CREATION'S HEARTBEAT: Following the Reindeer Spirit
I was elated to find this book. I have loved deer, especially reindeer, since childhood. They are one of my favorite symbols of the Yuletide season, and I have been collecting deer figurines, statues, and pictures for many years. One of the reasons I built my home on its site is because deer live in the neighborhood. I have always admired the grace and beauty of all members of the deer family, their paradoxical ability to remain absolutely still contrasted with their swift flight, their inborn protective mechanisms, and their marvelous ability to survive extreme climates. When I was new to Paganism, I was pleasantly surprised to discover antlered depictions of Gods and Goddesses.
But this isn't a review of Bambi. Much of my respect for deer comes from having seen what a cornered doe can achieve with her sharp hooves. These are not helpless creatures. Those hooves, teeth and antlers have a purpose.
A white-tailed deer skull graced our coven's outdoor circle for several years, gradually being gnawed by deer and other creatures needing the calcium in its antlers and bone. At each Autumnal Equinox, my coven honors the relationship between predator and prey, and the blurry distinction between them, with a Deer Dance. Yet there has always been something deeper, something very sacred about them that I could not put into words. I was forced to pay attention to it when I had three dreams about reindeer near the Winter Solstice 1995. Linda Schierse Leonard has articulated much of this subconscious connection, elegantly and thoroughly.
Leonard's research included visits to Siberia, Lapland, and Alaska, sites of most of the world's reindeer populations, and their close relatives, the caribou. She does not gloss over the fact that indigenous people continue to hunt and herd reindeer. She reminds us that it is a way of life that includes respect, honor, and even worship for the beings with whom they live in such close proximity. Yes, they kill the reindeer. They also use every piece of the reindeer's body, just as North American Indians made use of every scrap from the bison they hunted.
Talking about deer usually includes a discussion about hunting, since that is the most familiar relationship between deer and human beings. I don't object to hunting if practiced with respect and when the hunter makes the most use of the body he or she claims. Human beings cannot replace wolves and other predators, whose senses are finely attuned to the age, health, and strength of their prey. There is a reciprocal relationship between four-footed predators and their prey that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Both animal populations benefit, from a genetic standpoint. Most human deer hunters in the U.S. are merely reducing a population of animals so that fewer will starve to death. In itself, this is not a bad thing, but it is not the same relationship.
I found Leonard's book rich in references, including myths and folktales from the Lapp, Siberian, and Native American peoples, ancient and contemporary artwork, motion pictures, poetry, and archeological and anthropological sources. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a book linking Santa Claus to his shamanic origin has appeared on the bookshelves (courtesy of Llewellyn Press) at about the same time; Leonard's book provides many examples of Reindeer and Deer Goddesses and their places in the pre-Christian religions and shamanic practices of these people.
Most importantly, Leonard derives some original lessons of hope, vulnerability, compassion, and flexibility from the life of reindeer and the people who live with them. She applies these lessons in her work as a therapist (as Jung did in his synthesis of mythology and psychology), borrowing from the language of poetry:
Even in these dark times of ecological and personal despair, we still have a choice. We can become identified with [plunderers], whose greed and negation of the unity of all living beings destroys human life and the earth on which we live. We can indulge in despair, as [a shaman] did during the time when he lost faith and abandoned his shamanic calling. Or we can be like the Sami people, portrayed in the [movie] Pathfinder, and like the Even people of Siberiahardy yet heart-full survivors, cooperating generously with one another, moving together with Nature and not against it. And always, always grateful to be on the journey that is guided by the spirit and the loving, healing heart of the reindeer doe that beats in World's Dark Night like the beat of the shaman's drum.
I can easily call Leonard's book a literary Abotts Bromley Horn Dance: elegant, subtle, and mystical.
Reviewed by Susan Kirsch
All material ©1995-2007 Obsidian Magazine. All rights reserved.