I have had an interest lately in British shamanism and Elen of the Ways (I wear a stone necklace for her with a picture of a ‘cave art style’ deer on it) so I have decided to talk about Reindeer today.
I have always had an affinity with deer as my grandfather was a man of the land and he and my grandmother would take me on walks in woods where deer would often make themselves known. A few months ago, my partner and I were lucky enough to come almost face to face with a beautiful stag near an ancient wood we visit locally. This sealed the deal for me. I have bought a couple of books since about Elen of the Ways by Elen Sentier which have been of great interest – Elen of the Ways and Following The Deer Trods which give an interesting glimpse into British Shamanism.
In the days before land and animal ownership, when man, woman and child moved with the herds, the people worshipped the Goddess of the animal that kept them alive. They worshipped her spirit and respected her laws. In return, they were fed, and their own young were given life and sustenance. This was a time when all the land and that which was on it was held in high regard. It was a time when the balance of life and death between all things was weighted equally. For these people, she (who we call Elen for the purpose of this story) was the spirit of the reindeer and it is to she herself whom we now look to experience the energy and medicine of the reindeer.
Reindeer gave those who followed her strength and stamina. She also gave social skills for she travels with her family and friends en masse, all heading towards and onwards. Yet there is no dependence on the others as she is also her own heart and at peace with herself.
Reindeer encourages those who are faltering to regroup and move forward. She gives the determination to succeed and the tenacity to get things accomplished. Determination, endurance and trusting one’s own instincts are also gifts given by reindeer.
When you feel stuck and directionless, reindeer, as a power animal, will show you what you need and share with you her gifts to get you there.
The Reindeer Clans used kulning (a Swedish herding call) to call to the herd. A shaman female would use this song to call forth the reindeer (or other animal or bird she was working with) to let them know she was there. A beautiful example of kulning can be heard being given by Jonna Jinton on YouTube. It is one of the most beautiful things I have heard. There is something very primal about it which touches my soul.
There is a fascinating site called reindeerherding.org which gives lots of information on reindeer herding, as well as a history for each region.
Various Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Northern European and Asian peoples performed reindeer sacrifices. The ritual was performed at the beginning of their hunting season and consisted of sacrificing a young doe in a lake or pond or burying it in the ground as a sacrifice to their chosen god. On special occasions, Mesolithic hunters would place the skull and antlers of an older reindeer on a pole at the edge of where the doe was sacrificed. Superstition and the need for sacrifice has always been rife in all cultures, ancient and some more modern, so this behaviour is not unusual, despite being so difficult to read about for some of us in these modern times.
Reindeer shamanic rituals have been carried out as recently as 1980 by the Evenki people of Northern Siberia. The ritual centres around the belief that –
“Reindeer were created by the sky god, Houki, not only to provide food and transport on Earth but also to lift the human soul up to the Sun”
From Piers Vitebsky’s book, The Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia.
Bronze aged peoples thought there was an association between reindeer and flying which we can see by their use of Reindeer Stones. These were found above graves or places of sacrifice, with images of reindeer with their necks outstretched and their legs out as if flying through the air. There antlers are like wings and go as far back as their tails. The disc of the Sun was also present, again giving an impression of skyward travel.
Reindeer amulets have also been found in herding regions and the Sami had depictions of reindeer on their dress, pendants and brooches too. Zoomorphs of reindeer were drawn by Sami people who lived along the coast of Northern Norway 10,000 years ago.
Mjandasj was the primordial Sami ancestor who was half reindeer and half human and birthed by Máttaráhkká herself who was known as the Sami Earth Mother. Rock art depicting the birth of this ancestor was found on a wall in Russia on the Kola Peninsula and has been dated to 2000 – 800BC.
If Máttaráhkká is the Sami equivalent of the Earth Mother then it wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that, by the Sami at least, reindeer are considered to have been present at the very birth of life itself. Perhaps this is because, to them, reindeer were givers of life providing all they needed to survive the harsh arctic conditions.