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 elusive and hard to catch.  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 as Origins of the mythical creature white stag by zteve t evans – © 02/11/2010 zteve t evans