The goddess Artemis is often depicted, in art and story, with a female deer (also called a hind). The most famous of her cervid companions is the Ceryneian Hind, a central figure in the third labors of Heracles.
The legend goes that while still a child Artemis spied five large does with horns at the foot of the Parrhasian Mountains in Thessaly and pursued them, though each could flee faster than an arrow. She caught four and harnessed them to her chariot; the fifth managed with the goddess Hera’s help to escape across the river Celadon to the Ceryneian Hill.
Legend also has it that the Pleiad nymph Taygete later gave Artemis the fifth doe in a gesture of gratitude, after Artemis turned the nymph into a cow to help her escape sexual predation from the god Zeus. The Ceryneain Hind, as the doe was now called, was reputed to be very large, with prominent gold antlers and brass hooves.
It is said that Heracles was directed by his nemesis Eurystheus to capture the Ceryneain Hind in hopes that Heracles would provoke the wrath of Artemis. According to Apollodorus:
His third labor was to bring alive to Mycenae the Cerynitian hind. It was at Oeroe, a golden-horned deer sacred to Artemis. In his desire neither to kill nor wound it, Heracles spent a whole year pursuing it. Finally the animal tired of the chase and took refuge on the mountain known as Artemisium, and from there proceeded to the Ladon river. As it was crossing, Heracles got it with an arrow, hoisted it on his shoulders and pressed urgently through Arcadia. Artemis along with Apollo accosted him on the way, reached for the hind, and berated him for trying to kill her sacred animal. But Heracles pleaded necessity and said that Eurystheus was to blame, and thus soothed the goddess’ wrath; and he brought the animal still living to Mycenae.
In the year of pursuit the Hind lured Heracles north through Istria to the Hyperborean lands before leading him back to Arcadia.
There is quite a bit of information to parse in this story, and a good deal of it reflects points I will be making in my upcoming webinar,The Mystick Path of the Deer http://hearthmoonrising.com/webinar. The hind with horns is no doubt a reindeer, as this is the only female deer on the Eurasian continent with antlers. Also, the reindeer is the only cervid who can be trained to accept a harness. The large size of the Hind is somewhat harder to explain, but there are a few types of reindeer still in existence, and more that have become extinct, that are larger than the relatively small species of deer in and around the Mediterranean.
Like most people, my eyes glaze over at the mention of ancient place names, most of which are unfamiliar, but the geography of myth usually contains important information. In the account by Apollodorus, the story begins and ends on the Peloponnese peninsula at the south of Greece. The place names mentioned are meant to refer to myths and ceremonies associated with them, some of which have been lost. We do know that there was a temple to Artemis at her eponymous mountain. It is hard to believe that reindeer would have inhabited this region even in the Ice Age, but the deer with gold antlers and brass hooves may refer to a statue at this temple that literally possessed these features. How then could the Ceryneian Hind flee so quickly and easily elude Heracles’ capture for so long? More on that later.
The Hind also leads Heracles north, to Istria and the Hyperborean lands. Istria refers to the Croatian peninsula and Hyperborea refers to a vague unknown place far to the north. In his travels north Heracles could well have encountered reindeer.
The antiquity of the cult of the deer is intimated by the detail that Artemis pursued these animals when she was just a child. References to the childhood of a deity in Greek myth often reflect the remote origin of the story. We can infer that early in her cult history Artemis (or a goddess who became merged with the cult of Artemis) was worshiped as a reindeer. Over the course of Greek patriarchy both Artemis and her brother Apollo became synthesized with many other deities, but the appearance of both Artemis and Apollo to berate Heracles for his capture of the Hind suggests that the two are appearing as brother and sister deer deities. Heracles’ appeal of “necessity” harkens back to ceremonies to appease the deer deity for killing members of her flock for food and clothing.
What about the cow goddess Hera allowing the Hind to escape, and Artemis transforming her nymph into a cow? This probably relates to a relationship between the cow and the deer cults, but I am unable to sort it out. Perhaps it alludes to domestication of the cow supporting the population and preventing the deer from being extirpated. Robert Graves believes Hera helped the Hind to escape foreseeing that she would be integral to the Labors of Heracles.
So here is what, in my estimation, this tale is about. The shaman hero Heracles, of the bovine clan, embarks on a journey to learn the mysteries of the deer goddess. He begins on the Peloponnese peninsula, making a pilgrimage to the sacred deer sites, especially the Temple of Artemis at Mount Artemisium. From here he goes to other places on the Balkan Peninsula and in the far north to learn from other deer devotees, especially those who understand the way of the reindeer. The goddess Artemis, as the divine Ceryneian Hind, leads him through shamanic visioning on his journey. Eventually she sends him back to Arcadia, where he is initiated into her mysteries. The journey takes an entire year, meaning that it is complete.
Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Keith Aldrich, trans. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1975.
Robbins, Emmet. “Heracles, the Hyperboreans and the Hind: Pindar.” Phoenix Vol. 36, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 295-305.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1955.
About the Webinar
The Mystick Path of the Deer online webinar will take place Monday, January 12th. Pre-registration is required. To register or learn more visit the website: http://hearthmoonrising.com/webinar
Hearth Moon Rising is a Dianic priestess living in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. She is the author of the book Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess. http://www.moon-books.net/books/invoking-animal-magic She blogs at http://hearthmoonblog.com