Reindeer and the World Tree

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

 

More from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

The stag of Artemis being in fact a reindeer raises questions about the four stags who nibble on the branches of the Germanic world tree, Yggdrasil. This is the tree that holds the nine worlds, three each in the lower, middle, and upper regions. A snake nibbles at the roots of the tree, an eagle claims the high branches, and four deer browse the foliage. These animals create balance by tempering the growth of the ever-growing tree. The deer are identified as stags in the only source that mentions them, the Prose Edda, so this is not a case of a picture being misinterpreted, at least not in modern times. It is curious that reindeer would not be prominent in the mythology of the Norse, when reindeer memory survives as far south as Greece. Another stag, called Eikthyrnyr, lives atop a tree called Laerad in Odin’s upper realm of Valhalla. Eikthyrnyr munches the leaves of Laerad along with a nanny goat named Heidrun. From the udders of Heidrun flow mead. From the antlers of Eikthyrnyr flow the waters that make up the rivers of the worlds. Eikthyrnyr could also be a reindeer doe. Default male bias being the pervasive affliction that it is, assertions of maleness in animal deities must be entertained with skepticism. The presence of so-called stags where we would expect to find reindeer, amid the absence of mention of any does, suggests either naiveté or a patriarchal rewriting of mythology.

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