We have recently updated our logo and website and as part of the process we looked into the heritage of our school and the symbolism of the deer and stag which has been associated with the school since it opened. Please see below some of the interesting connections we discovered.
Watch this space for more school projects around DPHS as it grows and evolves.
Legends and Mythology of Deer/Stags
In many European mythologies the deer was associated with woodland deities. Two tales of Artemis, the Greek goddess of wilderness, tell of her wrath and retribution visited upon those who trespassed into her domain. By controlling the weather she kept King Agamemnon's fleet bound for Troy confined to port, to avenge the killing of a stag sacred to her. Another hunter, Acteon, used a stag's pelt to sneak up on Artemis whilst she was bathing in the forest. As punishment for seeing her naked, she changed him into a stag and sent him back into the woods to be hunted down and killed by his own hounds. Other woodland goddesses, such as Diana, the Roman equivalent of Artemis, were similarly associated with deer and their perceived qualities of gracefulness and swiftness.
In Irish mythology Finn mac Cumhail, the legendary leader of Ireland's heroic band of warriors known as the Fianna, cornered a beautiful white deer, which his hounds then refused to dispatch. That night Finn was visited by the goddess Sadb, who explained that a spell had turned her into the deer Finn had chased, a spell from which his love could release her. Though they became lovers, the magician who cast the spell reclaimed Sadb when Finn was away repelling a Viking raid on Dublin, and though the Fianna searched the land, Sadb could not be found. Some years later however, another of Finn mac Cumhail's hunting sorties tracked down a naked, long haired boy whom once again his hounds refused to kill. The boy did not know his father but knew his mother to be a gentle hind who lived in fear of another man. Details of the story convinced Finn that this was his son, and he named him Oisin, meaning fawn. Oisin too became a heroic Fenian warrior, though he also inherited some of his mother's gentler arts and was acknowledged as Ireland's greatest poet.
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’.
When antlers were not kept as a hunting trophy this hard material was carved to make early jewellery and buttons, and continues to be used to make handles for anything from hunting knives to walking sticks.
Two of Britain's greatest mediaeval playwrights drew on deer folklore in their plays. Christopher Marlowe mentioned the belief that "The forest deer being struck runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds."
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;”
Though Herne's oak was certainly a local landmark in Windsor great park until 1796, there appears to be no mention of a deer-like Herne in folklore prior to Shakespeare, though he has variously been associated with the leader of the 'Wild Hunt' or with Cernunnos, the Horned One.
Native American Mythology
Deer are associated with fertility in many Native American cultures. In some Mexican tribes, the first parents of the human race were originally deer. Deer are sacred animals to many tribes of Mexico and the southwestern United States; they often play a role in creation mythology, are believed to sacrifice themselves to feed the people, or are considered caretakers of the earth. Deer songs and deer dances are common throughout this region, with the deer frequently serving as a symbol of the people. In the Huichol tribe of central Mexico, deer are especially sacred and are associated with peyote and traditional spirituality.
Deer play a lesser role in the mythology of tribes from other parts of the US and Canada, sometimes figuring as a messenger or a fertility spirit. In the Tlingit tribe of the Northwest Coast, deer symbolize peace and are associated with ambassadors.
Deer are also common clan animals in many Native American cultures. Tribes with Deer Clans include the Creek (whose Deer Clan is named Itchualgi or Ecovlke,) the Cherokee (whose Deer Clan name is Anikawi,) the Chippewa (whose Deer Clan and its totem are called Waawaashkeshi,) the Menominee (whose White Tailed Deer Clan is named Apaehsos), the Chickasaw, the Huron and Iroquois tribes, the Osage, the Shawnee, the Navajo, the Zuni (whose Deer Clan name is Kalokta-kwe,) and other Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.
Mythology and Legend of The White Stag/The White Hart
The white stag, like many other mythical creatures, wanders through the tangled forests and wild moorlands of our distant past. Elusive and rare, our forefathers may have caught a glimpse in some hidden glade in the woods, or seen it moving ghost-like across the wild moors, or maybe stood high on a rocky outcrop crowned against the sky. The white stag was always something to be desired yet always out of reach. Always leading the hunt onwards, ever onwards, to a destiny ordained by the gods. From the dark, distant memories of the Wild Hunt have grown the very stuff of legends.
Encounters with the White Stag
For those humans whoencountered a white stag, there were often profound consequences, sometimes stimulating great spiritual changes within a person. Sometimes these encounters have been the trigger of great events leading to the creation of nations and kingdoms. Even to this day the consequences of legendary encounters of the remote past are still visible and can be seen in action.
The White Stag in Mythology and Folklore
Traditionally the white stag has often been interchangeable with the unicorn and appears in the folklore and mythology of many different cultures around the world. In ancient times deer were hunted for food but they also supplied leather, bone and gut which had many uses and were an important resource in hunter gatherer and early agricultural societies. So when a rare white stag was chanced upon, maybe it is no surprise that legends and myths grew up around the sightings of this unusual and mysterious beast.
Many of the legends can be traced back through European and Asian culture. From Mesopotamia, Babylon, and Assyria and from Mongolia, and China and even in Japanese mythology, the white stag can be found depicted in art, in records and in legends.
White Stag Leadership Development
In a speech at the end of the Fourth World Wide Jamboree of the Scouting movement, founder Sir Robert Bade-Powell said, ‘You may look on that White Stag as the pure spirit of Scouting, springing forward and upward, ever leading you onward and upward to leap over difficulties.’ Later in 1958 the White Stag leadership and development program was born from this speech which today is known worldwide.
The White Hart in Heraldry
Richard II of England chose the White Hart for his own heraldic symbol. In Heraldry in England as well as many parts of Europe it became an important symbol.
The magnificent work of art, the Wilton Diptych, depicts Richard wearing a gold and enamel jewel and an image of a white hart. The Virgin Mary is present and the angels also are wearing white hart images. The work of art is actually an alter piece and on the outside is also an emblem of a white hart.
Recent Sightings of White Stags
A report by the BBC and updated on 11 February 2008 has a sighting of a white stag captured on video. This shows a white stag moving among a group of does over open moorland somewhere on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. The exact location is being kept secret to protect the stag from hunters and trophy seekers.
The Daily Mail also reported in an update on the 7th December 2009 of the discovery of a white stag in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, England by photographer Ken Grindle who managed to photograph it.
In Celtic mythology, the White Stag symbolises the existence of the Otherworld and that forces from the Otherworld are present and in action. The Celtic god Cernunnos was depicted zoomorphically as a man with horns growing from his head.
In earlier times the Celts believed that the white stag was an agent from the ‘Other world’ and a bringer of great changes to those it encountered. The white stag often appeared when something sacred, or a law or code, was being broken.
The stag was a symbol for the god Cernunnos, "The Horned One". Cernunnos was often portrayed with antlers himself, and was a god of the forest and wild animals. He was also seen as a god of 'Plenty', and the large Celtic 'Cauldrons of Plenty' often featured deer motifs amongst their ornate decoration. The magnificent Gundestrup Cauldron, for example, shows an antlered man alongside a deer and other wildlife. Though this is often regarded as a representation of Cernunnos, his pose in a half lotus position suggests he could also be a Celtic shaman.
One of the oldest and most revered legends of the Hungarian people is the Legend of the Wondrous Stag (sometimes Hind, or Doe) and Fred Hámori provides one of the best renditions of the legend.
The story goes that Hunor and Magor the sons of Nimrod, the great hunter king, gave chase to a white stag that led them to a new country and the establishing of the Huns and Magar peoples in Scythia. In some versions, the sex of the creature is ambiguous. Sometimes it is it is a horned doe, or hind that is chased.
The cosmos was considered the mother of the sun and was represented by a horned female doe, or hind. Being a symbol of the cosmos she also carried the stars and the moon as well as the sun between her horns. Just as the cosmos was her mother she was the mother of the stag who symbolised the sun.
In Scottish folklore around 1128, the King of Scotland was David I who was the son of Malcolm Canmore and St Margaret. The legend goes that on the day of the Feast of the Holy Rood he went out hunting despite advice given to him by his priest who had warned him against it.
Ignoring this advice, King David I had ridden out and came across a white stag. He immediately gave chase but became unsaddled from his horse who threw him. The White Stag turned to attack.
Helpless, David fell on his knees and cried out to God to protect him. The Stag charged full on at David with its antlers down. Just as the antlers were about to strike he managed to grab them. As he did so the antlers turned into a cross and the stag stopped dead in its tracks, lifted its head high and simply disappeared into thin air.
To give thanks to God for saving him, David built and dedicated a shrine to the Holy Rood which later became Holyrood Abbey leading to the development of Holyrood Palace. Holy Rood means Holy Cross.
In many of the legends of King Arthur, the white stag is so elusive it can never be caught and it is the pursuit of the beast that represents humanity’s spiritual quest, always searching for something just out of reach. Its entrance or discovery is often the stimulus for his knights to begin a high and noble quest.
In Christian symbolism the white stag can sometimes be seen as a symbol of Jesus. The Roman soldier St. Eustace converts to Christianity at the beckoning of a white stag with a cross between its horns that he encounters.
The stag talks to him revealing that he was Jesus and that he had been hunting him. Eustace was told that though he did not yet know it, he had great faith in Christ that he and his family’s faith would be greatly tested and so it proved to be.
Versions of the legend appear in many different parts of the globe including Mayan Indian and Japanese versions. In Japanese mythology a stag is hunted by twin brothers but the beast eludes them. The twins argue about which way to take and finally split up in different direction. One goes east and one goes west. The twin that takes to the east eventually discovers Japan.
Purity, Divinity, and Awakening
In many traditions white is the colour of divinity and purity and white can also be the color of peace or of truce. In Celtic tradition white is associated with the Other-world and After-life. The role of the white stag is often to lead the hunters to new beginnings, new places, and new insights and to new knowledge. It was something that could never be captured. Always keeping just a little bit ahead of the hunters and drawing them ever onwards to new places as it did with the sons of Nimrod leading them to a new land, or as withDavid, King of Scots, to new spiritual awakening.
A Natural Phenomenon
There is plenty of evidence with sightings, videos and photographs that prove that the white stag is not just a supernatural beast but natural phenomenon. White stags and deer are often wrongly thought of as being albino. In fact they inherited a rare genetic condition called leucism.
In the USA when a small herd of White-tailed deer became isolated from the outside world in what was once the Seneca Army Depot, Seneca County, New York, the resulting inbreeding produced a high number of white deer making it the largest known herd of white deer in the world. Also in the US, the Argonne National Laboratoryalso has white deer in its grounds.
The Stuff of Legends
For those who are close to nature as our ancestors were and those of us today who have a deep affinity with the natural world to encounter one in hidden forest glades or moving ghost-like through the mists of the moors, must be an unusual and unforgettable experience. Indeed, the very stuff legends are made from.
History and Mythology of Epping Forest
Epping Forest together with Hainault and Hatfield forests are all that is left of the ancient woodland known as the Forest of Essex. Originally covering 60,000 acres, the remaining 6,000 acres of woodland with its ancient oak and beech trees, open heath, bogs, ponds and grasslands stretches for 12 miles from Manor Park in the East of London to just north of Epping in Essex, on a ridge between the valleys of Lea and Roding.
The forest has been a refuge for people escaping the plague and the bombing of London during the Second World War. Although much of its history and folklore has been lost over time, the stories that do survive often reveal a darker more unpleasant side (such as the rumoured satanic rites at the Church of the Innocents at High Beech and the failed case of alleged satanic human sacrifices in 1991) which contrasts sharply with the mysterious beauty of the place.
The forest is first mentioned in connection with royalty in the 12th century, when an edict by Henry III allowed commoners to gather wood and foodstuffs, graze livestock and turn pigs out for mast. Only the king was allowed to hunt. It is believed that in 1543 Henry VIII commissioned the building of structure in Chingford known as the Great Standing which enabled the king and courtiers to watch the chase. The timber-framed building was renovated in 1589 and its name changed to the Queen Elizabeth Hunting Lodge, although it is debatable if she ever actually visited the lodge. In the 19th century local landowners requests to enclosure about 550 hectares of land ignited mass protests. Led by Thomas Willingale, the fight to protect commoners’ rights including lopping for firewood and grazing of cattle was successful and resulted in the passing of the Epping Forest Act of 1878. In 1882, after seven centuries of royal patronage, Queen Victoria declared the forest to be “the People’s Forest” and control passed into the hands of the City of London Corporation where it remains to this day.
Dick Turpin The Highwayman
One of the most famous names associated with the forest is Dick Turpin. Time has merged fact and fiction creating a legend of a gentlemen highwayman, gallant and noble who died a courageous death. The reality was very different. Stories on his early life vary but one accepted version is that Richard Turpin moved to Buckhurst Hill (Bucket Hill) in 1725 with his wife Elizabeth to open a butcher shop. Somehow Turpin became involved with deer thieves known as the Essex Gang led by Samuel Gregory. Possibly Turpin disposed of the deer meat as the butcher’s shop would have been a perfect cover. After a number of the gang were caught, the remaining members along with Turpin took to robbing isolated farmhouses, torturing the female occupants if they refused to cooperate. The notoriety of the gang became such that a notice for their capture was placed in the London Gazette. The Gazette described Turpin as “a tall fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about 26 years of age, about five feet nine inches high”*. In February 1735 the youngest of the Essex Gang, John Wheeler was arrested. Under interrogation, Wheeler revealed the names of other members of the gang, who in turn were seized. Somehow Turpin escaped and turned to the highway robbery which he became famously associated with.
Along with Matthew (Tom) King and Stephen Potter, Turpin was responsible for a number of robberies along the roads around and in the forest, instilling fear and panic amongst the locals. In April 1737 King and Turpin stole one horse too many, the owner reported the theft to Richard Bayes, the landlord of the Green Man at Leytonstone. Bayes tracked the animal to the Red Lion at Whitechapel and laid an ambush for Turpin and King. In the shoot-out that followed King was killed and Turpin again evaded capture and went to ground in the forest. Despite the man hunt that followed Turpin managed to survive undiscovered in his dugout for a couple of weeks but on the 4 May his luck finally ran out. Thomas Morris a servant of one of the keepers stumbled across the hideaway. Turpin surprised, shot and killed Morris with his carbine. Under the assumed name of John Palmer and with a £200 reward on his head, Turpin fled north and his association with the forest ended, at least whilst he was alive.
The location of Turpin’s cave is not exactly known and several sites have been put forward including Wellington Hill at High Road. In the 19th century the location of the hideaway was believed to have been found and became a popular tourist attraction. After his death some people believed that the spirit of Turpin returned to his old hunting ground and numerous sightings of a ghost wearing a tricorn hat riding a horse have been reported in the forest.
The revolt of Boudica, leader of the Iceni tribe is well documented by historians. No-one really knows why she and her daughters have become associated with the forest as the tribe inhabited an area mostly falling within the county of Norfolk and there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the theory. The only tenuous link is through the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni tribes (who joined the Iceni in the war against the Romans) whose adjoining territory border falls within the area. The myth goes that Boudica and her followers’ last stand against the Romans took place in the forest. Realising that there was no hope of victory, Boudica and her daughters took poison rather than risk falling into Roman hands. Two Iron Age hill forts have been identified as possible contenders for the Iceni camp: Ambresbury Banks and Loughton Camp. Rumour has it that at night three phantom women can be seen walking along the road near the camps.
Epping Forest has held a long association with deer. In times when the pleasures of the chase were the favourite recreation of the Sovereign, Epping Forest became a much favoured royal hunting ground. As part of the Royal Forest of Essex it was controlled by Forest Courts which meted out harsh penalties to those caught poaching or even just disturbing the deer.
A number of deer parks were formed in and around the Forest. Copped Hall, Monkhams and Fairmead date from the 13th century. The hunt grandstand of Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge still stands today at Chingford. The Lodge was commissioned by Henry VIII as a grandstand from which to view the hunt. Queen Elizabeth I is thought to have visited the Lodge.
The tales of poaching and annual Easter Hunts of tame deer bedecked in ribbons continued for may hundreds of years. The notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin, was known for dealing in poached Forest venison which was sold on the black market as ‘Black Mutton’.
The City of London became the Conservators of Epping Forest in 1878 and deer are the only wild animals to be specifically mentioned in the Epping Forest Act. The gradual loss of interest by the Crown for hunting in the Forest eventually led Queen Victoria to relinquish all Royal hunting rights in 1882.
Most fallow deer in Britain are descended from animals introduced by the Normans but it is possible that Epping Forest’s herd is descended from an importation in Stuart times. Although the fallow exhibits a wide variation in coat colour, ranging from white through to black, the uniform dark colour of these animals is unusual.
With the growth of car ownership during the 1950s, the Conservators became concerned about the increasing numbers of deer killed on the roads throughout the Forest and the Deer Sanctuary was established to the south-west of Theydon Bois in 1959 to retain specimens of the dark-coloured deer which have long been associated with Epping Forest. Public access is not permitted but good views can be obtained from the nearby public footpath and the adjoining Forest. Occasionally guided visits to the Sanctuary are organised by Forest Keepers.
Male fallow deer are traditionally known as bucks. Each year a new set of antlers are grown, the older buck casting their antlers in April, the younger ones usually later in May. The new sets of antlers start to grow almost immediately and are usually fully grown by August.
Female fallow, known as does, do not grow antlers. Fawns are born each summer from mid-May into June. It is quite normal for young fawns to be left alone by their mothers for long periods, the fawns lying hidden in the grass.
In late autumn, the does come into season. The bucks move into rutting ‘stands’ where they make muddy wallows by scraping the ground and urinating onto it. They then roll in their wallows to gain the distinctive and powerful odour of a rutting buck in its prime, which, together with their loud belching groans, serve to attract does and overawe younger males. Challenges for the rutting stands are met in a battle of clashing antlers.
Today, the Forest’s deer delight visitors who are thrilled to catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures. The main threat to deer now comes not so much from poaching, but from fast busy roads and human disturbance. When walking in Epping Forest please be mindful to minimise disturbance to the deer and always ensure dogs are under effective control.
Deer walks, talks and educational activities are regularly organised, for further information, please visit www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/eppingforest or follow @COLEppingForest on Twitter. You can find out more about this unique, ancient woodland at Epping Forest’s Visitor Centre, The View, Rangers Road, Chingford, which is conveniently located next door to Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.