Mythical Beasts: The White Stag

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 who  encountered 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.

Celtic Mythology

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 Legend of the Wondrous Stag in Hungarian Mytholgy

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.

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.

Scottish Folklore

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.

Arthurian Legend

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.

The White Hart – Author: Bernardfobe – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

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.

As a Christian symbol

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.

World Mythology

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 with  David, 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 Laboratory  also has white deer in its grounds.

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.

Protection from Trophy Hunters

Most sightings are now kept secret or their locations are not revealed.  The head of a full grown white stag with a full set of antlers would fetch many thousands of pounds. One recent sighting in the Scottish Lowlands attracted such bids from hunters soon after its location was revealed but the landowner is refusing all offers.  Hopefully these wonderful animals will be far better protected than the one that was killed by trophy hunters around the county boundaries of Cornwall and Devon in October 2007.

The Stuff of Legends

These photographs and videos reveal a beast of mystery and majesty.  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.

© 02/11/2010 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

This is a version of an article first Published: November 2, 2010 on Helium.com as Origins of the mythical creature white stag by zteve t evans – © 02/11/2010 zteve t evans

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British Folklore: Legends of the Black Dog

The British Isles are rich in history and tradition and there are many strange and wonderful legends gathered from folklore whose origins are lost in the mists of time.  From these mists there have emerged many folk tales of spectral animals with strange and terrible powers that are said to haunt the forests, hills and remote byways of this ancient land.  Perhaps one of the most terrifying of these is the legend of the Black Dog.

Black Dog – Author: Liza Phoenix – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Sightings of phantom Black Dogs have been recorded from many parts of Britain for many centuries, with encounters in England seeming to be the most prevalent.  Most of the English counties report incidents and sighting of these mysterious beasts which are known by many names, depending on location. In East Anglia the beast is often known as Black Shuck where it has haunted the countryside even before the arrival of the Vikings.  In Scotland there is the Cu Sith and in Tring, Hertfordshire, the Lean Dog and in other parts of England there is the Church, or Kirk, Grim and many other names.

The Black Dog of Bungay

One of the most frightening incidents ever reported took place in the quiet market town of Bungay, in Suffolk.  On the Sunday morning of the 4th of August, 1577, during the Morning Service at St. Mary’s Church a terrible and violent storm broke out. The sky darkened, thunder crashed and rain fell heavily from the skies.  Lightning flashed wildly as the storm broke upon the church.  Inside the congregation knelt to pray.

Suddenly to the horror of the congregation from out of a flash of lightning there appeared in the church a huge and monstrous Black Dog.  Howling wildly as the lightning flashed and thunder pealed, the beast ran amok attacking the terrified parishioners and causing havoc.

Two people at their prayers were killed and a third man was badly burned from being mauled by the beast, but did survived the ordeal.  There was great damage inflicted upon the church, as the tower was struck by lightning and the clock destroyed, before the Black Dog finally ran wildly from the church to the relief of the petrified congregation.

Around twelve miles away in the Holy Trinity Church at Blythburgh, at a about the same time the Black Dog, or another beast like it, appeared and also attacked the frightened congregation at prayers killing three people.  There are scorched scratch marks on the church door that can still be seen to this day.

Title page of the account of Rev. Abraham Fleming’s account of the appearance of the ghostly black dog “Black Shuck” at the church of Bungay, Suffolk in 1577: “A straunge, and terrible wunder wrought very late in the parish church of Bongay: a town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August, in ye yeere of our Lord 1577.” – Author Abraham Fleming – Public Domain

The Lean Dog of Tring in Hertfordshire

In the Hertfordshire town of Tring a phantom with red, glowing, eyes and known as the Lean Dog is said to haunt the site where a gallows once stood.   In 1751 an old woman was accused of witchcraft by locals and drowned.   A local chimney sweep was accused of taking part in her murder and was hanged from the gallows.  In the 19th century two men who encountered the Lean Dog reported it as being gaunt, haggard and unkempt.

A local schoolmaster who encountered it reported it to being about the size of a Newfoundland dog with a shaggy coat and tail and long ears.  There are also reports that state that with its first appearances it materialize as, or from, a fiery torch.

The Cu Sith

In Scottish and Irish legend the Cu Sìth, which means ‘fairy dog,’ was said to have a dark-green, shaggy coat and to be about the size of a large calf.  Its eyes were large and had a fiery glow and its tail was curled and sometimes braided.

In Celtic tradition phantom dogs are usually black though sometimes they are white but have red ears.  The Irish Cu Sith is describe as being a huge black hound. Green is associated with ‘fairies’ in Celtic lore and it is named the ‘fairy dog’ and seems to be in league with them.

The Cu Sith was feared as a harbinger of death.  In much the same way the Grim Reaper appears at death to lead the soul to the afterlife, so the Cu Sith takes the soul to the underworld.

The hound is said to have hunted silently for its victim but would sometimes rend the air with three blood-curdling yowls that carried for a great distance. When this was heard men would lock up their women to prevent the Cu Sith from stealing them and taking them to the fairy world where they would be made to give up their milk to the children of the fairies.

The Church, or Kirk, Grim

The Vikings brought many of their customs and traditions to England from Scandinavia and may well have influenced the legends of the Black Dog.  The Church Grim was also known as Kirk Grim and in Finnish, ‘Kirkonväki’ and in Swedish, ‘Kyrkogrim.’  Both appear in English and Scandinavian folklore as sentinel spirits whose task was to protect a church and its grounds.  They could appear as small, dark, grotesquely formed people, or as a Black Dog.

In many parts of Europe, including Britain, early Christians are believed to have sacrificed animals when a new church was built.   A black dog would be buried alive on the north side of the land which would then become the guardian spirit keeping the church and grounds safe from the devil.  It was often regarded as a herald of doom bringing death to anyone who encountered it.

Hound of the Baskervilles – Image Author: w:Sidney Paget – Public Domain Image

The Black Dog of Galley Hill, Luton

In ancient times Galley Hill was home to a hill fort and barrow.  Later in 16th-and 17th century it became a place of execution and a gallows was erected.

Galley Hill is a highly visible landmark where witches and criminals were executed there and their bodies covered in tar to preserve them.  They were then left to hang on the gallows which stood high on the hill as a warning to others before being eventually buried.

It is reported that one night the hill was hit by a ferocious storm.   The gallows were struck by lightning setting it and the ground around it on fire.  In the flames a Black Dog was said to have been seen howling and capering wildly.  People believe that the beast comes for the souls of criminals and witches driving them through the Gates of Hell for Satan.

Benevolent Black Dogs

Sightings and encounters with Black Dogs are still reported though they seem less horrific than those of the past and in some cases even benevolent with the beast acting as a guardian or guide ensuring travellers arrive at their destination safely.  Sometimes they have been reported by drivers who have seen them in their headlights in the road at night only to vanish when the vehicle is about to make contact.  There are also reports from many other parts of the world about similar ghostly encounters which suggest that the Black Dog is not just a British phenomenon.

                                                                                                                    © 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

 Copyright 24/04/2014 zteve t evans

Mythical Beasts: The Salamander

Salamanders have long held a significant place in the folklore and mythology of many different countries around the world.  Fantastic powers and attributes have been bestowed upon them giving them a place in mythology, alchemy, heraldry and popular culture that is perhaps surprising, for what in reality is a rather small,  humble creature.

The real salamander is a very different creature to the one of legend so how did it come to be given attributes that makes it a popular emblem on the Coat of Arms for Royalty, nobility, insurers, local authorities and many other organisations?

Emblem of salamander that lives in fire – Image Author unknown – Public Domain image due to its age.

The Real Salamander

Salamanders can be found in many parts of the world and there are known to be around five hundred species.  They are found in Europe, Asia, some parts of Africa, and North and South America.   The largest are found in China and Japan and can grow to five feet long though most are much smaller. Salamanders are not reptiles and although they look like lizards they are not related to them and neither are they related to mammals or birds.  They are amphibians and their nearest relatives are frogs and toads.

Fire And The Mythical Salamander

Aristotle, (384 BC – 322 BC), and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) associate them with fire and it is with fire that most of the fantastic powers are connected.  People thought that salamanders were born or created from fire.

Most of the popular myths are believed to originate from the European species, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), which hibernates in hollow, decaying logs of wood during the winter months.   With wood being the main fuel in ancient times this may explain their sudden appearance amid flames when a fire is lit or replenished with a salamander inside.    Woken abruptly from hibernation, or sleep, the natural reaction would be to make a quick escape giving the mistaken appearance that they were born, or generated from fire and flame.

Pliny the Elder believed the salamander to have such a cold body that it could extinguish any fire.  There was also a belief that the skin and other parts and extracts of the salamander gave protection against fire.

Early travellers to China claimed they had had been shown clothing reputedly woven from salamander hair that had been deliberately placed in a fire and came out unscathed.  Today many people think that they were shown clothing made from asbestos fibres. In fact though its skin is different from reptiles, salamanders are no more fire proof than any other creature.

A salamander unharmed in the fire – Author Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain Image

The Poisonous Salamander Of  Myth

The salamander was also reputed to be so toxic that if it entwined itself around a fruit tree then the fruits become poisonous to all who would eat them. The saliva was thought to cause the hair of a person to fall from the body if it made contact with human skin.

If a salamander got into a well then the well water would be poisoned and undrinkable. Many species of salamanders do secrete a toxic substance from their bodies when threatened but the toxicity of the substance was greatly exaggerated.

The Mystical Salamander Of Alchemy

In 16th century alchemy Paracelsus (1493 -1541) is generally credited with the first mentioning of the concept of elementals.   These were Air (Sylph), Earth (Gnome), Fire (Salamander) and Water (Undine).  His association of fire to the salamander also helped to perpetuate and exaggerate the myths about the creature.   Elementals were creatures, or spirits, in harmony with, or made from the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

The Salamander In Heraldry

Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished.  They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality.  They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.

A salamander was the icon that King Francis I of France chose for his own sign and the motto,  ‘Nutrisco et exstinguo (I nourish and I extinguish).  The good fire – the passion and belief in Jesus is nourished –  the bad fire, temptation and evil are overcome.

The salamander appears on the Coat of Arms of many Royal and noble families in Europe and also that of many towns, local authorities and institutions.  Their exaggerated fire protective attributes encouraged many insurance companies and organisations of the past and present to include a salamander as an emblem on their Coat of Arms.

The Salamander In Popular Culture

Today the salamander myth is perpetuated in popular culture.  Allusions to its legendary powers can be found in books such as ‘War with the Salamanders (or War with the Newts)’, by Karel Capek, ‘The Silver Chair,’ by C.S Lewis, the Harry Potter series of stories by J.K. Rowling and ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.

They also have roles in many video and computer games today which often make greater exaggeration and distortion of the legends, making the mythical salamander into a very different creature to the real salamander today.

© November 9, 2010 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

A version of this was first published on Helium.com November 9, 2010 by zteve t evans titled Origins of the mythical salamander- © November 9, 2010 zteve t evans

File:Salamander in fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Unknown – In Public Domain due to its age.

File:A salamander unharmed in the fire.jpg From Wikimedia Commons – Author: Numerisation par Koninklijke Bibliotheek – Public Domain because its copyright has expired.

Salamander, from Wikipedia

Monstropedia, Salamander

Sacred Texts, The Salamander