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If you’ve ever seen a stag or deer, you’re immediately taken aback by its majesty and sophistication. This is especially true if you happen upon a male in all his glory, complete with an impressive set of antlers. Their litheness and strength are obvious and breathtaking.
So, it’s no wonder many ancient cultures revered such a creature as something god-like. To the ancient Celts, it held a particular mystical energy inherent within nature. The ancient Celts didn’t just observe nature, they were a part of it. This means they held reverence for every aspect of the earth. They honored all creatures because they believed each possessed a spirit and consciousness.
Of all the beloved creatures of the forest, the stag was a major symbol of power, magic, and transformation.
Celtic Stag Symbolism
The stag, specifically the male, symbolizes the very forest itself. The antlers resemble tree branches and carry these like a crown. It also represents speed, agility, and sexual prowess. All these are integral to nature’s regenerative power, signified by how stags shed their antlers in autumn and regrow them in spring.
The creature’s flesh and skin provided food, clothing, blankets, and other coverings. The bones went into making tools and weapons. Therefore, hunting was a crucial element to the Celtic economy.
Meaning of the Stag by Color
The symbolism of the stag could vary, depending on the color of the animal. White, red, and black stags all meant something different.
White is the color of purity, mystery and the unobtainable. It symbolizes newness and an adventurous spirit, reminding us that the path we travel is just as important as reaching the destination. White stags almost always indicate the beginning of an extraordinary journey into the Otherworld. The white stag is part of the faerie realms and hidden wisdom
Arthurian legends burgeon with white stags as the Knights of the Round Table attempt to pursue them and they appear around King Arthur’s court. Upon seeing one in waking reality or in the dream world, it gives the warrior or sage impetus to go on a quest. Arthurian legends emphasize this idea of white stags with hidden wisdom through journeys into mystical worlds.
Red is another faerie realm indicator but, according to the ancient Celts, it was also bad luck. In the Scottish Highlands, red deer were “fairy cattle” and people believed fairies milked them on mountain tops. In connection to the story of Fionn the hunter, his wife was a red stag. So, the color red further connects to the idea of red stags to magical enchantments.
Although there are only a few tales involving a black stag in Celtic mythology, it’s interesting to note that they always involve death and transformation. One of the most notable is the story of Ankou, the collector of dead souls who’s also known as “King of the Dead”.
Ankou was once a cruel prince who met Death during a hunting trip. The foolish prince challenged Death to see who could kill a black stag first. Death won and cursed the prince to roam the earth as a soul collector for eternity. He appears as a haggard, tall skeleton-like figure with a wide-brimmed hat and long white hair. He has an owl’s head and drives a cart accompanied by two ghosts.
Stories, Legends, and Myths about Stags
Fionn and Sadhbh
In Irish mythology, there is a story about a great hunter called Fionn mac Cumhaill who married a woman named Sadhbh. Initially, Sadhbh wouldn’t marry an evil druid named Fear Doirich and he turned her into a red deer. While out hunting with his hounds, Fionn almost struck her with his arrow. But his hounds recognized the deer as a human and Fionn took her home where she returned to human form once she stepped onto his land.
The two married and Sadhbh soon became pregnant. But, while Fionn was on a hunt, Fear Doirich found her and tricked her into returning to the wild as a deer. She gave birth to a son in the form of a little fawn, Oisín or “little deer.” He became a great Irish poet and warrior of his tribe, the Fianna.
This concept of shapeshifting is significant in Celtic belief, where people change from their humanoid form into another animal. The story of Fionn and Sadhbh is a powerful icon displaying the potency of stags and transformation.
The stag is a symbol of the Celtic god Cernunnos. As a god of beasts and wild places, Cernunnos is the “Horned One”. He is the mediator between humanity and nature, capable of taming both predator and prey. Cernunnos rules over pristine nature and virginal forests. He’s a reminder of the nature’s incivility and the random, free-growing vegetation found in the wild. He was also a god of peace, bringing natural enemies into communion with one another.
The word Cernunnos is an ancient Gaelic reference to “horned”. He often appears as a bearded man with antlers, sometimes wearing a torc, a type of metal necklace. Some depictions show him holding this torc while others display him wearing it on his neck or antlers.
Cernunnos was protector and provider since he presided over life, creation, and fertility. There are some scholars who theorize Cernunnos had an intricate link to oak trees because the oak is the stag’s tree of choice to file down their antlers.
Cocidius (pronounced ko-kiddius) was a Celtic-British deity depicted on Hadrian’s Wall associated with the stag. He is a forest and hunting god, referred to as an alder tree. Clearly, he was an important deity in his day since both the occupying Romans and Celts worshiped Cocidius. He’s often shown holding a spear and shield, making him a god of warriors, hunters, and soldiers.
There are at least 23 altars dedicated to him and two silver plaques. There’s a shrine at Yardhope that shows an image of a warrior standing with his feet slightly apart and arms outstretched. In the right hand he holds a spear and in the left hand is the reverse of a small, round shield. He appears to wear helmet or form-fitting cap pulled low over the brows and is completely naked, albeit not anatomically correct.
Although this figure doesn’t have a name inscribed, we don’t know for certain if this is Cocidius. However, the two silver plaques at Bewcastle, that do indicate his name, show him in the same position with the same weapons arrangement.
Prolific Images of Stags and Beloved Gods
Images of stags appearing with or without a nature deity are all over the entire swathe of Europe. Wherever Celtic culture resided, the stag is a highlight among every group, tribe, and clan. These depictions not only show a respect for hunting but also a deep reverence for nature.
- In the Danish village of Gundestrup, there’s an ornately decorated iron cauldron depicting several gods. One of these, theorized to be Cernunnos, sits with his legs crossed between a stag and a dog (or a boar). Antlers grow from his head while holding a torc in his right hand with a snake in the other. On another section of the cauldron, there’s an image of a god holding a stag in each hand. This could be Cernunnos, but it could be Cocidius.
- Burgundy was a center of Cernunnos worship and many stag images come from that area.
- An Aedui tribe sculpture depicts a divine couple presiding over the animal kingdom. Sitting next to each other, their feet rest on two stags.
- At a mountain shrine in Le Donon, can be found a stone carving depicting a nature or hunter god. This male figure wears an animal hide with hanging fruit. His hands rest on the antlers of the stag standing next to him.
- In Luxemborg, a stag image with coins flowing from its mouth can be found.
- In Rhiems, a carved stone figure of Cernunnos with a stag and a bull drinking from a stream of coins. The theme of coins signifies the stag’s link to prosperity.
The stag is an ancient Celtic god-like symbol of transformation, magic, and otherworldly activity. The antlers are a particular feature, and many depictions relate how this animal symbolized prosperity. It was an important creature to the ancient Celts and features in many myths and beliefs.