Reindeer carved deep into our history

How long have reindeer been dancing through our midwinter celebrations?Rudolph,_The_Red-Nosed_Reindeer_Marion_Books

Rudolph is seventy three years old. He came into being in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward Christmas publicity campaign. He joined his older cousins Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, a little herd that celebrates its one hundred and ninetieth birthday this week. The eight “tiny rein-deer” originated with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, written in 1822. Moore apparently re-imagined some Norse myths, replacing Odin’s Wild Hunt with St. Nicholas’ sleigh-in-the-sky. To power the sleigh, Moore replaced Thor’s goats (called teeth-barer — the snarler — and teeth-grinder) with more kid-friendly reindeer. Moore may also have penned a slightly older poem, Old Santeclaus, that also places reindeer at the head of a sleigh (originally published in a pamphlet by William B. Gilley, but the poem’s authorship is apparently in doubt). Unlike A Visit from St. Nicholas, this poem languishes in obscurity, perhaps because it ends with the gift of a birch rod with which parents can enact God’s will by thrashing their kids. Montgomery Ward would have a hard time weaving that idea into their sales pitch. Christmas is a lot tamer these days: gone are the snarling goats and instruments of corporal punishment.thor-clipart

In sum, Rudolph is a bit of an upstart. But all these modern deer are babies compared to the venerable grandma and granddaddy of them all: the Swimming Reindeer of Montastruc. This pair of reindeer are thirteen thousand years old. They live in the British Museum, in a carefully climate-controlled case. The pair were carved by an artist in what is now France. The artist carved a mammoth tusk (!) to create a sculpture of two reindeer swimming across a river.swim

This carving is a work of stunning beauty, carrying the artist’s skill across a chasm of time. More, it reveals much about the world in which the artist lived. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, called caribou in North America) are animals of the tundra and northern forests. Their presence in France is a reminder that at the time of the carving the world was engulfed by the last ice age. Half of Britain was under ice, as was much of North America. The people of Europe were living in conditions similar to those of modern northern Scandinavia. Reindeer formed a substantial part of the diet of these early modern people, especially in the coldest years of the ice age. (The so-called Cro-Magnon/Paleo diet should, if carried out with rigor, be comprised of about 95% reindeer, with a little horse, cave bear, chamois, and mammoth thrown in for good measure. And don’t expect to live much beyond forty.)

I’m awed by the sculpture. For a more complete discussion of the artistic and archeological context, I recommend Robin McKie’s recent article in the Observer (reprinted in the Guardian). Here I’ll just note the artist’s attention to the particularities of the animals’ lives. This is the work of someone who understood their subject and was able to convey this understanding through sophisticated artistic technique. Natural history, science, and art have been close companions for a long, long time.

For a good view of the carving, use the British Museum’s online viewer and press the “zoom” buttons to magnify the image. Click the little square underneath these buttons to flip into “full screen” mode. You can see most of the details quite clearly and thus imagine the hands that conjured reindeer from a tusk so long ago.

Of all the various symbols and myths of the modern solstice celebration, reindeer may perhaps be the oldest. Humans were celebrating the return of Light with reindeer meat, hides, and carvings long before the agrarian revolution, let alone the origin of the Abrahamic religions. Clement Clarke Moore tapped something deep. Lighted reindeer on lawns and Rudolph songs are reminders of who we are: a species that has depended on ungulates for tens of thousands of years. These animals are carved into our psyche.

I know nothing about the midwinter traditions of cultures in places other than western Europe (transplanted to North America). Like most arctic animals, reindeer have a circumpolar distribution, so I’d predict that they appear in solstice stories in other northern temperate regions. If anyone know of any such stories (or their absence), I’d love to hear about them.

[Photo sources/credits: Rudolph, Thor, Swimming Reindeer.]

8 thoughts on “Reindeer carved deep into our history

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Interesting stuff! “Often the urine of tripped-out reindeer would be consumed for its psychedelic effects” — quite an image. And an idea for a new cocktail: The Rudolph (yellowish hue, strange ingredients, one serving is more than enough). Happy baking.

  1. Jim Markowich

    I was planning a long-winded comment about reindeer/amanita muscaria/Santa as I read your post, but the article linked by 411bee does cover it all… I’ll only note that on this side of the Atlantic we don’t have red and white amanitas; only their yellow and white cousins ~ which are not hallucenogenic, but are toxic.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s