After the Bronze Age: The Stag by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 172-174.

Cernunnos, the Horned God, from the Gundestrup Cauldron
Cernunnos, the Horned God, from the Gundestrup Cauldron.

 

The stag was of great importance among the Celtic peoples in the Roman period, and appears in a prominent position on the Gundestrup bowl, with a god-like figure thought to be the Celtic horned deity Cernunnos beside it. It also appears as the companion of a god on many Gallo-Roman reliefs (Ross, p. 333), while there is evidence for stag sacrifice among the Celts in Gaul (Salin, p. 21). How far such cults were prevalent in Denmark in the Roman period is difficult to say. A horned animal appears on the bracteates, which may, however, be a horse with horns, and also on the Gotland stones of about the sixth century A.D. (Fig. 64). Figures of horses wearing crescent horns, as on the Häggeby stone (Pl. 6), suggest that the two animals were merged together in the symbolism of the Migration period. There is an unmistakable stag, however, on the top of the standard from the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo, a realistic and handsome beast, dominating the horned heads of bulls below. Moreover, the hall of the king of Denmark in Beowulf is given the name Heorot, Hart, and the description in the poem implies that horns were fastened to the gables. There is one example of what appears to be the head of a stag, although the horns are curved and not in the form of antlers, on the gable of a house-shaped coffin from the Langobardic grave of Civezzano, in the Landesmuseum, Innsbruck, of seventh-century date; the heads of rams appear below (Schramm, vol. I, p. 242).

Royal Stag Whetstone Sceptre from Sutton Hoo

In Norse mythological literature four harts were said to feed on the boughs of the World Tree, according to the poem Grímnismál, while one special hart, called Eikþyrnir, Oak Thorn, was said to stand upon the hall of Odin, gnawing at the Tree. from his horns flowed streams of water which encircled the dwellings of the gods. Here again the hart is found in association with the roof of a royal hall, and it is interesting to compare with this account the description of the Sun Hart in the twelfth-century poem Solarljoð, where a hart in the sky appears rather incongruously in a Christian context:

I saw the Sun Hart come from the south, driven by two together.

His feet stood upon the earth, his horns reached up to heaven.

Although Christ is sometimes represented as a hart, no satisfactory explanation has been given of this figure as a Christian symbol, nor of the two said to be driving it (Schultz, pp. 435 ff.). Oxenstierna suggested that it is based on memories of two wolves pursuing the sun in Norse mythology, and links this with the group of a hart and two dogs on the top panel of the runic horn from Gallehus (Oxenstierna, pp. 154-5). The female hind also appears on one of the horns, suckling her young while a man with a bow takes aim at her. Metal figures of hinds with fawns have been found in graves of the Migration period in Norway; but it is again hard to be sure whether we are dealing here with a hind and her fawn, or with a horned mare and her foal. Although there is no direct link between the stag and any one god, Odin had among his names that of Elgr, Elk, while there are references to the god Freyr slaying the giant Beli with the horn of a hart.

House-shaped Grave of a Lombard Prince from Civezzano [Wood Engraving]
One local custom which has survived in England is an annual dance performed in September at Abbot’s Bromley in Staffordshire, which was probably a midwinter ceremony in earlier times (Folklore lxiv (1953), pp. 238, 364). The team of dancers carry what are said to be reindeer antlers, mounted on deer-heads of wood, and these are stored in the church throughout the year. Of some interest too are the surviving accounts of the ‘Stag Hunt’ in North Devon in the last century. The stag and usually the dogs were impersonated by men, and there was a realistic ‘kill’, when at the end of the hunt a bladder of blood carried by the stag was pierced. In some places this was an annual event, but elsewhere the stag impersonated someone whose behaviour had shocked the neighbourhood, and the hunt was combined with the form of ‘rough music’. Near Drewsteignton it is claimed that in the nineteenth century a youth held guilty of anti-social behaviour was made to run as the stag, and was ducked in a pond or stream when finally caught by the hunters (Brown, pp. 104-9). Similarly at Yuletide games in Norway boys dressed up in animal skins as horses, dogs and stags (Nilsson, 1938, pp. 51 ff.). Traditions about the Wild Hunt were associated with these Yule ceremonies, when the dead were said to ride through the air, led by various legendary figures who varied in different regions and at different periods. In Germany and certain parts of Scandinavia the leader was Wodan or Odin, while the Harilo of French tradition, the ‘Leader of the Host’, seems to be based on a memory of Wodan also (de Vries, 1956-7, vol. I, pp. 448-50). In later English traditions the leader was usually the devil, and the huntsmen were regarded as the souls of the unbaptized. A hunting scene is depicted on many memorial stones, including some from Gotland, and there is certainly an ancient and well-established tradition between the hunt and the dead.

It is recorded that in 1255 a band of poachers in Rockingham Forest were accused in court of setting up the head of a buck on a stake, facing south, with a spindle in its mouth to make the jaws gape open, ‘in great contempt of the lord king and his foresters’ (Stenton, p. 111). Here once more we have the head, as in the case of the horse, used to insult, and perhaps to curse, an enemy. Again, Stow records in his Survey of London of 1598 (pp. 298-9) that in 1274 a doe and buck were presented at Candlemas to the canons of St. Paul’s Cathedral by Sir William Baud, in consideration of a grant of land, and that the head of the buck was fixed to a pole and carried in procession, while the flesh was eaten. As long as stag-hunting continued to be a popular pursuit of kings and nobles, much folklore and ceremonial inevitably built up round the figure of the noble stag with branching horns, and it is not easy to say whether much of it can be traced back to heathen times. It seems that the horns of any fighting male animal were accepted as a symbol of power, suitable for a noble sacrifice and associated with the gods. On account of this there was a close link between the stag and the horned horse, the horns being transferred at times to the hornless male animal which had become more important than the bull or the stag. This practice is also found among the Celts (Ross, pp. 130 ff.).  

AM_738_4to_stags_of_Yggdrasill
This drawing made by a 17th-century Icelander shows the four stags on the World Tree. Neither deer nor ash trees are native to Iceland.

 

AM_738_4to_Eikthyrnir_Heidrun
The stag Eikþyrnir and the goat Heiðrún on top of Valhalla. From the 17th century Icelandic manuscript AM 738 4to, now in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

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