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. Reblogged this on The Awakened State and commented:
    First off I am still need to wordpress, I didn’t know you could reblog wp posts, that is really neat! Second time i stumbled on this beautiful article.

    The Spirit of Christmas was originally linked to the divine feminine and Mother Christmas. Something we often don’t think about:

    “It seems safe to assume that the reindeer pulling a flying sleigh at solstice or yule were female, and these reindeer were associated with northern mother or sun goddesses who dispensed good cheer and blessings (as in Saule who took to the sky in her sleigh led by a herd of reindeer).”

  2. My husband is the one who has the shamanic visions and he met Her in deeply enchanted mountain meadow deep in the french pyrenees in the shadow of Montsegur. He also paints his visions and if you wish I can post a link to it.

    She is very, very, very old, the region has been occupied since the Magdalenian period and we are fairly certain she was venerated by those people.

    She is always welcome in our house.

  3. Thank you so much for this amazingly beautiful research and information! Long live the Goddess and her many forms! I celebrate her everyday of my life, and continue to help women re-connect to the Divine Feminine through dance, meditation, time spent out in nature, storytelling, music, etc. We have much to re-discover in our Goddess roots, and my prayer for every woman is that she find her way back to the Life-giving Creatress of All!

  4. Christianity was adopted as the State Religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. During the fourth century, The early Church in this period downplayed the role of women — no doubt in accordance with the male-centric bias of Mediterranean cultures along with the increased emphasis upon the writings attributed to Paul the Evangelist.

    There is evidence, of at least one female bishop having her name masculinised to erase her gender. This female Bishop had her name incorporated into some wall decoration of a chapel in the Vatican in the second century.

  5. Reblogged this on A Less Travelled Path and commented:
    While there is no specific mention of Elen of the Ways, this article made me smile. The stag and antlered caribou have always been powerful images for me. Virtually all of my holiday decorations depict Reindeer.

    1. I did link to the book in this comment thread – but I have not actually read it! I will put in on my reading list for the holidays..,

  6. The etymology of the word Christmas comes from “Cristes moesse,” which meant “the mass of the festival of Christ. It is written that the first celebration of Christmas took place in Rome in the middle of the fourth century. The northern myths you are writing about are before Christ. It is a historical fact that one of the ways Christianity converted the western world was by taking over the pagan holidays. The early Christian church was a political institution. It aligned itself with the rich and powerful so this was fairly easy to do. The basic message was, “You worship our God or you die.” Christian holidays are not remotely pagan, they are Christian, and rooted in the celebration of the Christ. Pagan holidays celebrate the birth, life, death, re-birth, cycle of life; pagan holidays celebrate the turning of the wheel.

    That you would discuss Christmas, what Nature people call Winter Solstice/Yule, and Goddess in the same breath without discussing the Christian takeover of pagan holidays, and birth, is perplexing to me. It seems that what you are saying is that the sun was a virgin birth, which is little more than inverted Christianity. Winter Solstice is the darkest night of the year. In the ancient mythologies, the Goddess birthed the sun and the subsequent promise of spring, renewal, and rebirth is the hope that carried early pagans through the long, cold winter. That’s one of the reasons they loved their Goddess so; She birthed the Sun and hope back into being. In every ancient pantheon there are horned Sun Goddesses and in most ancient pantheons the Goddess, the Mother, gives birth to the Sun. In the Olde Religion, which celebrates both Goddess and God, the sacred masculine serves the sacred feminine, not as slave but as partner; not as opposing, but as compliment. She is love, He is the right arm of the law, and the only law is love. The Goddess and the God are interdependent; the health of one is dependent on the health of the other. Their love, the push-pull relationship between the two of them, is the sacred marriage or the heiros gamos. The Genesis story shared by all three major, organized, patriarchal religions split the sacred masculine from the sacred feminine, established patriarchy, and the world has been paying dearly for it ever since.

    Winter Solstice was key to converting the people because it was such a huge celebration. Mithra and Saturnalia come to mind. Christianity simply made the birth of the “sun,” the birth of their “son.” It’s a matter of historical note that the Christ was born in the spring. Mary and Joseph were in town to pay taxes and taxes were paid in the spring. In Christian tradition, the Christ is crucified and resurrected in the spring. In Goddess tradition, Ostara/Vernal Equinox, was a time of re-birth, resurrection, and eros. The God emerges looking for the Maiden. The Sun grows stronger, caressing Her, his beloved earth, with his warm rays. The earth bursts into bloom. The Christian church was so anti-sex Mary got pregnant when an angel spit in her ear.

    Ancient pantheons are filled with horned wearing sun goddesses and the myths are not only beautiful, they make human sense. Deer clans are global; reindeer clans are a northern phenomena, Siberians, Scandinavians saw/related the Goddess to the reindeer in much the same way Celtic people saw/related the Goddess to the cow and the sow. The dark night leading up to winter solstice can be found in most mythologies. To suggest Christmas has it roots in the femininity is a non sequitor. That Christianity usurped Pagan holidays for its own take-over-the-world purpose is more accurate. As a High Priestess of the Goddess, a healer, a writer, an activist, and a student of mythology and comparative religion for over 30 years, I recognize the need and the heartfelt desire to educate the population about Goddess tradition but I also think accuracy is vitally important, especially when the information is out there, and the scholarship is impeccable.

    The following books are great:

    When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone
    Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood by Merlin Stone
    The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
    Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke
    Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara Walker
    Goddesses in Every Woman by Jean Bolen Shin

    Katherine Manaan
    Middle Aged Woman Talking

    1. Thanks for your post. I imagine the author did not mention the Christian adoption of pagan rites because her coverage of the subject matter was exhaustive as is. But what you added is a nice gesture.

  7. Thanks so much for this article and all of your research! There are many pathways to the Goddess here that can be explored. I read in the comments you were ok with sharing so I have shared it to my blog here http://spiritmamablog.com/2015/12/18/doe-a-deer-a-female-deer-the-spirit-of-mother-christmas/ with a link to yours.
    I wrote an article a while back about Elen of the Ways. Check it out here. I’d love your comments! Thanks again – totally loved this. http://spiritmamablog.com/2015/03/12/the-reindeer-goddess-part-one-saints-and-empresses-antlers-and-sovereignty/

  8. Thank you SO MUCH for this article! I always wonder about the origins of symbols and such. Both this article and the accompanying comments are great food for though.
    Thanks for feeding my brain 🙂

    I am very grateful for your writings and your delicious recipes!

  9. Mmm, I love this! Thank you so much for such a great collection of so much wisdom, and such painstaking research! Just a note, though: it’s the Bering Strait, not “Straights”. <3 Blessed be!

  10. Lovely article.I want to read the full, original, un-amended version, with footnotes, etc. Rich scholarship, with footnotes and references, is always important. It allows each reader to follow the bread-crumbs to various sources, and discern their own path of understanding. It’s never in the way of enjoying a work. I’m not sure why we have pulled away from citing sources in popular writing, but the more something is referenced, the more viable and interesting it seems. Thanks for a fascinating article.

  11. Reblogged this on Uncovering the Harmonic Matrix and commented:
    Such an awe-inspire-ring read…
    Enjoy this oppor-tune-ditty to experience
    Xmas with the Deer Mother,
    Honouring the feminine in her ancient forms,
    Welcoming her again to embody in our collective consciousness
    On Xmas Day she is accompanied by the White WorldBridger,
    Ushering her forth into our collective hearts…
    This bridger-of-the-worlds opening the doorways
    That beckon forth the gifts of balance and equality
    That together we may birth anew…
    In grace and devotion to the ever-evolving divinity
    Embodied in the Source of All of Us…
    May the Full Moon shine into the Unconscious
    With the nurturing caress of the Divine Mother…
    And may we give Gratitude for the Ancient Arts
    That ignite the memories deep inside our Bones…
    Bringing healing to the time-worn and weary
    Memories Arising lightly to be shed as leaves falling from a tree and touching the swift-flowing stream…
    aaah the Simplicity of our Divine Mother
    Sophia Tara Earth Gaia Pacha Mama
    We the loving stems arising from her skin
    To tread gently
    Heeding her EVERY breath

  12. Thank you for this insight into another aspect of our beautiful magical world. I feel blessed to have this be my first new thoughts on Christmas Day!

  13. How I love this. A dear (deer) friend shared this with me. I knew nothing of the Deer Mother until I read your beautiful story. Perhaps, though, I intuitively knew her as I have always been drawn to the deer motif and I paint deer images. Here is my most recent deer painting. It has antlers yet is feminine. I thought this was incongruous until I read your essay! Now I understand:)
    https://lindahamptonsmith.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/inner-glow-1.jpg

  14. Thank you DANIELLE PROHOM OLSON for revealing more of this hidden and suppressed yet so vitally and critically important awareness. Thank you and Gather Victoria for publishing it again.

    May the great Feminine graces and powers be recognized fully on Earth. (I’ve shared your wonderful article w many dear friends.)

    Something that might also be appreciated:

    http://ipinionsyndicate.com/when-santa-was-a-woman-5-christmas-histories-you-want-to-know/#comment-22436

  15. Cool article, though the title and the images don’t match, as most female deer (doe) don’t have antlers unless they have abnormally high testosterone levels.

    1. Yes, perhaps you’re right. While the female reindeer is a doe, others have made the same point. Any suggestions? Thanks!

    1. Oh Please clarify! The majority of sources I cited did not specify names or tribes, I would love to include them. Thank-you.

      1. Sorry, I haven’t the time. I reckon that is your responsibility.

        Anonymizing those people in 2016 at fresh pics is alas just inexcusable.

        What I could do: get you ideas where to ask about their names. But that would be in some 18-20h from now. Way way past bedtime here: 03.41 …

  16. I’m sorry, but because this is a blog post (not an academic paper) I did not specify the identities and names of the many Northern & Nordic peoples (not just the Sami) which revered the reindeer and Deer Goddess. I made the choice to generalize by region because to do otherwise would have taken me thousands of more words, and as I said, this is a blog post, not a thesis. My intent was not to “anonymize” anyone, but to simply raise awareness of the importance of the Deer Mother (in general) to our northern ancestors, which is all I feel personally qualified to do. After all this is a VAST topic far beyond the scope of a blog post. So would it have been better to not write it at all? I’ve followed up in the postscript with some of the sources I used, and people are free to follow up and do more research on their own. But that said, I am collecting more information all the time and may update the post in the future. So I would appreciate it greatly if you could offer whatever information you have on the Sami. Thank-you.

  17. It’s a fascinating article, thanks. Christianity stole so many of its themes from earlier pagan religions and then mascularized them and demonized women.

    About the article though: it would be useful to point out that among deer species, caribou and reindeer are the only ones where females carry antlers. Many of the pictures in the text show other species, such as red deer or roe deer, so if those carry antlers, they show male animals. Also, the author uses “horns” and “antlers” interchangeably, but deer never have horns. Animals such as goats, sheep and cattle have horns, and among many of those, females as well as males have them. I think our ancestors knew their animals better than modern humans, so which species is shown or used in a head dress, for example, may be of significance.

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