The Deer Goddess at the Winter Solstice

We are used to seeing pictures of deer in the snow at this time of year, or reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. But what are the origins of deer and reindeer being associated with mid winter?

If you journey to Trendle Hill on the Quantocks hills in Somerset, UK, you will find stories of a mysterious old woman who is sometimes seen herding deer. I mention this sighting because it is close to me in Devon. But further North in Scotland, there are many stories of this old female deer herder. She is known as the Cailleach. The Cailleach is the old woman of winter and she takes care of the deer. She will give hunters one warning if they take too many deer, one warning only. As the winds of winter blow, we should all know that it is best not to mess with the Cailleach. She is stoney strength, creator of the hills, mountains and boulders. In my telling her hair is writhing snakes and her eyes shine with the curious light of the wild cats.

The Cailleach is a fierce protector and we need her energy both personally and globally. What she protects is the deer; gentle intuition, intuitive path finding and dreams. In this world of reason, where reason is extremely helpful but does not give all the answers, we need the energy of the deer.

To learn more about the ancient Deer Goddess we can look at a story, found in the Mabinogion, a collection of Celtic tales. The story is called ‘The Dream of Maxen’. It’s a pseudo historical tale about a Roman Emperor, Maxentius. In the story Maxen dreams of a beautiful woman who he loves. Eventually, after many adventures he finds the woman, who is called Elen of the Hosts. As a wedding gift she asks for lands and for roads to be built. To this day there are roads across Wales with Elen’s name.

This connection with roads and pathfinding are key to understanding Elen’s more ancient origins; Pre historic people of Britain lived closely alongside first reindeer and later deer. In these times all of Britain would have been covered with the Boreal forest. After the ice age the reindeer, as migratory animals, ran the first tracks, the first pathways through the forests. It is the older female deer who lead the way and statues from very ancient times in Britain have been found depicting women with reindeer horns. This indicates the Shamanic bond between women and the reindeer.

In my telling of the story there is an easy shapeshifting between deer and woman. The pathways are both physical pathways through the forest and also dream pathways that can guide us. If we connect with Elen back to a time before the Romans, to a time when she was a shapeshifter, we can begin to tap into some of the deep magic that is here;

Elen sends out dreams into the world, to call back the things that she and her land needs. We can work with her to help us with our own dreaming at this dark time of year. When we are lost and confused, when the true pathways have become overgrown through disuse, Elen is an energy, a force who is embedded in this landscape. Through the telling and the retelling of her stories we can start to connect with her energy. Then the dream work begins. This is subtle, intuitive work. But it is also extremely powerful.

At this time of mid winter and at this time on our precious planet there is much that is unknown. It could be said that we are, once again, lost in the Boreal forest. The practical and reasonable ways are not always working. We need guides who know the way in their bodies, not just their heads. We need guides who are intuitive and have walked the paths before. So I am making space in my life for Elen and the deer. And also remembering the Old Woman of Winter, the Cailleach, who protects the deer against harm.

Clare is telling her version of the story of ‘Elen of the Ways’ on 20th December in Stoke Woods, Exeter, at a workshop for women. This will also be available on line for women and men. Please contact Clare if you would like to know more about this or future workshops.

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