Yesterday I came in contact with a fawn.
So, when I’d finished household and work chores, I sat down to look up deer lore. It is vast, impossible to abridge, ranges around the world, and touches nearly every spiritual practice and mythology.
According to the ancient Greeks, the deer belongs to Artemis, goddess of hunting, water, the moon and childbirth. The word “deer” means “shining fire,” because the sun shining through antlers is said to be dazzling. Male and female reindeer — great hart and gentle hind — are both endowed with antlers.
Everywhere, the deer is a symbol of fecundity. This week, the rain is relentless, the thunder is thrilling, the plants are drinking deep and growing. This watery weather, when mothers park their fawns in dry shelter, is nothing if not a bringer of fertility and renewal. I love when the deer visit my garden in winter, but in summer, I have grown high wild vines all around the area to keep them out. It generally works.
And deer are a sign of nobility. Think of Cernunnos, whose image is found on the Gaulish Celtic Gundestrup cauldron from the 4th-3rd centuries BCE. He is Lord of the Animals, the Green Man who rules the forest. A creature who shapeshifts into human form, appears suddenly, and as quickly evaporates into mists; a graceful beast who brings messages from the heavens.
Antlers are still worn in revels and rituals worldwide and have been since time immemorial. During China’s Chou Dynasty, female shamans danced as flying deer, wearing antlers on their heads and close-fitting robes, with wide sleeves like wings. The Sumerian goddess Ninkursag was a doe and the Egyptian goddess Satet was goddess of the hunt, a cousin, no doubt, to Greek Artemis, though Satet had a deer’s face and sported her very own antlers. Deer are embedded in the practices of Native Americans, in Judaic lore, and in one of the Hindu Upanishads, Saraswati, goddess of learning, turned herself into a red deer.
A relief found at the base of the temple of the Goddess Ninkursag at Tell al-‘Ubaid. Imdugud, ca. 2500 BCE.
As I read on about deer — a potentially endless preoccupation — I remembered two things about deer that once profoundly touched me and that I have carried around in my unconscious for years.
The first is the Greek maiden Iphigenia, whose story is told by Euripides. Iphigenia was sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon (who ultimately paid dearly and deservedly), in order to bring the wind so that his thousand ships could sail to Troy to take back Agamemnon’s brother’s wife, Helen. Iphigenia is fooled into believing she is to be the bride of Achilles and instead is lead to her death. The play ends with the vision of a deer. Perhaps Iphigenia is saved from death by Artemis in her deer guise, perhaps the goddess has transmogrified the girl herself into the deer, but in any case, the deer liberates innocent Iphigenia from the pain of betrayal and immortalises her.
Greek fresco, ca. 79 CE, of Iphigenia in Tauris, also the title of Euripides, powerful play.
My second recollection is an Irish story about the birth of the hero Oisin, which I retold in a 1998 book, On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend. Odd that I flipped through many volumes today reading deer lore before I remembered I had even done this. Odd how thoughts, ideas, events, things that were so close can be forgotten, then rise slowly into memory, still clinging to and weighing on your heart, but as they reappear they offer different meanings.
I apologize for the unblogly length of this story. This might be a good place for readers to stop!
You rise before the sun. Alert to the uproar of hounds. You travel the path of the setting moon. You stalk the hunters.
You sense them, then you see them. No hair on their heads skims branches or leaves as they dip through the woodland. No twigs crunch underfoot. Hounds’ snouts trace your scent along the ground. Men and dogs listen left and right and watch the brush for tiny signs.
You shift in the dappled forest light, drawing their attention. You start and the hounds rise up baying. Bellowing shakes the air. The Fianna burst after the dogs. You spring over rocks and streams.
You run and run. The hunters drop back one by one and their dogs retreat. One man stays the chase. His two white hounds pant after you and he laughs with the effort. Is he, at last, the one you’ve sought?
This is how you’ll be sure:
You rush out of the dark, protective wood, leading hounds and hunter into a sunny, open valley. The dogs have room to kill. The hunter’s blade can clearly find its mark. You lie down on green grass. The hounds plunge. The hunter grips his silver dagger. The hounds fall on you. They lick your neck and nuzzle your nose. They wag their tails and grin and whine with joy. The hunter looks on in wonder.
Fionn mac Cumhall whistles and they obey. He walks swiftly back to his dun. You follow. Step for step, while the hounds he calls Bran and Sceolan frolic around his feet and yours. You follow them past the oak that marks the dun, straight past the great gate and into the hall.
The Fianna exclaim and tease at the sight of Fionn and his hounds pursued by a doe. The Rigfennid shrugs and sits to drink with them, while you creep into shadows. The flicker of antlers on the walls. Bone, shining transparent in torch light. The Fianna forget you. They sing, recite and eat their fill. Fires are damped. The household retires.
Fionn dreams of deer. He dreams of pursuit and his legs flinch and twitch. You trace a small, thin finger lightly across his chest. He opens his eyes. He stares at your face, but he averts his gaze from your nakedness. He is unable to shake himself from the bewildering dream that seems to have transformed a hind to a woman at his bedside. You stand over him. Your voice is weak. You are unused to speaking.
This is what you tell him:
My name is Sadb and I am the doe you hunted this day. I was put in that shape for refusing the love Fear Doirche, the druid of Dea. For three years I have lived the life of a deer in the far part of Ireland. Trapped. More afraid of the druid than of huntsmen. If I relented and let Fear Doirche claim me, he would return my woman’s shape. But I would not relent.
At last, his servant took pity on me. She had overheard Fear Doirche’s fith-fath and she told me that if I could reach the dun of Fionn’s Fianna, the druid would have no power over me, and that the red-eared hounds, Bran and Sceolan, whose nature is human like my own, would know me and defend me.
I stole from that territory and never stopped till now.
* * *
So strong is Fionn’s love for you, he quits hunting and gives up all wild pleasures. When he must leave the dun, he leaves a guard for you and you wait for him by the gate, safe within, watching for his return with your bright, brown eyes, tense and alert. When you hear the greeting barks of Bran and Sceolan, you start and run to Fionn and throw your arms around him. You frisk and play with his hound cousins.
One night, you are standing at the table behind the Rigfennid. You serve his mead. You reach across him to pick food from his plate. You press your widening waist against his shoulders. He is sighing affections to you when men burst into the hall, crying news that the warriors of Lochlann have come against Ireland in ships so large whole forests were felled to build them.
Fionn stiffens. And you, having had no fear for nearly a year, jerk as if to bolt. But Fionn holds you still. He nods to his men. The Fianna rush here and there around the hall gathering weapons. Fionn tells you there is no choice but to go. The one-legged warriors of Lochlann are giants who eat raw human flesh, and fire, he says, shoots from the single eye sunk deep in their brows. It is a fire that scorches as far as that eye can see, and the eyes of the Lochlann warriors can see across mountains.
Fionn promises he will conquer them quickly and return to you soon. The Lochlann are big and terrifying, but they are no match for the Fianna. You smile. But your hands tremble.
* * *
You curl up by the gate. The indentation you leave in the grass is that of a deer in morning before breeze and day erase the evidence of its resting place. You don’t rest. Your eyes are locked on the path beyond the gate. The guards mill about, playing chess, practicing arms, restless that they were not chosen to fight the Lochlann invaders.
The other women bring you food. They whisper that the Rigfennid’s wife has not yet lost her animal ways. Some recall how you play with Bran and Sceolan as if they were kin. Your shyness. Your quick nerves. Your dreamy silence. The women agree you will befriend them and become more fully human when your child is born.
You simply watch the path. Aloof. Days crawl by. Two. Four. Five. You twist your grey-brown hair. You plait it and unplait it. You rub your belly in spirals to keep the infant warm and give it heat to help it grow. Till seven days seem like seven years.
* * *
The morning of the seventh day brings dreary skies and cold drizzle. The women plead with you to come inside. You ignore them, eyes fixed on the spectral outline of the oak that marks the dun.
Mist rolls thicker and thicker toward you, bringing with it the baying of Bran and the howling of Sceolan and the sweet call of Fionn’s hunting horn.
The women and guards try to hold you, but you pull away. You dash from the safety of the dun with outstretched arms. The arms stretched out to you that catch you are not warm Fionn’s, but the thin, white-hard limbs of Fear Doirche.
Though he is glamoured in the likeness of Fionn, you know him instantly. You scream and struggle. You twist this way and that in his grasp, but the druid strikes you with his hazel rod.
Fith-fath will I make on thee
By the sun disk of Lugh
By the golden goblet of Eriu
By Morrigan of the augury
From woman to hind
From maiden to doe
From girl to deer…
Grey-brown fur quickens all across your flesh. Your nose and forehead lengthen. Your hands and feet shrink and harden into hooves. You turn three times and gallop toward the gate, but the raging hounds disguised as Bran and Sceolan bite your throat and clamp your thigh and drag you away and herd you into the blind mist.
The guards stumble high and low through the fog following every murmur. The women shout and wail for you. But you have vanished.
* * *
At dusk, the rain has dried. Fionn hurries home, thinking how you’ll look and feel, thinking of your happy noise when you spy him coming through the gate and how you’ll greet him. But as soon as they pass the oak that marks the dun, Bran and Sceolan slide to their bellies and slither and moan. There is no sign of you. No one waits and watches. The returning Fianna look in desperation on the emptiness and on Fionn’s despair. The fith-fath of Fear Doirche echoes faintly in the growing night. Fionn sinks to the ground where you sat and winds the flattened grass around his fingers. He stares at your deer’s contour as if he could conjure you. He strikes his breast and loosens tears. He rises heavily and staggers to the bed you shared. He lies there day and night for three nights and three days with his back to the others.
* * *
Then he heaves himself from his stupor and through the length of seven years, he seeks you in every far corner of Ireland. He touches no other woman. He hunts only with five most trustworthy hounds and lets them be led by Bran and Sceolan so that there will be no danger to you if he ever comes on your track.
One day, when your child is strong enough, when he has developed his own odor and mettle, you hear the familiar barking and baying of hounds and hunting horns. You let the boy go to Bran and Sceolan.
©Jennifer Heath, 1998/2011, On the Edge of Dream: The Women of Celtic Myth and Legend