Deer Folklore: Faerie Cattle, Sacred Sika, and Our Wild Sides

I feel a close affinity with deer. They are small and timid, but also wise and hardy. They seem to represent the epitome of the gentle, sweet woodland animal, and their timidness lends them an almost mythical reputation in some places. Deer legends are found all over the world, and they have a lot to say about how we interact with wildlife.

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.

Deer in Scotland
Deer in Scotland. Image from BBC.

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.

Sadb Oisín's mother
In Irish mythology, Sadb was transformed into a deer as punishment for refusing Fer Doirich’s love. Image from Pinterest. Artist unknown.

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.

Nara Kasuga mandala
Medieval Kasuga mandala: Paintings depicting the gods with sacred white deer from Kasuga Shrine. Images from here.

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!)

Nara Park deer
Sika deer in Nara Park, Japan. Images my own.

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.

Kasuga Shrine
Torii gate at the entrance of the path leading to Kasuga Shrine, and my deer o-mikuji. Thankfully it was a good one!

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 to be separated from her deer. As is the way with fairy tales, no details are given about the hardships she faces whilst living alone in the forest and taking care of a wild animal. As SurLaLune notes in their annotations, ‘the sister is the adult figure’ and has to arrange food and shelter for them, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility.

Little Brother and Little Sister
Little Brother and Little Sister. Image from Pinterest. Artist unknown.

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, when the sister’s ghost returns to ask how her deer is. So 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. Like Sadb, who is cursed with both the human and animal parts in one body. Ultimately she has to make a choice which one she will remain as.

Little Brother and Little Sister Norbert Enker
Little Brother and Little Sister, from the Germany’s Fairy Tale Forests exhibition by Norbert Enker. Image from Photography Now.

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. Think Bambi, and also how they rut to win the affection of does and become the dominant males. 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.

Nara Park deer
Me feeding a sika deer in Nara Park

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. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh and blood and feelings – not just characters from folk tales.

Of course there is way too much deer folklore in the world to fit into one single blog post, so please share your favourite deer stories which I haven’t mentioned in the comments!

Shika kanji

Sources

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Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in Creative Writing, and is Senior Editor for Folklore Thursday. She loves travelling and collecting stories, and spent 15 months living in Japan doing this alongside teaching English. Amelia blogs about folklore and fairy tales at The Willow Web. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize.

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