I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, but underneath their gentleness they hold wisdom and strength. Their timidness lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. The elusive deer, somewhere in the woods, quiet and unseen. Maybe watching you. No harm in that. Just watching, and then slipping away.
Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. These stories form a link between their world and ours, and affect how we interact with these animals.
Deer are abundant in Scotland. Many Scottish legends associate them with the fae, and they are often called ‘faerie cattle.’ It is said that some faeries can transform themselves into deer, in particular the glaistig (ghostly woman from Scottish folklore). Sometimes she appears as half-woman, half-fawn or goat, and is seen milking wild deer in the Highlands.
Also connected with Scotland is the story of Ossian (this story is also connected with Ireland, where the main character is called Oisín). The name Ossian/Oisín means ‘little deer,’ and legend tells that Oisín’s mother, Sadb, was under a spell which transformed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of Finn, Oisín’s father, could she become human. After giving birth to Oisín, she leaves him with his father and returns to her deer form.
Deer are also abundant in Japan, particularly in the city of Nara which is famous for them. Japan is home to a species of deer called ‘sika’ or ‘spotted deer.’ For many centuries, the deer in Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. This is because according to legend, the god Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara and he rode a white deer.
The sacredness of the Nara deer became so great that until the 1600s, to harm one was an offence punishable by death. Today, they are considered to be national treasures and are well protected. Thousands of tourists visit them every year, and in the park you can buy ‘shika senbei’ (deer crackers) to feed them. Apparently if you bow to them they will bow in return before accepting the food (but in practice I just got ganged up on by a group of hyper, hungry deer… so unfortunately I can’t vouch for their manners!)
Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto is one of four gods who is worshipped at Kasuga Shrine in Nara Park, which is deep in deer country. At Kasuga Shrine you can purchase white deer figurines with o-mikuji (fortunes) in their mouths. Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to the belief that deer are messengers of the gods. They are literally holding messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.
One of the most interesting interpretations of deer is in the fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister.’ In this story, a brother and sister run away into the forest and the boy drinks from an enchanted stream. The water turns him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated, even in death when her spirit returns to check on him and ultimately break the spell. As SurLaLune notes in their annotations, ‘the sister is the adult figure’ and has to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility.
SurLaLune also references Bruno Bettelheim’s theory of how the human sister and the deer brother can be viewed as sides of personality. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim writes that ‘they represent the animal and spiritual sides of our personality, which become separated [in the story] but must be integrated for human happiness.’ Bettelheim doesn’t state which way round he intends the roles to be, leaving them open to interpretation. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild, physical, and carefree, whereas the human sister is the seeing and thinking spirit. But these roles could also easily be reversed: The deer can be seen as spiritual for being innocent and close to nature, and the sister animalistic for choosing to live alone in the forest instead of seeking a way out to civilisation.
The brother and sister remain together throughout the story – even outfacing death. It’s almost like they are two parts of one person, and either cannot be complete when alone or cannot co-exist as a whole. I also find it interesting that it is the brother who was transformed. In similar fairy tales where children are abandoned in the forest (like ‘Hansel and Gretal‘), the brother is the one who takes care of the sister. But this time, the sister is left to fend for herself – and does a good job of things, too. Also, deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are heralded almost like royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother being a deer comes with a certain amount of status, and also conveys the idea that he remains protective over his sister despite being in animal form. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. She becomes a princess, whilst he never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. It’s as if the witch’s spell was intended for more than to merely change him into a deer, but rather to freeze him in time and take away his progression into adulthood.
Deer clearly have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. When I fed the deer in Nara, it was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal. They were gentle and sweet, but simultaneously wary. Unlike domesticated animals, they kept their distance (except when I was holding the crackers!) When I approached them, they let me run my fingers over their backs and their ears, but they remained still and poised; ready to flee at any moment as much as they were willing to accept my affection. That magical, tenuous moment when they chose to stay and I was able to interact with them reminded me that, for all our stories about animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.
- John Gregorson Campbell, The Gaelic Otherworld, ed. by Ronald Black (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2008). First published as Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Tales and Traditions Collected Entirely from Oral Sources (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1902)
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
- ‘Fairy Women & Their Deer‘ on The Faery Folklorist
- Jo Woolf, ‘Ossian’s Cave in Glen Coe‘ on The Hazel Tree
- Messengers of the Gods – Deer of Nara
- Heidi Anne Heiner, ‘Annotations for Brother & Sister‘ on SurLaLune
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