Deer Symbolism in Mythology: The Sacred Deer in World Cultures

Deer Symbolism in Mythology: The Sacred Deer in World Cultures

Deer symbolism refers to the meaning and significance that has been attached to the image of the deer in various cultures and belief systems. Deer that live in forest areas have different meanings in different civilizations. These include immortality, guidance, fertility, kindness, change and renewal. These diverse concepts have enabled deer to occupy an important place in both mythology and folklore.

Deer in Norse Mythology

In Norse folklore, deer are often associated with fertility, the life cycle, hunting, nature, and forests. However, there are deer myths that have both positive and negative undertones.

Eikþyrnir is one of the most well-known deer in Norse mythology. It lives on the roof of Valhalla, the hall of the slain warriors, in Åsgard, with a goat named Heiðrún, whose udders drip mead.1

deer symbolism, Eikþyrnir and Heiðrún
Eikþyrnir and Heiðrún (17th century Icelandic manuscript)

According to ancient literary sources, Eikþyrnir feeds on the leaves of Yggdrasil, the world tree in Norse cosmology. The waters dripping from its antlers flow into the spring called Hvergelmir and cause the rivers to fill.

The poem Grímnismál in the Poetic Edda, an important source for Norse mythology, mentions four stags, Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr, and Duraþrór. These deer are described as animals that eat the branches of Yggdrasil.2 Some researchers suggest that these deer symbolize the four seasons.

Deer in Greek and Roman Mythologies

In Greek mythology, deer are considered the symbol of the Greek goddess Artemis, who is associated with hunting, nature and childbirth. For this reason, in many works of art, Artemis is depicted with a deer next to her.

Deer have an important place in the stories and myths about Artemis. They are depicted as animals considered sacred and protected by Artemis, and represent the aspect of the goddess associated with hunting and nature. That is why in many legends hunting deer is a sin.

The equivalent of Artemis in Roman mythology is Diana, and one of her symbols is the deer. Almost all temples built in honor of the goddess Diana have antlers hanging on their walls.

deer symbolism diana statue
Statue of Diana by Jean-Baptiste Tuby (1687)

The deer symbolism in Greek culture and the symbolic meanings of deer in Greek mythology are not limited to Artemis. Deer are also considered a symbol of wild nature, freedom, speed, cunning and power. The legends include many heroes and gods who benefit from the powers of deer.

One of the 12 tasks of Heracles, son of Zeus and Alcmene, was to catch one of Artemis’ deer, which could run faster than an arrow. Heracles, a divine hero, chased after the deer for about a year, then caught it, but later asked Artemis for mercy and released the deer.

Deer in Celtic Mythology

In Celtic mythology, the deer is an important figure associated with various goddesses and gods. It is often considered a symbol of strength, endurance and regeneration. It symbolizes the connection between the natural world and the spiritual world and the splendor of the animal kingdom.

The deer is closely linked to Cernunnos, who is considered the lord of animals and the wild. Cernunnos is often depicted as a shamanic figure with antlers on his head and surrounded by animals such as deer, snakes, and wolves.

deer symbolism, Cernunnos
A horned figure, often identified as Cernunnos, on an Iron Age cauldron. (Danish National Museum)
Photo: Nationalmuseet ©CC BY-SA 3.0

Although there is relatively little information about Cernunnos in historical sources, he is a popular figure in modern neopaganism. He is also associated with the Horned God in the Wicca tradition.

In Celtic mythology, the deer was considered a guide between the realms. It was believed that deer could help people who wanted to make a journey to the other world.

Deer in Turkic and Hungarian Mythologies

In Turkic and Southern Siberian mythologies, the deer symbolism dates back to ancient times. Deer teeth have been unearthed in some tombs in the Altai, suggesting that myths about these mysterious animals date back to the Iron Age. However, in time, the cult of the deer was replaced by the cult of the wolf in Turkestan. Especially during the Göktürks period, this cultural transformation reached its peak.

Börü: The Wolf in Turkic Mythology

The Göktürks were a strong and warlike society. Therefore, this artistic and cultural transformation also indicated that a sociological transformation was taking place. But traces of deer-related beliefs never disappeared. Even in the 8th century AD, the deer was still a symbol of strength and agility for the Göktürks.

Deer symbolism is thought to have a much more important place in proto-Turkic culture. Turkish art historian Yaşar Çoruhlu wrote that the deer was considered an animal-ancestor, god or goddess in very early times.3

The deer were associated with fertility and supernatural powers in ancient communities living on the Eurasian steppes. Thus, in some communities, hunting deer was subject to certain rituals. In line with Tengrist, animist and shamanistic beliefs, nature spirits had to be respected.

Deer figurines found in old Turkic tombs show that deer are needed after death.4

Hunor and Magor

Deer, one of the most agile animals of the forest, symbolizes nature and guidance in Hungarian myths.

According to legend, two brothers, Hunor and Magor, who lived in the east of the Ural Mountains, reached the territory of present-day Hungary by following a sacred deer. Hunor is considered to be the ancestor of the Huns and Magor of the Hungarians.5

Deer in Finnish Mythology

In Finnish mythology, deer were often associated with forests and nature. Therefore, they are also associated with Tapio, a type of forest god or forest spirit.

In some Finnish stories, deer are depicted as wise and noble animals. The antlers of the deer were believed to have healing power. These horns were used by Finnish shamans to summon the spirit of the deer and ask for help from the spirit.

The deer symbolism in shaman clothing is a research topic in itself.6

Deer Totem and Spirit Animal in Shamanism

Deer Symbolism in Other Cultures

Deer symbolism, often associated with nature and supernatural forces, is prominent in the literature, artworks and legends of many civilizations.

In Slavic mythology, deer are often seen as symbols of grace, speed and agility. They are also associated with forests and the natural world, and are considered the protectors of wild animals. Veles, god of the earth, forests and the underworld, and Leshy, a type of forest spirit, are often depicted with deer antlers.

In Native American culture, deer are often associated with grace, beauty, and gentleness, and are seen as a symbol of peace, love, and harmony. Many tribes have their own unique stories and different beliefs about deer, but deer symbolism in general is an important part of Native American culture. Some Native Americans portray deer as powerful spiritual beings who can help people connect with the spirit world.

In Japanese mythology and Shintoism, deer are often associated with gods and spirits. The sun goddess Amaterasu is sometimes shown with a deer next to or behind her in Japanese art. In one legend, Amaterasu’s sacred emissary is a deer named Ame-no-Kaku.7

  1. “Prose Edda”, Snorri Sturluson^
  2. “Grímnismál”, Poetic Edda, Snorri Sturluson^
  3. “Türk Mitolojisinin Ana Hatları”, Yaşar ÇORUHLU, Ötüken Neşriyat, ISBN: 9786051559926^
  4. “Türk Mitolojisinden Anadolu’ya Taşınan Kültür: Geyik Motifi” Mehmet MANDALOĞLU, Uluslararası Sosyal Araştırmalar Dergisi, 6.27 (2013): 382-391^
  5. “Caucasian Aspects of the Hungarian Nimrod Tradition”, Borbála Anna OBRUSÁNSZKI, 2020^
  6. Study of the Deer Symbolism in the Shaman’s Clothing and Attributes“, Altantsetseg PUREVDORJ & Uranmandakh MARGAI, 2018^
  7. Ame-no-Kaku - Amaterasu’s Divine Deer Emissary“, Kikuko HIRAFUJI, Kokugakuin University, February 4, 2020^
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