Deer symbolism in mythology and religion
This shimmering white deer connects the physical world and the spiritual world. It stands in the bright path of the full moon, between above and below, and steps lightly forward between here and not-here while looking back over its shoulder. It is a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, and it leads us into the symbolic, middle world of the soul.
With its velvet coat, soft wet snout, brown eyes shining behind long lashes, and thin, delicate limbs, the deer’s very nature symbolizes purity and sublimity in most cultures.
In Christian art, deer are often depicted trampling snakes under their hooves, suggesting they are destroyers of evil. Other times, deer are shown searching for water near streams, the same way a soul seeks out God. It is for this reason that depictions of deer drinking at the foot of the Cross or on baptizing fonts are common.
Deer are a common symbol of Buddha’s teachings, and Buddha began his lessons in a deer park.
A pair of deer are frequently pictured flanking the Buddha’s seat. It is thought that in a past life, Buddha incarnated himself as a honey-voiced, golden stag, whose goal it was to soothe the despairing emotions of humanity and guide it to the eightfold path.
In China, deer are known as lu. It is a symbol for honor in education and success, as well as a sign of wealth and long life.
According to Chinese legend, it is the only animal that has discovered the holy fungus of immortality. The deer turns blue at 1,000 years old, white at 1,500 years old, and black at 2,000 years old. A person who consumes a piece of meat from a deer at any of these stages will survive to the age indicated by the color of the animal.
In Japanese art, the deer is related to maples and represents sorrow and a sense of missing the past.
The ancient Japanese tried to read the future by burning a deer’s shoulder blade over a bright fire and interpreting omens in the fractures caused by the heat. The Japanese folklore character Jurojin was shown as a dark brown deer, and represented good health and a long life.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the stag was thought to be able to identify medicinal plants. Because of this, the stag became a symbol of healing and recovery.
Deer’s cautious behavior, grace, and skittish nature link them to many important symbols, including:
- Mercury, the Roman god of wealth and communication.
- the human soul, which exists between the material and spiritual worlds.
- Initiation and pilgrimage paths that are circuitous and indirect.
Hearing a deer’s muffled hoof sounds in the forest teaches us to tread carefully, hoping to see this creature but also being aware of the natural world around us.
Deer as symbols of life and renewal
The male deer, or stag, is admired across the world for its towering, treelike antlers, which represent fertility, regeneration, rebirth, the ebb and flow of spiritual progress, and the flow of time. Every winter, stags shed their antlers, and each spring, they grow back with an additional branch, displaying their age and rising power.
The deer, with its annual ritual of shedding its age and sprouting new antlers, has come to represent cyclical rejuvenation and self-regeneration. It is also a sign of longevity since “it lives four times as long as a crow, which lives nine times as long as man,” according to Hesiod.
The deer is also related to the Tree of Life due to the visual similarity of its antlers to tree branches.
Come autumn, the stag’s antlers have lost their delicate “velvet” and is now ready for the mating season. The loud, barking growls, booming roars, and clashing antlers of dueling males can be heard in the distance, enhancing their virility as the victorious stag can mate with up to a dozen does.
After giving birth in the spring after a long winter’s pregnancy, the hungry deer doe will sneak off to graze, leaving her young fawns coiled up, safe and sound in the thick grass, hidden and camouflaged because of their spotted coat. The fawn will eventually join the mother outside, where it will learn to forage, wander, and sneak around undetected.
Deer have commanded our respect and awe for centuries because of their unwillingness to procreate in controlled environments, their strong sense of territory, and their penchant for living alone.
Deer supplied humanity with an important source of food, as well as clothing and tools, from the Paleolithic epoch until the Industrial Age. The hunter’s long pursuit of this delicate animal sharpened his understanding of not only the deer’s behavior but also of the surrounding woodland.
Hunters across ancient Europe, feudal Japan, and Native North America knew so much about how deer moved that they thought a deer could traverse between the physical and spiritual worlds with a single, graceful leap.
Deer were also said to have healing abilities, particularly the capacity to identify therapeutic plants. A deer stabbed by an arrow and holding plants in its mouth is a symbol of love-sickness in art. The deer represents wisdom and keen hearing.
Deer as spiritual creatues of beginning and end
Cernunnos, the mythical Celtic king of woodland creatures, collects the souls of the deceased and transports them to the underworld, escorted by the hunting goddess Flidass, who, like her Greek equivalent Artemis, travels in a chariot driven by deer.
As punishment for spying on her as she bathed naked, the goddess Artemis, known as Mother Deer, turned the hunter Actaeon into a stag that was swiftly torn apart by the hunter’s own hounds. This legend in particular connects the deer to the enigmatic transitions of birth, death, and transfiguration.
In fact, the deer symbolizes an unconscious sense that the hunter and the hunted are the same.
In a Christian story, a stag goes into the woods to lure away a warrior who is chasing its animal friends, so that the stag can “hunt the hunter while he hunts.” The story ends when the stag gives the soldier a crucifix that magically grows between its horns.
As a result, the hunter and the prey are in practice one and the same, while the wanderer and the spiritual purpose, as well as the journey to it, are identical.
Biblical symbolism of deer
Deer were regarded as game animals even in Biblical times, and they were included in the Israelite diet because they would chew the cud and had a “split hoof,” thus giving them “kosher” status. To this day, deer are renowned for their agility and grace, especially in rough terrain, and for their ability to flee quickly when they detect danger.
Female deer, or does, are seen as kind creatures since they are the only caregivers for fawns. Deer were required to travel large distances to get water in a dry area like Israel. Writers of the Bible frequently utilized the characteristics of deer—including their beauty, elegance, swiftness, and surefootedness—as metaphors for human character and spiritual virtues.
Thirsting for God
David painted a wonderful image of the natural yearning humans have for God when he wrote: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God” (Psalms 42:1).
That yearning may be sidetracked or even terribly derailed by our life experiences, but it is an essential aspect of humans as created in God’s image.
In Christianity, the deer’s simple and focused desire to satisfy its thirst for water is seen as a symbol for how man should approach God: with an innate desire to seek God and be satisfied in his faith for Him.
Deer Dream Interpretation
A deer represents the soft part of oneself, which is easily harmed or wounded by cynicism, hostility, or criticism. In general, a deer represents vulnerability and, in certain situations, lovesickness.
In a man’s dream, the deer may represent a young woman he desires and actively courts.
If the dreamer is chasing a deer, it suggests victory in conquering worries.
If the dreamer sees himself murdering a deer, this is a warning dream, indicating the dreamer may be harmed in real life, but not because of their own fault.
A stag in a dream represents masculine sexual desire and virility, courage, as well as life and healing energy.
The stag may also symbolize a man or father figure that the dreamer reveres in some manner, and the dream conveys the dreamer’s hopes to become more like the respected person.
Finally, a deer or reindeer herd has a rigorous hierarchical structure, and the dream may signify that the dreamer has to understand their own place in the world. Is it time to leave this region of the world and develop new connections? Are you in the midst of a renewal process, or do you need to be?
- A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
- A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
- Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
- A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
- Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
- Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
- Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
- Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
- The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
- The book of symbols : reflections on archetypal images by Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin
- Man, Myth & Magic by Richard Cavendish