Deer Cult of Ancient Caledonia
Some notes from a 1930 article I recently stumbled across that discusses some Scottish folklore surrounding deer and their connections to supernatural beings.
The author talked about evidence for deer cults or deer-goddess cults in the Highlands of Scotland that he had gathered from a number of scattered and unrelated sources that recounted various “tales, traditions and customs.”
He cited a number of tales (often regional) that he had run across which included female characters associated with deer. They seemed to own, herd and even milk the deer of their region and he concludes that they may be a vestige of what he calls a “former deer-cult, or deer-goddess cult” that predated Celtic Scotland during a more matriarchal period of history.
He also claims that “modern” Scottish and Irish Gaelic dictionaries both give the word Fiadh as having two meanings “deer” and “god.” He admits this may simply be due to the coalescence of two similar words (Fiad and Fiadu) and the evolution of language. But he points out that the deer does appear to be a god or at least a divine messenger in a wide range of tales.
Deer also play a prominent role in parts of fairy lore. They were looked on in the Highlands not only as fairy cattle but as a common form into which female fairies could transform themselves.
One his Scottish Gaelic speaking sources informed him that deer are supernatural animals in Scots Gaelic mythology and that only supernatural women had the ability to transform into deer (but not witches).
He also says that deer-goddesses “are not spoken of as such” but are commonly described a type of bean-sidhe, or fairy. These, again, seem to be very regional beings often referred to as the “Cailleach” of this or that ben, river, or district. (Cailleach meaning “old woman spirit/witch -See also my article on the Cailleach) One of them sings about her “darling deer” and they seem to own them,driving/herding and milking them. Sometimes they disliked the hunters of deer, but the earlier stories may also reflect the balance of between the needs of the hunter and the animals’ guardian spirit. One of the stories tell of a “cailleach” who made her herd proof against hunters’ weapons. But a hunter who spied on her milking the herd saw her strike one of the animals that was not behaving and thus removed her protective charm from that deer so that it could be caught. Another of the “deer-goddesses” was usually considered a bad omen when observed, but gifted a particularly bold hunter with a charm to grant him success. in the chase.
All of these guardians spirits of the deer appear to be wild spirits and seldom interact with humans except for the hunters. They also are never portrayed with traditional domestic tools of womanhood such as a distaff, or broom. The author interprets these both as evidence of the antiquity of these tales.
There also seem to be tales of what he terms “deer-priestesses which are separate from, but sometimes confused (or fused) together with the “deer-goddesses” above. He defines them as a Highland “glaistig” – mortal woman who has been given fairy nature or power. In these tales, the hunters would seek the blessing of this glaistig/deer-priestess prior to setting out on the hunt, and would thank her with a share of the meat upon their successful return. Of course human nature -and story telling- being what it is, some of the tales involved hunters who failed to give the priestess her share, or witches who demanded too large a share and the resulting conflicts.
Of course like the stories of the seal people or selkies, there are also tales of hunter stalking a deer which repeatedly transforms into a
woman before he can shoot it. Of course the author related these tales of shape-shifting possibly connected to the idea of priestesses wearing deer hides and antlers for ceremonial purposes. (He even suggests the famous cave drawing from Grott des Trois-Freres as possibly female. (But I suspect he ignored the details under the tail…)
I think his list of conclusions at the end based on the evidence he presents stretch things a little far:
“That long ago, a state of society existed in the Highlands, when –
- Woman was supreme.
- All women were (seen as) supernatural and magical
- All ghosts whether of male or female creatures were feminine.
- Fairyland or the Other-world was tenanted or inhabited exclusively by women
- Men were in the hunting stage of development and feared women, their spiritual mothers all of whom were capable of guiding the destinies of men magically…
- The deer was a god
- The ghosts of deer became fairy or supernatural women and
- The deer were the cattle of the fairies or of supernatural beings.
I can go with the last three, but the others seem a bit over-generalized, or exaggerated. One of the things the author also may not have been aware of is a modern bit from anthropology. A number of societies with animistic religions (which he described without using that term) around the world have had animal totems. These totems can be clan/tribe symbols, mascots, or even spirit guides for the clan or individual members of the tribe. So it’s possible that some of the traditions he describes may be also related to similar totem traditions.
The original article was “The Deer Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians” and can be found through JSTOR digital library which can be accessed free with your library card through many public library websites.