This is a post I have been meaning to write for the last few days, but I have been thinking of just how I wanted to present it. It is certainly no secret that in Hellenismos there are a prominence of horned animals sacred to gods. There are the oxes of Hera, the bulls associated with Zeus, Poseidon and Dionysos, the goats of Pan, Zeus, Dionysos, and Apollon, the deer likewise associated with Dionysos, Apollon and Artemis. And naturally many other gods that I just can’t think of at the moment. Clearly there is some powerful symbolism at work that animals who have some form of bony substance protruding upward from their foreheads have some special relevance in our worship. The idea even carries forward into the medieval period with the sacred symbolism of the divine via the unicorn imagery which any person half way familiar with the unicorn tapestries would have some vague knowledge about.
We should perhaps then infer that the upward horn represents itself a state of divinity, from which we can also construe significance in the horn of plenty with which we are familiar with. In Roman art we see Fortuna (Fortune) and Ceres carrying the cornucopia brimming over with the wealth of the world that the gods have given to us. In Hellenismos we are familiar too with a myth of Zeus in which the goat Amalthaea who nursed him was sacrificed by him and it is her horn from which the horn of plenty comes, she who sustained the king of heavens. This of course lends a very particular symbolism associated with goats….the male goat representing masculine fertility (for Zeus is very fertile in his nature, as is Dionysos who was carried near this fertile zone of the god for his final period of gestation), and the female goat representing the divine nurse. Therefore it is not surprising to me at all when I see a goat image in Thracian rhytons (drinking horns) because this divine fertilization I connection closely to the very essence of the wine which Dionysos so liberally distributes. Likewise a female goat portrayed in proximity to a goddess indicates a function of the goddess as a Kourotrophos deity. There is for instance one statue of Artemis with a young animal which some say is a faun but also looks to me, because of its size and general shape, to perhaps be a goat instead with the small budded horns on its head and curled tail. But I guess we will each have to decide for ourselves what we think it is.
In symbolism stags have a great deal in common with goats if you get right down to it…differing mostly that deer are typically not associated with the nurse aspect, but are instead as fauns are often pictured as nursing from the Maenads (probably referring to the first Maenads that are nymphs and not literal historical followers of Dionysos). In such respect they are recepiants of “divine” nourishment (via the possession of Dionysos within the nymphs) which seems to link them to a greater specific connection between the divine and the mortal…as a bridge between the two at a greater symbolic level. Perhaps rather the mortal desire to draw closer to the gods, and pursued by Artemis when they are mature (whereas the young faun is represented peacefully at her side. Apollon, alternatively, has been represented in Hellenic and Etruscan images as holding a stag within his hand. He is seldom pictured with a faun…usually only in cases where he is in the company of his twin, but is always associated with the adult male deer, and to a degree the hind of Artemis…a sacred golden horned female deer. Such imagery with this deer are generally very specific though to the myth of the labors of Herakles.
To understand more on ancient thought regarding the symbolism of deer I would like to take a moment to share a quote that was shared with me….granted it is from the Roman historian Pliny, but I do think that it is somewhat revealing:
(Natural History, Book 8, 41): A stag, when wounded by an arrow, can eject the arrow from the wound by grazing on the herb dittany. If bitten by a poisonous spider, the sta…g will eat crabs to cure itself. (Book 8, 50): The stag is a gentle animal. Stags are very lustful; the mating season begins after the rising of the star Arcturus. When deer hear hounds, they run down wind to avoid giving themselves away with their scent. Deer are simple animals, surprised at everything; they can be charmed by song and by a shepherd’s pipe. To cross seas they swim in a line with each deer’s head on the back of the one in front of it, and they take turns moving to the back of the line. A stag’s age can be told by its horns or its teeth. Stags lose their horns every year, and retire to secret places to do so; their right horn, which is never found, is said to contain a healing drug. The smell of stag horns burning stops an attack of epilepsy and drives away snakes. Stags are at war with snakes, drawing them out of their holes with the breath of their nostrils. Stags live a long time; the ones that Alexander the Great had put gold necklaces on were caught a hundred years later, and the necklaces were found to be covered with folds of fat. Stags are not subject to feverish diseases, and eating venison is said to prevent fevers in people. (Book 10, 5): Stags fight with eagles: the eagles cover themselves with dust, perch on the stag’s horns to shake the dust in its eyes, and beat the stag’s head with their wings until it falls. (Book 11, 115): The breath of stags scorches snakes.
We can therefore infer that the stag represents a sense of community support via their cooperation in navigating streams (ei currents of life as I can see it representing), with swift movement (which can infer swiftness physically but also mentally and on higher levels), that they are long-lived and so like any long-lived animal are probably associated with a concept of immortality or the divine state, this also seems to be addressed by so called curative and protective properties within the flesh and horn of the stag, as well as the fertility symbolism that we find in goats too.
But what particularly interests me is the symbolism with the mind. More so than most other horned animals, it seems that proportionately to its skull the antlers of a stag have a more pronounced upward extension as it ages…the older it gets, the more impressive its rack gets which is quite curious considering that deer tend to drop their antlers. But there is just something entirely awe-inspiring of seeing a five-point (or more) buck. In such respect it seems likely that the symbolism of deer is connected to achieving a state of consciousness close to the divine level which is accomplished through rebirth (and therefore associated too with Dionysos who, like is maenads, is also represented wearing the spotted faun’s skin). This doesn’t seem to far-fetched of an idea if we consider a different culture for a minute, and think of the hindu religion. I had recently read that when the stag is represented with Shiva it is because the stag is associated with the mind, and Shiva is able to control the swift moving mind and bring it into stillness. Though this is a different symbolism, a kind of divine state of mind does seem to be represented.
Dionysos himself, and his followers, appear by necessity to be direct connected to deer in its faun state, as we also find the greatest number of associations of the deer with Artemis. I think that this is particularly telling. In one hand we have the flayed faun…the young immature..hornless…deer who is slain which I think speaks to me of mortal rebirth. And this is the faun that is suckled by Maenads and is tended kindly by Artemis. Thus the fawn represents mortal life that enters exits and enters into life through numerous incarnations, that is fostered and cared for by the Kourotrophos, that is suckled by nymphs, that is held by Dionysos until the stag comes finally to Apollon who represents the divine boundary…Apollon of the Boundaries, the end of his sacred road. He who receives Dionysos. He who receives that which is slain by his twin….whether that be her stags or her goats (the latter of which he used in myth to build their horn altar at Delphi).