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This page is part of a section concerning Reindeer.
Click the links below to access pages on the following topics:

Reindeer: General Information  Reindeer:Migration  
Reindeer: Myth, religion and Tradition  Reindeer in Art  
Reindeer:Domestication a Short History    
Reindeer the Unlikely Farm Animal: Reindeer Domestication in Recent Times and the issue of Animal Rights.
Reindeer: Emblems on Coins and Stamps
Reindeer:Random facts
For ease of reading all quotations appear in a purple font.    

Myth, Religion and Tradition

There are numorous traditions, myths, legends and religious associations concerning reindeer, here are just a few of them beginning with the well known western tradition, which as you will see may have its roots in older cultures and mythologies.

Santa Claus and his flying reindeer

The most well-known tradition in western countries concerning reindeer is of course the story of Santa Claus/father Christmas and his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer with Rudolf as the lead. This tradition began in the 19th century, although Rudolf was not a part of this myth until 1939.  The tradition as we know it today began with a poem written by Clement C Moore for his children. An expert on the subject of Dutch Folk law, in 1822 he wrote the poem , A visit from St Nicholas, more commonly known as The night before Christmas.

Cover of "Twas the Night Before   Christmas" (1912 edition)
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In the hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap;

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below—
When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name—

"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer! Now, Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Dunder and Blixen!
To the top of the porch, to the top of the wall!
Now, dash away! Dash away! Dash away! All!"

As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too.

And then in a twinkling I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each tiny hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedlar just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up in a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
A wink of his eye, and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings—then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle;
But I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!"

The poem is a mix of European legends, Norse mythology and aspects of the story of the Christian Saint Nicholas, considered the precursor of Santa Claus, and the Dutch feast of Sinterklaass. The poem was an instant success in America and remains so today.

The poem features a sleigh pulled by eight Reindeer : Dasher, Dancer,  Prancer,  Vixen,  Comet,  Cupid, Dunder and Blixen. But no mention of Rudolf the most popular reindeer in the present Christmas tradition. The additon of Rudolf came much later in 1939 when the Montgomery Ward Group of department stores in the USA commissioned Robert R. May to write a promotional story for the Christmas season, thus Rudolf the Red-Nose Reindeer was born. It became an instant success with 2.5 million copies being handed out during the first year. The story, written as a poem, so well known by children right to the present day, is about a young reindeer who was very different to the other reindeer in the herd to which he belonged, and who was teased by his peers because he had a shinny red nose. Rudolf lived with his loving parents, who did not consider him an embarrassment, in a village far from the North Pole, he was not then one of Santa's reindeer.  Even though he was lonely, shunned by the other reindeer, he wanted to do good. One Christmas eve he got his opportunity when Santa Claus arrived just as it was getting very foggy. Santa seeing a red glow from Rudolf's room discovered the Red-nosed reindeer by accident while he was delivering presents to Rudolf's house.

Seeing Rudolf's shinny read nose he asks for his help in leading the sleigh safely through the dense fog, after which Santa says to him: "By You last nights journey was actually bossed. Without you, I am certain we would all have been lost" Afterward Rudolf was accepted by his peers

It is thought that May based his story on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale the ugly Ducking and also on his experiences as a child when he was teased because of his small stature.

The original Rudolph lived in the woods with his loving parents far from the North Pole. Although he was lonely because he was ostracized by the other little reindeer, he was an optimist who wanted to help others.

Read more at Suite101: The Origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Christmas Tradition Nears Its 70th Birthday
The original Rudolph lived in the woods with his loving parents far from the North Pole. Although he was lonely because he was ostracized by the other little reindeer, he was an optimist who wanted to help others.

Read more at Suite101: The Origin of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Christmas Tradition Nears Its 70th Birthday

In 1949 a song about Rudolf was recorded by Gene Autry,  the lyrics written by Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law. There are though significant differences from the original story written by May. In the song Marks introduces the eight reindeer from Clement Moore's poem thus completing the present day tradition of Santa Claus and his sleigh pulled by Nine reindeer with Rudolf the red-nose reindeer in the lead bringing presents to children all over the world on Christmas Night. 

Below are the lyrics to the song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glows.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names;
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?

Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history.

You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen.,
But do you recall?
The most famous reindeer of all?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glows.

All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names;
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say,
Rudolph with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?

Then how the reindeer loved him
As they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history.

The Finnish translation of the song  Petteri Punakuono has resulted in Rudolph's general acceptance as the lead reindeer in the mythology of Joulupukki the Finnish version of Santa Claus, a figure from old Scandinavian tradition which is now merged with his American version with whom he shares many similarities with the exception that his work shop is situated in the mountains of Korvatunturi, he enters by the door rather than down the chimney and his reindeer do not fly.

It is has been suggested that the idea of flying reindeer may have resulted from the Shamans use of magic mushrooms. For more information concerning this idea, watch the video below


The flying deer stones of Mongolia

Reindeer feature on ancient mysterious stones called the Deer Stones,  Mongolian ancient megaliths carved with symbols.

An air of mystery surrounds the deer stones as very little is known about their meaning or function, although some scholars speculate that they may have been created to represent important people

Worldwide there are over 700 of these stones, 500 of which are found in the in the Darkhat Valley, in northern Mongolia near the Siberian border.   Although there is no definitive information concerning their origin the standing stones, erected in about 1000 BC, are thought to be connected with Shamanism and may mark the graves of important  personages.  In the midsection of some of the stones are cravings of flying deer and other animals. It is a traditional Mongolian

Bronze age deer stones are Mongolian ancient megaliths carved with symbols. The name comes from their carved stylised depictions of flying deer.


belief that animals carry the sprits of the dead to the after life. Similar stones have been found also in The Cimmerian sites, Cimmerians were ancient equestrian nomads of Indo-European origin- in central Asia. The flying deer stones have been incorporated into present day Buddhist rituals by the Tsaatan a small group of reindeer herders in Northern

More on deer stones may be found here

Greek Mythology:  The Cerynian Hind

In Greek mythology a deer, the Cerynian Hind, a large beautiful hind (female deer), is particularly associated with Artemis in her role as virginal huntress. Artemis, the chaste goddess of the moon, the hunt, animals and unmarried women, was one of the most widely venerated of the Ancient Greek deities.

The description of the Cerynian Hind, suggests this animal was a reindeer rather than another species of deer. The hind, a fabulous animal, with golden antlers like a stag and hooves of bronze or brass, was said to be able to outrun an arrow in flight. As a hind bearing antlers was unknown in Greece, the story suggests a reindeer; unlike other deer reindeer females bear antlers.

Legend has it that the third Labour of Heracles (Roman Hercules),a penance set by Eurystheus king of Tiryns, was to capture the Cerynian Hind sacred to Artemis and deliver her briefly to his

Hercules capturing the Ceryneian Hind. Detail of The Twelve Labours Roman mosaic from Llíria (Valencia, Spain).

patron, then rededicate it to Artemis.  The swift flight of the creature made the task a formidable one for Heracles who once he had found the deer had to chase it throughout the Greek world for more than a year.  Exhausted by the chase the reindeer looked for a resting place on a mountain called Artemisius, and came to the river Ladon. As she was about to cross Heracles shot and immobilised her.

After capturing the hind as Heracles made his way back to Eurystheus when he met Artemis and Apollo, god of the sun, of shepherds and musicians. It had been Eurystheus plan that this meeting should take place, he had assumed that Artemis would punish Heracles for stealing her precious hind. Heracles explained the situation promising to return the deer to her with the result that Artemis forgave Heracles and healed the deer's wound. Heracles continued his journey to the kingdom of Eurystheus whereupon he offered him the Cerynian Hind. In a rather devious move to ensure the return of the hind to Artemis he agreed to give Eurystheus the animal only on the proviso that he should came out to get her himself, to which Eurystheus fortunately agreed. As Heracles released the deer, she promptly turned and with swift haste returned to Artemis. This it seems fulfilled the obligations of the third labour.

The myth relates to Hyperborea, a mythical northern land that would be a natural habitat for reindeer which from the description may have been Siberia or other arctic or subarctic region.

The legends of Nomadic reindeer herders

Reindeer have been not only a source of food, clothing and shelter from time immemorial, but also as an inspiration occupying a central position in ancient Sami shamanism and iconography. The Sami people, are the arctic indigenous people inhabiting Sápmi, which today encompasses parts of far northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia, but also in the border area between south and middle Sweden and Norway.

In Norway early huntsmen carved images of reindeer as a symbol of force and power.

The Koryaks are an indigenous people of Kamchatka Krai in the Russian Far East, they have a legend that tells how the creator journeyed to the stars to bring back reindeer for the people. Elwen' kyen, which means wild reindeer buck is one of the names that the Koryak people give to the constellation we call Ursa Major. Among the most scared of possessions that these people have is a drum made of reindeer hide. It is used whenever a shaman is required who uses the household drum to cast out evil forces.

Reindeer in Religion

Ancient rituals and ceremonies

Reindeer featured in religious practices of Asian and Northern European upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic peoples. Despite the importance of reindeer to the lives of Palaeolithic and Neolithic Reindeer people, reindeer mostly feature in their animistic religious practices as a means of sacrifice rather than veneration. These rites were undertaken at the beginning of the hunting season and consisted of a sacrifice to their god of the hunt. The sacrifice involved burying or submerging a young calf in a pond or Lake.*2)

Ceremonies amongst the nomadic reindeer herders involving reindeer included the wolf sacrifice which was looked on as a preventative measure. For this ceremony both a reindeer and a wolf were killed and both their bodies placed on a high platform. This symbolised that their god is propitiated and will not allow wolves to attack reindeer. Sacrifices were not always blood sacrifices, reindeer were consecrated to the gods without being killed. Thereafter they were exempt from anyone making use of them.*3)

Another ceremony, which took place annually each spring, involving reindeer was the  changing the sledges upon which images of the gods were kept. The Shaman usually lead these ceremonies, the most elaborate one of which was the one for the god Yahammu. It is considered a privilege to make a section of the sledge. The ritual which takes place only while the sun is shinning requires that each man who has made a part of the sledge to smear it with the blood of a reindeer whom he has killed for this purpose. The ritual was done to glorify the deity. Further shamanistic practices took place during the evening to which women and children, exempt from the sledge ceremony, attended. *4)

Biannually an important ceremony lasting nine days was held when the sun returned in January. The shaman practiced ritual for the first six days, after which time a dance began which celebrated the sun's first appearance. Sexual freedom was observed  between young man and women. The shaman took part in the dance laying aside his drum and some of his important clothes. As the ceremony drew to its conclusion the shaman practiced ritual to heal the sick and to predict the future. These practices took place in a conical tent called the chum, made from reindeer skin,  specially reserved for the purpose of shamanic ritual.*5)

Among some nomadic reindeer herders it was believed that the land of the dead existed near the mouth of a river. The deceased person received all his belongings for use in the after life which it was believed is similar to this life. Antlers from one or two of his reindeer which have been sacrificed are hung on the tomb which was comprised of a wooden box made of drift wood and some of his tent poles. Also included was a pouch made of reindeer skin into which was placed paper money. *6)

Reindeer as part of the religion of the Sami 

The Sami, already referred to above are perhaps the most well known of the nomadic reindeer herders .

The religion of the Sami is animistic, certain aspects of which involve reindeer

Sieidis, Seita or Storjunkare, depending on local dialect, are the sacred places of the sami, and are located where there are unusual landforms which are noticeably different from the surrounding landscape,  prominent places of high elevation such as the mountain in the photograph Here or in a meadow. Some Sieidis were man made and may be comprised of unusually shaped stones some aspect of which may bear some likeness to animals, a man or a god. It is believed that a stone taken from such a place will grow lighter when the bearer guesses what the place wants. *7)

Found throughout Northern Scandinavia, Sieidis were often located near caves, hunting grounds or bodies of water where the Sami fished or set up on a mountain top. Sieidis were considered by Sami religious shamanic beliefs to be spiritual "focal points" and were worshiped as gateways that lead into the spirit world. Sacrifices of animals including reindeer, antlers have been found at these sites, and other objects were made at the site of Sieidis. Clans gathered round these sacred places.

Each Sami family or clan  had its own Siedis in the area in which they lived and every settlement also. Sometimes a private individual had his own Sieidis to which he prayed for good fortune. It had no regular shape and in addition to large stones as in the photograph here:, where you can also read an interesting article about Sieidis and the new interest in them.

In addition to the rock forms mentioned above Seitas were comprised of smooth or unusual stones from a streams, a tree stump or even just a simple pole. During the summer time  honour was done to them by spreading fresh green leaves while in the winter time they were strewed with green fir twigs. it was believed that the Siedis had power over all animals and gave luck to anyone who hunted. At siedis sacrifices were made to the spirits for protection against ill fortune befalling the herds of reindeer and were believed to provide instruction concerning methods of catching reindeer. The hide and hooves of reindeer, along with the occasional sacrifice of a dog were given as offerings in return for these favours.

Sami ritualistic drums

The drums the Sami Shaman used in their rituals were made of reindeer skin which the noaidi, Sami shaman, used to enter a trance and travel to the spirit realm.  The drum which was decorated with symbols of both the mundane and the divine was hand held, small and light, it was beaten with a drum stick carved from reindeer bone. Reindeer sinews were used to attach the hides to the frame of the drum. The world view of the Sami was animistic by nature, with shamanistic features . The sami believed that the two worlds of existence the physical, earthly world and the spiritual world were bridged by special men or women, the noaidi or shaman. The drum was a means by which the  noaidi entered an ecstatic trancelike state, this was achieved by beating the drum in a rhythm which brought about ecstatic excitation. While in such a state it was believed that the noaidi were able leave the body and take another form, moving as a spirit they had the ability to change into a wild reindeer or hide under a reindeers' neck or hoof, or travel over treetops or underground or swim in the form of a fish *8)

The sami believed in different worlds through which the noaidi could travel, an underworld where everything was more whole than our earthly reality.  It was the place were people went after death to continue their lives. The sami shaman travelled to these other realities in order to restore harmony, to heal people and control nature.

The following description explains how a noaidi could use his ability to travel to spiritual levels to heal people and control nature:

Shamanistic activities were related to crisis situations in a village or family; the noaidi attempted to find a remedy. The greatest crises, for this people dependent on nature, were illnesses and problems concerning obtaining a livelihood. Illness is a disturbance of the balance between the two souls and between the two realms of reality. The noaidi, in spirit form, leaves and goes to ‘the other side’ to restore harmony. Innumerable tales relating to obtaining a livelihood and epic poems tell that a “trance noaidi” was able to control the movements of a whole reindeer herd. (Lehtola 28-29)

Quoted in Sámi Drums – Then and Now
By Gusto (Ken Emerson Jr.)

The sami drum symbols show important features of the Sámi way of life and reflect the  Sámi ideal of living in harmony with nature. Many symbols represent animals with Reindeer being the most common representation.

Reindeer also feature in a Sami epic that traces Sami ancestry to the sun. According to mythical poems the Daughter of the Sun favoured the Sami and brought reindeer to them.

In more recent time most Sami have become Christians and practice the Lutheran Religion which is the dominant religion of the Nordic countries in which they live.

Illustrations of Sámi drums showing symbols of reindeer. Click the graphics to view a larger image.

Reindeer as Totems

Firstly what is Totemism? Totemism is an ancient belief system, a religious or world view in which human beings, either as individuals or as a clan, have a spiritual relationship or kinship with a spirit being, natural object, a plant or an animal, an animal being the most common. This being is called a totem, as for example a reindeer totem. Sometimes an inanimate object, such as the sun, the wind or a rock, is chosen as a Totem. The totem is believed to be united with the gods. The totem is the centre of this belief system. If the kinship exists between an individual and his or her Totemism, we have individual Totemism. When the relationship exists between a clan we have clan Totemism and likewise a family totem. A totem is regarded as mystically related to the individual, family or clan and as such should be respected and therefore not hunted if an animal. Honouring the totem in turn honours and influences the god. The totem is considered to interact with an individual, group or clan and serves as their emblem or symbol and spiritually represents a person, family or, more likely, a clan.

Totemism is practiced amongst tribal people such as Pacific Islanders and Australian Aborigines. It was formerly prevalent throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia and most native Americans. Totemism varies in form  between these and other groups, and indigenous peoples.

Reindeer were adopted as totems by the Kyrgyz tribes, Turkic ethnic group found primarily in Kyrgyzstan. Totemism was a belief system which predated their contact with Islam.

Reindeer were amongst the many totems of the The native American tribe the Ojibways

It has been suggested that the rock carvings from the stone and Bronze ages in central Norway of animals including reindeer are clan totems and are depictions of spiritual animals seen in a trance.

Totemism continues today as part of the new age world view. What follows are examples of qualities assigned to reindeer from a couple of on-line totem dictionaries.


The reindeer is a family-oriented totem, skilful in communication and social activities. This totem is a born-leader and welcomes any opportunity to guide others in his herd into new directions. Reindeer has an innocent demeanour and is helpful to friends and family members. Receptive to the needs of others this totem teaches how to adapt to community concerns. "All for one, and One for all" could easily be the motto for this totem. If a reindeer makes its appearance in your life the lesson may very well be that it is time for you to step up and take an active role in caring for the herd. If you have become isolated it may be asking you to take on a leadership role in getting everyone to work as a team. Or, if you currently have a domineering role, you may need to look and see if you are overshadowing others with your ideals, in that case, step back a bit. Guidance is a key role for this totem. Be a kind and helpful teacher, not a bossy one.

Caribou teaches endurance, strength, fortitude and perseverance in going the distance. He will teach the power of adaptability in adversity, caution in surroundings and tenacity to get things accomplished. Caribou will show how to take on the roles of duality, the male and female qualities that you possess. Is it time to take a more dominating role in life and work or perhaps a softer subtler stance in situations? Caribou will also aid in inspiritual transitions, communication and social abilities and skills. Caribou will show how to keep moving onward and flowing with the group. Caribou is about movement and finding your inner peace and your place as you walk through life.



Credits: Banner photograph

'Twas The night Before Christmas book cover

Mongolian deer stones

Illustrations of Sami Drums

Snow background:


1) Deer standing stones

2) Britannica

3) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics page 495

4) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics page 176

5) Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics page 176

6) Encyclopaedia of religion and ethics page 176

7) Chalquist

8)  Sami Drums

Deer standing stones