The Old Antlered One
I am a product of the land I am from. If you were to cut me open you’d find that my bones are made from her compacted soil, my lungs carry her air and her rain and thunder still flow in my blood.
For many years the land and I engaged in conversation. Not a conversation of words, a conversation of sensation, the brush of a crow’s wing, the power of a threshold, the invitation to rest by a familiar tree trunk. All these things developed over the years along with visions from the land, plus burying relatives into the same sacred soil but most of all experiencing the the body’s familiarity with the beat and tempo of walking the undulating landscape. The squish of bog and star moss islands, a high step through bracken, stepping stones over the stream. Wading through the swimming dance of high grass, following the sheep trails through bouncy clumps of heather and the heart-beating scramble up mountainside scree - these are all sensations that my body remembers, a inherited pattern past down through the generations that speaks of home. Even though my father’s family are Irish they too are intimate with the land, a similar landscape.
I have listened intently to this landscape all my life, sat by the boulders at the edge of the loch (Lomond) marked by the striations of long gone ice ages and drew my fingers across the rock scars like they were an ancient language.
A Disappearing Act
When I was young my dad used to take us walking up around the local hills up above Loch Lomond, Scotland. Among the stones at the top of Carman Hill I would sit ever so quietly, scrunching up my eyes and in my imagination, I ripped up the roads, made all the cars disappear and with a final blink I removed the houses and the streets. I always wanted to see what this place looked like a long, long time ago. Then I would hold my breath to see if I could see the old ones that I knew used to live here, the ones from the times before the roads and the cars and the houses.
Even though I never saw those ancient people, I felt them. I felt the presence of the energies of the land, sensing that these lands were sacred and up by the stones at the top of the hill was a place where this world flowed into the other worlds.
Years later I began to see those original people on the move and it took a while to realize that they were following great herds. Probably more years before I realized these herds were reindeer. While studying the Geology of the area at University I came across an article which described the finding of a reindeer antler not too far (as the crow flies) found in glacial moraine unearthed in the building of a railway line. Proof that reindeer really were in the area.
This is a story about my experience of 'The Old Antlered One' as I call her. She is the spiritual bedrock of this place. I encountered her before I knew anything of antlered goddesses or antlered women and at that time my main source of an antlered creature was Herne the Hunter from UK kids programs such as Robin of Sherwood and the Box of Delights.
In her essay 'Elen - Goddess of the Ways' Caroline Wise recalls:
'Thinking of Mascen's dream journey, and my idea that this may connect to shamanic flight, I decided to try an experiment. Not having fly agaric to hand, I induced a method of astral projection and invoked Elen. I visualised myself walking through snow, in a bleak landscape. Soon I was 'astral travelling' now above the land and completely in the moment and no longer needing to consciously invoke the images. Looking down I saw a pathway littered with bones and antler. It had the appearance of a simple rail track, laid out on the snow, and I realised that this represented the migratory route of the deer. I was following this track that had seen millions of beasts over millennia. I knew it went back aeons, before the Ice age, a memory that was in our genes and in the land itself. The bones and antlers represented the ancestors of the beasts who still, where they could, walked these paths today. I was 'told' that these were the 'oldest pathways in the world'. I felt a huge rush of energy, and the path suddenly rose up, looped out and back on itself, and the bones and antlers formed into a skeleton of a giant elk, rearing up in front of me. It twisted around and started to move forward. This was so dramatic that I snapped back form my astral journey, much to my frustration - if I had stayed with it, I am sure it would led me to discover more. I have never been able retrace that track!
While meeting a great elk figure was the end of that story for Caroline, meeting a great skeletal figure is where my story begins.
My first experience with the Old Antlered One was meeting a huge skeletal figure. I knew she wasn’t an elk as she was female and her tall branching antlers pointed towards a link to reindeer as they are the only cervids with antlers.
You can read the story below in text or listen to the audio file.
The Old Antlered One
One night, close to Imbolc to the rhythmic heartbeat of the drum I sank down, down past the peaty layers of Loch Lomond, past the bones of ancestors, both human and animal. There in the darkness of that place between the worlds, I emerged at the top of the mountain, Ben Lomond. In that magical place I wasn’t simply myself, I was part me yet part ancient being. Skeletal, tall with huge branching antlers – her skeletal frame hidden behind a tall ragged cloak shimmering with galaxies and nebula's, we were in a place time had no hold.
I watched as she held out a bony hand - my hand - and commanded the sun to rise, and as it did she traced its path across the sky, leading it over to the west. As day changed to night she summoned up the moon guiding its path, - over and over she danced this dance setting the play of the constellations.
Land masses danced across oceans the world reforming and reshaping, then ice ages: ebbing and flowing, She ushered a thaw and a great greening covers the land, she dances to bring in life - dancing to bring in great clouds from the west, who released their rain when they meet the great mountain, flowing in small tributaries, gathering in streams until they poured into the loch. This is the dance of creation.
I watch as the greens intensified, then transform into a burst of orange and browns before dying down and returning to their roots before the white takes over again. Green, golds and white, the seasons play out over and over. One by one she brings the insects, fish and birds, wolves, bear, auroch, and elk and the reindeer. Then people came, the people who followed the reindeer. They walked from mainland Europe following the huge herds. As they walked and camped they wove their own stories to the land, following the luminous strands this great antlered one had embedded in the earth. The paths the reindeer follow trails to sacred lands.
Once everything was in place, this great creatrix bounded off to the west coast to the small islands that keep part of her story alive. Then she lay down, old and weary, sinking into the earth. Great trees grew from her bones, including the great tree that joins the worlds.
Among these people that followed the women who wore antlers, around a fire they give thanks to both the reindeer and the old antlered one. They are the wise woman of the deer, the ones who know the presence of the old one. They are the ones who tend to her shrines in high places, shrines they tend to on dark and full moon nights. Times that they dance her dance. Their steps following her steps, steps that take them between the worlds, and in that dance they dance their intention out into the star patterns, and down into the luminous strands which carry out in a great network out over the earth.
In times of need they adorn themselves in reindeer skins and to the with the beat of the drum shape-shift into reindeer and run with the herd. (you'll take that journey with them in the guided meditation/otherworldly journey)
She Who Runs With the Herds
I have come to call the women in the story who honor the Old Antlered One as the Sisterhood of the Antlers. This is based on the idea is that women create that space of sisterhood when they come together in circle - a sacred space to listen, to express, to honor - a space that sits on the threshold of worlds.
Come join them as you invited to take this journey and run with the herd. I suggest you approach the journey in line with your own practice - wither a guided meditation or otherworldly journey. Take some time to prepare for listening - maybe you’d like to have some paper and a pen nearby to record any impressions or insights.
Antlers are the symbol I use to honor my female lineage - which stretches past Celtic peoples back and back to a most ancient ancestor who lived in Europe at the time of a great ice age in 25,000 BCE. She and her clan followed great herds of reindeer and other animals over the tundra. (mDNA analysis by Oxford Ancestors/Seven Daughters of Eve).
Reindeer Return to Scotland
This summer (2018) I got to head north and visit the Inverness area and the Cairngorm Reindeer Herd. There are roughly 130 reindeer, 80 are kept at the Glenlivet estate while the females are free roaming. It’s highly likely that indigenous reindeer died out after the last ice age with brief introductions by the Vikings. Reindeer don’t thrive in the UK but one place offers them a hospital arctic ecosystem - the Cairngorm mountain range.
The Cairngorm herd were reintroduced in 1952 and believe me, I was as excited as a little kid to meet them! Visitors get to visit the males who are kept in an enclosure, a huge enclosure while the females and their calves are free roaming.
That night after visiting the reindeer I dreamt that the Old Antlered One appeared on the crest of the hill - again, huge and towering. The protector of the herd. As she moved there was a shimmering to her great cloak, a rich grey and brown mix of reindeer. Then I noticed movement and as I peered closer reindeer where flowing like a river. They flowed out from her cloak in one fluid movement pouring down the hillside. Each and every reindeer that ever lived on this land sheltered in the presence of the Old Antlered One. The herds still live and walk this land in spirit.
As a doll maker I explore what this antlered female figure might represent to us. The antlered women dolls are keepers of mysteries - ways and traditions that have become lost to us, and yet some of that ancient wisdom remains in threads of songs which swim in our blood and ancestral knowledge which is knitted into our bones. That ancestral knowledge can be sparked and ignited when things resonate with us and then remarkably we don't need to know the details and the situation and somehow we already know. These images speak directly to an ancestral longing and feed our hungry soul.
My work through doll making honors that connection and recognizes that the longing we hold - acknowledges that what is missing in us resides in her. She mirrors the values we wish to reclaim, the mysteries, the ancestral wisdom and all that we have lost touch with. As humans I see our role as taking that knowledge and wisdom and weaving it into our lives in meaningful ways.
The Old Antlered One is a story of place, a very ancient story who hangs on in the human imagination by very thin threads. I find great comfort in tapping into the rich inspiration of my foremothers - whose wisdom is knitted into our bones and whose songs sing in our blood. In circle, we gather the wisdom gained through journeying between the worlds and channel it though our creativity in art, clay, collaging, doll making and in whatever form women are drawn to. Our sacred art speaks of the ways in which we resist patriarchy and inspires us in our work in acts of resistance in the face of the violence unleashed at women, young girls and all creatures around the world.
Portrait artist - Louise Hewitt, author of the Pictish Spirit novel series. Visit her website here
Oxford Ancestors - mDNA analysis I am unsure wither they offer this test anymore.
Shaw, martin, 2016. Scatterlings. Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia. White Clouds press, USA.
Sykes, Bryan. The Seven daughters of Eve. The Science the Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry. WW Norton & Company, USA.
Wise, Caroline. Online essays. Accessed November/2018
Click on the image above to read about our online Ancestral Mothers of Scotland Wheel of the Year Course