Love this post at Gather by Danielle Prohom Olson Doe, A Deer, A Female Deer: The Spirit of Mother Christmas.
In the old nature religion (in which the divine was often perceived as feminine) it was the female horned reindeer who reigned supreme as the great goddess of the winter solstice. It was when we “Christianized” the pagan traditions of winter, that the white bearded man i.e. “Father Christmas” was born.
Today he chariots Rudolph and his steed of flying reindeer across our mythical skies and we have forgotten the power of the Deer Mother, the female horned Reindeer. Stronger and larger than the buck, it is she who leads the herds.
And it is her beloved image that adorns the Christmas cards and Yule decorations we are so familiar with today. Because, unlike the male who sheds his antlers in winter, it is the Deer Mother, who carries the life-giving sun safely through winter’s darkest, longest night in her horns.
I’m writing this in response to comments asking for sources for this post. First of all I do apologize for the lack of references, they were omitted because the first draft of this post was nearly 3000 words long! So I decided to stay true to my original intention (which was not to write a thesis or academic paper) but to help us remember some of the forgotten feminine traditions of yule and winter solstice.
Right now the internet is awash with posts and articles examining the pagan and shamanic origins of Christmas. Much of the material emphasizes the masculine, i.e. investigating the pagan sources for Father Christmas. But what seems to be entirely omitted is the idea that there may have been a “Mother Christmas’ and a feminine aspect to these winter solstice traditions.
For example how many of us know that Christmas Eve was once known as “Mother’s-night “ across the Anglo-Saxon world and was the occasion of much feasting and celebration? According to Yule: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for the Winter Solstice “The Venerable Bede, writing about the customs of the pagan Anglo Saxons who he was trying to convert in 6th century England, mentions their practice of celebrating a holiday he called Modranicht or Modresnacht on the eve of Christmas. This “night of the Mothers” was evidently a sacred night devoted to a group of feminine divinities, like those pictured on carvings and statues all over Celtic France and Britain which show three women together, holding children and fruit, fish, grain and other bounties of the earth.” Who were these women? And how much unrecognized influence did Mothers-night have on what has become known as Christmas?
There is also a male-centric bias found in the plethora of articles depicting the red and white amanita mushroom toting shamans of Siberia as solely male. Yet how many mention that many antler wearing shamans in the northern regions were -and still are – female? In fact the leader of The Reindeer People, according to this source, is a 96-year-old shaman known as Tsuyan.
And when it comes to the deer, well there is much talk of the stag, but little mention of what was once an important spiritual figure to our northern ancestors – the Deer Mother. Much scholarship assumes that many of the northern goddesses (often depicted with horns and antlers ) were associated with the stag. Yet what is overlooked is that in the northern countries it is only the female reindeer who actually bore horns during winter. And considering that there is a great deal of evidence for a deer goddess cult dating from the pre-historic I think it suggests that some of these stags are in fact – female.
Many of ancient “religions” or spiritual belief systems across the ancient world venerated nature – which was often perceived as a female principle or a goddess. This is generally true across the world, including Europe, Russia India, China and Northern America. That this goddess was often personified as a deer or reindeer in northern climates or as shaman wearing antlers has been well documented.
The book “Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art “ makes the point that while the antlered god Cernunnos is well known in eastern Gaul there were also feminine counterparts found at Clearmont-Ferrand(Puy de Dome) and at Besancon (Doubs). These “bronze antlered goddesses were depicted sitting crosslegged with symbols of cornucopia” – another well known female associated symbol of fertility – i.e. the horn of plenty. “The animal symbolism associated with goddesses reaches it apogee with horned female images, usually adorned with antlers…”
The book The Golden Deer of Eurasia published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is another wonderful exploration of the sacred significance of the female deer and reindeer in the shamanic traditions – which “was understood as essentially female” and associated with the tree of life, fertility, birth, rebirth of the sun (a large thematic part of winter solstice!)
From The Deer-Cult and the Deer-Goddess Cult of the Ancient Caledonians by J.G. McKay “There are an immense number of traditions, references, notices of customs, and various minor matters, which show conclusively that there formerly existed in the Highlands of Scotland two cults, probably pre-Celtic, a deer-cult and a deer-goddess cult. The latter cult was administered by women only…”
The Deer Goddess Of Ancient Siberia: A Study In The Ecology Of Belief by Esther Jacobson is a study of the image of the deer within the iconography of the Early Nomads of South Siberia, tracing it back to rock carvings, paintings, and monolithic stelae of South Siberia and northern Central Asia, from the Neolithic period down through the early Iron Age.
According to this lovely article “Reindeer and the Sun are very common association in Siberian shamanism. Tattoos on buried shaman women also contain deer tattoos, featuring antlers embellished with small birds’ heads, and since the goddess cultures of female shaman is most associated with deer, serpent and birds, it is right that these deer stones were the sacred ritual grounds of women. This reindeer-sun-bird imagery can symbolize the female shaman’s soul transformation from human to deer, from earth of the middle world to higher gates of the middle world and even the lower world.”
Here is a quote from another interesting article “Their lives, as those of the Inuit, Athabascan and other Canadian and Alaskan hunters with the herds of caribou they follow, are completely intertwined with these antlered cohabitants. Everything they eat, wear, utilize as tools, create as shelter, design as art has come from Reindeer. Reindeer is not prey, or livestock, Reindeer is Life… Reindeer, like the creative Feminine, were considered most sacred. Artifacts and funerary practices identified from thousands of years ago from Sami and Siberian burial sites indicate that some of the most important spiritual guides were women.”
Many of these antlered images have origins in pre-history and it is often very difficult to say where they actually originate or whether these antlered motifs are of deer or reindeer. But what seems to be obvious is the further north you go, the more certain the image is of the reindeer.
Mary B. Kelly in her book “Goddess Women Cloth : A World Wide Tradition of Making and Using Ritual Textiles” and Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe provides an exhaustive, in-depth look at the ritual motifs of ceremonial weavings. From women’s tapestries in Scandinavia to the red felt headdresses worn by the shamanic priestesses of the Altai in Siberia , to a burial ship found near Oslo in Norway laden with tapestries featuring antlered female figures wearing wearing red clothing, antlered female goddesses are a common motif – as are figures of the reindeer and deer.
“Winter embroideries were made to honor the feast of Rohanitsa, the Mother Goddess, held in late December. These cloths depict [her] together with her daughter goddess, or with children who may or may not be divine….[She] was often shown with deer horns sprouting from her head or headdress….The horns are a sign that–as tales and rock carvings confirm–in ancient times the Mother Goddess gave birth to deer as well as children. For her feast, small, white-iced cookies shaped like deer were given as presents or good luck tokens.”
Kelly’s book discusses how in North America (where indigenous peoples revered the deer as graceful and patient mother) and even in Mexico embroideries featuring horned goddesses are common. These motifs are mostly likely of deer – not reindeer. It seems the Deer Mother was either a reindeer or a deer, depending on how far north you go, but there is little doubt she was a real “goddess” or spiritual principle that was very important to early ‘pagan’ peoples – especially women.
The image of a deer with a light between its horns (as popularized by Jaegermeister bottle) may well be the vision of Saint Hubertus, a 7th century Christian and patron saint of hunters – but perhaps this imagery was christianized from earlier mythologies?
According to the Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids (who spend a great deal of time expounding on folkloric legends of stags on their website) this image can also be found in Hungary, Mongolia, Russian Steppes and China, where the symbol of the cosmos and the mother of the sun was symbolized as a large horned female doe. “The great horned doe often was shown carrying the sun in her horns.”
There is also great wealth of sacred and magical imagery surrounding the female reindeer and deer in Celtic mythology which often feature tales of white hinds (doe) which are associated with the goddess (who often gives birth to a sun child in the form of a white hind) and the fairy world.
The association with the reindeer, the sun and the solstice has been documented by Dr. Piers Vitebsky, Ph.D, who is the Head of Anthropology and Russian Northern Studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute and he has written that the tribal elders of the Eveny and Evenki indigenous people of the Nordic countries believed that reindeer were created “to lift their souls up to the Sun. Every winter, they performed a ritual that symbolized the ascension of people on the back of a flying winged reindeer”.
And while Wikipedia cannot always be considered a credible source it states that Beaivi is the Sami name for the Sun “who is mostly depicted as female” and “is associated with fertility of plants and animals and in particular reindeer.”
“At Winter solstice a white female reindeer was sacrificed in honour of Beivve, to ensure that she returned to the world and put an end to the long winter season. At the time of the year when the Sun was returning, butter (which melts in the sunshine) was smeared on the doorposts, as a sacrifice to Beivve, so that she could gain strength during her convalescence and go higher and higher in the sky…Beivve was often accompanied by her daughter, Beaivi-nieida (the sun maiden) in an enclosure of reindeer antlers.”
Beivve was believed to bring the sun and fertility back to the land, making plants grow, so that the reindeer flourished and reproduced, and in this way she also brought wealth and prosperity to her people.
So based on these sources (and I could go on! ) it seems quite certain that there once an ancient deer mother goddess and that she was associated with winter solstice. And I believe that the image of a female reindeer with the sun in her horns was once part of this feminine solstice mythology.
Obviously the reindeer pulling a flying sleigh at solstice or yule were female and they were clearly associated with goddesses (as in the Slavic goddess Saule who took to sky at winter solstice with her herd of female reindeer).
And there is also plenty of evidence suggesting that northern female shamans wearing antlered headdresses took flight to other worlds with her reindeer.
And I for one, would like to know why we don’t more about this forgotten history.