Thursday, December 15, 2016

Power to the Horn! The Symbology of the Stag





stag in stone

 Stag Design by the Author - Stone Mad Crafts.


Across Northern Europe the stag was not only hunted but it was also so revered and respected that this magnificent animal became associated with hunting rites and folklore. 

In Celtic realms across the Continent and Britain there exist  carvings depicting an antler-horned humanoid. These have been tentatively linked to a deity named  “Cernunnos”  (translated as The Horned One*). This Horned God appears in various iconography in Europe and must have been associated with the wildwood. In Valcamonica his figure is carved on a rock (along with attendant serpent and torc), dwarfing a human figure at his feet (The Horned God will be the subject of a future post).  However the stag also appears alongside the god and must have been a sacred animal in his worship**. 

cult wagon
The Strettweg cult wagon from 600BC features stags in a ritual reference

This human/stag mix  may have links with the general ‘undercurrent’ of ancient ‘shamanic’ type practices.  In Britain 24 stag skull masks from the mesolithic period (and dated to 9000BC) were unearthed at Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Could this be the visualisation of a physical sensation that ritualists involved in ancient spirit-world practices actually experienced? Could it be that the sensation of the extended mind was (and is) still symbolised and expressed visually by antlers?  

star carr
Digital reconstructions of some of the masks found at Star Carr

In fact stags feature predominantly in parts of Valcamonica, where rock carvings date from early bronze-age and iron-age.  Obviously Valcamonica was a site where stags featured as part of the ritual, most likely tied to regional hunting rites.  It could be that the distinction between spirit/shamanic hunting rites and the hunt were blurred. 

Much of the imagery portrays young males in the peak physical fitness, revealing a sense of strength and virility.  Male deer shed their horns every year, and subsequently remove the velvet covering from their growing horns as the weeks progress. Drawing upon observations of the natural world (to which they were bound) symbolic links were surely drawn by these Iron-Age hunters***: ideas of  transition and re-birth also reflecting a seasonal symbology, which would tie in with much of the cyclical beliefs of the Celts and their predecessors.  The link between fighting prowess (males defend their females from other males) and  mating success surely could have been interpreted symbolically.  Certainly some of the carvings, in which the antlers are of an outlandish size,  may be an indication of strength and prowess. However certain Shamanic practitioners in the recent past drew symbolic stags, whose exaggerated horns represented the amount of spirit guides available to the shaman (the more ‘tines’ the more helpers).  

Another significance attached to the antler brings us back round to the Horned God and the association with the natural world, and how these forms could easily converge, i.e. the tree-like antler representing the ‘spirit of the forest’. In this aspect we glimpse the stag’s association with the World Tree, and in Norse myth we find deer that live in Yggdrasil’s branches, nibbling the leaves while their dung add fertiliser to the great tree’s roots.  

sun antlers
One of my photos from Valcamonica
showing the antlered sun symbol.
 
valcamonica carving
Another of mine from Valcamonica


The visual impact of the antlers was also manipulated in another way. Examples from Valcamonica portray figures and symbols that are a fusion of antler and the sun, indicating the association the stag had with this element. The huns had a legend in which a stag  was depicted with a sun on its forehead and there are designs from the bronze-age in which solar discs are portrayed with antlers. This is another age-old symbolic link. 

Neither is it surprising that the stag possesses  Otherworld symbolism in Celtic literature. There is some evidence to suggest that this same Horned God, mentioned above, may have chthonic properties (I promise I’ll deal with this in a future post).  Indeed the animal was different things to different people; it was associated with various deities, and appears in several Romano-celtic carvings paired with a bull. To me this is the stag’s most enduring imagery:  a symbol of the wild, unrepentant and chaotic nature (whereas, in this context,  the bull represents domestication and agriculture). In this aspect the stag’s imagery persists - right into the medieval period and beyond, always hinting at that which has gone before, as an echo of the past which made us all. And it is no wonder, as anyone  lucky enough to sight a  stag in the wild will know, such a sight  can’t fail to impress and, perhaps, tweak the mythological awe inside us all. 


gundestrup cauldron cernunnos
The horned deity on the Gundestrup Cauldron (Silver repoussé)



notes:
*There is some dispute about whether the deity was known by this name.
**This is similar in essence to the Grecian Goddess Artemis to whom the stag is devoted.
 *** The vast majority of the stags and hunt scenes in Valcamonica were carved in the Iron-Age.


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