“Hunters of old pursued the miraculous stag, not because they expected to kill it, but because it led them in the joy of the chase to new and fresh adventures, and so to capture happiness.”
Baden-Powell's farewell speech to the Scouts
Image 1. Depiction of a Knight and the White Stag.
The White Stag is an important historical-religious figure found in European and Eastern European mythology. In Celtic tradition, the White Stag is considered a messenger from the Otherworld and often thought to appear when one was transgressing a taboo. In Arthurian legends the White Stag was thought to represent mankind’s spiritual quests and that it perennially evaded capture. In English folklore, the White Stag is associated with Heme the Hunter and even kings. In Christian tradition, the white stag is, in part, responsible for the conversion of several saints, including Saints Eustace and Hubert and often a representation of Christ. In Hungarian myth it was the White Stag that led the brothers Hunor and Magor into Scythia to found two great Empires—the Huns and the Magyar.
The White Stag was a powerful symbol to our ancestors; representing many diverse ideas, encouraging change, and even representing divinity. But are these creatures exclusively of myth and legends or is there a basis for the White Stag mythos in a variety of cultures and religions?
White stags, though rare, are in existence today meaning that they would have been encountered by ancient mankind. In today’s world; the color of the creature’s coat is now more understood by science rather than mythology. The natural appearance of white deer is from a recessive gene which causes leucism—a genetic condition that reduces the normal coloring of the hair and skin
It is important to note that leucism is not the same as albinism. While the two genetic conditions have similar characteristics, albinism also causes the eyes and nose to be red due to the lack of pigmentation (Cooper, 2008) which allows the blood vessels to be seen—effectively causing the red coloration. Plants and animals can exhibit albinism but the animals with albinism tend not to live very long due mostly to the fact that the congenital defect causes poor eyesight which, when coupled with being easily visible in the wild, can lead to quick predation (Miller, 2016).
There have been several modern white stag sightings, most notably in Great Brittan and Ireland, but also in the United States of America as well. White stags in the wild are a very rare occurrence, with the majority, if not all, of the sightings this past century in Northern Europe. The last known sighting of a white deer in the wild was in 2008 in the Scottish Highlands by Fran Lockhart of the John Muir Trust. Besides just being found in Northern Europe, the United States has several protected herds of white deer found in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even New York though little to no information on wild white deer in North America have been recently reported.
Understanding that white stags are a real creature which have not only occurred in recent history but the distant past as well, we can examine the cultural and mythological significance of this amazing animal by learning the history and mythos of different cultures without the incorrect assumption that the White Stag is based solely in the realm of the mystical.
The Celtic White Stag
The Celtic tribes of the Northern Europe revered the stag. Not only was it a resource for early man but the stag had a pseudo-religious quality that evolved over time. In fact, it is stags that pull the chariot of Flidass, the Celtic goddess of Wild Things. The stag is also representative of the god Cernunnos, a male figure with antlers spreading out much like a crown and who represents fertility, hunting, and growth—essentially the male half of the cosmos. And while stags have a special connotation in Celtic mythologies it is the White Stag itself that has special meaning.
Image 2. Image of Cernunnos.
In The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales of classic hero quests considered the earliest prose stories of Britain, the White Stag is seen as a warning. When Pwyll trespasses onto the hunting grounds of Arawn, one of the two kings of the Otherworld, a White Stag appears as a warning to the hero of the story. It is in this tale we see that the White Stag is a messenger of the Otherworld—warning Pwyll that his act of trespassing will undoubtedly end up angering one of the kings of the Otherworld for daring to commit the taboo of hunting on sacred lands. Pwyll, to atone for his misdeeds, takes the place of Arawn for a year and eventually defeats the second Otherworld king, Hafgan.
The Arthurian White Stag
Since the Celtic and Arthurian legends of the White Stag come from the same geographical location there are similarities to the mythos. It is, however, in the Arthurian legends the White Stag becomes less of a symbol of warning and begins takes on the mantle of divinity.
The White Stag appears in the beginning of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a signal of the beginning of the reign of King Arthur. King Arthur, on several occasions, sends the Knights of the Round Table out to quest for the White Stag—leading to several stories and epic quests. Arthurian legend, however, tells us that the creature can never be caught. This part of the legend possibly alludes that King Arthur’s pursuit of the animal represents the unattainable goal of mankind’s spiritual quest in this world (Evans, 2014).
The British Isles White Stag
Past the Celtic and Arthurian influences, or perhaps inspired by them, the British Isles White Stag is comparable but has its own unique mythos which separates it from the stories of the Celts and King Arthur.
Scotland has a mythology of the White Stag that starts in 1128AD and is connected with King David of Scotland. Going against the advice of his priest the king goes hunting on the Feast of the Holy Rood where he encounters a white stag. The king gave chase and was thrown off his horse when the white stag turned around to attack. David calls out to God to save him and as the king grappled with the stag the creatures antlers turned into a cross and the stag simply disappeared. David built a shrine on the spot of the attack which later evolved into Holyrood Abbey leading to the development of Holyrood Palace (Evans, 2014). Holyrood Palace was an important administrative center from the 12-15th centuries and, today, is the official residence of the British Monarch in Scotland.
Herne the Hunter, a supernatural figure, is said to haunt Windsor Forrest and is described as wearing antlers on his head; alluding once more to the importance of otherworldly stags in British Isles lore and possibly stemming from Paleolithic origins or early Celtic deities; though Anglo-Saxon origins are possible as well. Herne the Hunter’s earliest recorded mention comes from William Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (1597) but it is unknown how old the legend is or what pagan deity, if any, he represents with certainty (Lloyd, 2016).
The Christian White Stag
The White Stag has often been associated with divinity and can easily be seen in Christian art and mythology. It is a white stag, for instance, that Saint Eustace meets in the wilds and which ultimately leads to his religious conversion. Additionally, the White Stag is often representative of Christ himself in artwork especially from the Middle Ages, again, following on the divinity aspect of this creature.
Image 3. St. Eustace and the White Hart.
The unicorn—another mythological creature—is often used as a depiction of Christ and was utilized extensively throughout Europe as this symbol. The absence of the unicorn in Northern European culture, for whatever reason, points to the possibility that the White Stag, a symbolic stand-in for the unicorn, was divine.
The Hungarian White Stag
The Hungarian White Stag lead to the creation of the Huns and the Magyars. These two cultures are said to have sprung forth from two brothers, Hunor and Magor, the sons of King Nimrod. In the story; the brothers go hunting for the stag which leads them on a great adventure. In this myth, the white stag is either a doe or a hind, either horned or not—leading to the idea that the horned doe, a hermaphroditic creature, is representative of the cosmos. This is further collaborated by the fact that the Hungarian stag carries the sun in her horns (Phelps, 2004) or that the horns are wreathed in flame.
Other Mythologies Regarding Stags
The White Stag mythos is found in many places of the world and, while not usually citing the color of the stag, still revere the animal for one purpose or another. For example, in Ancient Mesopotamia the god and co-creator of the universe is called Daramah which translates as “Great Stag.” In Finnish mythologies the stag is the favorite animal of the Queen of the Underworld and, interestingly, a white stag is seen as an ill omen in that culture. The Ugrian of Siberia White Stag mythology involves the hunting of the beast as a metaphorical quest for the return of the sun (Phelps, 2004). In Japanese stories it is the hunting of a great stag that leads to the discovery of the island of Japan (Phelps, 2004). Japanese culture has another encounter with deer in the tale where white deer came out of a cave to listen to a sermon by the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
Common Themes and Elements of the White Stag Mythology
There are three common themes associated with the White Stag: divinity, hunting, and quest culture or change. These themes overlap the various mythologies of this animal and, in most cases, point to the importance of the figure to the various ethnic and spiritual groups that the White Stag is associated with. Examining these themes and elements gives us a greater understanding of the White Stag and its importance to our ancestors.
The Divinity of the White Stag
The White Stag is often portrayed as a symbol or actual representation of divinity. In the Celtic tradition; the White Stag is sometimes seen as a representation of Cernunnos and in the Christian traditions the White Stag is associated as either representing Christ or as Christ himself—in Christian traditions; the Roman soldier, St. Eustace, encounters a white stag with a cross between its antlers while hunting. The stag then reveals himself as Christ thus leading to the soon-to-be saint’s conversion to Christianity (Evans, 2014). Other cultures, such as in Ancient Mesopotamia, see the divine in the White Stag as well; especially as the god of the cosmos.
The White Stag in other cultures has close ties with the divine, such as pulling chariots of gods and goddesses or favored animals of deities most notably in early Celtic and Finnish mythologies.
The connection of stags and White Stags with deities shows a strong affinity to the White Stag as a divine or pseudo-divine being. The fact that the idea of the divine White Stag crosses so many cultures as well as ethnic and religious boundaries is unique in the animal world.
The Act of Hunting the White Stag
In ancient times, the deer was hunted for food and raw materials and was an important part of hunter’s lives. Hunting was vital to survival. Therefore, finding a rare and magnificent white deer was something to be noted. It is of no coincidence, then, that a good portion of the mythologies surrounding the White Stag involve hunting the creature or the stag appearing before a hunter. Sometimes the hunter knows that the beast is a part of the supernatural, while other times the hunter is clueless.
The Quest Culture of the White Stag
Questing for the White Stag fits heavily into not only the Arthurian mythologies but also that of Hungarian as well. It is the act of hunting the White Stag that leads to the creation of two great Empires in Hungarian tradition or the act of pursuing a noble goal in the Arthurian mores. In the Japanese mythos it is the act of hunting a stag that leads to the discovery of Japan. The Quest, then, leads to adventure, peril, change, or even creation.
The Contemporary White Stag
The White Stag is so engrained in our culture that it appears today in many different forms and media. For example, in the popular online game World of Warcraft; the White Stag is the representation of Malorne, the demi-god of nature. Other white stags can also be found in the game as well and is part of the mythology of the Tauren race in which the demigod Cenarius was born from a white stag—Cenarius being noted as “the Forest Lord” and patron god of druids. The White Stag also appears in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as the focus in the quest “Ill Met By Moonlight.” Hunting a white stag also features in several other games as well—most if not all within the fantasy genre.
In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book of the Harry Potter series, the White Stag is a Patronus charm used by the future Harry Potter to save not only Sirius but his younger self from the Dementors. The White Stag also appears twice in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the first time in which a white stag is drawing the White Witch’s sleigh and, second, in which the Pevensie children, now adults in the land of Narnia, hunt a white stag and eventually make their way back through the wardrobe. Additionally, the White Stag in Narnia granted wishes to those that caught it. The White Stag also makes its appearance in Snow White and the Huntsman as well as The Hobbit (both book and the film adaptation – The Desolation of Smaug) when the Company crosses the enchanted river in Mirkwood and spots a white stag which they waste their arrows trying to kill.
Additionally, the White Stag is featured on several brands including consumables, businesses, and other companies most notably originating from Northern Great Brittan and Ireland—usually with no religious connotation with few exceptions. The stag appearing on Jägermeister, the name of which translates to “Hunt Master” or “Master of the Hunt”, features a flaming cross between it’s antlers is relevant to the mythology of St. Eustace, the patron saint of hunters.
Heraldically speaking; the White Stag is the main device of King Richard III of England. Heraldic stags, white or not, can also be found on the armory of many people or groups in the Society for Creative Anachronism notably the Golden Stag Players in the Kingdom of the West and the main charge of the Kingdom of the Outlands.
Our culture, no matter how far removed from our medieval and ancient ancestors, still acknowledge the White Stag in one way or another. Even with these examples of the contemporary White Stag we still see the three common themes of the White Stag mythology: the White Stag as a divine figure, as a sign of warning or change, and that the act of hunting of the stag is a quest—in some cases quite literally.
The White Stag in the Principality of Oertha
In A.S. 32 the Canton of Inbhir na da Abhann had an event in which the participants were invited to great hunt. The Hunt had been a longstanding event celebrating the end of the summer with fighting and revelry. It was at this particular event that the local mythology of the White Stag took shape. Three fighters took the parts of the wild animals with one, an unnamed fighter who wore a white surcoat, declaring himself the White Stag.
Before leaving for the woods, the White Stag petitioned his Baroness "I am the mythical White Stag. It is my destiny to venture into those woods and meet the hunters and their dogs therein. Should I be so fortunate to make my way back to the edge of this camp, would you extend your protection to me against the hunters?" to which the Baroness readily agreed (Truffa, 1999). From there, the White Stag made his way to groups of ladies within the encampment asking in turn for their protection should he make it back.
Off into the woods the fighters went to hunt the mythical animal. With the hunters closing in, the White Stag gave them a merry chase—encountering the hunters twice, and, seeing that it would be only a matter of time before he was caught, carefully made his way to the encampment to collect on the promises of protection from those therein. However, the hunters caught up with him just in sight of the camp and surrounded the mythical beast.
The ladies within the encampment, noticing the commotion, quickly gathered and ran towards the White Stag. The hunters, knowing nothing of the agreement between the ladies and the White Stag, thought that the gentler sex had come to witness the taking down of such a mighty beast. Much to the hunter’s surprise, the ladies had come to protect the White Stag and the beast, in which the hunters graciously gave way and so the White Stag made his procession into the encampment surrounded by the women.
Image 4. Reproduction of the White Stag’s Presentation.
For many years afterwards, the White Stag, usually an unknown fighter but often (if not always) a knight, and wearing a torse with red antlers, would come to the Summer Hunt in which he offered fruits to the ladies who had protected him as well the honor of recognizing the lady who inspired those who would challenge him in single combat.
Within the Barony of Selviergard, the custom of the White Stag and the Summer Hunt was readopted as a hunting event in which a tournament is held to determine who will take the role of the White Stag and the remainder of the fighters go into the woods to hunt for him. Depending on the number of fighters; other animals are chosen via tournament to waylay the hunters. The White Stag must make it to a predetermined area to elude the hunters for another year echoing back to the original story of the Canton White Stag.
The White Stag, indeed stags in general, fit into the mythos of a variety of cultures and religions. While the animal covers a wide variety of themes in general we can see that the White Stag itself was an important part of ancient man and an aspect that still has value in our modern lives.
Through the stories that we tell, the adventures that we take, in many aspects of the world around us both within and outside of the Society for Creative Anachronism; the White Stag is alive and well, and ready to take us on a grand adventure, to teach us valuable lessons, or to instill within us the wonders of the world around us.
BibliographyCooper, G. (2008, February 12). Ghost-like white stag spotted in Scotland. Retrieved from Reuters: https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-stag/ghost-like-white-stag-spotted-in-scotland-idUKKIM25136920080212
Evans, Z. T. (2014, April 26). Mythical Beasts: The White Stag. Retrieved from Under the Influence!: https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2014/04/26/mythical-beasts-the-white-stag/
Lloyd, E. (2016, January 12). Herne The Hunter – The Horned God And Lord Of The Forest In British Mythology. Retrieved from Ancient Pages: http://www.ancientpages.com/2016/01/12/herne-hunter-horned-god-lord-forest-british-mythology/
Miller, M. L. (2016, February 3). White Deer: Understanding a Common Animal of Uncommon Color. Retrieved from Cool Green Science: https://blog.nature.org/science/2016/02/03/white-deer-understanding-a-common-animal-of-uncommon-color/
Phelps, B. T. (2004). The Origin of the Legend of the White Stag. Retrieved from White Stag Leadership Development: http://www.whitestag.org/program_spirit/legend/ethnic_stories_of_the_white_stag.html
Truffa, M. (1999). The White Stag Challenge. Retrieved from Order of the Argent Bear: http://www.alaska.net/~truffa/argentbear/deeds/white.htm
Image SourcesImage 1. Depiction of a Knight and the White Stag. The human figure is most likely that of St. Eustace. From A Postcard Almanac blog. May 20, 2013.
Image 2. Image of Cernunnos. Most likely a depiction of the god Cernnos but possibly another horned god. Found on the Gundestrup Cauldron on display at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Image 3. St. Eustace and the White Hart. From a 13th Century illuminated English manuscript.
Image from the Biblioteca Marciana.
Image 4. Reproduction of the White Stag’s Presentation. Photo taken in 1997 in the Barony of Eskalya. Image from The Argent Bear website.