Fairy Cattle: The Deer In Mythology, Legend And Folklore

If you are thinking about commissioning a bespoke weathervane for your home or garden, you might have considered one of Britain's native wild animals as the subject of the design. Popular choices include hares, foxes, and badgers, and also the deer. These enchanting creatures have been celebrated in myth and folklore for thousands of years.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the graceful and majestic deer and stag have been woven into our cultural tapestry. 

The deer in Celtic mythology

Celtic mythology is rich with the otherworldly symbolism of the deer. In the Highlands of Scotland, ancient communities called red deer ‘fairy cattle’ because they believed that the fairies milked them on the mountaintops. In Irish folklore, Celtic princess Sadhbh had the ability to shapeshift into the form of a beautiful deer.

The white stag of Arthurian legend

The white stag holds an important place in both European folklore and Celtic mythology. The colour is explained by a rare genetic condition, but white was associated with purity and the otherworld in mediaeval times. Combined with their rarity, this has meant that a special value has been attached to white stags through the ages. 

In Arthurian legend, the white stag is said to have an eternal ability to evade capture, so its pursuit was a spiritual quest, as it could not be expected to end in a killing. According to the Celtic scholar Mary Jones, it also acts as the impetus to a quest, appearing in the forests around King Arthur’s court to send the knights off on fresh adventures. 

The stag in Greek mythology

Deer have often been associated with woodland deities in European mythology. Artemis, the Greek goddess of the wilderness, brought forth a great storm to ground the fleet of King Agamemnon that was bound for Troy, in order to avenge the killing of a stag that was sacred to her.

Stags were sometimes referred to as the kings of the forest’ because of their large antlers, which gives them a majestic appearance, and were seen as a sign of strength and virility. The instantly recognisable image of the stag with its branch-like antlers has been represented in art and metalcraft for centuries.

The stag is celebrated by Shakespeare

It is perhaps no surprise that our most celebrated playwright had something to say about the magical stag. In The Merry Wives of Windsor William Shakespeare writes:

“There an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter,

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,

Doth all the winter time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;”

The stag’s ‘great ragged horns’ were also sadly seen as a prize for hunters, and were used to make weapons, tools, handles for knives, and even jewellery and ornaments.  

However, the stag has always been worshipped and revered as well as hunted, and was regarded by ancient cultures as a god of the forest.