Tag Archives: folklore

The Antlered Doe

Sometime a year or so ago I came across this website when searching for Hungarian paganism and one of their pages is about a magical stag that’s been incorporated into Hungarian mythology.

A Scythian stag the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dated from the 7th century B.C. from the Northern Caucasus. Image obtained from http://www.azerbaijanrugs.com/.

The stag artifacts and idea, for some reason, sparked an interest in me and I’ve been trying to dig up information on it since then. I could not tell back then if the website linked above was accurate or not, since the story of the “wondrous stag” is a children’s book on amazon.com. However, the site is correct on the prominence of the stag imagery in Scythian and neighboring cultures. There’s a whole book on this that is unfortunately out of print: The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief by Esther Jacobson (another dissertation book, aren’t they great?).

But fear not, for I have found one in a nearby library! Now I know the title says “Siberia”, but the book goes into more Western ranges of the Scythians and the cultures they interacted with. Indeed, archaeological remains of Scythian culture, including the deer imagery, have been found in Central Europe a well. This is probably why they are considered to be relevant peoples in contemporary Hungarian culture, which explains the website.

The famous Scythian Stag artifact found in modern-day Hungary, often used to support the idea that Scythians contributed to Hungarian mythology and culture. Obtained from http://users.cwnet.com/millenia/

Much of the book focuses on the Siberian peoples, with some Scythian-specific examples inserted here and there in a comparative analysis. Strikingly, there is a commonality in the image of the deer, often antlered and female, being associated with the duality of life and death with both human and other animal figures. Humans, wolves, and big cats are often depicted as the hunters of an antlered doe, presumably to coincide with that “life-death” duality. Sometimes the symbols go so far as to all be combined into one figure. A stag base, but with paws in place of hoofs, a long cat tail, a beak instead of a muzzle, and antlers becoming birds; these variations have all been seen in Scytho-Siberian artifacts.

Perhaps as a result, or because of, these associations, the doe is also connected to the “Tree of Life” concept found in many cultures throughout Eurasia (including Central European ones). On a simple level it is not hard to imagine the branching antlers as a deciduous tree, and some items depicting a stag-like figure also include leaves or birds in the antlers, as if they were trees. But on a deeper level this also gives suggestions to the role of the doe in human life and death situations. She’s a creator, and a reaper, guiding the souls throughout the major life stages. She is a guide to the various levels of the tree for the shamans (I’m referring to the specific religious/cultural role found in some Siberian cultures, also spelled saman in English). This has also been attested in Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia, that a shaman may ride a reindeer to the different realms (also a common folktale motif in Eurasia).

One of the famous Deer Stones of Mongolia, with stylized depictions of deer as if in flight. Photo by Karin Sofie, obtained from http://www.flickr.com/photos/karneipix/2876920191/

Deer in general are an ancient target for human hunters, and the Antlered Doe is aware of that. Sometimes she acts as an Animal Mother, with hunters and shamans appealing to her for available game. Sometimes the men even have to sleep with her in order for anything useful to happen (who says folklore is for children?). It’s less clear on female relationships with the Antlered Doe, most likely because female relationships get less screentime than male ones in history. But they’re there, with women giving offerings and participating in rituals in various ways. Given that women were generally the keepers of the hearth in many Eurasian cultures (including Siberians), and therefore the family, the fact that the Antlered Doe had clan totem associations means that women must have had something special to do with her.

A final major attribute of the Antlered Doe is her association with heavenly bodies, particularly the Sun. This is the one seen in Hungarian as an old Christmas carol, where the Doe is the mother or the keeper of the Sun, holding it in her antlers. A form of the Hungarian “tree of life” is a tree growing out of a horse or deer skull, as I mentioned in a previous post. The Sun and Moon are nestled among the antler-like branches. This connection to the Sun, primarily, and the Moon is common in Siberian stories as well. Clearly a being of great importance.

In addition to the Scythian and Siberian deer imagery there are also folktales speaking of a white, golden-horned deer, chamois or ram in the Austrian and Slovenian Alps, my “ancestral home range”. Now I do not have research available to see if there is a deep connection to the Siberian antlered doe, but the folklore have similar roles/powers and storylines as the antlered doe tends to have. These golden-horned caprids are representational beings of the forest and mountains, with supernatural powers, and they often lead the hunters on an unforgettable chase that changes their lives forever. We can also see deer in general being special representatives or symbols of wild places in all sorts of folktales, including Celtic. There they are the steeds of fairies and “magical” folk, like the dwarves in Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. There is even a deer Goddess (name varies) in the UK that is often depicted with antlers, thought to have originated from Northern European tribes (maybe Celtic). Similar to Siberian associations, this deer goddess is connected to the reindeer, as that is a species where females also have prominent antlers. Occasionally females of other deer species develop antlers as well, though not on a regular basis. So the Antlered Doe concept is not pure fantasy.

Given that we see this magical deer motif as a character in movies like Princess Mononoke and the recent Snow White and the Huntsman, and in games like Pokemon: Black and White (the deer Pokemon Sawsbuck), this type of figure still retains importance, albeit symbolically as a spirit of the forests. White animals in particular are still regarded as special, and often protected by laws and by the locals even in supposedly secular countries like the USA. If nothing else, these sacred beings are a reminder of what we have to lose should ecosystems continue to be broken by human development. As an ecologist and a pagan I am inspired by the Antlered Doe in my work to understand the wilds and help protect them. Her prominence in modern media shows that many others feel similarly, and that gives me hope.

Modern depiction of an Antlered Doe as a White-tailed Deer, by Ravenari. Obtained from http://ravenari.deviantart.com/

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References

Monaghan, Patricia. (2004). Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Available Online: http://www.e-reading.org.ua/bookreader.php/142073/Encyclopedia_of_Celtic_mythology_and_folklore.pdf

Vitebsky, Piers. (2005). The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. Mariner Books.

Hamori, Fred. The Legend of the Stag. Retrieved from: http://users.cwnet.com/millenia/stagg.htm

Jacobson, Esther. The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief. Google Book Excerpt: http://books.google.com/books?id=vnlRu7CW95gC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Book Review: The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and The Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux

I’ve been thinking of adding book reviews to this blog for a while, as there’s a lot of reading involved in this search. The following review is pretty much just my opinion, as I do not have any degrees or similar pieces of paper to suggest that I’m an expert reviewer.

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The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux (ISBN 1-59477-318-1)

The title of the book is a bit misleading. This is not a book that focuses on the “pagan” mind, but instead is almost exclusively focused on Germanic literature, traditions and folklore from the Viking era to the Middle Ages. Geographically, that means modern-day Scandinavia, Iceland, UK, and Northern-Middle Germany. Scattered throughout the book are bits and pieces of other locations and cultures, such as Ireland, Hungary, Bavaria, and France as comparisons to Germanic traditions. Something different from the usually Greek (and to a lesser extent, Roman), and Egyptian focuses on pagan concepts of death and the dead.

There are 12 chapters organized into 4 parts. Part I sets you up with an introduction to the Germanic view of death by first looking at the (mostly Christian) concepts that still exist today, and going back in time to where the syncretism originated. Part II goes into detail on the dead themselves, and going over the different folkloric forms the dead have taken. While doing this, he analyzes what is modern and/or Christian, vs. what was typical to the heathens. That’s why Part II is divided into the “True Revenants” and “False Revenants” chapters for comparison.

Part III takes what was discussed in Part II and analyzes the placement of the dead in the world. The concept of an afterlife (or the lack thereof), hauntings, souls, and the spirits/gods that are associated with all that are discussed here. Near the end of Part III the author starts segwaying back to modern-day via noting the changes the dead take on over time. He goes through the decline of ancestor worship and changes in the importance that the dead take in the lives of the living via the change in attitudes shown in the lore.

For a book with 229 pages of content, it is packed with sources. Unfortunately, some of them only get a vague sentence of reference, and the quoted sections are only a paragraph or two at the most of whichever saga or legend he translated to show a point. This is not a book to get if you’re looking for the stories and traditions themselves, nor is it going to sit well with you if you expect every argument the author makes to be with solid support. Additionally, most of the sources in the bibliography are not in English, so it will be difficult for some to access them for further information.

That’s not to say he does a bad job of backing himself up however. It’s one of those books that has different chapters supporting each other and intertwining. The author also assumes you’ve read the preceding chapters, because he builds upon each one with the next. It’s a book best read in order rather than flipping around.

Now the quality of the book really depends on your reading level, scholarly background, and your interest for obtaining this book to begin with. I’m used to (and prefer) reading dry, dense, academic books, and I already had a basic understanding of the lore beforehand, so this was not a difficult book to read. For those that are only used to the metaphysical section of the bookstore, or for those that hated history class in high school, are going to have problems. I’m also able to see where he is coming from when he presents his interpretations without direct citation and he’s often spot-on (though obviously don’t take my word on it).

My gripes with the book are minor and come from being a heathen that uses historical sources for her information and inspiration. He speaks from the modern, Christian-influenced worldview, so he sometimes slips into that during interpretating and labeling. That mostly shows up in the afterlife and soul sections, and it’s subtle, so for most other readers this is not going to be noticeable. He’s not necessarily WRONG, I feel that he is just not clear enough in his definitions of the afterlife, other realms, souls and spirits. He uses those terms in reference to heathen concepts, when they are words heavily associated with Christian ideas, so some readers may be mislead.

For example, he regularly translates the “landvaetter” (or land wights in english) as tutelary spirits or genius loci, which suggests a non-corporeal, supernatural, otherworldly form. From a modern perspective, that’s not a problem, but from an ancient, heathen perspective, that doesn’t fit. A landvaetter could be the tree, the bird in the tree, or even a human buried on that land. A corporeal being that can be touched, seen, and heard, in other words. The “other worlds” are not some far off place in the sky or space, or located in another dimension, they are here on Earth. For the Miyazaki fans out there, “Princess Mononoke” illustrates that perfectly. The guardian of the forest is not a ghostly spirit, it’s a solid being that can live and die, that resides in a physical forest on the Earth.

Otherwise, I enjoyed reading this. The style of writing is conversational (and you can’t even tell that it was translated from French), so it’s accessible to those that aren’t academia-oriented, and it also keeps the text from feeling dry. There is also no religious agenda or orientations to the text, it’s purely focused on intellectual understanding. From a historical perspective, this book offers a good introduction to the culture of death and provides a means in understanding why the heathens behaved and believed the way they did. There is a lack of accessible books that allow the reader to get into the old worldview, and “The Return of the Dead” is helpful for that (despite my earlier complaints).

For those that are looking at this book from a Neopagan perspective (rather than a historical/cultural interest), this can be both rich in material to work with, and disappointing. The gods don’t really care about you unless you’re a king or hero, there’s no peaceful or magnificent heaven-like realm to go to, Nature is not considered a peaceful, pretty place, and there’s little reincarnation occurring. That is what the book reveals about the heathen minds of old. For those that aren’t bothered, the stories and interpretations can lend a unique perspective on the “dark half of the year” (as that’s when the dead are most active, especially around Yule) and the idea of ancestor worship.

Reconstructionists, especially seasoned ones, aren’t going to get anything new out of this though. Those that are testing the water in the recon pool, however, may find this book a good place to start. The ancestors and the dead were a big part of the European’s (and much of the world’s) old worldviews, and had remained so for quite some time after Christianization. Up to the 18th and 19th centuries even in some places.

4 zombies out of 5.

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Hungarian History videos

I found a possible new resource to use for information: youtube. These two videos below are wonderful to watch for those interested in Hungarian legends and tales (with the timeline referring to what’s generally understood about the history of the Magyars).

The narrator is speaking Hungarian, but you should be able to follow the animation well enough to get the idea. At the very least, the animation and music is beautiful, and I look forward to when the account puts up the 3rd video in the series.

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