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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 jewellery, painted on drums, and tattooed onto skin.
The reindeer was often shown leaping or flying through the air with its 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.
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. Beaivi was often shown accompanied by her daughter in an enclosure of reindeer antlers and together they returned green and fertility to the land.
Many winter goddesses in northern legends were associated with the 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.
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.
Russian Kozuli are similar cookies baked during winter celebrations, Christmas and New Year. Often called Roe these cookies were originally small three-dimensional figures, most often shaped in the form of reindeer (and birds, fish, bears, flowers, stars and trees – images associated the ancient goddesses of the land). These magical talismans brought wealth, prosperity, good fortune to the family and were also gifted to relatives, friends, neighbours, even the animals and pets! They were displayed in the home as charms to protect from evil spirits and were used for Christmas divination by girls and young men on Epiphany evenings.
Today Kozuli are often defined as meaning “she-goat” in Russian, but in the northern White Sea region where they originate, the word kozulya means “snake” or “curl”. This is believed to refer to the spiral of life and the curling antlers of the reindeer whose twisted horns had different meanings; friendship, love, health and longevity. Sometimes the horns carry apples, birds, or depictions of the winged sun. They were traditionally coloured white and pink, obtained with the juice of lingonberries or cranberries.
This year I finally my own version of these traditional cookies, a simple shortbread made with dried cranberry powder. (recipe is up on Gather Victoria Patreon). They aren’t nearly so fancy, who has the time – or the skill? But they were made in the spirit intended and it did take a little work making the cranberry powder! They came out gloriously red and the icing sugar, of course, is the white.
These colours are thought to descend from Siberian legends, in which 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.
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 it 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?
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.
So this solstice, take a moment to remember the forgotten winter goddesses of old and their magical reindeer. Look out from your warm cosy 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.
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 surprise. 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.
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 reaches its apogee with horned female images, usually adorned with antlers.”
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).
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.
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…”
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 the 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 the 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.”
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 images 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 the Winter Solstice? I like to think so.
204 thoughts on “Doe, A Deer, A Female Reindeer: The Spirit of Winter Solstice”
Reblogged this on The Crane Book of Wisdom and commented:
Posted a link to this last year. Reblogging from the actual post for new readers. Nine Blessings!
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This is some of my Finnish heritage… I am so proud! (The Sami people are in northern Finland and Lapland)
Thank you for this beautiful post. I having been wondering about mindful women during Christmastime. Ironic that most women hold the keys to how we currently celebrate and honor the season and yet are not seen as bestowers but as worker bees. I hope Mother Christmas is retold often as it offers symbolism for the wonderful things a nurture provides.
Beautifully done, Sara. Thanks for your reach back into a wondrous ancient history.
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♥ happy solstice!!!♥
Reblogged this on spinning the light and commented:
This post is such a beautiful and fitting end to my year and just so on-season with the Winter Solstice that has been the highlight of this festive month, having reignited a deep subconscious (life-long) relationship I had been having with Elen of the Ways. Who is Elen? She is the mother-goddess archetype of these isles and many others; deeply and intrinsically associated with woodland and the deer.
I started writing a long post about her earlier this year yet never published it because it just began to feel way too personal…weaving the factual in and out of my own life story and numerous gravitations towards Elen-like themes, from being born so close to Sherwood Forest that I spent years daydreaming I was Maid Marion living under the greenwood tree to the (far too) many synchronicities of place, interest and…yes…even name, spanning almost five decades. Since discovering Elen, I have joined a facebook community of others who have found her and its fascinating to witness the sense of reunion and deep personal understanding emerging through the vehicle of her (like we are finding her deep in our own psyche…) as each person dives deep into the rich culture-pot and associations, the recollections of another era – an era when the feminine was revered and regarded as crucial to our survival – centred around her.
And right at that centre of that circle around her stands the doe…a subject I recently started painting on a whim, yes with a bird perched in her antlers (…as referred to in the article that follows though what made me add that detail I hardly know…yet it is a typical one, so this article says). Suffice to say, if you’re drawn to this topic of deer and goddesses, do read this wonderful, seasonal, article and dive deep into one of the books about Elen – I recommend ‘Finding Elen: A Quest for Elen of the Ways’ by Caroline Wise, it was an absolute epiphany for me!
We have been following Elen of the Ways across Wales lately. Her ways are labeled as Sarn Helen on the maps.
One day I dream of going …
Years ago in Denmark or Sweden, I bought a rubbing of the horse (although now I’m thinking it must be the deer) that pulls the sun across the sky. I thought then it was a daily trip, but your explanation makes more sense.
Virginia Russell – You must have been in Sweden – the sunhorse is part of a rock carving, Balken near Underslös. You must have bougt the rubbing (or frottage) there.
SO grateful to this post as you articulated what I took a deep-dive into this year around the deer and the associated goddess culture yet hardly knew how to share without repeating all l had read (and probably getting into a huge academic muddle and needing to reference every piece of data) or going in way too personal (since this whole topic feels much more like remembering than anything academic…) In the end, I took to painting what came up – a doe with a bird in its antlers – and, I hope you don’t mind, I have reposted your article to my blog with a foreword on that topic. What a brilliant, engaging, well-balanced and relatable piece!
Thank you. Thank you so much. I “FEEL” these words with beauty and spirit. Thank you for keeping Her alive and remembered.
Thank you. I was just looking into my spirit animal the reindeer. And found your beautiful post.
I absolutey love this article. Are there others corresponding to the various pagan high holidays?
Yes a whole bunch…go to Categories (on the sidebar) and click on Seasonal Celebrations. Enjoy!
Reblogged this on Shamanic Paths and commented:
The deep roots of fables are often surprising, not entirely as we might imagine, and sometimes reveal a “self evident” truth we have somehow become blind to…
What a wonderful post! … Hi there, greetings from the Fraser Valley. 🙂 I just arrived here via Running Elk’s (Shamanic Paths) reblog … I;m going to spend the next few days just wallow … erm … reading your old posts. The perfect thing to do on these rainy Autumnal days. 😀
** sighs contentedly, sips chai tea, and commences wallowing**
Wonderful! Hope you were cozy and contented!
Still going. 🙂
Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this beautiful compilation art and story, it’s so important! I have a question for you… Each Solstice I chose a story to read my children (aged 9 and 14). I’d love to be able to read them something about the Deer Mother. Do you know of any sources for stories? Thank you, Sarah
Thank-you! I’m not aware of anything out there for children specifically – I’m thinking of doing a children’s book for next year! And while I haven’t yet read yet, Elen Sentier has written a highly recommended book called Elen of The Ways, I think there are two others as well. Good-luck and keep me posted!
I was thinking the same! Would love to pass this story along to the grandkids – please continue with your book project!
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Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
This is an excellent post on the relationship between shamanism, reindeer and modern day Christmas iconography. It includes many source materials, as well. I also suggest researching Elen of the Ways for additional information on the ancient stories and resurgence of the Reindeer Goddess. Many thanks for such a collection of images and source materials!
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Reblogged this on Tania Marie's Blog and commented:
This is a beautiful article by Danielle Prohom Olson. As we approach Winter Solstice may this share awaken ancient memories and the true spirit of the season for you. Thank you also to Laura Bruno for sharing this and bringing it to my attention.
Thank you for this! 🙂 Reblogged on https://thedesertpath.com/
Thank you so much for this wonderful, informative, and inspirational article!
Thank-you! And Happy Winter Solstice to You! xo
I have two hopes for the survival of our species. Technology which will enhance our planet’s abilities to recover, and the fact half our species are female! With their inherent pragmatism and social advantages. In peace…
Literally one of the most beautiful articles I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for setting the record straight on these Christmas symbols. I can tell you, I’ll never see it all the same again. I mourn a bit for what we’ve lost as women, and at the same time I’m thrilled that it isn’t so far gone that we can’t recall it and link to it. Blessings.
Thank-you so much! Blessings to you!
Fantastic story and background information. Just wondering if you proceeded with the whole book idea for The Deer Mother?
Yes…proceeding very, very slowly!
We need some children’s books on this to incorporate it into our holiday stories, un-raveling all the different stories and meanings and symbols and festivals that got lumped into one day/person/concept…
I’m working on one!
Happy Solstice! We love your blog and enjoy this special post very much, many thanks to you and all you do to celebrate herstory! xo Teresa and Sabrine
We have reblogged it on our FB page, http://www.facebook.com/TeresadelaGuardia
Thank-you & thanks for sharing! Happy Winter Solstice to you!
The Deer are Sacred to me as they are to my Matron Goddess. Every year my partner buys me a deer to display, I now have quite a collection of them. As I honor Goddess/Women’s Mysteries, this makes deep intuitive sense to me. The Solstice and Return of the Light is a most important holy day to me, the original and primal ” reason for the season”.
I did have a set of Holiday cards I sent out for a few years with a Priestess being pulled by Reindeer in Sacred Clothing, but I havent seen such imagery since.
This year the Solstice was particularly powerful with a Full Moon along with the Solstice and yes I celebrated. One of these years, perhaps next year I will lead a Winter Solstice ritual with the Reindeer Mother bringing back the Sun in Her horns, quoting from your research, and any other lore I can find. And yes a pair of deer antlers sits on my altar as well….Blessed Be
What beautiful observations. Yes I feel the same pull. Blessed Be!
Every year i re-share this article with my friends. For me personally, this is the closest I can get with online research to my own indigenous roots. this is my culture, covered by coats and coats of patriarchy, commerce, “western civilisation”, colonialism, etc. back here, i find my peace, and my place in the world. thank you for your research work and sharing this article.
Thank-you so much for this comment! I hear you. Blessings!
Danielle–I’m editing an art memoir, and the author would like to include two short excerpts from this post, giving proper credit of course. Could you get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can discuss this possibility? Thank you! Kristin Barendsen
Will do! I’ll email tomorrow!
Danielle–thanks for your reply. It would be great if we could get in touch! email@example.com. Thanks!
I am of the Deer Clan of the Choctaw. Issi Chunkash is my Choctaw name, given to me by my ancestors and shared via prayers by someone who had already received her name. My name’s meaning – Deer Heart – and how it expresses who I am is still making itself known to me.
Issi Chunkash is what connects me to my ancestors. Now that I know my name, the ancestors can speak to me in which ever way I’ll best hear them. As I learn and recognize more about my name as a description of my true self, that connection becomes stronger. As that connection becomes stronger, their voices become more clear and they help me see more of what I need in order to know myself better.
This connection is what I felt when I read the story of Deer Mother. I came upon this post and watched the video at the pinnacle of the darkest, most painful and most difficult time of my life. But as I watched the video it was as if I was seeing parts of myself and I knew it was my ancestors finding a way to speak to me. Now I know that my name Issi Chunkash connects me not only to my Choctaw ancestors, but also my Scottish ones. They all stand together, in support of me. They give me strength to survive dark times, so that I can continue my path of compassion and community connection and maternal care and helping bring light to those around me. The story of Deer Mother has reaffirmed for me that I am on the right path. Issi Chunkash survives dark times so that I can help guide others through. In fact, it is during these times of hardship when I rise up and step into my true self.
“On the longest, darkest night of the year, it was the Deer Mother that took flight, carrying the life-giving light of the sun safely into the new year in her antlers.”
Thank-you for your beautiful, heartfelt and wise comments. My heart is touched by your strength. Blessings to you this Winter Solstice. xoxo
I love this article and I find myself referring to it a lot. Would you mind sharing some of the sources you pulled this information from?
They should be linked in the post – is there any particular tidbit you were specifically interested in?
“This year I finally my own version of these traditional cookies, a simple shortbread made with dried cranberry powder. (recipe is up on Gather Victoria Patreon). They aren’t nearly so fancy, who has the time – or the skill? But they were made in the spirit intended and it did take a little work making the cranberry powder! They came out gloriously red and the icing sugar, of course, is the white”.
I’m not able to access this link, and I’d like to try making those red reindeer. Could you please send me that recipe or direct me to where I can find it. The link you published is not good.
Hello there I just wanted to say I love this article as it is amazing and was very insightful. I wanted to ask if it you knew the meanings of each of the symbols depicted on the Russian kozuli with spirals. Thank you for your time✌🏽😁
Yes I do have references in my HUGE research file. I’ll go and check it out. If you don’t hear from me after a week – please remind me! I tend to forget things easily!
I loved this post. Thank you for sharing it.
I’m currently researching my ancestors and have a hard time wading through the heavily patriarchal based material about Poland (I’m 50% Polish). But this article really speaks to me! I am curious because the national colors of Poland are red and white! I wonder if they have origins in the reindeer spirituality?
I’m not sure but I’m certainly going to investigate! Thank you!