I remember being a little girl, at my grandparents’ trailer home in rural Manitoba, obsessed with the deer head mounted on the wall. I would stare at it, look into its eyes, and swear it was alive, that it still held a spirit of some kind.
I would ask to be lifted up so I could pet the deer. I could feel its power, grace and nobility. Admiring this amazing creature, I wondered how or why it had to be killed. I felt that maybe it was watching over me.
Years later, when my grandparents moved into a house, I remember they had a large tapestry of deer in the snow in the basement where I would sleep. It brought me so much peace and comfort, to stare at the tapestry, watching the deer, imagining I was with them in the snow. It helped me fall asleep, as I would lay on a mattress right across from the tapestry.
I don’t know if these memories were the beginnings of my long-time connection with Deer as an animal ally, but I think they stick with me for a reason.
The Circle of Life
My grandpa was a hunter, butcher and farmer, yet he loved animals more than anyone I knew. He would always take the time to teach me about the animals around us, getting me to slow down and take the time to really observe the behaviour of a bird or squirrel, in a way I never did on my own.
My grandparents relied on the land to survive, and in rural Manitoba that isn’t an easy feat. Their relationship with nature was much more intimate than mine. They understood the cycles of life and death. They simultaneously loved and adored animals, while having no qualms about taking their lives if needed.
This is an ability I was spared from learning in my life, having grown up in the city of Winnipeg, I never relied on hunting or farming to survive. I had the privilege to eat according to my ideals and sentiments, choosing to be a vegetarian and vegan for over 14 years. Now, I’m a flexitarian, as my chronic health issues have shown me that my body requires me to eat a certain amount of meat. I do so in humility and gratitude.
I think about my grandparents and my mother growing up on the farm and I feel lucky to have been given the chance to live a different life. But I also feel maybe I missed out on some important wisdom their lifestyle carried. I am not sure how I would handle a lifestyle of raising and killing animals so we and others could eat. I am so grateful for those who do this so I can survive and be healthy.
I don’t judge anyone for their dietary choices or lifestyle, as I feel there’s no room for that in this world of inequities, diverse religious and cultural traditions and health complexities. I’ve done all the diets, for all the reasons. I’ve been in a lot of different shoes. I see all the sides.
I do, however, feel there is much to learn from our animal kin. Cultivating a relationship with them is something special and sacred and reminds us that we too are part of the same family.
When we are strongly drawn to an animal, or if one keeps showing up in our lives, it can be worth getting curious about them. Research their eating habits, survival instincts, how they approach relating and family, and see if they perhaps carry qualities we need to cultivate within ourselves or learn to access or express in our lives. Getting to know them can help us get to know ourselves better. They can help us embody our animal self and deepen our connection to the natural world.
Deer in my Life
Deer are very common here in Canada, especially white-tailed deer. Yet, despite how common they are, it always feels like such a blessing to actually see one.
As the quiet, gentle spirits of the forest, seeing a deer always brings me a sense of humility and honour. I feel one of deer’s messages to me is to embrace my sensitivity. Deer are always keenly aware- able to sense even the slightest movement or faintest smell of predators.
I also feel the symbolism of the antlers reaching up and out are like antennae to the spirit world, giving deer a special attunement to frequencies that we are not aware of in our usual daily consciousness. When deer shows up, I take it as a reminder to attune to the subtle realms more consciously. Take the time to be silent, still and listen. Pay attention to my surroundings.
Pretty much every time we venture up north to camp or stay at a cottage, we see deer. Often, we see 3 at a time, which makes sense as my husband and daughter and I all feel a special connection to them and travel together. We have often felt an intuitive sense of where and when they are nearby, and then they show up!
I remember a beautiful workshop where my daughter and I made our own deerskin drums. Myself and a few others were struggling to cut the hide. My daughter was a natural, however. The teacher mentioned that cutting the hide required a special gentleness and attunement to the deer spirit in order for it to be cut properly. I was gripping too tight, applying too much force, so it wouldn’t cut. One of deer’s messages to me is always to be gentle, lighten up. I eventually got it.
The drum making process overall was a good experience in aligning with deer energy. Now every time I drum, I honor the deer spirit. I see her in pretty much all of my journeys, songs and meditations, guiding me between the worlds.
Deer Goddess- Elen of the Ways
One aspect of deer that I’ve experienced in my journeys is myself as a woman with deer antlers, like some sort of deer priestess or deer lady of the woods, spending time with a herd of deer. I also often see a female deer with antlers showing me where to go.
At first I thought, how can a female deer have antlers? I later found out that female elk/reindeer have antlers. But it felt like something more than elk. It felt like it was something bigger. This curiosity led me to discovering an ancient European/British antlered goddess named in modern times as Elen of the Ways.
Apparently countless women have seen this female antlered deer/ female deer goddess show up in their meditations and journeys too. Elen is still quite enigmatic, her history found in bits and pieces here and there. However despite the lack of strong documented history, she remains in the consciousness of many. She is often seen as representing the Earth Mother and is a guide of pathways and ley lines. I have been slowly connecting more to her and understanding her role in my life.
Often seen as ‘fairy cattle’ in Scottish mythology, deer are often considered a connection to the Otherworld. The Celtic Lord of the Wild Hunt, Cernunnos is often depicted as a man with antlers, surrounded by animals. He is the spirit of the forest, of fertility and the wilderness, a guide between worlds.
Deer in many ways are a bridge for me. They are a connection to my family here and their history on these lands, as I mentioned in the beginning with my grandparents. They are also connected to the traditions of my British and Celtic ancestors across the ocean. They also bridge this world and the spirit world.
Deer, being a traveling animal, helps me to feel comfortable traveling– in spirit as well as in life to create these bridges in my spiritual practice, mind and body. Sometimes they are simply a reminder to get out and walk more often.
Deer is a long time friend who I feel is an ally- a spirit that helps me align with my soul’s growth, healing and renewal, who helps me to navigate life’s challenges.
‘Spirit Animals’, ‘Totems’ & Cultural Appropriation
I feel it is important to recognize that while animistic practices and animal reverence exists globally, beliefs vary from culture to culture and tradition to tradition.
Due to colonization on Turtle Island, Indigenous beliefs and practices were illegal until 1978 in the US and until 1951 in Canada, and therefore out of reach for many Indigenous folks. Many are only just beginning to reclaim these ways, which is necessary for healing.
Sacred practices regarding animal medicine and family clan traditions managed to survive and still exist today in Indigenous communities. Unfortunately however, mainstream colonial culture has appropriated and distorted these traditions.
The word ‘totem’ is an anglicised word for ‘doodem’ in Annishinaabemowin, which speaks to the family clans symbolised by an animal and holding deep meaning and tradition. The term ‘spirit animal’ is often associated with Indigenous culture, however seems to have emerged as a modern term stemming from 1990’s Wicca and pagan circles.
Quizzes, memes and t-shirts in mainstream culture using the words ‘spirit animal’ and ‘totem’ are usually fluffy and disrespectful- saying ‘Justin Bieber is my spirit animal’ or ‘pizza is my spirit animal’ and nonsense that depicts a spirit animal as simply something you resonate with, identify with, think is cute or appealing. The use of the word ‘totem’ gets thrown around, meaning anything from an animal persona (I have heard of the term ‘fursona’ or even ‘Patronus’ as a replacement), to an animal you happen to really like or resonate with- but none of these are the same as a doodem.
It is important to be aware of your own relationship with animals- the symbolism and context of the traditions you follow, your own lineage and personal experience, and not co-opt or make light of Indigenous sacred traditions!
It is also important that as we connect to these animals in our own environment, we are aware of the laws and customs where we reside. Carrying an eagle feather- and even keeping found feathers of most common bird species is actually illegal in the US and Canada if you are not Indigenous. Using feathers in ways that mimic Indigenous customs you know nothing about (like headdresses, smudge fans, prayer fans, dreamcatchers, etc) is disrespectful and appropriative.
As part of the natural world, we must recognise our place in the ecosystem, and be aware of our privilege, power and relation to others. This can be hard for us humans, because, well, we act more like animals than we like to admit most of the time! Yet, we have the capability to tap into empathy and compassion in a way animals don’t.
I feel that honouring our animal kin by becoming aware of our own ‘animal instincts’ can help us become more accepting of ourselves and each other, in a way that can prevent us from acting from a place of repressed or distorted instincts. It is up to us to find the balance between our inner animal and our human self.
What animals hold spiritual significance for you in your life?
What traditions or beliefs do you have regarding animal allies or messengers?
How do you honor animals in your practice?
Thank-you for reading,
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As a Witch who makes her home and practice in Tkaronto (Toronto) Ontario, I deeply thank the original stewards of this land: The Mississaugas of the Credit, Mississaugas of Scugog, Alderville, Hiawatha & Curve Lake; The Chippewas of Beausoleil, Rama & Georgina island, the Haudenosaunee and Wendat nations. I acknowledge the resilience of the First Nation, Inuit and Metis people who live and work here in the present, in a system of inequity and oppression. I am working on uncolonising my own practice, amplifying Indigenous voices and supporting Indigenous communities in whatever way I can.