, apparently surviving alongside Catholicism. In particular, a figure known as Christ’s Sunday, a shape-shifter who took the form of a Stag, is described in one testimony as coming ‘out of the snow’. Diane Purkiss interprets this as rising up from the underearth, an image of fertility and potency in the winter landscape, and reminds us that Celtic stag deities were linked to the Sun. She regards the Stag as the ‘sponsor’ of these undomestic witches. (The other figure consistently mentioned is the Queen of Elfland).
Purkiss gives a vivid sense of the political ecology of the Royal forests. This was a period when wild land, the haunt of vagrants, outcasts, and other marginal figures, was subject to enclosure and improvement and Deer poaching was a common form of rebellion. There is a strong sense, then, in which spiritual beliefs are shaped, often for political purposes, within a particular cultural context. For example, the story is told of the twelfth century Scottish King, David the First, that he encountered and chased a magical white Stag. The animal turned and frightened his horse, causing him to fall off. He was about to be gored by the Stag, but when he reached out towards its antlers they changed into the Cross of Christ, and the Stag trotted away. Similarly, in the poem, the Dream of Rood, the story of the crucifixion is told from the point of view of a talking tree that becomes the Cross, or rood. This is thought to have been a way of telling the Christian story in an animistic idiom that would be familiar to an Anglo-Saxon audience.
Ronald Hutton gave a talk on the Horned God at an OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids) event, that also relates spiritual beliefs to their historical and political context. Hutton notes that cultural references to Pan began to appear around the year 1800, co-inciding with the advent of the industrial revolution. Not surprisingly, wild nature was being venerated for the first time, and various romantic poets worshiped Pan as a kind of Green Jesus figure. Some Christians came to regard the Goat god as a significant threat, and duly produced an image of Satan with goat’s horns in response.
Pan is also evoked in literature as a god of sexuality, of course. Hutton ponders his twentieth century disappearance, and re-emergence as an ‘archetype’, a common image with many names, and acknowledges that the Horned God as a ‘male force of nature’ remains a problematic figure. Writers such as Starhawk, and John Rowan have nevertheless portrayed him as a post-patriarchal consort of the Goddess. The former wrote that ‘He is: ‘gentle, tender, and comforting, but He is also the hunter. He is the Dying God -but his death is always in the service of the life force. He is untamed sexuality -but sexuality as a deep, holy, connecting power’. Like many ‘new’ animists, I’m not particularly deity oriented, and my exposure to postmodern thought makes me wary of universal/unitary God or Goddess figures. I’m more comfortable with Celtic depictions of shape-shifting Deer, Stags that communicate with humans, mediate between humans and gods, or transform into a hybrid Stag/human-diety (Cernunnos). Such figures feel more accessible, more amenable to dialogue.
As a double Capricorn, I should perhaps declare an interest in Goats! One of the advantages of this birthright is that I’m a natural record keeper. I just like doing it. So, to return to those five Roe Deer in the field beside our house. At the time we were not that interested in pursuing historical ideas about symbolism, let alone deities. We were content to stay in the moment. Looking back at my diary however, I see that their appearance, at what for us has always been the most important seasonal festival, came at the end of a year when we had put a lot of effort into protecting their wood, and had been reasonably successful in mitigating the considerable damage that might have been done by a development proposal – that has also closed off access to a beautiful and once peaceful place, for us. If they had wanted to say ‘thank you’, there could hardly have been a better way of doing it, especially given that Stags were once regarded as companions of the Sun god.
The Winter Solstice is, of course, a time of death and rebirth. Although I didn’t make the connection at the time, several days after the appearance of the deer, I heard that a close friend’s father had died on the day we saw them. He had been very good to me when I was a young man, so this was a death that touched me. I don’t want to force a connection, but on that cold silent morning, those deer, engrossed in their dance of renewal, did seem slightly magical, otherworldly.
Richard Prior, The Roe Deer, Conservation of a Native Species, Swan Hill Press, 1995.
Ronald Hutton, The History of the Pagan Horned God, OBOD Druidcast No 4, August 2007.
Starhawk, The Spiral Dance, A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, Harper and Row, 1979.
John Rowan, the Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Routledge, 1992.