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Red Deer Stags
The red deer, the roebuck and possibly the fallow deer were indigenous to Britain, though the fallow deer seems to have died out before the final glaciation period and to have been re-introduced by the Romans. Fallow deer [Dama dama]were primarily kept in the private parklands which began to replace the royal hunting forests in the thirteenth century. Their hunting provided fresh meat in the winter. It was very fashionable for a gentleman to have fallow deer in his park and there were said to be as many as 6,000 deer in Grimsthorp park in 1780. More than one type of deer was never kept in a park. Fallow deer have colonised places such as Cannock Chase, the New Forest and Epping Forest as well as other deciduous and mixed woodlands. They prefer cover and avoid open spaces. They have reddish-brown coats with white spots. The bucks have broad palmed antlers. All fallow deer have a white rump patch with a black central line along the tail. The bucks reach 37" at the shoulder and weigh around 200 lb. The does are somewhat smaller. One fawn is born in June. They are widespread in England, Wales, parts of Scotland and Ireland.
The roebuck [Capreolus capreolus] is a woodland creature liking oak groves with hazel, bramble and places with fir needle carpets, though they will feed on moorland and water meadows in family groups on heather tips, lichens and moss. These family groups may join with others and with solitary bucks in times of danger. Roe deer stand 24-28" tall and the males have short, forked antlers. Their coat is red from May to September and then turns dark grey brown, with a white rump in winter. The buck dominates the territory by scraping bark from a tree and depositing a scent mark from his forehead gland. They maintain their territories from spring to late summer from other bucks. They generally feed during the night, probably for safety's sake, and return to their lairs in the early morning. Owing to the destruction of their woodland habitat roe deer numbers have declined drastically, though attempts are being made to conserve them. One to three fawns are born in May. They are common in parts of England and are widespread in Scotland.
The red deer stag [Cervus elaphus] stands 48" tall at the shoulder and weighs around 400lb. They spread through the deciduous woods after the last glacial era. They were numerous in pre-historic times, as evidenced by their remains. In the Pleistocene era it was not unusual for them to reach forty stone in weight and have antlers of twenty two points. In the Highlands, until the early nineteenth century, it was not unknown for stags to have antlers of twenty points and weigh in at thirty stone. Deforestation has forced the red deer to moors and hills and they will eat moss, lichen and heather. They often move to lowland areas in the winter. The antlers are grown annually and shed in the early summer. A single calf is born May or June. The stag is in its rutting finery in early autumn. The stags and hinds live in separate groups. In Scotland clan chieftains hunted deer from August to the early part of September.
The stag was one of the four sacred animals of the Celts and has played an important part in folklore in many areas of the world. The earliest representations of the stag god, or of the shaman dressed in stag horns, date from round 12000 BC, the most famous being the 'sorcerer' of Les Trois Freres. Stags appear on Old Stone Age Paintings and carvings. Antlers have been found buried at Newgrange and sites in Glastonbury and at Stonehenge. A rock carving in Val Canonica in Northern Italy shows a phallic figure worshipping a horned god wearing a torc.
The Hittites had a god whose sacred animal was a stag. He was worshipped as far back as the third millennium BC and is depicted standing on a stag, holding a falcon and a hare. He may have been a hunter God, before the advent of the city states. The stag was sacred to the Great Goddess in the Bronze Age. A guild of deer priests called 'the Fair Lucky Harps' had their headquarters at Donegal. The stag was a royal beast of the Danaans and the stag is prominent in British and Irish myth.
Remnants of the ancient stag cult may be seen in the legend of Herne the Hunter, possibly a British stag god equivalent to the Gaulish Cernunnos. Herne the Hunter is said to still haunt Windsor Great Park and to ride out with the Wild Hunt at the midwinter solstice. He is described as a mighty, bearded figure with a huge pair of stags horns on his head. He wears chains, carries a hunting horn and rides out on a black horse with a pack of ferocious hunting hounds. In the Dionysian mysteries the hirco-cervus or 'goat-stag' was the symbol of resurrection and immortality. It seems that when Celtic Druids visited Thessaly they understood the symbolism of the goat-stag, and identified it with their own symbolic white hart. Both beasts were associated with the apple tree, itself a symbol of death and resurrection.
Stags, especially white ones, frequently appear in myth as Otherworldly animals, who entice heroes to the Otherworld or herald their deaths. Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, while out hunting, chanced to meet Arawn, Lord of the Underworld, hunting a stag, and became temporarily Lord of the Underworld himself. The stag Arawn was hunting was Pwyll's soul. Oisin was the son of the deer goddess Sadb and near the end of his life saw a vision in which a hornless fawn was pursued over the waters of the sea by the red and white hounds of the Underworld. The fawn was himself. Llew saw a stag baited to death and was soon afterwards murdered by his wife Blodeuwedd's lover, Gronw
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