Where the White Stag Runs

Boundary and Transformation in Deer Myths,
Legends, and Songs
by Ari Berk

Lord of the Wildwood, by Helena Reed-Nelson

"Lord of the Wildwood" by Helen Reed–Nelson

I have lately heard strange stories from northern lower Michigan of the Deer Man. Well, it’s hunting season here so such tales are dragged out and polished up to tell around the fire at hunting camp. Some say that the Deer Man haunts the woods near Houghton Lake; others say he’s in the Thumb. He’s a strange one, no doubt, and he covers a lot of ground on his two legs. He has the body of man and the large head and antlers of a stag: Michigan’s own Hern the Hunter. He uses his antlers to leave his calling-card on the door-posts of local churches and at night, in the wilds, he can be heard bellowing to his four-legged brothers.

At this time of the year, the deer venture often into our realm. Last night in my front yard, a herd of deer—thick and wooly–looking with their winter coats—were feeding on fallen rowan berries. This morning, their tracks could be seen making spirals in the snow around the base of the rowan tree and wandering off down the street, marking their path back to the woods. Though deer are certainly not rare (especially here in Michigan), their appearance brings the feeling of wilderness close, reminding me that we are only ever a few paces away from the forest, from the wild, from the edges of the living storied land.

As long as people have lived or hunted alongside the deer’s habitats, there have been stories: some of kindly creatures who become the wives of mortals; or of lost children changed into deer for a time, reminding their kin to honor the relationship with the Deer People, their close neighbors. And there are darker tales, recalling strange journeys into the Otherworld, abductions, and dangerous transformations that don’t end well at all. But all stories about the deer share some common ground by showing us that the line between our world and theirs is very thin indeed.

Horned Man, by Wendy Froud

"Horned Man"
by Wendy Froud

Ovid tells us in his Metamorphoses of youthful Actaeon who spends the day hunting with his dogs on the hillsides, catching so much game that the slopes run red with blood. As the sun ascends the sky, he calls off the chase, bidding his comrades retire with the promise of renewing the hunt early the next day. Then he does a dangerous thing: he wanders for a time in a wood he does not know, and so comes by accident to the sacred grotto where Diana is accustomed to bathe with her nymphs. To Actaeon’s great misfortune, he spies the goddess of the hunt naked and she, seeing him, blushes.Then lifting up her hands, she throws water in Actaeon’s face and he flees that place. As he wanders back to find his friends he hears his dogs barking and sees that they are chasing him. Confused he calls out to them, but instead of his voice, he hears the bellowing of a great stag, for stag he now is, transformed by the goddess’s vengeful hand. So he runs fast on four legs but soon his dogs chase him down and, tearing him apart, find their old master toothsome indeed.

The myth of Actaeon is an early example of the connection of deer stories with the violation of taboos. Actaeon made three fatal errors: overhunting the hillside, entering a sacred enclosure unknowingly, and gazing upon the virgin mistress of the hunt. His punishment is perfectly suited to address his errors for he learns to see the world, though briefly, from the perspective of a shy creature who calls the wild home and instinctively respects its boundaries.

In the medieval Welsh Mabinogion, does and stags appear as physical manifestations of the boundary between worlds. In the story of "Pwyll" the deer are followed into the forest during a hunt. But Pwyll, the prince, and his dogs are soon separated from his companions and he finds himself lost in the woods. Soon he hears other dogs and, following their barking, comes upon a clearing in the woods where he finds a strange pack—red-eared and white-furred—bearing down upon a stag. Pwyll chases those dogs off and sets his own upon the stag instead, most discourteously. When he later meets the owner of the white dogs—who is none other than the Arawn, lord of the Otherworld—satisfaction is demanded and Pwyll must repay Arawn by assuming his form and exchanging places, traveling into the Otherworld to kill one of Arawn’s enemies. So following the deer is often a way into the Otherworld, or a sign that we are very close to its borders.

Fans of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia will be very familiar with these motifs, remembering the children who, after having grown up in the Otherworldly Narnia, hunt the white stag following it deep into the forest and are, very suddenly, deposited back into their own world again, returned to childhood. Lewis’s fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien, called upon the white stag in The Hobbit. Here it serves to mark the borders of the Wood Elves’ realm when a white hind and some fawns appear on the path before the company, who hear the "dim blowing of horns" deep within Mirkwood Forest.

Both these authors drew on their extensive knowledge of medieval literature, where the connection of deer with Faerie is most common. Other examples abound in early writings. In one of the numerous popular tellings about Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas is interrupted while reveling with his friends. He is told by a fearful and astonished messenger that a hind and a hart have left the forest and are —slowly and with great grace — pacing up and down the street of the village. Thomas rises at once and follows the deer into the forest, never seen to return. Here the deer become the heralds of Elfland, physical embodiments of the faery call, and their appearance is the prelude to Thomas’s transition from this world to the Other.

The Lady Clare, by Waterhouse

"The Lady Clare" by John William Waterhouse

Boundaries exist between worlds, but they are also present between people. Where rules of conduct are expressed, the deer is also found, symbolically marking the moments when such rules are broken, emphasizing the often dire consequences. The anonymous early French ballad, "La Chasse" (more lately translated by Andrew Lang and called, "The Milk White Doe"), draws our attention to the representation of female innocence as a white deer, as well as the symbolic presence (in hunting and chasing) of male aggression, sexual tension and taboo between siblings. The ballad begins with a mother asking her daughter why she is so sad, and the girl replies,

For ever in the good daylight
A maiden may I go,
But always on the ninth midnight
I change to a milk white doe.
They hunt me through the green forest
With hounds and hunting men;
And ever it is my fair brother
That is so fierce and keen.

Their mother asks her son about his dogs and is told they are hunting a white doe in the forest,

And three times they have chased her,And thrice she’s run away;The fourth time that they follow herThat white doe they shall slay.     (Skelton)

After the white doe is killed, the young man learns that it is indeed his own sister. Then, like the guilty youths of so many medieval tales, he goes to the greenwood himself, for "seven long years," embracing madness for a time, burying his grief within the wilds.

Other ballads and tales about deer continue the theme of sibling adventures. One Danish ballad ("Jomfruen I Linden" ) has the usual cruel step-mother transforming her children into a variety of creatures, including fleeting deer, hawks and a linden tree. In another Danish ballad, "The Maid Transformed Into a Hind," a young girl begs her brother to spare a little deer that plays about his feet. The brother does not heed her, shooting the deer. When he flays it, he finds his sister under the hind’s skin. We then learn that the sister has been put under a spell by her step-mother and can only be freed by drinking her brother’s blood. He immediately cuts his fingers, allowing her to drink. She is restored, becoming a young girl again and later is happily married (Wimberly). In this tale, we may assume that even the most difficult of sibling relations may be resolved through the remembrance of the bonds of consanguinity. More troubling (though common in early literature) is the notion that the sister’s future happiness in life is dependent upon her brother’s gift of blood, or acceptance of her liminal state—a sign that the girl’s life is never entirely her own.

illustration for Brother and Sister, by Kay Nielsen

"Brother and Sister" by Kay Nielsen

In Devon, England, a rare ritual has been recorded wherein the stag represented the offense or misconduct (often of a sexual nature) of a local person. A mock "hunt" was enacted with characters playing the stag, dog, and hunters. This strange and noisy pageant of implication was run through the village, ending finally at the doorstep of the offender. There the stag was "killed" with all ceremony, even including the bursting of a bladder full of blood. It was thought that after such a communal condemnation, the offender would leave the village never to return. (Simpson and Roud)

Most stories of the deer in Europe are now primarily legendary, anecdotal, or ritual—scattered through folk tales and ballads. They exist in the twilight of rural custom once the ancient myths are forgotten or broken apart—turning from sacred narrative to secular fairy tale over the centuries. So even now, deer can be elusive, and if we want a better look we may have to chase a little further afield.

Deer is a common figure in American Indian myths, often appearing in stories that continue the focus on families, kinship, marriage, child-rearing, hunting and pursuit. Among the Pueblos of the New Mexico, stories are still told of Deer Boy, a baby left in the grass, abandoned by its young mother, a girl of the village. It was a Deer Woman who found the human child and brought him home to raise with her own fawns. Time passed and the boy spent the days running with his fawn brothers and sisters. Some time later, a hunter from the village noticed strange tracks among those left by the Deer People. The Deer Woman knew the time had come for the boy to return to his people. She readied him to be caught by the hunter and told him what he must know about his real mother and what she looked like. She told him that to remain among his own people he must, upon returning to the village, be left alone and unseen in a room for four days. So he was found by the hunter and taken home and much happiness attended his homecoming. The boy told his family he must be left alone for four days and they agreed. But his birth mother, so impatient was she, stole a glance at her son before the four days were finished. In an instant the boy took on the shape of a deer and ran to the North where he joined his other mother and lived for the rest of his days among the Deer People.

The Mule Deer, by Terri Windling

"The Mule Deer" by Terri Windling

Many of the stories about Deer in American Indian myths continue (as in Europe) to reflect a strong belief in sexual taboos, such as those that exist between members of the same family, siblings especially. The Apache tell a story about a brother and sister that go out hunting together (Opler). They make separate camps (this is emphasized because of strong beliefs about the separation of boys and girl after puberty). The boy is not knowledgeable about the Deer People and kills many female deer, which his sister then helps him to prepare. While the tale is somewhat ambivalent about the nature of the broken taboo (and there are certainly several in the story),there appears to be an emphasis upon and connection between both appropriate sibling conduct, and the acceptable number and sex of animals taken at one time. As a result of the boy’s actions and lack of knowledge—he makes no prayers and does not prepare the meat correctly—a large male deer comes to their camp and leads the sister away into the West where she has two children—both of them fawns—and becomes a deer herself. Her children are later found by the brother, who is told to keep them out of sight for a time. Again he does not obey the rules, and the little fawns leave forever. From this tale the Apache learned about how the Deer People must be treated and took more care from then on.

This kind of respect was vital to both successful hunting and health in general. A Cherokee myth tells of a council held by the Deer People where it was decided that any hunter who did not ask for pardon from the Deer would become sick and rheumatic. News of this decision was spread among the human villages and settlements. Now whenever a deer is shot, the "Little Deer" comes like the wind to that spot, leans down over the blood on the earth and asks the deer’s spirit if the hunter prayed for its pardon. If the hunter did so, all will be well. But if not, Little Deer will follow the trail of that hunter and finding him, cripple him. (Mooney)

San Ildefonso Deer Dancer by Tse Ye Mu

"San Ildefonso Deer Dancer"
by Tse Ye Mu

In Southern Arizona, the Tohono O’odham tribe also speak of Deer’s importance and power in relation to sustenance. When the People first came from the world below, Elder Brother gave them deer as their food. But as the First Food, deer meat has special curative powers. When the first deer of the season is caught, it is cooked while people sing; then, when it’s given out, people crowd around saying, "give me life." Deer was made by Elder Brother by taking a small desert mouse and slitting it up the middle to form a deer. Then Elder Brother gave gifts to the Deer: the wind as a friend, ears that can hear the earth shake under the feet of humans, and the ability to know when its time had come. So we learn that it is by choice that the Deer gives itself to the hunter (Underhill).Stories such as these stress the importance of interdependence of various species or People—a word that is always applied to both human and animals in American Indian cultures.

Many tribes have dances associated with the Deer, bringing the myths to life in a kind of sacred drama. In California, among the Yurok, Deer dances are held to bring about plentiful crops. Among the Hopi a Deer Dance is enacted as a ritual to bring rain. The Huichol Deer Dance is tied to the peyote—a vision-inducing cactus—used in their rituals. Deer is their brother, and their pilgrimages follow Deer’s tracks across the land in a mythic "hunting" of the peyote. Indeed, it is believed that the plant grows wherever the Deer walks, so even the track of the Deer, embodied in the peyote, is considered holy: a road to the Otherworld.

As modern pilgrims, many contemporary authors have followed the Deer’s path into the wilderness and come back with worthy tellings from the Forest of Tales. Continuing the tradition of deer magic and family relations gone bad, Robin McKinley’s novel, Deerskin (a retelling of the Charles Perrault fairy tale, “Donkeyskin”), centers on the adventures of a princess who must flee her home when her own father tries to wed (and bed) her. In McKinley’s novel, the distressed princess avoids sexual abuse at the hands of her father by fleeing into the forest, where she’s given a magic garment of white deerskin by a mysterious woman. Using the enchanted skin the princess makes a new life for herself in the forest where she both hunts and heals, becoming increasingly at home in the wilderness. Of course, she cannot remain there, and eventually she returns to society, casting aside the deerskin which has served so well as her protection.

Brother and Sister, a novella by Ellen Steiber, retells and recasts the Brother and Sister fairy tale as a contemporary fantasy about troubled teenagers. This is a powerful and moving re—telling of this tale which retains many of the traditional elements (such as the boy’s changing into a deer) but goes further into the story’s mythic heart by deftly exploring the possibilities for healing inherent in acts of transformation, escape and confrontation. Midori Snyder also draws upon the Brother and Sister fairy tale (along with Ovid’s Metamorphoses and various traditional folk ballads) in her coming–of–age novel Soulstring. The novel follows the classic fairy tale theme of an arduous journey through the dark of the woods, but here the man transformed into a deer is a lover rather than a brother (a distinction often blurred in traditional tellings). Carolyn Dunn explores the Deer Woman legends of her Native American heritage in her recent collection of poetry,Outfoxing Coyote. In her visionary novel, The Wood Wife, Terri Windling evokes and reconfigures Otherworldly imagery from fairy tales (such as "White Deer", and "Silvershod"), Celtic myths of Cernunnos (the stag-headed lord of the hunt), and the myth of Actaeon to create her character the "Night Mage," who is trapped in the body of a white stag and whose hooves shed bits of turquoise where they strike against rock. Stag man legends are also at the root of Patricia McKillip’s early novel Stepping from the Shadows and her recent short story "Hunter’s Moon" — both tales set in the modern world, where magic is as elusive and fleeting as the deer itself. The myth of Actaeon is brutally retold by Sara Maitland in "The Lady Artemis" and is also at the heart of Kent Meyer’s contemporary story "The Smell of Deer."

The Mystic Wood, by John William Waterhouse

"The Mystic Wood" by John William Waterhouse

In their truly wonder-filled, lusty, and post-modern novel, The Fall of the Kings, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman deftly play with many now–familiar motifs of deer and stag lore: hunting and pursuit, the expression of desire, and the transformations that occur when animal nature is indulged and experienced. Their hero, Theron Campion, is worked upon by magic and begins to find his hidden nature emerging:

Theron was thinner than he had been, his cheeks gaunt, his eyes huge and liquid under bruised lids. He was dressed in brown and fawn, with a gold drop in his ear and a lovelock braided into hair, and he looked haunted, hunted, hungry as a stag before the snow releases the grass in springtime. The air was heavy with the smell of musk.  . . .Theron was indeed transformed. In the old days, in the North, it had been a complete transformation: bone, sinew, skin.

Now such transformations may seem merely metaphorical, but they are essential to the development of Theron’s character. Basil, the man who effects this transformation is delighted with his able magic, but is now disgusted with Theron’s rank animality, sending him back to the wild, "where he must run until he tamed the beast within himself."

While for Theron the "wild" may be found within the unsavory taverns of a university town where the accepted bounds of sexual appetite are tested and abandoned, the "beast" is more than merely his exuberance: it is an inner sexual hunger that must be acknowledged and appeased if he is to develop as a leader. Basil’s dream (in which Theron plays a key role) is to bring back to ancient days of the Land, when the kings were the Land, and the line between nature and civilization was not so keen. So here again we see that the way back into the First World is marked by the hoof–prints of the deer and the ability to see, for a time, the world through its eyes.

Whether ancient myth, or modern mythic fiction, there is always desire and pursuit on the deer’s path. These are aspects of Deer’s sacred nature, a part of its song which even now, is being sung in the night air of the desert,

Little one born in the night,
Caressed by the fresh wind
Where are you going then,
Flower fawn among the flowers?
Dressed in flowers, I am going.      (Evers and Molina)

And if we follow those tracks, into the night, into the winds and wild, whither then?