The Symbolism of the Stag

Red Deer Stag
The stag appears in some Wiccan and Pagan traditions. UK Natural History / Getty Images

Mabon is the season in which the harvest is being gathered. It's also the time in which the hunt often begins -- deer and other animals are killed during the autumn in many parts of the world. In some Pagan and Wiccan traditions, the deer is highly symbolic, and takes on many aspects of the God during the harvest season.

For many Pagans, the antlers of the stag are associated directly with the fertility of the God.

The Horned God, in his many incarnations, often appears wearing a headdress of antlers. In some depictions, the horns grow directly from his head. Early Paleolithic cave art shows men wearing antlers on their heads, so it would appear that the horn or antler has long been a symbol of worship in some form or another. In Egyptian legend, many gods appear to wear a pair of horns on their head.

Stag Folklore and Legends

Stag symbolism appears in a number of myths, legends, and folktales. Often associated with woodland deities, the stag plays a key role in the tales of the Greek Artemis and her Roman counterpart, Diana, as well as the Celtic Finn mac Cumhail. All three are figures associated with the hunt. In English literature, both Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe incorporate deer mythology into their plays.

OBOD's David Legg shares the importance of the stag to the Scythians and other Eurasian peoples.

He says, "Bears, boars, raven, and many other animals are well represented as the totemic animals of gods and goddesses across the IE [Indo-European] spectrum. However, in Classical times the stag was of paramount importance to the Scythians and other peoples across the Eurasian steppes. The subject of the most striking Scythian gold jewelry, the stag has even been found as tattoos on the so-called ‘ice princess’ in the Altai Mountains.

Here at the eastern extremity of the IE steppe culture zone, her frozen body was recovered with Scythian style stags still plainly visible on her skin... The stag was one of the favourite motifs of the so-called Kurgan peoples in previous millennia, and so its pedigree as an object of veneration amongst the IE peoples is very ancient."

Native American tribes have honored the deer in many ways. Associated primarily with fertility, there are numerous deer gods among the Native American peoples, including the Cherokee Awi Usdi, Sowi-ingwu of the Hopi, and Deer Woman, whose tales appear in the stories of several indigenous groups. 

In some Pagan paths, there is a correlation between the shape of a pair of horns and the crescent moon. The image of a stag with a full moon between his antlers represents both the male (the antlers) and the female (the moon) aspects of the Divine.

As with many animals, there are a number of folkloric tales surrounding deer and stags. Paul Kendall at Tress for Life says, "Though different species of deer, as well as wholly magical versions, played their part in different mythologies, in northern Europe the reoccurring theme of the deer as animal of the hunt, and specifically the chase, revolved around the red deer.

These animals, especially the antlered stags, were large, alert and swift beasts against which royalty, aristocracy and other wealthy patrons could pit their wits. Laws and taboos denied the common folk access to this bounty, though we are all familiar with mediaeval outlaws like Robin Hood who risked severe punishments for the taste of venison. The word venison originally applied to the meat of any of the wild animals of the chase, including wild boar for example, the word being derived, via the French, from the Latin 'venari' meaning 'to hunt'."

The Stag for Modern Pagans

Mabon is the time, in many areas, when hunting season begins. While many Pagans are opposed to hunting, others feel that they can hunt for food as our ancestors did. For many Pagans, equally as important as the idea of caring about animals is the concept of responsible wildlife management.

The fact is, in some areas, wild animals such as whitetail deer, antelope, and others have reached the status of nuisance animal. If you're wondering about why Pagans hunt, be sure to read Pagans and Hunting.

In some Pagan traditions, a popular Mabon chant to sing is entitled simply, Hoof and Horn, originally written by Ian Corrigan of Ár nDraíocht Féin. You can listen to an audio clip here: Hoof and Horn.