|CC Bill Ebesen|
In this article, the cultural significance of the deer, its history, etymology, and role in mythology is discussed.
Two species of deer would've been encountered by the early Germanic peoples;
Red Deer (héahdéor)
Red deer are Britain's largest native land mammal and, together with the roe deer, are our only 'native' deer species. All other deer species were introduced.
The red deer (Cervus elaphus) is one of the largest deer species. They can be found across most of Europe.
The male stag or hart is a large animal typically measuring between 70-90 inches long, standing up to 47 inches at the shoulder and weighing 350-530 lb. The female (hind) is considerably smaller. They are a reddish brown in colour with the older stags having a shaggy neck mane.
Only the males have branching antlers which start to grow in Spring and are shed at the end of Winter. The size and number of tines on the antlers increases with the age of the stag.
Antlers are made of dense bone, which grow rapidly protected by a soft hairy covering, called velvet. With the approach of autumn, the antlers harden, the velvet is shed. The stag uses his antlers to fight other males for dominance during the rut, which lasts for about three weeks in October. Dominant stags thus acquire a harem of females. During the rut and subsequent mating, the stag hardly eats and can lose a lot of weight.
Stags make a loud roaring noise to keep their harem together and to dissuade other males. The young, called fawns, are born after about eight-nine months gestation. They have a dappled coat and are hidden in the undergrowth by the does but after only a week or so are strong and mobile enough to join the herd.
Roe Deer (rá)
The roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) is relatively small, reddish and grey-brown, and well-adapted to cold environments. Roe deer are widespread in Western Europe. It is half the size of the red deer and only weighs around 30-60lb.
The Old English word déor and Old Norse dýr mean ‘a wild animal’. This general meaning gave way to the modern sense in English, by the end of the Middle English period around 1500. However all other modern Germanic languages retain the ancient meaning. (from Proto-Germanic. *deuzam - "wild animal", from Proto-Indo-European *dheusom "creature that breathes," from PIE root *dheu- "cloud, breath".
The Old English name for a Red Deer Stag is heorot and the Old Norse name hjörtr, from Proto- Germanic. *herut- maybe form the Proto-Indo-European root *ker - “horn”.
The modern word Stag does not really come into use until the late 12th century CE. It probably derives from the rare Old English *stagga from Proto-Germanic *stag / *steg, itself from Proto-Indo-European *stengh-, nasalized form of root *stegh- "to prick”.
The Old Norse equivalent (steggr) was used of male foxes, tomcats and dragons and the Germanic root word originally meant "male animal in its prime." The word always seems to have alluded to sexual energy.
Hind, on the other hand, comes directly from the Old English hind. This derives from the Proto-Germanic *hinthjo- which possibly comes from the Proto-Indo-European *kemti-, form the PIE root *kem, meaning hornless. The Old Norse word is identical to the Old English.
|Gundestrup Cauldron showing Deer and Antlered God|
The Modern English ‘roe’ is from Old English rá / ráha, from Proto-Germanic *raikhon, cognate to Old Norse rá. A fifth century runic inscription on a roe deer ankle bone found in England (the "Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus") transliterates as raïhan, thought to refer to the deer itself. Ultimately, the word may be drawn from the Proto-Indo-European root *rei-, meaning "streaked" or "spotted."
A male roe-deer or buck is a ráhdéor.
The word "buck" was used for a male deer (other than a male red deer) only from Circa 1300 CE. Earlier, the Old English word bucca usually referred to a male goat, from Proto-Germanic *bukkon (cf. Old High German boc, Old Norse bokkr, Sanskrit bukka).
The word "doe", referring to a female deer (not including Red Deer) derives from The Old English word dá, from Proto-Germanic *dajjōn (“mother deer”), from Proto-Germanic *dajjanan (“to suckle”), from Proto-Indo-European *dhēy- (“to suck (milk), to suckle”). Cognate with Alemannic German tē (“doe”), Danish då (“deer, doe”), Swedish dofhjort - (buck), Old English dēon (“to suckle”).
It is not at all clear what role the stag played in Germanic religion.
The Scythians revered the stag, which is one of the most common motifs in their artwork. It was believed to speed the spirits of the dead on their way, which perhaps explains the curious antlered head-dresses found on horses buried at Pazyryk (Siberia, circa 300 BCE) which so resembles the Sutton-Hoo whetstone figure already discussed (click here). Some have attempted to link the proto-Germanic *Wodenaz with the Horned God but the links are tenuous to say the least. The Norse god who does seem to have some link with the ancient Stag God is rather Freyr, which will be explored later.
In Norse mythology, four stags or harts are said to nibble the leaves of the World Tree Yggdrasill. According to the Poetic Edda, the stags crane their necks upward to reach the branches.
“Hirtir ero ok fiórir, þeirs af hæfingar á gaghálsir gnaga:Dáinn ok Dvalinn, Dúneyrr ok Duraþrór.”
There are four harts too who gnaw with craned necks,All four names sound suspiciously dwarfish: Dáinn ('The Dead One'), Dvalinn ('The Unconscious One'), Duneyrr (‘Thunder to the Ear’) and Duraþrór (‘Napping-Thrór’). It has been speculated that they reflect the ‘four winds’.
the highest boughs; Dáin and Dvalin, Dúneyr and Durathrór.
Many scholars, believe that stanzas 33 and 34 of Grímnismál are of a later origin than those surrounding them. There may have originally only been one stag which had later been turned into four. This is consistent with stanza 35 of Grímnismál, which mentions only one hart:
Askr Yggdrasils drýgir erfiði meira enn menn viti:
hiörtr bitr ofan, en á hliðo fúnar, skerðer Níðhöggr neðan.
The ash of Yggdrasil suffers trouble more than men know;It has been suggested that this stag is identical with Eikþyrnir (Oak Thorn), mentioned earlier in Grímnismál.
a hart bites it from above, and it rots at the sides, and Niðhögg rends it beneath.
“Eikþyrnir heitir hiörtr, er stendr á höllo Heriaföðrsok bítr af Læraðs limom; en af hans hornomdrýpr i Hvergelmi, þaðan eigo vötn öll vega.”
‘Oak-Thorn’ is the hart’s name, who stands on Host-Father’s halland grazes Lærað’s branches; and from his hornsliquid drips into ‘Seething Cauldron’, from thence all waters have their source.The poetic language is really difficult but it makes a little sense if one presumes the World Tree is the cloudy sky, which the winds graze upon, resulting in rain and, eventually, rivers. As God of the Sky and Wind, Óðinn is in charge of this process.
In the Völsungasaga, the hero Völsung builds himself a great hall in the centre of which stands a mighty oak tree called the Barnstokkr. To some extent, this tree reflects the World Tree and the hall; Ásgarðr. It is thus conceivable that Hroðgar’s Heorot was named and perhaps decorated with the same thought in mind; that the king’s hall be an earthly heaven.
In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, the god Freyr is described as having killed the jötunn, Beli, with an antler, having lent his infallible sword to his servant. Surviving statues of Yngve-Freyr are ithyphallic, which is appropriate in a fertility god. Freyr’s lost un-named sword (? “Vápn / Wæpen”) may have been symbolic of his virility. When it is unavailable, he picks up a sharp-tined red-deer antler as a replacement. Or, perhaps, he changes himself into his totemic beast, a great virile stag and gores the jötunn to death?
In Þiðrekssaga, Sigurd is presented as having been nursed by a doe as a baby, prior to being found by the wise smith, Mimir. It has already been noted that the term doe means “she who suckles”.
The great forest stag remains to this day a majestic sight, reeking of androgenic symbolism. It is most likely that the hart was seen as symbolising royalty and linked with the ancestral Yngling kings in Sweden as well as with as well as with the grim Wodenaz.