Friday, December 20, 2013

Reindeer Tales of Shamanism and the Spirit World

Article by Ty Hulse

Want to write a Christmas story about magical reindeer? Here are a few strange, important points to keep in mind about the "Little Reindeer" of the northern spirit world.

1-Reindeer and their kin are sacred, metaphysical animals in lore. In some tales they and their relations are the sun, fleeing from a hunter. In Sami lore this magical flying reindeer had glowing antlers, and should he ever be caught by the hunter the end of the world would begin as chaos followed (possibly darkness as the light of the sun went out). This sun reindeer is often depicted as white with massive horns of gold.

2-Shamans among these northern people would send their souls out in the form of reindeer to battle each other and the evil spirits which dwelt in the darkness, for reindeer are about 400 lbs of mussel and with the power of the shamans soul involved they could be much, much greater. Though the shaman wasn't safe in these battles for if their soul was injured in the form of a reindeer so too would the shaman be, if it died, so would the shaman.

Further shamans would often imitate reindeer when performing rituals to enter the spirit world, the idea being that their soul, in the form of a reindeer, could cross the great distances necessary to get from place to place in the spirit world.

3-Reindeer were often the helping spirits of Shamans. One of the most powerful shamans of the Nganasan people, for example, had a female reindeer with eight legs named Hotarie who helped him. This shaman also had an iron reindeer which he got as a gift from a god and hornless reindeer which he had received from the spirit of frost. (You can read more about this shaman at Often the spirit of the shamans reindeer could be contained inside of a drum (which was made from the leather of a reindeer and thus had the reindeer's soul contained inside it). The spirits of reindeer would pull the shamans sleigh or carry them into the underworld and the realms in the sky where they would bargain with the spirit world. Trying to secure the release of souls of the sick which had been taken or to secure more game animals and fish for their people.

These reindeer would also protect the shaman on their spirit journey, fighting off other shamans in the spirit world and dangerous spirits. Though it seems likely that such protective reindeer spirits were usually larger bulls...

Before reindeer, dogs were used to pull sleighs, and after them horses were used which means that tales of dogs and horses can also be used to better under stand the place of reindeer in the shaman tales. When Ugric people's obtained horses these began to resemble the tales of reindeer and is some of these stories magical horses which carried shamans could have three heads, multiple eyes, and other strange features.

4-Reindeer could be given as offerings to the spirits, but were at times left alive, such reindeer would continue to run with the villages herd but no one was allowed to use or harm them again as they belonged to the spirit world. This offering was usually paid as ransom to secure the release of a person's soul which the spirits of the underworld had taken. These reindeer would act as mounts for the spirits they belonged to.

5-Santa would have worn a coat of reindeer fur because in order to utilize reindeer to fly he would have needed them symbolically on his suit and or his drum.

6-Reindeer would give gifts to shamans as well. In another Nganasan tale a shaman in the spirit world enters a tent with two naked reindeer women (they appear as human women with reindeer fur and antlers). These reindeer spirits bare reindeer children with the shaman which he sacrifices and uses to make his shamans clothes (it's important to keep in mind that this is a metaphysical spirit journey and in essence he is turning these spirits into his helping spirits which live in his cloak).

These two reindeer women may dwell in the hut that is the sun, for their hearth is described as bright as the sun. In the lore of many northern people's the sun was a hut, and the soul of this hut was the deity of the sun.

(Christmas is a celebration of the rebirth of the sun as the days begin to lengthen, thus it might be a celebration of the reindeer in ancient lore for the reindeer were the sun or the soul of the sun... though this is just wild speculation on my part)

There have also been times when reindeer would act as wives to shamans, as well as helping spirits. Other times they would act as spirit mothers, suckling the shaman at their breast (a symbol that the shaman has been reborn as a being of the spirit world and has the spirit as it's new mother).

7-The reindeer would carry the souls of those who had died into the land of the dead, at times guided by the shaman. Thus reindeer were connected with the realm of the dead.

Shamans must guide people to the land of the dead because if they don't the persons spirit will become corrupted and vampire like. Of course some souls refuse to pass on so the shaman must capture these, along with their reindeer. This event may have taken place during the time when the spirits of the dead were said to walk the land (Christmas) which may have formed the bases of the wild hunt, with a shaman figure at the lead, carried by reindeer who helped him pull the corrupt spirits of the dead into the underworld.

By the by, it's interesting to note that the goat is another animal which often takes the place of reindeer among in the mythology of many people's and that the goat used to be another popular symbol of Yule.

Goddesses in World Culture, Volume 1 edited by 


Anonymous said...

thank you for this wonderful reindeer post. At this time of year, reindeers are very close to my heart, even though all I see is deer in the forest. Do you know where I can find some old tales of reindeers?

Nukiuk said...

Thank you,
Most stories about reindeer are as secondary characters. There are some in various Uralic tales but these aren't online, for the most part. Though you can look up Selkup Mythology and there is a book of this online, and a book on Sami folktales.

To understand the motivation of the reindeer who work with shamans look at helper spirits and the spirits in lore in general. I'm working on a book of this but I always feel odd with self promotion.

I'll try to find more, please let me know if your looking for something specific so I can try to send it to you.