Deer Tattoos: History, Legends, Symbolism

A noble beast with salvific properties (some ancient legends say that its milk is the source of divine consciousness), the deer is a widespread mammal the world over with 43 different species. Ancestral guardian of the forests, in many cultures it is seen as a symbol of virility where the force of reason prevails over the brutality of its antlers. Just like all of those who choose it as a tattoo in the most brilliant colours and original styles.

The History

What we call deer is known to modern science as a ruminant cloven-hoofed mammal belonging to the family Cervidi which, as any manual of zoology will tell us, are widespread in Europe and Asia as well as North and South America. The presence of deer on planet Earth dates back about 25 million years and they were first used in religious symbolism in prehistoric times, during the Paleolithic (2.5 million years ago) when cavemen began to worship their antlers as a sign of resurrection. The annual regeneration of this type of bone was seen as a triumph of life over death.

Alex Madri Outlaw, Sublim Tattoo, Eperrnay, France
Alex Madri Outlaw, Sublim Tattoo, Eperrnay, France

The Myth

The myth of the deer as an immortal creature first appears among the Celts between the 4th and 3rd century B.C. when it was endowed with the power to connect the world of the living with the Afterlife thanks to its speed and strength as well as innate courage in the face of the daily hazards of life in the forest.

From here it is a short step the homeland of mythology, Ancient Greece, where Artemis, as well as being daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo, loved to spend her time in the woods in the company of nymphs and all kinds of deer.

In the Roman world, a respected author such as Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) portrayed the deer as a courageous and extremely intelligent animal, undeterred by any obstacles (fierce dogs, river floods, illness, and so on) that it might meet along its path.

And there was bound to be a Christian version too which has always described the deer as a metaphor for Jesus Christ or faith in general. This is supported by a passage from the Bible, in the Psalm of David which says: “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, oh God”. This is why during the Middle Ages the association was often made between deer and martydom of the saints. Among others, there is the legend of Saint Patrick who turned himself into a deer free to escape into the woods.

The mythical figure of the deer also appears in the epic Indian poem the Ramayana where the main character Sirta is lured away by a golden hind which is being hunted by Rama. In Chinese art, deer symbolise tranquillity and meekness, reminding us not to take hasty decisions, to reason carefully before giving in to physical impulses. In Japan, these animals are simply divine messengers and the “dance of the deer” is a tradition in many north eastern parts of the country as a rite of purification.

Darcy Nutt, Chalice Tattoo Studio, Boise, USA
Darcy Nutt, Chalice Tattoo Studio, Boise, USA

Cinema, Literature and TV Series

Fast forward to the twentieth century and without a shadow of a doubt the most popular deer with children has to be Bambi who first appeared in the Disney film of the same name (1942) as a white-tailed fawn, even though in the book upon which the cartoon was based (‘Bambi – A life in the woods’ written in 1923 by the Austrian Felix Salten) he is just a roe deer. And to stay in the realm of literature, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Yearling, written in 1938 by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings tells the story of a boy and a little deer. The film based on the book (‘The Yearling’ starring, among others, Gregory Peck came out in 946) was a contender for the Oscar.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first in the literary saga The Chronicles of Narnia written by C.S. Lewis, the main characters (the Pevensie children who have become rulers of the magical kingdom of Narnia) hunt a White Stag because it will grant the wish of whoever manages to catch it. The deer is once again portrayed as a salvific creature with magical powers as well as the nexus/literary device which allows the Pevensie children to go back home to England.

Matt Curzon, Empire Collective, Melbourne, Australia
Matt Curzon, Empire Collective, Melbourne, Australia

In the Harry Potter series, the young wizard casts a Patronus Charm in the shape of a ‘silver stag’ to repel the Dementors (the terrible guards of the wizard prison Azkaban). Harry’s father, James, is an Animagus who takes the shape of a stag while his mother (Lily Potter) and Severus Snape (Defense against the Dark Arts teacher) have Patronus charms which take the shape of a doe.

In one of the many adventures of Baron Von Münchhausen (and the 1785 novel by Rudolf Erich Raspe of the same name), the eccentric Baron comes across a stag while he is eating cherries. The Baron shoots the deer using cherry stones as ammunition for his musket and recounts in his diary that one year later he encountered the same deer with a cherry tree in the place of its antlers.

And finally, to bring us right up to the present, in the saga Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (on which the 2011 tv series Game of Thrones was based, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss), a crowned stag is the coat of arms of the powerful House Baratheon. So the legend lives on…

Take a look at our gallery and be inspired!