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

I feel a close affinity with deer. They can be timid creatures, and this 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. Yet underneath that timidness they hold wisdom, and strength. They know their terrain, and when danger is near, and how to protect themselves.

Deer feature in the folklore of many countries. From my travels, I have come across them in Scotland and Japan. Their stories form a link between our world and the animal kingdom, and affect how we interact with these genteel creatures.

Deer in Scotland

Many Scottish legends associate deer with faeries. For one thing, deer already possess fae-like qualities. Their bodies are lean and their movements graceful, and they prefer to be hidden from human eyes. Yet they tolerate the presence of faeries. In the Highlands, red deer are said to be the faeries’ cattle, providing them with milk. In turn, the faeries protect them by targeting hunters with enchanted arrows. To be hit with a faerie arrow is fateful indeed. You’ll likely get a nasty dose of elf-shot, which can be cured by a healer if you’re lucky. If you’re less lucky, you’ll fall down and appear dead to humanity, but your soul will be carried away to Elfhame, the world of the fae.

If a hunter succeeded in killing a deer, the faeries would torment them. There is a story from the Isle of Mull, about a deer hunter called Big Hugh. After killing a deer at Torness, he was carrying it home with his friend who asked him if the deer was heavy. Big Hugh said that it was, and so his friend stuck a penknife in the deer and then asked again. Big Hugh said it felt so much lighter, he could hardly tell that he was carrying it. The extra weight had been put upon him by the faeries, and the penknife counteracted their magic.

Glencoe deer
Deer in Glencoe, Scotland. Image from Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Some faerie women also transform themselves into deer, and often encounter hunters whilst in this form. A well-known story from Irish and Scottish mythology tells of Oisín, a great bard of the legendary warriors, the Fianna. His father was Fionn Mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, and his mother was Sadhbh, a woman under a spell which changed her into a deer. Only when in the presence of the Fianna could she regain her human shape. Whilst on a hunting trip, Fionn found Sadhbh and they fell in love. Soon she became pregnant, but their happiness wasn’t to last. The magician who had enchanted Sadhbh returned and tricked her into leaving Fionn. Once more a deer, she ran away and gave birth to her baby boy in the forest. He was found many years later by his father, and named Oisín which means ‘little deer.’

In Scottish folklore, there is a slightly different version of events. Oisín’s mother was a woman called Grainnhe. After being tricked away from Fionn, she was transformed into a white hind and kept under the magician’s power. When Fionn found Oisín, he had a patch of deer’s hair on his forehead. After Grainnhe’s death, her body was released by the magician. The Fianna buried her on the Isle of Skye.

Deer in Japan

In the city of Nara, the old capital of Japan, deer roam free. These are sika or spotted deer, which are native to East Asia and have white spots on their backs. At the end of a lantern-lit path, where Nara Park begins to disintegrate into the Kasuga Primeval Forest, stands Kasuga-Taisha. This Shinto shrine is a sacred place for deer, with a deer statue adorning its temizuya (purifying water fountain) and a variety of deer omamori (charms) for sale. There are four deities enshrined here, one being Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the god of thunder from Kashima in Ibaraki Prefecture. According to Japanese mythology, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto came to visit Nara riding upon a white deer. Since then, the deer of Nara were believed to be messengers of the gods. At Kasuga-Taisha you can also purchase white deer figurines with omikuji (fortunes). Apart from being adorable, these also hark back to this belief. They are literally holding divine messages about your future in their little porcelain mouths. Choose wisely.

Kasuga Shrine deer painting
Silk painting of a Nara deer at Kasuga Shrine. Image in the public domain – source

The reputation of Nara deer became so prolific that until the 1600s, harming one was an offence punishable by death. Today they are considered national treasures, and as such are well protected. They are also well fed, since thousands of tourists visit Nara to give them shika senbei (deer crackers). The protocol for feeding a Nara deer is first to bow, and then wait for the deer to bow in return before relinquishing the cracker. However, in practice, I just got ganged up on by a group of excited, hungry deer… so unfortunately I cannot vouch for their manners!

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

Meeting the Nara deer was a profound experience. It was the closest I had ever been to a wild animal, and they were gentle and sweet, but unlike domesticated animals you could simultaneously see their wariness. Their delay before approaching, and how they remained still and poised, as ready to flee at any moment as they were willing to accept my affection. I wanted to reassure them; to make them feel safe. But without their wildness, they wouldn’t be the same. And not all humans bare good intentions, so what good would I be doing if I taught them to trust and then the next people they encountered were less compassionate?

I have made many trips to Nara. My friends and colleagues in Japan jestingly nicknamed me ‘shika-onna‘ (deer lady) because I love them so much. One trip which sticks in my mind is New Year’s Eve 2016. It was around 11pm, and dark. I was alone, just behind Todaiji Temple, and I saw a torii gate leading into darkness. Everywhere else was lantern lit, except for this path. I took it. I crept up a hill gnarled with tree roots and deer tracks. I could hear them, rustling in the trees on either side of me. When I reached the top, there was a small clearing with a closed shrine (I later learned its name is Tamukeyama-Hachimangu). It was only me, with the trees, the stars, and the hidden deer. In that moment, I felt at home with them. Away from the other humans, out in the forest. I wasn’t afraid. The deer were not afraid. I trusted them.

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!) Images my own

Deer in Fairy Tales

In the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘Little Brother and Little Sister,’ two siblings run away into the forest. The brother drinks from an enchanted stream, and the water transforms him into a deer. His sister cares for him and refuses for them to be separated. Even in death, her spirit returns to check his wellbeing and ultimately break the spell. It’s almost as though they are two parts of one being, which simultaneously cannot be complete alone and cannot co-exist as a whole. In his book The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno 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 readers to make their own decision. The deer can represent the ‘animal’ part of us; the part which is wild 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 his innocence and closeness to nature, and the sister animalistic for her contentment with living alone in the forest away from other human company.

Arthur Rackham Little Brother and Little Sister
Little Brother and Little Sister by Arthur Rackham. Image in the public domain – source

Deer are often described as guardians of forests, especially stags who are akin to royalty in the woodland animal hierarchy. The brother becoming a deer comes with a certain amount of status. However, whilst the sister grows into a woman, he remains a fawn. As noted by Heidi Anne Heiner in SurLaLune’s annotations for the story, ‘the sister is the adult figure,’ having to arrange food and shelter and make decisions for them both, whilst as a deer the brother is free from responsibility. Eventually the sister becomes a princess, whilst the brother never gets to rut and have the chance to rule the forest. The spell does more than merely change his physical form. It freezes him in time, taking away his progression into adulthood. This story reminds us of the connection to our animal and spiritual sides, and also the need for learning and new experiences to move forward in life.

Deer have much impact on how we view natural spaces, and the stories which come out of them. Whether they truly are messengers of the gods or not, deer are creatures with flesh, blood, and feelings – not just characters from folk tales. That magical, tenuous moment in Nara when they chose to stay beside me reminded me that, for all our stories about wild animals, the only way to understand them is to see them.

Nara Park deer
Me feeding a sika deer in Nara Park. Image my own.

Sources

  • 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)
  • George W. Macpherson, The Old Grey Magician: A Scottish Fionn Cycle (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2018)
  • 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
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’ available online here
  • Heidi Anne Heiner, ‘Annotations for Brother & Sister‘ on SurLaLune

 

The Underlying Sexual Content of Sleeping Beauty

Beneath their plots, most fairy tales have hidden implications. Each event is symbolic of something, and can have many interpretations depending on the number of variations the story has.

Angela Carter referred to these hidden implications at ‘latent content.’ When she was writing her own collection of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, she specified that her intention ‘was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories and to use it as the beginnings of new stories.’

Carter was criticised for presenting fairy tales as violent, erotic stories, but she justified this by saying that in the stories she used, ‘the latent content is violently sexual.’ She chose to bring this to the surface, to make it clear to readers what the tales are really about. Carter wrote new versions of Little Red Riding Hood, The Snow Child, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast in this way.

From reading around Sleeping Beauty, I have discovered that this fairy tale also contains numerous underlying sexual themes. Bruno Bettelheim explores sexuality in Sleeping Beauty in his book The Uses of Enchantment, which is a study into the psychology of fairy tales and how they are integral to a child’s development. He says the following:

However great the variations in detail, the central theme of all versions of “The Sleeping Beauty” is that, despite all attempts on the part of the parents to prevent their child’s sexual awakening, it will take place nonetheless.

Furthermore, parents’ ill-advised efforts may postpone the reaching of maturity at the proper time, as symbolized by Sleeping Beauty’s hundred years of sleep, which separate her sexual awakening from her being united with her lover. 

The curse given to the girl by the evil fairy/goddess/Wise Woman can be seen as a metaphor for menstruation, which Bettelheim claims her father ‘does not understand the necessity of’ and therefore tries to prevent it. This is shown by his order to burn all of the spinning wheels. However, her progression into puberty is, of course, unavoidable. The girl finds a spindle despite his efforts (in a hidden chamber – ‘a formerly inaccessible [area] of existence’) and pricks her finger.

spinning wheel distaff
The long, pointy bit on the far left? That’s it. Distaffs are used to hold the un-spun fibres. As Bettelheim points out, ‘it does not take much imagination to see the possible sexual connotations in the distaff.’ Image from Southwest Spirit.

The other interpretation of the blood spilled in this story comes from these connotations. The girl pricking her finger and drawing blood mimics the blood spilled during the loss of virginity. Either way stands for the girl’s sexual maturity, and either way she still ends up falling asleep afterwards. This implies that she was not ready for such an experience, and so the sleep is her way of dealing with it and waiting for the time when she will be.

In the Grimms’ version, ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ a forest of thorns grows up around the sleeping girl to protect her until she is ready to awaken. Many potential suitors try to break through this to reach her, but they fail and perish. According to Bettelheim, this is ‘a warning’ that premature sexual arousal ‘can be destructive.’

Sleeping Beauty Trina Schart Hyman
A forest of thorns protects sleeping beauty until she is ready to receive the prince. Image by Trina Schart Hyman, found on Maleficent Magic.

However, when the hundred years are up the forest naturally withers and allows the prince to pass. When things are ready to happen, they will do so naturally and the successful prince does not have to fight for the girl like those before him; she has now come to terms with her maturity and is prepared for what comes next – love, marriage, sex, and motherhood.

It is noted at the beginning of both Perrault’s and the Grimms’ versions that the king and queen had wanted a child for a long time before she fell pregnant. It can be inferred from this that sometimes it can take awhile to find sexual fulfilment. The same can also be inferred from the girl’s hundred year sleep, and neither she nor the queen end up any the worse off for having endured this wait. Bettelheim interprets this into the moral that ‘there is no need to hurry toward sex’ because ‘it loses none of its rewards’ no matter when it is experienced.

This is reminiscent of the moral at the end of Perrault’s version:

Lovers lose nothing if they wait, and tie the knot of marriage late. They’ll not be any less content.‘ 

The prince finds Sleeping Beauty
The Prince Finds Sleeping Beauty by Ambrose Dudley. Image by Sofi. Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0

Perrault’s sleeping beauty awakens refreshed and eager to get to know the prince, and, the same as in ‘Sun, Moon and Talia,’ they wed, have children and spend the rest of their lives happily together (well, after vanquishing the evil wife/stepmother/ogress first, as you do!) After this, Perrault goes on to say that ‘young girls, though, yearn for married bliss.’ Those who rush into love before they are ready will not get the chance to mature properly, and therefore will miss out on enjoying their relationship to its full potential. So there you have it — proof that good things really do come to those who wait!

Whilst Bettelheim’s work is just one possible interpretation of Sleeping Beauty, it is nevertheless a credible one. Sexual imagery can be found in lots of fairy tales, but it seems to fit this story particularly well because of its narrative structure – an unavoidable ‘curse’ which will draw blood, the father’s attempt to prevent it, the long sleep and finally the awakening and acceptance of adulthood. In this way, the sexual content in Sleeping Beauty makes it into a coming of age story, as opposed to the sexual power struggles and feminist ideas that Carter uncovered in ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ ‘The Snow Child,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and ‘Bluebeard.’

Once you look at a story from a different perspective, so many new things come to light. I believe that it’s healthy to question stories and look into their depths, even if you don’t find anything. At least you’re giving yourself the freedom to entertain new possibilities. For one thing, I know I will never look at a distaff in quite the same way again…

 

Sources

  • Helen Simpson, ‘Femme Fatale: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber’ on The Guardian
  • Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (London: Penguin, 1991)
  • Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose’ on Sacred Texts