Celtic stag art - plus a look at the fascinating history, symbolism, folklore & meaning around the stag - a special relationship for at least 10,000 years!!
This artwork is one of a pair - this is the stag/hart, the other is the doe/hind. You can see the other, plus read the general introduction to deer meaning here - don't forget to come straight back! (I'll also give you the link at the end, if you prefer.)
Stags in Prehistory
One of our earliest known links to the deer as a sacred animal dates from the Mesolithic era – that’s 10,000 years ago!
Archaeological digs at the site of Star Carr in Yorkshire have revealed that, here in Britain, stag skulls were discovered, complete with antlers, the insides hollowed out, and with holes made, seemingly for wearing – some kind of ritualistic head gear, it’s presumed! So deer were special to us in some way, even then!
Around the same era, deer images were being carved into rocks in the Camonica Valley in modern-day Italy. By the 7th century BC, the carvings show a half-man-half-stag creature.
Many of the carvings show the stag as a hunted animal. But there is also a carving showing a stag surrounded by a circle of dancing or praying people. What was happening here?
In places, the imagery of the stag combines with a solar theme – likely to relate to the seasons or solar cycle of the year. The antlers of the deer combine with a solar disc symbol. This seems to show the deer had some importance around the seasons, perhaps.
While a gold bowl, found at Zurich Altstetten, dates from the 6th century BC and shows deer images, together with depictions of the sun and moon.
Back to the 7th century BC – and bronze figures found at Strettweg in Austria show a large-antlered stag, alongside hunters or warriors and a woman thought to be a goddess figure.
And bronze figures from Balzers, Liechtenstein, dating from the 3rd century BC, also show a stag with huge antlers, along with a boar plus hunters or warriors.
The stag with large antlers and the stag with the sun wheel symbol between the antlers are both also found on Celtic coins – denoting a significance to both of these symbols.
The large antlers perhaps emphasise the strength and virility of the stag symbol – and even linking the image to the forest, as the branching antler symbol is often linked to the branches of the tree and linked to the Tree of Life (more on that later…).
The symbol of the solar wheel links to the idea of the solar cycle of the year and the renewal of the seasons. The stag is linked to the idea of renewal by the casting and regrowth of the antlers on a yearly cycle each spring.
Celtic-Romano Hunter Gods
In Romano-Celtic times, the hunter-god was a prominent deity – the hunter god carried a weapon to hunt, but also had a special relationship with the hunted animal, particularly the magnificent stag.
The relationship is thought to be not one of mere hunter and prey, but one of respect, reverence and even protection towards the animal.
It seems that deer and stag had a sacred importance.
The Celtic Stag Hunt
For the Celts, the hunt was sacred and the gods were invoked for its success. The idea of the ‘Divine Hunt’ involves this idea – a sacred act that involves both death and rebirth – bringing immortality to the hunted animal.
It is clear from Celtic legend, that deer and stags were seen to belong to the Otherworld – and could lure the unwary into this mythical realm, or sometimes guide the lost there to recover something dear to them.
In Northern Romano-Celtic Britain, hunter gods often have horns of their own...
Cernunnos (the ‘Horned One’) is a stag-god with antlers appearing from his head.
Cernunnos appears most famously on the Gundestrup cauldron, found in Denmark and dating from the 2nd-1st centuries BC. Here, he sits, cross-legged, with antlers, torc, stag, serpent, and other animals.
He also appears in a 4th century BC rock carving, from the Camonica Valley, as an antlered god-figure – as well as in Celtic Gaul, where he appears on a relief at Rheims together with the gods Mercury and Apollo, a stag, a bull, and a rat.
Cernunnos is strongly associated with the stag, as well as the snake, but often appears with other animals too – and is sometimes known as the Lord of the Beasts or Lord of the Animals – often seen as a god of abundance and plenty.
The Stag and the Serpent Symbolism
The link between the stag and the serpent is thought to represent the conflict between good and evil or light and dark – and it’s an association we see through time and place.
For the 2nd-3rd century Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria, the stag is ‘the enemy and destroyer of serpents’ and a symbol of Christ. The stag, he says, can kill serpents by using his breath to drive the serpent from its lair. The stag will then devour the serpent or trample it to death.
When the stag is old, it can restore its strength in this way, by eating the serpent - linking the stag with renewal and rebirth.
Celtic and Christian Symbols of the Stag
In Celtic and Christian tradition, the stag is seen as an ‘intercessor’ (go-between) between Heaven and Earth. There are many Celtic tales where the deer or stag appears from, leads the way to, or disappears into the Otherworld, sometimes taking a human or other animal with them.
In the Christian tradition, the solar symbol seen between the stag’s antlers in prehistoric finds becomes the symbol of the cross, making the stag God’s messenger, and a symbol of Christ.
The Stag & the Tree of Life
In the Nordic tradition, the tree of life is Yggdrasil and four stags live in its branches, representing the four winds of the world.
The association with the tree of life reinforces the stag’s association with the seasons of the year, renewal, rebirth, and fertility – once more the symbol of abundance.
The Stag & Our Souls
Perhaps because of their links to the Otherworld, stags and deer were seen as ‘conductors of souls’…
In the Celtic tale of Tristan and Yseult (Isolde), Yseult’s uncle, Morholt of Ireland, is wrapped in deerskin after he is killed by Tristan.
The Stag & Abundance
You might also like my Celtic Doe art- the matching companion to the stag artwork...
You can see them both together here along with more deer myth & meaning...
And read all about the symbolism and folklore of the female deer - the doe or hind - here
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