Female reindeer are unique with regard to other deer species in that they grow and shed antlers. This attribute is part of the mythology and spirituality of the shamanistic Sámi people who tell a story of how at the winter solstice the Deer Mother Goddess flew through the sky in order to help the dying midwinter sun find its way back and begin the process of the returning light.
Male reindeer shed their antlers before midwinter so the association between rebirth and antlers is very much a feminine trait in these traditions. While some stories remind us of the connection between the world tree, Yggdrasil, and the branched horns of the deer, an often overlooked symbolic connection is the shape of the antlered head of the female deer and the uterus.
Another place we see this depicted in ancient goddess cultures is in the relief's of the Goddess Hathor and the horned cow. Incidentally, within Nepalese shamanism, the world tree of immortality is called Kalpa Vriksha, and it looks even more like antlers because the roots of the tree face upwards. The reason for the roots touching the sky is to show how growth comes from, and returns to, the upper realms. Many ancient standing stones and carvings depict the deer goddess holding the moon and stars within her antlers.
Although Cernunnos might be a more familiar horned figure, there is much less evidence for his historical worship than there is for the various horned Goddesses of ancient Europe and Asia. The anthropologist, Karl Schleiser, noted that the deer shaman was one who could traverse all three worlds associated with ancestors and spirits. So, not only did the reindeer fly to the upper and lower worlds, but it was also seen as a spirit animal which might help those in the middle world. Perhaps,(and this is a personal observation), this is why the deer goddess was so important to people at the time of the year when life was so full of hardship?
The ability of the Deer Mother Goddess to both nurture and sustain life, and the weakened sun until it regained its strength, is a motif which recurs in all of the animistic doctrines, if we can call them that.
This instinctual knowledge was also notice by James George Frazer when he studied ancient native traditions and beliefs.
Although his work, The Golden Bough, certainly shows its age, (and Frazer's colonialist mindset!), he understood the connection between ancient totemism and inner wisdom very well when he wrote that indigenous peoples, "...conceive of life as an indestructible kind of energy, which when it disappears in one form must necessarily reappear in another, though in the new form it need not be immediately perceptible by us; in other words, he infers that death does not destroy the vital principle nor even the conscious personality, but that it merely transforms them into other shapes, which are not the less real because they commonly elude the evidence of our senses."
The reason why this is important is because, in her many incarnations, the Deer Mother Goddess was a symbol of much more than the hope of a new spring and the rescue of the winter sun; she was a reminder of the belief that the soul itself was eternal and that even after death there awaited a new rebirth.
When the Scythians moved into Northern Europe and mixed and traded with those already living there, they brought with them their knowledge and practices related to Asian shamanism, as well as the Gods and Goddesses associated with the land, sky and constellations, including the Deer Mother Goddess who incarnated in various forms, depending upon the people who recognised her eternal aspects and nature.
Professor Richard Seaford also reminds us that following Alexander the Great's conquest of Western Asia, there followed a further syncretism of shamanistic beliefs within the various philosophical and spiritual traditions already existing in Europe.
This resulted in the incorporation of shamanistic ideas within the mystery schools, of which the greatest was the secret knowledge of the invincibility of the soul and the life that awaits following the trials of the afterlife.
The main sun goddess of the indigenous Sámi people is Beaivi, a deity strongly associated with a white female reindeer. At midwinter, a white deer is sacrificed to her in order to ensure the health of the land and herds.
She is also associated with healing mental illnesses which were believed to occur when the sun disappeared from the sky during the winter. For the Sámi, this might be as long as 40 days, so this is interesting in terms of our own knowledge regarding daylight, mental health and vitamin D.
Beaivi shares other characteristics with horned goddesses associated with midwinter in that she flew through the sky as a deer, but also pulled a sleigh, sometimes made of antlers and bone. The goddess Saule of the indigenous Finnish people was also said to traverse the sky in this same manner and leave gifts by dropping amber down into homes as she passed overhead. We have come across other ancient goddesses with similar attributes in previous posts, such as La Befana, for example.
So, we have various ancient Goddesses who flew through the sky at midwinter leaving gifts for households and bringing new light and life. We know today that the earliest evidence for shaman indicates that they were female, and that the practices and iconography moved into Northern Europe and the Mediterranean regions following the various migrations of the Scythians, and the conquests of Alexander the Great. Although it might seem as though these beliefs and traditions have been forgotten, in fact they have survived in ways not always apparent. But, also in ways very familiar, as we shall see in the next post in this short series. (C.) David Halpin. Art by Jim Fitzpatrick