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The familiar ruminant, swift-footed animal of European forests (Cervidae) has long played an important role in the Celtic imagination, especially the male of the species, the mighty horned stag, which was an important cult animal in early times. The god of the Continental Celts, Cernunnos, has the antlers of a stag; see also HORNED GOD. J. G. MacKay has reported on deer worship in early Scotland, especially in the Lochaber region of the Highlands (until 1974, Inverness-shire); see ‘The Deer-Cult and Deer Goddess of the Ancient Caledonians’, Folklore, 43 (1932), 144–74. The sianach is a deermonster of Scottish Gaelic tradition. In the vernacular tradition of Celtic countries deer commonly entice heroes into the realm of the gods. Sálbuide, son of the king of Munster, died in a deer chase, along with thirty warriors, thirty attendants, and thirty deer-hounds. In another Irish story a jealous woman turned 100 girls into deer. Both mortals and fairies may be turned into deer. Lugaid Laígde, the Érainn king, pursued a fawn who was the divine personification of Ireland. Shape-shifting Mongán takes the form of a deer. Aige was transformed into a fawn. When Pryderi and Gilfaethwy in Math, the fourth branch of the Mabinogi, are turned into a stag and hind, they produce at the end of one year a fawn named Hyddwn. J. Fife comments on the deer-hunting episode of ‘Pwyll’, the second branch: Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 39 (1992), 72ff. Sadb mates with Fionn mac Cumhaill under the form of a deer to produce Oisín, whose name means ‘Little Fawn’. The Irish goddess Flidais drove a chariot drawn by deer. The king of the deer in Ireland was Tuan mac Cairill.

An early Christian prayer-poem attributed to St Patrick, ‘The Deer's Cry’ or ‘St Patrick's Breastplate’, speaks of the saint's escape from his enemies while in the form of a deer. In this instance Patrick has used the power to make himself invisible or to take animal form, féth fíada, previously attributed to druids and pre-Christian religion. The short poem, often compared in structure and antiquity to the Anglo-Saxon ‘Caedmon's Hymn’, has been translated many times, recently by Malachi McCormick (Dublin, 1983).

The word for deer in OIr. is fiad; ModIr. fia, fiadh; ScG fiadh; Manx feeaih; W carw; Corn. carow; Bret. karv. See also FAWN.

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