Doe, A Deer, A Female Reindeer: The Spirit of Mother Christmas

Oh wondrous headed doe… Amongst its horns it carries the light of the blessed sun…” Hungarian Christmas Folk Song

Long before Santa charioted his flying steeds across our mythical skies, it was the female reindeer who drew the sleigh of the sun goddess at winter solstice. It was when we “Christianized” the pagan traditions of winter, that the white bearded man i.e. “Father Christmas” was born.

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Today it is her beloved image that adorns Christmas cards and Yule decorations – not Rudolph. Because unlike the male reindeer who sheds his antlers in winter, it is the doe who retains her antlers. And it is she who leads the herds in winter.

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So this season, when we gather by the fire to tell children bedtime stories of Santa and his flying reindeer – why not tell the story of the ancient Deer Mother of old? It was she who once flew through winter’s longest darkest night with the life-giving light of the sun in her horns.

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Ever since the early Neolithic, when the earth was much colder and reindeer more widespread, the female reindeer was venerated by northern people. She was the “life-giving mother”, the leader of the herds upon which they depended for survival, and they followed the reindeer migrations for milk, food, clothing and shelter.

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And from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, across the land bridge of the Bering Strait, she was a revered spiritual figure associated with fertility, motherhood, regeneration and the rebirth of the sun (the theme of winter solstice). 

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Top right to left: Siberian Deer Tattoo 2nd century BCE., Shamanic Headdress found in Düsseldorf Burial, Scythian Deer figurine, Mesolithic Burial of two women in France, Scythian Rod, Iron Age

Her antlers adorned shrines and altars, were buried in ceremonial graves, and were worn as shamanic headdresses. Her image was etched in standing stones, woven into ceremonial cloth and clothing, cast in jewelry, painted on drums, and tattooed onto skin.

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Deer Stones Image Source Wikipedia. Upper Left Image: Pen and Ink Sketch of Mongolian Deer Stone by Penny Sinclair, Scottish Narratives.

The reindeer was often shown leaping or flying through the air with neck outstretched and legs flung out fore and aft. Her antlers were frequently depicted as the tree of life, carrying birds, the sun, moon and stars. And across the northern world, it was the Deer Mother who took flight from the dark of the old year to bring light and life to the new.

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Sami Reindeer Woman, source Artic Photo

For the Sami, the indigenous people of the Nordic countries, Beaivi is the name for the Sun Goddess associated with motherhood, the fertility of plants and the reindeer. At Winter solstice, warm butter (a symbol of the sun) was smeared on doorposts as a sacrifice to Beaivi so that she could gain strength and fly higher and higher into the sky. Beivve was often shown accompanied by her daughter in an enclosure of reindeer antlers and together they returned green and fertility to the land.

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Sami Reindeer Woman, source Artic Photo

Many winter goddesses in northern legends were associated with solstice. They took to the skies led by a bevy of flying animals. One tells of the return of Saule, the Lithuanian and Latvian goddess of the sun. She flew across the heavens in a sleigh pulled by horned reindeer and threw pebbles of amber (symbolizing the sun) into chimneys.

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Mary B. Kelly’s book Goddess Embroideries Of Eastern Europe explores images of the horned deer mother in the sacred textiles of women. The image of the mother goddess Rohanitsa is often shown with antlers and gives birth to deer as well as children. For her feast day in late December (most likely solstice) white iced cookies shaped like deer were given as presents or good luck tokens, and red and white embroidery depicting her image were displayed.

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Ceremonial Embroidery of Rohanitsa, Image Source from Mary B. Kelly

In Siberian legends the reindeer took flight each winter after ingesting the hallucinogenic Amanita Muscaria mushroom, the archetypal red toadstool with white spots. Shamans would join them on a vision quest, by taking the mushrooms themselves. Climbing the tree of life in her horns, they would take flight like a bird into the upper realms. Other folktales tell how shamans, dressed in red suits with white spots, would collect the mushrooms and then deliver them through chimneys as gifts on the winter solstice. Talk about a wild night.

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While many historical explorations of the pagan origins of Christmas observe the link between Santa’s garb and the red and white amanita mushroom ingesting shaman, few mention that is was the female shamans who originally wore red and white costumes trimmed with fur, horned headdresses or felt red hats! The ceremonial clothing worn by medicine women healers of Siberia and Lapland, was green and white with a red peaked hat, curled toed boots, reindeer mittens, fur lining and trim. Sound familiar?

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Horned Kichko, ancient russian shaman females sacred hat.

Considering that most of the shamans in this region were originally women, it is likely that their traditional wear is the true source for Santa’s costume.  And it is also very likely that they were the first to take shamanic flight with the reindeer on winter’s darkest night.

And while these women are largely forgotten today, the Deer Mother still lives in our Christmas cards, seasonal decorations and tales of Santa’s flying reindeer. And while we may not recognize her, I believe some deep, old part of ourselves still remembers the original “Mother Christmas” who brought light and new life to the world.

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So this solstice take a moment to remember the forgotten winter goddesses of old and their magical reindeer. Look out from your warm cozy home into the cold of the darkening eve. And on the sacred night when the sun is reborn, look for the Deer Mother flying across starry skies, carrying the tree of life in her horns.

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*****

POSTSCRIPT

This postscript is in response to the many comments and requests I’ve received for the sources of the above post. Many have never heard of the Deer Mother or her female shaman -which is no surprize. Today the internet is awash with articles examining the pagan origins of Christmas but what is consistently overlooked is the idea that there may have been a feminine source for yule traditions.

For example, a plethora of “alternative” articles observe the link between Santa’s red and white garb and the Siberian shaman, and consistently refer to this shaman as “him”. Little mention is made that this ceremonial clothing was worn by the earliest shamans in the northern regions who were -and still are – female. In fact the leader of the Mongolian Reindeer People, according to this source,  is a 96-year-old shaman known as Tsuyan.

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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 historical scholarship has assumed that many horned images found in archaic relics, ritual objects and artwork were male. But considering the evidence for a reindeer mother goddess cult dating from the prehistoric, many scholars now suggest that some of these images may be in fact, female reindeer.

That early female shaman wore horned headdresses and antlers is also well documented. In Miranda Green’s book Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art she states, “animal symbolism associated with goddesses reachs it apogee with horned female images, usually adorned with antlers.” 

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Lead Plaque of Horned God (or Goddess?) found in Chesters, Northumberland. Miranda Green. 

Green makes the point that while the antlered god Cernunnos is well known in eastern Gaul (and is revered in many pagan circles today) there were also feminine counterparts found in at many sites such as Clermont-Ferrand  (Puy de Dome) and at Besancon (Doubs).

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Esther Jacobson compiled the deer iconography of the early nomads of South Siberia and northern Central Asia. Her book The Deer Goddess Of Ancient Siberia: A Study In The Ecology Of Belief traces the image of the deer from rock carvings, paintings, and monolithic stelae from the Neolithic period down through the early Iron Age.  And her study demonstrates that this deer goddess “religion “revolved around female “wise woman” and the Deer Mother herself. 

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Reindeer Stones or Stele. Image source Wikipedia.

The deer goddess was known across northern Europe. 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…”

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Antlered female shaman (believed to be Nishan from NE Asia)

The book The Golden Deer of Eurasia published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a wonderful visual exploration of the sacred significance of the deer and reindeer in the shamanic traditions – which “was understood as essentially female” and associated with the tree of life, fertility, motherhood  birth and the rebirth of the sun (the theme of winter solstice!)

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.”

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Mesolithic female shaman of Bad Dürrenberg, 7000-6500 bce, with reconstructed regalia from animal bones, horns, teeth, and shells. From a wonderful color-illustrated pdf of “Archaeological Finds from Germany”

This fascinating article describes the ancient traditional clothing worn by “Medicine Women Healers” in Siberia and what once known as Lapland. “The red peaked, felted hats and curled-toe boots and warm mittens of reindeer-hide complete, what I believe to be, the feminine origins of perhaps the first of a very long line of Santa Claus replications. Their long lineage of connection with the induction of spiritual journeys through the drum, their relationship of healing with “Reindeer-Magic” and their ability to create potions and salves which could incite ecstatic visions or “Shamanic Journeys,” give us a deeper look at the Solstice and contemporary Christmas symbol. These priestesses-of-the-antlered-ones who flew through the night to gather blessings and healing and then distributed these gifts to their tribe members must surely be considered as proto-typical Fore-Mothers of Santa.”

So based on these sources (and I could go on!) it seems quite certain that there once an ancient deer mother goddess associated with the sun at winter solstice. It also seems likely that female shamans took to shamanic flight with the Deer Mother on this sacred night.

Today some of our most cherished Christmas iconography features antlered “stags”. Why does this image still speak so strongly to us? Could it be that they evoke an ancient memory? Are we remembering the long forgotten mother of winter solstice? I like to think so. deermothertreeoflife

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P.S. And if you want to share the story of the Deer Mother – here is a little video!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Whether its through wildcrafting, plant medicine, kitchen witchery or seasonal celebrations, I believe we can enhance personal, community and planetary well-being by connecting with mother nature!

187 thoughts on “Doe, A Deer, A Female Reindeer: The Spirit of Mother Christmas

  1. What a lovely read! I love reading up on the pre-Christian roots of the annual traditions followed here in Europe and you have certainly taken me further down that road – on this day/weekend when that Northern European incarnation of Father Christmas – Saint Nikolaus – starts his rounds 🙂

  2. I love these ideas so much. I’ve always felt drawn to Christmas decorations that depicted deer and I feel this may be why. Do you have any good reading resources that you could recommend in this topic?

    1. Hi Amy, you may be interested in the postscript which I added to the original post. It is chock full of reading resources on the topic! Thanks!

  3. On the belief systems, it’s pretty mish moshed on what belief system is being referenced to. I know this had a see how this weaves into Christmas imagery agenda, but in terms of deities and specific belief systems I found this a bit frustrating to read. I appreciate the effort to tie in similar imagery but without proper referencing each time i.e. In the Nordic geographic region, in the Nordic theological system where the primary deity was etc etc etc or in the animistic traditions of the Slavic region, where the primary deities were etc etc etc, without that it is a bit frustrating for me to read this, it’s just fairytale esque generalized. However, I am all for anyone treating me to mushrooms whether they are delivered by the chimney or the door, and I appreciate the transcendence and correlation to transcendent mind altered states the mushrooms, Christmas colors, and reindeer it alludes to 🙂 thank you your article.

    1. Please remember this is not an academic paper but a blog post… but that said I am in the process of gathering all the references I used in this article (as there has been so much interest) and will be including a full list resources at the end of the post for those who wish to research further….

      1. Might you also be able to include references to the beautiful illustrations please? And thank you for just an inspiring article…💕

      2. I wrote this piece a year ago, so I’m hunting down the original links to all image sources. If you click on the image it should link you directly. If I missed any image you’d like sourced, please let me know. Thanks!

      3. >Please remember this is not an academic paper but a blog post

        That doesn’t matter. You are presenting a lot of new ideas to people and claiming that they are historical fact. It’s one thing if you are presenting your belief or your gnosis, but if you are going to present new information as fact you have to reference it somehow. If you are a primary source than you need to let us know your qualifications. I don’t mean to sound so harsh, but we in the pagan community are having a lot of problems with people spreading around false information. Either willingly or well-meaning. I’m sure that you did a lot of work on this post, and that it means a lot to you. Clearly there’s a lot of spirit in your words and they are beautiful, but there are already people taking this as hard fact.

      4. Hello, please see I’ve added a postscript to the original post in which my sources are quoted. Thanks!

  4. What you say about the Pagan tradition is interesting and new to me. What you say about the Christian development is quite silly. ‘Santa’ is Saint Nicholas, a real person, a Bishop in Myra, Lyciea, who is well remembered in the East. Red is not mushrooms, but the royal red [purple] of the Roman Empire, also continued without forgetting in the East and in Europe.
    For that matter, the Christianization of the old things is misunderstood if you think it was sneaky or unconscious. I’m not defending the doctrines, but the history: they were expecting to adopt, repurpose, transform, and give new meaning to things already in the world. Such as Bread, and all the holidays, starting with the Jewish ones. There was no thought of looking for better times for a holiday, nor a new recipe for bread!

    1. Yes, St. Nicolas was a real person and as far as I understand it he was part of the “christianization” of the pagan solstice traditions….the colors red and white were associated with solstice and Yule in northern European & Russian cultures (such as the red & white embroidery for the Slaved Goddess Rozhanitsa).

    1. I’m not sure if Santa’s suit was originally green…but this was a post about the ancient northern traditions of solstice & the female reindeer. Red and white are the traditional colours associated with solstice & shamanic traditions in many northern european cultures…I believe the original male deity associated with Yule was the Green Man…you can google this for more info….

  5. This is lovely, just lovely. I gave up on Christmas years ago, but in my own small way I celebrate the Winter Solstice every year. It also happens to be my sweetheart’s birthday, so the day is special for us both. I confess that whenever I heard people utter the words ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’, I want to tap them on the shoulder and correct them, saying, ‘no, not really. Winter Solstice is the reason for the season. IS the season!’ Thank you. I am a brand new fan of your blog, after reading this post.

  6. Thank you so much! I have two horned papier mache deer that, once acquired as a holiday decoration, I could not bear to put away, and they have been in my main room for years. This must be why.

    Love your blog. Now I’m delightedly following you.

  7. Very nice article, thank you, but Rozhanitsya is NOT “Russian.” There was no Russia until the 18th century, when these violent sons of Viking/Mongols stole the name to falsely claim a relationship with Ukraine. They are not Slavs, and their only “gods” are the violent sky spirits they brought on their pillages.

    Rozhanitsya is an ancient Ukrainian goddess. We are the Indigenous people of Eastern Europe, on our land for 44,000 years. Please do not participate in Russia’s murder and theft of our culture and resources, which is what their continued genocide is about.

    1. Yes, of course you are right. The original sources were in Russian, but they did specify that Rozhanitsya was a Slavic goddess…I will make this correction.

      1. ” Saule, the Slavic goddess of light and family flew across the heavens in a sleigh pulled by female reindeer and threw pebbles of amber (symbolizing the sun) into chimneys. ”

        SAULE is not Slavic goddess! Saule is Latvian & Lithuanian. The Baltic nations are not slavic. Some of the Latvian tribes were the last ones fighting against the crusaders, and the pagan Gods and mythology is still very common in all 3 Baltic countries.

      2. Thank-you. But can we say she was a Baltic-Slav goddess – as she is also found in the Ukraine?

  8. what a shame almost none of this is true. I thought this sort of synchretism in the absence of scholarship had stopped in the pagan community about 1985. Even the top picture isn’t a reindeer!

    Lets deal with it piece by piece:

    “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.”

    There is and was no single ‘nature religion’ but rather hundreds or even thousands of local and more widespread braided traditions. Who is this ‘Goddess of the Winter Solstice’? Please cite a source! Father Christmas is really a new name for Saint Nicholas and the image of Father Christmas comes from a combination of Saint Nicholas and various artistic personifications of winter, mostly Victorian. He generally used to wear green.

    “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.”

    The image of a sled pulled by flying reindeer comes from a popular 1823 poem, and may well be no older. If you want me to think differently, provide a source.

    “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.”

    Funny then that almost none of your pictures show reindeer. Reindeer have quite characteristic horns! And again who is this deer mother? The image of a deer with a light between its horns (as featured on the Jaegermeister bottle) is the vision of Saint Hubertus, a 7th century Christian and patron saint of hunters, I am not aware of a deer who carries the sun in its horns. If you know of this image from mythology perhaps you could cite your source?

    “Across the North, since the Neolithic, from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Russia, Siberia, the land bridge of the Bering Straights and into the Americas, the female reindeer was venerated as the ‘life-giving mother’. She was the facilitator of fertility, the anima of wild places, forests and mountains, the otherworldly steed of fairies and magical folk.”

    Sources? Deer are sometimes regarded as fairy cattle in Celtic stories, and Merlin rides a stag but I haven’t heard of any faeries riding deer. I am not also aware of any references to female reindeer in Celtic mythology or any British neolithic carvings etc. I’m sure Sami and Siberian reindeer herders have some stories, but can you narrow it down for me?

    I’ve run out of time to continue with this (I may come back) but really if you expect anyone to believe what you are saying you have to back up assertions with sources. Almost all of what you say seems suspiciously close to supposition and wishful thinking.

    If you want to venerate female reindeer, then go ahead, but be honest about it. There is no need to back up your ideas with spurious references to non existent mythology and folklore. Elen of the Ways as a reindeer goddess is a recently manufactured idea. No problem with that, everything was made up at some point, but lets be honest in our spirituality please or we look like laughing stocks. Pagans can do better.

    1. Hello, please see I’ve added a postscript to the original post in which my sources are quoted. I believe it addresses many of your concerns. Thanks for your comments.

      1. I’m afraid links to Wikipedia and to other websites that don’t cite their sources is not really citing sources, just obfuscation. Primary sources are things like specific ancient texts, rock art, archaeological finds, published peer reviewed papers or books written by experts (which in turn should cite their primary sources) etc.

  9. Beautiful article! I reposted the last art piece , of the deer with birds in her antlers, and now many people are asking who is the artist.

    1. I am so sorry I wrote this article a year ago and have lost track of my original image links – but I am tracking it down! I will post as soon as I find it.

  10. Hi, I’m amazed that the same story exists in the Wixárika culture, in Mexico. It lay me think that all the cultures were really one at one point in history.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  11. This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing these traditions to life … By speaking about them and educating us. It’s a great service you provide for all to remember the Divine Feminine and making her present in our consciousness !!! 🙂

  12. Wonderful post. I have shared it as I wrote a post a few years ago covering a similar topic, entitled ‘Phrygian Cap’. I hadn’t realised the deer was a doe, so I will update my post with reference to yours. Thank you. Solstice Blessings,

  13. Thank you ! Sharing ! Beautiful message that makes Christmas come alive for me and grounds it in the tradition and spirit that I resonate deeply with <3

  14. beautiful!….and thus all my lovely reindeer, and snowflakes adorn my window ledge again this solstice season….blessings.

  15. Thank you for this . I have my new statuette of Elen on my mantlepiece, and will put Her central to my decorations. My friend told me about Her being the “group soul” of the deer, the embodiment of the female reindeer. Your piece is very accurate and also well written.

  16. Fabulous piece! Really enjoyed reading about the history of the deer and especially about Goddess Saule throwing amber pebbles down the chimney – wow! creates such a great image in my mind. I find reindeer and the deer trods to be such beautiful magic. Thank you 🙂

  17. Thank you for sharing this extensive depiction of what people might have believed to be the source of life energy over the centuries. I love the 🍄 /santa suit part. Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ, not any of this artwork, or the gender of animals. It is important to recognize and cherish God’s creatures, and creation. Give thanks.

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