Category Archives: Animals
The deer family is composed of deer, caribou, elk, and moose. Con Slobodchikoff, in Chasing Doctor Doolittle, describes communication within the deer family (and many other species). He says regarding elk:
The bugling starts off as a long, eerie low-frquency screeching sound, followed by a series of three or four shorter sounds kind of like someone scratching glass on concrete. The first time one of my graduate students, newly arrived from the East Coast, heard this sound on a dark evening in the mountains he was startled and disoriented.… I told him he had heard the aggressive call of a male elk (Cervus canadensis), advertising his presence to other males and perhaps also to any females that happened to be nearby. When you hear it for the first time, it can be pretty terrifying.
Here is a male elk bugling:
Dr. Slobodchikoff goes on to discuss the call of the Red Deer stag:
Although red deer (Cervus elaphus) are similar in size and shape to elk, and in fact were thought for a long time to be the same species of animal, their calls are very different. Red deer are found in Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa. They have a roaring call that advertises their aggressiveness toward other males, and they make this call during the mating season when they are guarding a harem of females. Depending on the size of their opponents, the males can vary the base pitch of their roars, making the roars sound deeper when they are faced with a larger opponent. This gradation in the base pitch of the roars probably conveys information to challengers about the males’ willingness and ability to fight to defend her harem.
Con Slobodchikoff, Chasing Doctor Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012) 185-186.
August 13 marks the start of an ancient Roman festival to Diana. Torches were carried in processions in honor of the goddess with the aim of averting storms which might imperil the ripening harvest. The torch is one of Diana’s symbols, as she is the goddess who governs light.
Thinking of Diana as goddess of light fits with another of her symbols, the deer. In earlier posts I wrote about how deer migrations are so closely aligned with solar rhythms that in many cultures deer goddesses are also sun goddesses. Many other animals have rhythms ruled by the sun that are noticeable to us, of course, but deer were once a staple in the human diet.
The Scottish goddess Cailleach Bheur roams the hillsides herding giant deer and drinking their milk. Cailleach, under various spellings, has been characterized as a deer, hare, cat, grain, serpent, gray mare, mountain, stone, and hag goddess, or as a hag goddess alternating with a maiden alter-ego. The pervasive characteristics of this deity are: female, old, and very large (even giant). I believe Cailleach is a word for a pre-Celtic concept of ancestress, and hence we should expect to find many Cailleachs. The deer Cailleach may be a reindeer, since milk and herding are part of her lore. Reindeer were indigenous to northern Scotland up to the thirteenth century. Alternatively, the deer Cailleach may be Red Deer, who also live in groups and are larger than other European deer species. Another possibility is that the deer Cailleach could be an Irish Elk, a huge species of deer (not elk) that inhabited much of western Eurasia through the Ice Age. It is speculated that the changing climate could not support the Irish Elk, but the species was able to survive in isolated pockets throughout the Neolithic, documented in the foothills of the Ural Mountains even in historical times. The male Irish Elk had beautiful, formidable antlers.
The Scottish word for shape shifting, fith-fath, literally means to take the shape of a deer. It is easy to see why deer, having such a fey quality, would be equated with this concept. Deer are crepuscular creatures, active in the gray periods of the day, and seem to appear and disappear at will. I once stood next to a doe in an open forest and did not see her, so invisible did she make herself. It was almost like she transformed herself into a tree. I have also heard anecdotes about women changing themselves into deer – always women for some reason – and I have even witnessed this phenomenon myself.
The fable about reindeer living at the North Pole is almost true. They don’t live right on the Pole, but indigenous migrating wild herds today live in or near the Arctic Circle, and semi-domesticated herds reach only a bit further south. In North America, migrating caribou species, which are similar to reindeer, live in northern Canada and Alaska. The non-migrating Boreal Woodland Caribou, extending into the southern Canadian provinces, and the Wild Forest Reindeer of the Russian Altai-Sayan region (bordering Mongolia) are endangered.
Reindeer migrate in late spring from taiga to tundra, where they have their babies relatively isolated from predators. After giving birth, the females shed their antlers. Males by this time have long disposed of their heavier antlers, which would make the dangerous spring migration across hundreds of miles more cumbersome. Females and juveniles keep their antlers through the winter to dig through snow and brush seeking nourishment. An elder doe leads the herd on the trek north. Reindeer hooves are well adapted to ice and slippery bog, and reindeer are strong swimmers. In the northern territory the calves fatten with the rest of the herd on lichen and other tundra vegetation. During the fall and winter, in the scrubby forests of the taiga, they will also eat berries, willow, birch, grasses, and other forest plants. Their eyes undergo structural changes as the year darkens, allowing them to utilize the light waves they screened out during the glaring arctic summer.
Next week: Reindeer in the Ice Age.
I’m studying deer this summer and will be sharing tidbits now and then about this magical animal. This is a Sumerian copper plaque dating to about 2500 B.C.E. from the temple of the goddess Ninhursaga. It shows Imdugud, also known as the Anzu Bird, protected by two stags. Imdugud has a lion head and the body of an unknown bird. Imdugud is identified in Mesopotamian literature as male, though this particular image looks like a lioness to me. Imdugud is the bird who steals the Tablet of Destinies from the god Enki. Eventually Enki recovers the Tablet with the help of his turtle familiar. Enki is called the “Stag of the Abzu.” The Abzu refers to the underworld freshwater kingdom that fed the marshland of southern Sumer and the stag is probably the Mesopotamian Fallow Deer, but the title is still cryptic to me.
Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003.
The waters of Moose Mountain Pond were unusually clear when I was there Saturday, and I saw lots of these creatures underwater, so ugly they’re cute. The sounds of bullfrogs around the pond told me what these things are. This made me think about how fascinated I was as a child with the bottoms of creeks, rivers, and ponds. My brother and I would spend hours wading in the creek looking at things. It was a parallel universe that I thought about quite a bit, one that I could examine but not really enter. Today I see parents and grandparents tagging along with children carrying little nets, sharing the excitement of the underwater world while teaching the children to be gentle and not harm the objects of their curiosity. Summer is here, finally, and there are all kinds of worlds to explore beneath the surface.
I was driving back from town this week and saw this snapper laying her eggs on the side of the road. It didn’t look to me like the best place to do that, but I guess I don’t get to decide.
Turtles are sacred to the Greek goddess Gaia and the Sumerian god Enki.
The woodpecker archaeological record in Europe is sparse. Woodpecker bones were found with other bird and animal bones at a Mesolithic site in Serbia and I found reference to an atlatl (a primitive spear throwing device) that had a decorative White-backed Woodpecker from an unspecified European site. Where the archaeological woodpecker record is rich is again in North America. Woodpecker skulls and bills were apparently traded. Woodpeckers are found on pottery and shell engravings. Of course, archaeologists in North America have contemporary Amerindians with tribal memories to help them interpret findings and ask the right questions. Some woodpecker designs are stylistic and might be missed without this insight. Another factor is that archaeology in North America typically goes back about a thousand years while Mesolithic Europe was ten thousand years ago. Finally, it should be considered that since pecking wood is the sine qua non of the woodpecker, effigies of the bird might have been carved in wood rather than more durable bone or stone.
North American folklore says that woodpeckers predict the severity of the coming winter and that woodpeckers disappear in anticipation of extreme cold. A pervasive belief found in Europe is that the pecking is a sign of rain on the horizon, perhaps because the loud pecking of some species can resemble a distant thunder roll. In this regard, it is interesting that the woodpecker is the bird of the redheaded Norse god Thor, who wields the hammer and lightning bolt. More obscurely, the woodpecker is said to lead an observer to treasure. I have found that birds who bring rain are very often considered treasure birds.
The treasure the woodpecker is most thrillingly believed to lead to is the springwort. The springwort is a reddish root believed to draw down lightning. It can open any closed or locked door. To find the springwort magicians would seal the entrance to a woodpecker nest. The woodpecker would then fly off to find a springwort, but would be induced to drop the plant when he returned and found that the seal had been removed. The springwort sounds like a very valuable herb, but nobody really knows what a springwort is. Jacob Grimm identified it as the Caper Spurge or Euphorbia Lathyris.