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 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 bevvy 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.