A Sami shaman once stabbed me in the heart with a reindeer antler. Here’s what happened next.
A Sami shaman once stabbed me in the heart with a reindeer antler. That’s how the reindeer came to live in me as a spiritual ally. That was twenty years ago, and since then the reindeer has been an otherworldly teacher and healer for me and a protector when I do shamanic healing for clients and groups.
Do I know this sounds crazy? Of course. Have I stopped caring? Mostly.
Before he stabbed me in the heart, he taught me the story of how the Great Reindeer Goddess travels across the southern horizon at the winter solstice, retrieves the life-giving sun between her antlers and carries it back to the world so that all creatures may jump up and live again. He told me how the reindeer sacrificed her own heart to implant at the center of creation, and it is her heartbeat that pulses life into all creatures. She is the sustainer of all life. She is the rescuer, the resurrector, of life from the forces of anti-life as symbolized by frozen, dark winter.
These images of the reindeer are so beautiful to me, and though I’m not a reindeer herder of the arctic north, I seem to know this Goddess.
In our culture, the Christmas reindeer are all male, and the lead reindeer is a funny little guy with a nose that lights up. I believe the ancient Northern European indigenous image of the goddess carrying the sun back between her antlers sunk down into the Western collective unconscious, and it re-emerged, filtered through the patriarchal lens, to become Rudolf with his red nose, who saves Christmas.
For 12 years I’ve guided a Winter Solstice ceremony in which hundreds of people come to drum together and make merry (what I call “Spiritual Wahoo”) and to hear about the reindeer goddess. Then I offer them an opportunity, if they want to take it, to enter sacred time and space, to descend into a deep visionary state and ask the Reindeer Goddess for a blessing. I do this shamanic ceremony because the Reindeer asked me to help undo the shrinking force that has been perpetrated on her by the industrial-machine-mind story of Rudolf, the little boy reindeer who helps Santa, the CEO of the northern toy factory manned by low-paid non-unionized workers, stay on deadline for his mass production schedule.
Our story of Santa is the epitome of industrial culture shrinking down a profoundly healing otherworldly story in order to support our hyper-consumerist Christmas season. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman calls this substituting “more” for “beyond.”
The Sami shaman, whose name was Ailo, a short, dark haired, round-faced impish man who spoke soft English with a thick Norwegian accent, stabbed me in the heart after dancing in a circle around me and chanting a gruff melody for 15 minutes. He stabbed me in the heart with his reindeer antler and a vision of the Great Reindeer Goddess burst open in me. She became one of my spirit guides. Since then she has helped me heal and bless clients and groups. And she asks me to dance with her once per year and tell her story to anyone who will listen. So I have, for 12 years, so far.
The Sami’s relationship to the reindeer is as profound, I think, as the relationship between the plains Indians and the buffalo. In a landscape where it is barren and frozen for half the year, the reindeer keep the people alive. She offers her body as food, and provides muscle power to pull a sleigh. Her hides provide clothing, her antlers tools. The reindeer is the sacred life force, the blessing given to us by the creator, embodied in fur, bones and blood.
In the far north where the winter sun dips below the southern horizon and darkness covers the land for weeks on end, the winter solstice is only a few moments long. But day after day the sun, the source of life that calls the crops out of the ground, and the milk into the animals, creeps up a little farther above the southern horizon. That’s the great white reindeer carrying the sun back from the underworld.
The Sami say that the creator placed a beating reindeer heart at the center of creation. Of all the creatures, she is the one who volunteered her own heart. It is that mothering heart, pumping warm blood throughout creation, which keeps everything alive. The image here is not that different from the idea of “God’s steadfast love” found in the biblical tradition. Except that it’s female, and inside everything, and everyone gets the blessing, instead of male and standing off in the distance witnessing his marvelous work, and judging who is naughty and who is nice, and giving the blessing only to the obedient ones.
The reindeer heart beating at the heart of creation is also a similar image that Christians apply at advent and Christmas to the Christ child — that incredibly powerful idea (and so silly to the rational mind) that the creator cares for our wellbeing and so implants the power of love into the foundation of reality, and we can draw on that power — we can direct it up into us, and out of us, to make our lives better, or to help make someone else’s life better, or to just make it through our day in this whirling storm of daily life.
Reindeer mate in the autumn, and male reindeer shed their antlers at mating time. That’s a very good idea when you imagine two beasts with horns like tree branches spreading out for six feet in all directions getting into the holly jolly joy of the rutting season. The higher the level of testosterone in the reindeer, the sooner the antlers fall off. So at solstice time, any reindeer with antlers are going to be female.
When I first learned this about female reindeer and the antlers, it turned my mind around about our own Santa story. Santa and the reindeer are not an all-male team as we have been told. Santa is the Great Goddess’s delivery boy. There’s more: In industrial Western culture, Mrs. Clause apparently does nothing but knit socks and make cookies for the elves. But I think she may be another suppressed image of the great Reindeer Goddess, who repairs our wounds (knits the socks) and brings us joyful nourishment (the cookies).
This is why, for me, my annual Winter Solstice Blessing ceremony culminates with a group of shamanically trained “reindeer goddesses” delivering a blessing to each audience member while I dance under a reindeer hide as I hold two immense antlers. The Reindeer delivers the real gift we seek: the resurrection from whatever darkness has taken from us, the return of the lost life force. She delivers what we really seek: not “pretty presents,” but “Beautiful Presence.”
A few years ago The Reindeer gave me this song. It’s modelled roughly after the poetic structure of the Finnish Kalevala, an ancient epic mythic poem. If you want to, you can insert the word “She” at the beginning of each phrase to make it a little more rational.
Moves the dark wind through the sky bones.
Flows the silence from the unknown.
Flickers fire in the cold hearth.
Drums the thunder under earth.
Breathes the light into the star room.
Weaves the ice on winter’s tree loom.
Calls the soul back from the deep dark.
Aims the antler to the heart.
Winter Solstice Blessing: The Great Goddess Reindeer plays at the Minnesota Opera Center in downtown Minneapolis December 18-21. Info and tickets can be found at www.drummingthesoulawake.co
POSTSCRIPT AND CORRECTION FROM THE AUTHOR:
I want to admit to some large errors I’ve made that have caused insult to the Sami community. I’ve been in conversation with several Sami folks who have helped me realize my errors, and I am grateful for their generosity and gentleness in correcting me.
When Ailo Gaup came to town to teach us, he told us two stories about the reindeer. These stories impacted me profoundly with their beauty and spiritual force, as did Ailo’s wonderful heart and skill as a ceremonial leader. That was twenty years ago, and I never questioned whether these stories were traditional Sami stories or if they were Ailo’s personal stories. Several Sami folks have now told me that they are not aware of these stories in Sami culture. I’m grateful to be corrected on this.
Because of the enormity of the experience I had while working with Ailo ceremonially, I started referring to the reindeer spirit I encountered as the reindeer “goddess.” This was my own way of thinking about her, and, over the years, I got used to calling her that. I’ve been reminded clearly by Sami people that there is no such reindeer goddess in Sami culture. Again, this was my mistake, letting my personal interpretation over time become connected in a wrong way, and I apologize. The spiritual force that was opened in me during my work with Ailo is not a Sami goddess. In my work with the reindeer over the years, I’ve never thought of her as Sami, but as an embodiment of the spirit of earth who chose the reindeer form to interact with me.
To make it clear: everything I say about the reindeer in my writing and in the winter solstice event is a reflection of my own relationship with this spirit of rebirth and forgiveness, and not at all to be considered Sami in origin. The ceremonial work I do with this spirit is mine alone and is in no way to be seen as connected to Sami culture. The focus of my winter solstice event is ideas and stories of the divine feminine and the reindeer is one of many spiritual images that I delve into. I believe that if we are to turn ourselves off the path of destruction, we must let her back into the western, industrial machine mind that thrives on damage of the earth. This is what I attempt to do in my winter solstice event, and in my other work.
Indigenous people have struggled for generations against the lack of understanding, misinterpretation and misuse of their ways. I’m painfully embarrassed and regretful that my article added to those injuries. I have always wanted my work to be one tiny drop in the ocean of effort that it will take to heal our relationship with the sacred earth and with each other. I’m profoundly grateful to the Sami people who have pointed out to me my errors. – Jaime Meyer