Today, across the vast expanse of northern Europe, sub-Arctic Russia and Mongolia, stretch many nations of reindeer-herding people. The Sami, the Evenki, the Chuckchi and many more. Many cultures, languages and customs abound, but something these people share is a deep physical and spiritual bond with the reindeer. The reindeer provides food. It provides power to pull a sleigh. In antiquity, the hides provided clothing, the antlers tools. The reindeer is the life force embodied. It is a giver of life, a mother, a sustainer of life. It’s no wonder that there are many stories about the reindeer as the mother of life.
It’s easy to think of the reindeer as connected only to northern peoples, but, at the end of the most recent glacial period, 12,000 years ago, reindeer were plentiful farther south: in Ireland, Scotland and the UK, all the way to southern Spain, and, in the Americas, as far south as Nevada and Tennessee. Reindeer were so numerous in Europe 16,000 years ago that this period in time has been called the Reindeer Age. Researchers say that Reindeer (including both the forest caribou and arctic reindeer) are the most widely distributed animal on the earth. The reindeer follow the ice as it flows back and forth across the earth.
Here is why this is important to me: Twenty-five years ago, the Reindeer emerged from the soil of my DNA’s consciousness, called up by a ceremony performed by a teacher from the Sami people that culminated with him stabbing me in the chest with a reindeer antler. I’m not a reindeer herder, I’m not Sami. So by the standards of my western, linear mind, Reindeer coming to me, living in me, becoming an ally, teacher and helper, is just crazy. Or it’s merely fake. It’s ego; a white man new age fantasy.
But when I view this through the wholistic lens through which all of my shamanic teachers have taught, the lens that says just because Reindeer isn’t here right now in the dense bodily form doesn’t mean she’s not here in Spirit, I open the possibility that, Reindeer was inside my spiritual DNA and decided to emerge.
One of the most important prayers I’ve been taught is to feed and nourish the Spirit(s) of whatever land I am standing on. One of the phrases I’ve been taught is to bless “all those that walked this land before me”- may they have peace and plenty and blessing, and may I walk in harmony and respect of the land. This simple prayer is incredibly difficult and seemingly fully hypocritical in the urban environment in which I live, but it has been an enormously educational daily prayer for me and I do my best.
It’s easy to think that the prayer is directed only at humans – at ancestors or previous human inhabitants of this land. But the animals, the stones, the waters and even the fungi, bacteria and viruses are our ancestors. The prayer addresses all of the beings who lived on and in, moved through, and needed this land now beneath my feet. So I often find myself, in Minnesota, blessing the Reindeer that once walked this land before me – in linear time, thousands of years ago, and in shamanic (and geologic) time, merely a blink ago.
Throughout the grasslands of northern Mongolia and southern Siberia are planted hundreds of stone pillars, ranging from three to fifteen feet tall, with carvings that seem to show reindeer in flight. The stones have been dated to approximately 3,000 years ago. The Reindeer and its association with the sun is an important element in Siberian shamanism.
That is interesting on its own, but what’s even more intriguing is that, because of climate change, at the time these stones were carved, it had been a thousand years since actual reindeer lived in that local landscape. The people who carved these flying reindeer on the stone pillars had likely never seen a reindeer. But, for some reason, the reindeer spirit had sunk into the soil of their consciousness, and had reemerged in their stone art. They too had Reindeer in their spiritual DNA.
Ailo Gaup was what urban westerners like me might call a shaman, but the Sami word for it is Noadi, which might mean “the one who sees in the dark” or “the one who sees,” but Ailo says Noadi is “one who listens.” I love this so much not only because it moves us outside the western mind’s obsession with sight as the primary tool, but also because we live in a time in which, it seems, everyone feels perfectly fine judging one another on immediate, simple sight, and no one seems to be okay with listening to one another.
Listening takes time, effort, subtlety and vulnerability – qualities that have been trained out of us. We really just want to leap to judging on sight because it makes us feel good. Also, listening is the way in for the Great Mother’s music: the music of leaves in the wind, birdsong and water-song and fire-song, and, would you believe it, even star-song. Every one of my shamanic teachers have emphasized listening as the key to being taught directly by the earth spirit(s).
(However, there is an interesting idea behind sight: While human vision cuts off at wavelengths around 400 nm (nanometers), reindeers can see up to 320 nm, which means they can see in ultraviolet light that humans would need a black light to detect. Things like the white fur of wolves and bears against the white snow are nearly impossible for humans to see, but for reindeer, they show up in high contrast. Reindeer truly is the “one who sees.”)
Ailo taught me a great amount in a brief time, and, every time I think of him, I’m grateful. He passed into the other world a few years ago and I send him prayers every morning. He told our small group two stories about the reindeer that sunk deeply into me. I don’t know if these stories are “traditional” Sami stories. All I know is that Ailo told them to us.
The first story was how the creator had created everything and every creature, but had yet to inject life into any of it. Creator asked, “Who among the creatures will sacrifice their own heart to be placed the center of the world, to beat life into everything?” Reindeer said, “I will give my heart so that all may live.” The creator said, “I knew you would, because to bless the world is in your nature.”
It is that mothering heart, pumping warm life-force throughout the world, which keeps everything alive at each moment.
That image is not that different from the idea of “God’s steadfast love” found in the biblical tradition. But unlike the western story in which the male God stands aside from creation and outside of nature, Reindeer’s heart is female and inside everything. And everything receives Her blessing, not just the “chosen ones” or the ones who “believe” correctly or who are obedient to the hierarchy. Everyone gets the blessing.
Reindeer’s heart beating at the center of creation is also a similar image that Christians apply at advent and Christmas to the Christ child — that powerful idea (and so silly to the rational mind) that the creator cares for our well-being and so implants the power of love into the very foundation of reality. We can draw on that power. We can call it up into us, and project it out of us, to make our lives better, or to help make someone else’s life better, or to just bless the world.
Before he stabbed me in the chest, Ailo told our group another story of how, at the winter solstice, the Great White Reindeer travels across the southern horizon, retrieves the life-giving sun between her antlers and carries it back to the world so that all creatures may jump up and live again. So she is not only the bringer of life and sustainer of life, but the rescuer of life when it goes missing – the resurrector.
This image of the Reindeer bringing the sun back from the land of death, carrying it between her antlers, is so utterly beautiful to me, it sunk into me and took root. Though I’m not a Reindeer herder of the arctic north, the gift of Ailo’s Reindeer story, followed by the ceremonial calling forth of the reindeer in me (the stabbing), altered me and changed the course of my life. Like the Mongolian stone carvers who had never lived with reindeer yet devoted prayer and art-making to Her, I have devoted much to her, and she has delivered much blessing to me.
Reindeer is very present in our holiday myth-making. But in our culture, the Christmas reindeer are all male, and the lead reindeer is a hapless little charmer with a nose that lights up. I believe the ancient European indigenous image of the Reindeer Spirit carrying the sun back between her antlers at the winter solstice sunk down into the western collective unconscious, and it re-emerged – twisted through the industrial-patriarchal lens – to become Rudolf with his red nose, who saves Christmas.
Our story of Santa is the epitome of industrial culture shrinking down a profoundly beautiful, healing and far more useful otherworldly story in order to support our hyper-consumerist Christmas season. (Archetypal psychologist James Hillman calls consumerism an act of substituting “more” for “beyond.” We are a culture without a healthy sense of the beyond, and so we settle for merely having more.)
Ailo Gaup stabbed me in the chest after setting a safe ceremonial space and dancing in a circle around me and chanting a gruff melody for several minutes – his personal song (called a Joik, pronounced “Yoik”) to call the Reindeer Spirit into the work. In this physical world, he stabbed me in the chest with his reindeer antler, and, in the Otherworld, where most of me was at the moment, Her antler pierced my heart and a vision of the Great White Reindeer as mother, healer, sustainer, protector and resurrector burst open in me. She came to me, breathed silver breath into me and did a few other things that I don’t talk about. Since then She has helped me in my work as teacher and healer. I send prayers to Her every morning too. All she asks of me is try my damnedest to be part of the Great Turing of Consciousness in my species, to resist my impatience, greed, and arrogance as much as I can, to be realistic in this world, to untwist Her story for my people, and to dance Her once a year. So I do my best.
Reindeer mate in the autumn, and male reindeer shed their antlers at mating time. So at solstice time, any reindeer with antlers are likely female. When I first learned this about female reindeer and the antlers, it turned my mind around about our common Santa story. Santa and the reindeer are not an all-male team delivering manufactured goods, as industrial western culture has taught us – the whole story is about the Great Mother doing what is in her nature – blessing – and us participating in delivering Her blessing.
Mrs. Clause apparently does nothing but knit socks and make cookies for the elves, and in this you can spot something profound buried by the patriarchy. The goddess is buried in many western tales as the servant, a wife, and the old hag. I think Mrs. Clause is another suppressed image of the Great Mother, who repairs our wounds (knits the socks) and brings us joyful nourishment (the cookies). The marriage Mr. and Mrs. Clause is a marriage of the divine feminine and masculine. They work together at the darkest time of the year to bring healing, meaning, and guidance.
The Reindeer delivers the real “Christmas present” we seek: the resurrection from whatever darkness has taken us prisoner, the return of lost life force. She delivers what we really seek: not “pretty presents,” but “Beautiful Presence.”
It is in Her nature to bless the world, and to bless those who ask sincerely. A teacher told me a long time ago that “to bless” means to expand one’s direct contact with Spirit, and to curse is to sever that direct contact, or shrink it, or twist it. We live in a world that seems to be reveling in the manufacture and distribution of curses, and I simply cannot imagine what more fundamental need we have than to be blessed – to be expanded into direct contact with Spirit. Only this expansion can cure our love of hate, our lust for death, our gleeful delight in casting others as the villain so we need not look at ourselves. Only blessing can give us bigger eyes, more open ears and cleaner hearts so that we may become more fully human, and so that we can become better servants of this lovely earth.
A few years ago Reindeer gave me a song. She gave me the images and I worked the words into a structure that for my own human fun, uses the trochaic tetrameter found in the Finnish Kalevala, an ancient epic mythic poem. Please feel free to use this song however you wish, add to it or change it however Reindeer tells you to, and always give it away.
Weaves her new light into dark bones
Breathes her breath into the old wounds
Flickers fire in the cold heart
Calls the song back from the deep dark
Repeat and end with:
Guides the antler to the heart
Ailo Gaup, The Shamanic Zone (Nittedal Norway, Three Bears Publishing, 2005, 2014). Originally published in Norwegian as Sjamansonen by Tre bjørner forlag.
Piers Vitebsk, The Reindeer People Boston – New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
Science Nordic: “Reindeer genes show clear influence from last Ice Age”
Reindeer General Information:
Distribution of Reindeer (1894 Government Report):
“Reindeer (Cervus tarandus) are not only boreal but circumpolar animals, occupying a habitat in common with the ice bear, musk ox, arctic hare, lemming, snowy owl, ptarmigan, Eskimo dog, and arctic fox. Though comparatively little known, popularly or scientiﬁcally, outside of their frozen domain, they are the most widely distributed mammal on the globe, inhabiting portions of Greenland and Labrador, the margin of Smith Sound,* both sides of Hudson Strait, of the entire breadth of British America east and west of the Rockies, parts of Alaska, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Finland, Lapland, Norland, and the northern half of Russia and Scandinavia. Their range belts the entire Arctic Circle without a break, and extends from the northernmost limit of polar exploration southward to latitude 52° (longitude 1400 west), where the reindeer meets the Bengal tiger in the jungles of the Amoor River, in Asia. In North America it drops to latitude 55° on Eskimo Bay, in eastern Labrador; to latitude 59° at Fort Churchill, on the west side of Hudson Bay; to latitude 550 in the Peace River country, and touches latitude 54° on the Aleutian peninsula, in Alaska. In middle Russia the limit is about latitude 55°, while in Norway it would not be below latitude 65°, owing to the proximity of the Gulf Stream, which renders the climate too mild for them, as well as for the growth of its favorite food, the reindeer moss. In the Glacial period this succulent lichen (Cladonis rangifarina) grew much farther south, of course, and the range was proportionately extended, remains of this animal having been found in the middle United States and in Italy, according to Prof. Theo. Gill. Reindeer cannot be acclimated in regions where the conditions are unfavorable. Experiments in various countries have proved this.