Walt Disney’s “Bambi” tells us just about everything we need to know about the fawn – innocent, child-like, vulnerable. The doe, the doting mother watching over the fawn in a forest fraught with danger, speaks of ‘standing strong’ in guidance and protection, focusing on the job at hand, ignoring distractions that would put the fawn at risk. Actually, Disney painted only the most placid and feminine aspects of the doe, and the most masculine attributes of the stag. Prehistoric renderings of the deer, together with the bison, in the caves of Lascaux in south-western France, represent something else — the dichotomy of life and death – powerful animals that could provide food, yet be a potential cause of death.
In Celtic myth, the deer was reputed to be among the oldest of animals. Its grace earned it a close connection with the arts, specifically poetry and music. To the ancient Celts, the deer were ‘faerie cattle’, supernatural beasts that led troops of fairies and chosen humans into the forest, into their ‘faerie’ realm. The doe – Eilid – personified femininity, gracefulness and subtlety, while the stag – Damh – spoke silently but unmistakably of independence, pride and purification.
The forest was the stag’s domain, and as such assumed the protection of its creatures. Not surprisingly, the Celts associated the stag with a warrior’s virility and fertility. It was a ‘sun’ symbol as well, and closely linked with their horned god of nature and hunting.
The deer in heraldry suggest peace and harmony, and declares ‘one who will not fight unless provoked.’
In both Celtic and Native American cultures, the deer had a special talent for sniffing out medicinal herbs, earning it special respect and status in life and folklore. The image of a slain deer with herbs in its mouth has even assumed special significance in the art world – of unrequited love, lost love, or love sickness. A deer trampling snakes symbolizes spirituality overcoming temptation.
Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, sought five golden-horned deer as part of her entourage. Four of them she captured but the fifth escaped, later to be caught and dedicated to her by Hercules. The four deer that pulled Artemis’ chariot were spoken of in Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis: “In golden armor and belt, you yoked a golden chariot, bridled deer in gold.”
China has many symbols for happiness and good fortune, and the deer is one of them. In fact, in Chinese, the words ‘deer’ and ‘abundance’ sound the same. Buddhists like to tell the story of their master’s first teaching, when his blissful presence attracted even the wild animals of the region, most notably the deer. The place is now referred to as Deer Park. In some Tibetan monasteries, Buddha’s ‘deer-disciples’ appear on either sides of the roof-mounted Dharma-wheel.
In Christianity, the stag or deer is a symbol of piety and devotion, and of safety in God’s care. Psalm 42:1 reads: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” And Psalm 18:33: “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.”
Get inspired by some really great images and tattoos in our Deer Tattoo Gallery