the holly and the ivy / when they are both full grown / of all the trees that are in the wood / the holly wears the crown

every year i forget until it happens again.

sometime at the start of september, i get twitchy, paranoid. lighter on my feet, too, and coiled like a spring in a different way than i am as a cat. i tune into my body and notice the supercorporeal sensation of tapering at the end of my limbs. the tight body balanced on top of them. the thick, shaggy neck. the sharp nose. the heedful ears. the antlers.

stag for me exists in two worlds: mere animal and mere symbol.

one the one hand, he is the spirit of the dark half of the year. the holly king. his antlers are a crown, an aureole, a hearth cradling the flame that powers me through the winter. the romantic beauty of it all. stag soul, stag otherkin.

on the other hand, he is pissing on his own feet. he's screaming in the middle of an open field. he's curling his lip to pull leaves off a tree in the most undignified manner. his antlers are probably full of bramble canes because he got in a fight with a bush. stag mind, stag therian.

the dichotomy here is not necessarily that of a spiritual experience versus a psychological one. but there are definitely distinct, if intermingled, channels of experiences that speak to my metaphysical self and my instinctual self. and there’s a lot i can say about that.


i think i started paying attention to the deer feelings on the tail of the god feelings. i never wrote about it, apparently, but i’m going to guess that based on the fact that i started reblogging pictures of deer on tumblr around the same time i started publicly exploring being a godshard. it was, i guess, a -hearted thing. a lot of godshards have -hearted type relationships to animal theophanies. i also have plenty – crocodiles, hawks, big cats, to name the most prominent ones. frankly, i think my source spirit still wears stag much more elegantly than i do. but it didn’t take long for me to start thinking of this one in particular as a “kin” thing. notably, it was in the winter.

modern pagan widsom say that the summer solstice, the turning point of the year, is when the oak king is slain. that’s why the days start to shrink again. but that’s never sat right in my intuition, and i guess there was a good reason for that, because in scotland they traditionally only celebrated the cross-quarter days, and it’s on october 31st that the beltane fire society performs their reenactment of the battle. sometime between the equinox and then, oak gives way to holly. panther is overtaken by stag. it has happened every year since then, and honestly, probably happened every year before and i just hadn’t cottoned on to it yet. i’ve always felt something funny when i looked at them. i hate the “born this way” narrative but i have reason to believe this particular beast has always been in my blood.

once upon a time, the celts believed that each of their tribes descended from a specific animal. best i can tell, on my maternal grandfather's side, we come from deer. his surname is a territorial name, tied to a specific part of the land, the area surrounding the water of feugh - a name that comes from an old word for deer. anthropologists consider this a case for there being some sort of connection. and while, like much of ancient scottish history, it’s tenuous and we'll probably never know for sure, i feel in my gut that it's correct. so i see deer as a tutelary spirit too, and i could also call it an otherhearted thing on that basis.

the ancient celts also said you're not supposed to eat the animal you came from. but asides from just really liking venison, i felt like something symbolic was happening when i ate it. then, recently, i learned about the fianna: legendary warbands who hunted deer… and were identified with deer themselves. they were said to be able to turn into deer, and many of them had names that meant buck, doe, fawn. their initiation rites involved being chased and struck in the manner of their quarry. i don’t really know what to make of this yet! but something in it speaks to something in me.

this is all to say that my being stag is a very specifically scottish thing. real scottish history, real scottish land, real scottish folk practises, real scottish culture – all of these things are fragmented, sometimes beyond recognition. i cannot stress how much english imperialism and white american ancestry tourism have torn us to pieces. stag balances a distant, flickering star on each tine of an antler and draws them into a constellation that i can actually make a picture out of.


still, this year, right now, the animal part of it is foremost on my mind. i think my framing of it depends on what's going on around me at the time, because i’ve had years where it’s been more like this before. but i've been thinking about animality in general, recently. staying with my partner a little while ago, they would observe me. they said i ate like an animal, moved like an animal, even smelled like an animal. and we did have a discussion about scent a while back, didn’t we? deer are very smell oriented creatures.

i’ve been thinking about rewilding. about my connection to my land. not in a national or cultural pride way, but in my literal being-in-a-place. knowing the plants, which ones are good to eat. knowing where the field meets the woods, where to hide from people. actually paying attention to my surroundings enough to notice fox dens, herons on the river, mushrooms on fallen oaks, and, once, a doe. this was in the middle of summer, when i was still a cat, so i don’t take it personally that she honked and snorted at me to stay away.

i've also been reading a lot from deer therians specifically, so that's got to have had an influence. it’s been affirming to hear them describe things they attribute to deer that are very much in my personality. interestingly, i found a couple that also had dual deer + predator species identities, and i feel that dichotomy in myself. big cat is predator, it stalks and chases, yes, but when the going gets tough, it gets going. deer is prey, quick to flee, but violent when backed into a corner (dragon, of course, is both, depending - such is the nature of dragons. thesis, antithesis, synthesis).

except deer isn't just prey. to quote one of those people, deer are only prey when something's gone wrong. they have whole lives outside of that. they’re always living with paranoia as background radiation – a number of therians describe the feeling, and i feel it too (yes, i am literally schizophrenic. it’s my brain and i get to choose the significance of these traits). that said, they can actually be quite curious and fanciful when they feel safe. red deer, in particular, relax when they’re mature, because the big ones are rarely preyed upon. i like to imagine that they have a sense of natural beauty, the way they’ll investigate interesting looking plants and streams at distances further than is purely practical. and i think that’s pretty me – ideally adventurous, but often tempered by circumspection. hopefully i’m chilling out as i grow older too.

as it currently stands, our deer don’t actually have any natural predators at all. wolves live in secret on only a few private grounds, and the debate over lynx reintroduction is still ongoing. this is a problem! there are too many deer here! another reason why I’m fine with eating them. but i would class humans these days as unnatural predators – hunting, in the UK, is a luxury only afforded to the rich, and they do it for sport. if you’re doing it for population control, you’re supposed to kill the hinds. but, of course, they shoot the big, proud stags with their flashy racks.

this is the time of the year when stag sheds his inhibitions entirely. he shouts "look at me!". he flaunts, and he fights, and he fucks. stag is very self centered like that. the icon of the stag in rut is an icon of masculinty – nonhuman masculinity. yes, there is a symbolic element to stag-as-gender for me. but i also desire male secondary sex characteristics predominantly insofar as they bring me closer to nonhumanity. after 6 years on T I’ve got a pretty good mane going. even injecting testosterone itself feels a ritualistc reproduction of gearing up for the rut. i’m still holding out for a hormone that gives you antlers, though.

the antlers are a big part of the experience for me. i feel the heft of them so strongly that it’s actually hard to be dysphoric about not physically having them, but i do feel like I’m lacking a tool. stags use their antlers to pull down branches to eat, to shovel snow and leaf litter, and to butt heads with other stags. i don’t want to do any of those things specifically, but i do feel an urge to do something with them, the same way humans need to wiggle around after sitting down for too long. this is a problematic desire to fulfil because there’s basically no analogies for the behaviours for non-antler-having creatures. a human person can still run on all fours, climb, bite, even if it’s a little awkward. they can’t use their head as a hook or a shovel and they really ought not to go around headbutting things. besides, it really doesn’t feel the same.

antlers were also on my mind when i found myself at the zoo for the first time in years recently. i took a break from writing this, a friend asked if i wanted to come, there were lots of deer and deer-adjacent things there. it felt serendipitous. i went, and i scrutinized the pudu with their tiny toothpick legs and tiny non-forking antlers. i squinted at the visayan deer whose spotted hides and slender frames made them dissolve in the shade of the trees. they’ve already lost their antlers this time of year. i saw the weird little fangs of the stubby musk deer – they don’t have antlers at all (they’re moschidae, not true deer). in my head i was sizing each of them up, comparing them to myself. and i was surprised to learn that i don’t particularly feel a kinship with many of these little guys.

i do not feel small or delicate when i am stag. i feel like five hundred pounds of spring-loaded muscle that’s primed at all times to run, whether that be away from or towards a threat. my head feels heavy under the weight of an invisible crown. and i was acutley aware of this then, with these close-but-no-cigar deer. like my body was invoking cunnningham’s law. this is another thing that’s very therian-esque about this part of the experience, the comparing and contrasting of congenics and confamiliars. i suppose i’m lucky that my match lives right outside my door.


in recent years Panther has come to the forefront of my identity. talking about Stag necessitates talking about him too.

the idea to make a fursona out of my deer-identity came well before the fall (and was just as well, because i eventually got so itchy i needed to change how i was representing myself). down another wikipedia rabbithole, i discovered the mythical pantheon: a deer with a pelt like the night sky. well, purple and stars are already two big themes in my existing fursona, so it seemed pretty perfect. but all the more auspicious is the fact that some people speculate that the pantheon is a misreading of the mythological panther.

stag and panther have a lot in common when you think about it. they’re both very proud, masculine archetypes, for one. and they like to let you know that, roaring on the hill. you will probably only ever apprehend either of them from a distance, though. and whether they’ll run or fight has a lot less to do with being predator or prey than you’d think.

this is why my deer sona – and the heraldic pantheon – has a catlike tail. it’s why my cat sona still has antlers. i am always both these things, or at least i am always some eternal celestial creature which is just alternately represented by both of these things. much like some stories where the oak king and the holly king are two faces of the same god. so, these little features serve as a reminder that the seasons change. when the world is swallowed by night for all but three hours a day, and my body is frail and my mind is overstrung, it reminds me that i will be the king of the jungle again. when the sun never dips more than a few degrees below the horizon, when i feel wired with a motor that will seemingly never run out of energy, it reminds me that i am not all-powerful.


this year – i’m writing this in 2022, by the way, and i hope someone finds it useful twenty years down the line the same way i was inspired to write this by essays from 2004 – this year is far and away the strongest deer season i’ve had. my phantom body simply refuses to fade into the background. my senses refuse to let anything else fade into the background either.

it feels like it has a lot to do with the direction my life is going in. the conventional wisdom is that your animal side settles down as you mature. i think that’s kind of bullshit, and I’ll be writing a whole nother post about that at some point. on the contrary, maybe it’s only now after my brain’s done some cooking that I’ve been able to develop the mindfulness needed to engage with my environment away from the project of human domestication. to engage with my heritage away from the shortbread tin we’re packaged into to sell to other countries. to engage with my identity away from the circular community fights about terminology.

so when people ask if it's possible to be kin and hearted of the same species, i'm quick to respond in the affirmitive. i don't think anyone's asked whether it's possible to be kin to and a therian of the same species, separately, but i'd say aye to that too. part of the reason i'm sure that therian and kin experiences are – at least sometimes – in fact different is precisely because, in a way, i do feel both. that said, if you know me, you know i don't like labels. i could call it all these things, but i don't.

i simply am deer. stag. cervus elaphus scoticus. that’s all it needs to be to be everything to me.