Notes: Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia

The deer in Japan has a solar symbolism and significance as an ancient ancestral clan symbol, with attached ancestral shrine legends. These notes are meant for further investigation in possible genetic or cultural connections with northern sources of Siberian/North Asian legends as well as their Scythic nomadic material traditions.

Book review on:

JACOBSON, Esther. The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief. Studies in the History of Religions, Volume LV Leiden: ISBN 9004092680; ISSN 0169-8834.

The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia will be of interest to all those who desire a deeper insight into the iconography of what is known as Scytho-Siberian art. During the second half of this century much archeological fieldwork has been carried out in North and Central Asia and adjacent regions. As a result it has become evident that the Early Nomadic culture, which incorporated certain seminomadic elements, controlled the vast steppe and mountainous regions from China in the east, from Persia and Greece in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian Taiga in the north. This research has also traced the outlines of the ancient cultures of South Siberia in such areas as present-day Gorno-Altayskaya Autonomous Oblast’ (A.O.), Tukvinskaya A.O., Khakasskaya A.O.,and the area around Lake Baikal. Archeological evidence for these cultures is found in thousands of rock carvings, rock paintings, stone mounds, and altars, as well as in the monumental stelae found within funerary or other ritual complexes from the Neolithic down to the Bronze Age, and further into the first millennium BC.
To understand the intent of this book we must know that Esther Jacobson, an art historian at the University of Oregon, challenges existing theories on Early Nomadic cosmology by examining the symbolic structures as they appear in the art and archeological sources shaman’s steed; a robe with headdress decked out with imagery and amulets that at once protect, empower, and transform the shaman; and, finally, a vertical axis, real or imaginary, that serves as a pole linking the underworld, earth, and heaven. By comparing the signs and symbols associated with the shaman with the signs of a journey after death ubiquitous in Early Nomadic burials it becomes apparent, according to the author, that there was a displacement of power from the early Iron Age. Furthermore, the poetry describing the shaman’s journey and the process of the journey itself offer undeniable parallels with zoomorphic imagery in the period of the Early Nomads. And yet the parallelism remains only suggestive. The author proposes that the process reflected in the Ket and Evenk mythic traditions and enfolding most archaic layers that continued through millennia was behind the elaborate stone structures of the Early Nomads and behind the enigmatic symbolic structures with which they laid their dead and their horses to rest. The final chapter delineates the theoretical implications of the book by pulling these various traditions together. The first part presents in detail the Pontic Scythian mythic tradition according to Herodotus and the larger tradition of Near Eastern goddesses, beginning with Ninhursag and ending with Anahita/Nana. The author then focuses her attention on the Scytho-Siberian artistic tradition in its ritual context, and on Siberian mythic traditions as they are represented in ethnography. From this evidence she infers that the deer image, inherited by the Early Nomads and elaborated into the center of their symbolic systems, indicated an ecology of belief! The deer, which entered the age of the Early Nomads as a recumbent (or, more rarely, a standing) creature, was followed by predatory animals, which were in turn dismissed owing to an increasing fascination with human imagery and with realism. At the very end of the Scytho-Siberian period the deer assumed the guise of a woman seated before a male holding a rhyton (see for instance the North Pontic Chertomlyk, Karagodeuashk, the Merzhany plaques, the figures of the Prigradnaya “Scythian Baba” and the felt hanging from Altay Pazyryk 5). But it was finally eclipsed as a woman, her invisible presence being referred to only by a male figure. With the disappearance of Scytho-Siberian culture the deer was destined to persist only through the shamanic traditions of Siberia and Central Asia.
The author concludes that the deer image does not refer back to a solar hero or to IndoEuropean values, but is rather evidence for the emergence and gradual disappearance of a truly Siberian cosmogonic source: the Animal Mother, the source of life and death.

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