The Deer at the End of the World

On cyclical time and decolonisation

As we head up to the ancient marker of winter solstice, the third post in our Of Earth and Empire series considers the history and future of time. Sara Jolena Wolcott discusses how a regenerative culture requires a return to an indigenous, cyclical understanding of time.
is a minister, healer, artist and legacy advisor. She creates inspiring, decolonial programming for authentically navigating the Anthropocene Age via the online international learning community she leads, 'Sequoia Samanvaya'. With her ancestors and guides, she is learning to ReEnchant our world. She lives in California on the historical homeland of the Ohlone people.
Sun sends rays of thin golden light through these snowy woods as it sets in the mid-afternoon; a deer looks up at my footsteps and quickly dashes away; for a moment, the browns of her fur and the whites of her tail perfectly match the midwinter landscape. Watching the deer’s elegant bounds through our shared woods in the heart of New York state’s Hudson Valley, on this unceded ancestral homeland of the Mohigan/Mahigan and Lenape peoples, my heart lifts. Deer is now, as she always has been, such an elegant and powerful being. 

 

The Golden Hind

While circumnavigating the world for the English, Sir Frances Drake re-named his ship from Pelican to The Golden Hind. He did so to honour his chief patron, Sir Christopher Hatton, who had a great fondness for the red deer which was also on his family’s crest.  

Hatton himself was a dancer, and it was his agility – you might even say his prancing – which first turned Queen Elizabeth’s eye towards him, eventually landing him a privileged position in her court and, subsequently, the wealth to contribute substantial sums to the adventurer Frances Drake. When The Golden Hind sailed back into the port of Plymouth, England, on the 26th September, 1580, three years after she departed, the ship’s hold was heaped with loot: pearls, gold, and six tons of cloves, which were, at the time, more than worth their weight in gold. 

Part of that cargo included today’s equivalent of £480 million worth of rare gems, gold and silver, which Drake pirated from a Spanish galleon off the coast of Ecuador. The Spanish had stolen it from the indigenous peoples, whom they had enslaved. Centuries later, the rich ‘Western’ countries would label South American countries as ‘poor’.

It is ironic that the ship that captured someone else’s treasure bore on its helm the image of the golden hind, given the ancient Greek myth of Hercules, which Hatton’s family may or may not have associated with the doe on their own crest. 

For his third labour the hero was challenged to capture the great Ceryneian hind for the King of Mycenae. This hind was larger than a bull, with golden antlers like a stag, hooves of brass, exceptionally fast, and snorted fire. Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, so loved the creatures that she yoked four of the hinds to her golden chariot with golden bridles. Hercules had no wish to anger Artemis. He found a way to please both the King, by showing that he captured the Hind, and Artemis, by letting the deer go, before the King could capture her. 

And so, the English Christian venture, funded by early venture capitalists, sailed around the world with a golden hind into unknown waters: a creature that some associated with magic, almost-forgotten myths, and the Goddess of the Hunt, who subsequently was involved with capturing other vessels bearing treasures that did not belong to them.

It is also ironic and deeply tragic that, even as Drake’s voyage contributed additional knowledge to the spherical dimension of the world, he and the rest of Europe were increasingly headed towards a linear interpretation of time.  

 

Linear time and colonisation

Two years after Drake returned to England and became a hero – re-affirming the European pattern rewarding those who exploited the people, places, and wind patterns of the rest of the world for the supposed glory of their war-loving version of Christ – Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian Calendar.  It was a form of a minor modification of the Julian calendar, which had been offsetting time for several centuries, as the calendar, as they say, ‘drifted’ Easter away from the Spring Equinox, which was a problem for a Church which attributed Easter to be a ‘function’ of the Vernal Equinox. 

Pope Gregory VIII himself might have conceptualised time as cyclical; medieval temporal illustrations often depicted the Christian liturgical calendar as circular. Regardless, the Pope and the rest of Christendom imposed their time-keeping systems onto the cultures they colonised, assuming that their cultural product – their calendar – was superior in accuracy and elegance. At that time, they were incorrect. The Mayan Calendar was more accurate – and many find it more elegant.

Colonising land was inseparable from colonising patterns of timekeeping and temporal understandings. The imposition of the Gregorian Calendar wreaked havoc on indigenous bio-cultures.

Colonising land was inseparable from colonising patterns of timekeeping and temporal understandings. The imposition of the Gregorian Calendar wreaked havoc on indigenous bio-cultures.

Caught up in a digital world, we have largely forgotten the ancient understandings of calendars and other temporal technologies. We don’t recognize how our planners and watches tie our mythical and practical imaginations to non-sustainable ways of living. 

The term ‘calendar’ barely conveys what these ancient temporal systems did. They intersected culture and cosmos and ecosystems, aligning a culture’s myth, an individual’s purpose, and the practicalities of survival such as planting and harvesting. The Mayan Calendar, for example, not only orients you within a complex cycle, but it gives you indications about  the purpose of your life based on which day you were born. In teaching communal circular time, I regularly find that these processes help people sense patterns in their eco-systems, their personal lives and their vocation.

Our sense of purpose is determined by the times we live in.  Our understanding of ‘what time is it’ is inevitably marked by the type of calendar devices we use. When you impose a time-system, you  impose a particular way of relating to heaven and earth; purpose and the ecological rhythms of place. 

As modernity progressed, marked out by the Gregorian calendar, time became increasingly conceptualised as linear.  Linear models of progress coincided with linear models of time. Europeans saw themselves as more ‘advanced’ and ‘further ahead’ in time than their indigenous counterparts. Effectively, this created a temporal distance that further displaced people (including themselves). To share geography was no longer to share time.  

With linear time and a universal temporal system came the disassociation of time from the nuance of place. Such a rupture has deeply disrupted our connection to the place where Earth is actually feeding us.  

The real question for a calendar is not only its accuracy but its use – to what extent does it connect people to their bio-regions and their roles within the territory ? A ‘cattle clock’ guides the Nuer in Sudan. Peoples of the Andaman Islands follow a ‘scent calendar’, ruled by the smells of nature. Harmony with nature – not with the Imperial Force – comes from calendars that arise out of the particularity of place.

In the Empire where the sun never set, a great rift occurred between space and time. Local ecosystems and the rhythms of nature became disassociated from the collective imagination. Time went forwards or backwards – but it never curved. Society became organised increasingly into small boxes that symbolised a ‘day’, instead of living in the constant rhythmic cycle of dusk and night and dawn and day, and those golden shafts of light piercing the woods just beyond the walls of my home.  

There are so many problems with this linear model. Space is curved and time moves with space. Scientists have long since agreed that time is not best depicted as a straight ‘time-line’. Time is relative. Which is to say it can only be understood in relationship. 

 

Sustainability, regeneration and decolonising time

To reach a regenerative culture we need to decolonise time. Moving out of purely linear temporal calendar models, integrating lunar and solar cycles, is necessary to align with Earth’s cycles. Choosing to use cyclical calendars is part of the decolonisation process. How can we achieve sustainable enterprises and cultures without them? 

As Lyla June Johnson, an Indigenous environmental scientist, teacher, and poet of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages from Taos, New Mexico, says:

A linear society that thinks in terms of ‘cradle to grave’ will have an endpoint. It won’t be sustained. However, a culture that thinks cyclically and reinvests all ‘waste’ into its livelihood will continue like a circle, it will never end.

Consistently, indigenous peoples speak of the importance of cyclical temporal cycles. Not only to measure differently, but to imagine and to relate with time and Earth differently. To live in a cycle is to live in accordance with Earth, the giver of life. Perhaps it is unsurprising that some of the most popular up-takes of cyclical calendars today are by those women who want to re-connect their life-giving bleeding cycles with lunar cycles. Cyclical time honours the life-giving cycle of women’s bodies, as well as the body of the Earth.

Perhaps it was women who first tracked time – our bodies are already such sacred timekeepers.

Descendants of those cultures first struck by colonisation are now working to return to their pre-colonial temporal frameworks as integral to their efforts of returning to sustainable living

Many indigenous communities are working on reclaiming and revitalising their ancient temporal technologies. Descendants of those cultures first struck by colonisation are now working to return to their pre-colonial temporal frameworks as integral to their efforts of returning to sustainable living. For example, the Earth Timekeepers, a largely indigenous led, Latin American-based collective who see themselves as the younger siblings to the Maya, are supporting and networking communities to enable harmonious living with the Earth’s cycles. They are recovering the knowledge and practices of ‘Lifecycle Living’ and helping to revitalise ancient temporal timekeeping patterns. 

For Europeans and Euro-descendants, there are many ways to return to cyclical patterns as part of a larger process of re-indigenisation, by which I mean, shining bright, place-based, ancestrally-informed light onto the shadow of Empire.  A more accurate calendar, such as the 13-month, 28-day calendar proposed by the Calendar Referendum Initiative, would bring us greater harmony with lunar and solar cycles. Working with the kind of simple circular calendars that I have been developing supports people in pattern-sensing, purpose-finding, and nature-based approaches that minimise cultural appropriation. Many of us also need to recover and relearn local indigenous temporal technologies.  

In these apocalyptic times, can we finally lift the veil on our imperial calendars, to reveal the truer nature of time?  

The Deer Mother

In the process of decolonising-in-order-to-reveal-truth, we would do well to revisit patriarchal Greek and Roman myths in addition to Christian stories and liturgical cycles. As argued by historian Craig Barnes in In Search of the Lost Feminine, the Greco myths were themselves variations of older myths from the more matriarchal cultures such as the peaceful Minoan civilisation, just south of Mycenae. As Greece came to dominate their neighbours, they told new stories where their heroes dominated the mythical creatures of other cultures. The Labours of Hercules, in which the King of Mycenae instructs the individual, masculine hero to perform acts of domination, are part of this larger cultural shift.  

To capture the female hind, Hercules followed it to the far-off land of Boreas, beyond the cold blast of the Northern Wind. The political symbolism was clear: Greece could over-power even the mysterious large creatures of the North.

And who was this golden hind? Nowhere in Greece is there a female deer with horns! 

Boreas was a mythical place in the far north where the sun never sets: the home of giants and people who make music and sing songs all day long. And in the real great northern forests, where in the summer the sun never sets, there does indeed live a large deer whose females bear mighty horns. 

We know this creature today as the reindeer. 

The Nordic peoples have many tales of reindeer, some of whom carry their goddesses in chariots, sometimes in the dark of winter. Eventually, the mythological reindeer were unleashed from the chariots of goddesses and re-hitched to Santa Claus, a variation of so many other pagan European traditions, to bring gifts to each household as part of magnificent midwinter festivals that bound the community together, when the Earth’s tilt leads the sun to be weakest and the night is longest and our survival is uncertain. 

Even older and still further north, there are the stories of the people who followed the reindeer; stories that did not involve hitching hinds to chariots of any kinds. 

One story from those peoples that I recently heard has become increasingly popular. I am not sure how it managed to survive, and make its way here, given all the damage done to reindeers and cycles and calendars and our sense of connectivity between people and place after the many circumnavigations of Empire. That it is being retold at all is a sign of the inherent weakness of Empire, with its deep attachment to linear time, and a reminder that symbols and myths have their own way of cycling back when we most need them. 

After all, Hercules did not fully capture Artemis’ hind.  Sir Francis Drake probably forgot that the Hind was returned to her woods. The treasure had a life of her own; she did not stay captured. 

Perhaps her spirit leapt from Drake’s vessel to hide in the hills until the time was right for it to come again: the time when the end of the world seemed nigh. 

Perhaps you also know this story.

 

There was a time when the people in the North who followed the paths of the reindeer (or was it caribou?) entered great darkness. The end of the world seemed close at hand.  And they prayed and prayed to the deer to help them. And one day the greatest of all the deer, the Deer Mother herself, lifted her head and bounded, her tail and hide blending perfectly with the forest around her, and then she leaped up, up over the trees, and across the great mountains, further and further she went, over more mountains and still more mountains, until she found the sun. She lifted the sun up in her great horns, and carried it back to the people. And as she approached the people, the days began to lengthen, slowly, for it took her quite some time to come all the way back.  

And the people rejoiced at her figure, which quite likely shone as golden as the sun herself. For She had returned.  

And the people said that her antlers looked like the tree of life, and the sun never left them.

And thus the cycle continues. 

 

IMAGE: Sentience (from the series ‘In Between the Worlds’) by Meryl McMaster

The idea of ‘In Between the Worlds’ struck me as an opportunity to explore my bi-cultural heritage, Plains Cree, British and Dutch, not as a struggle but as a strategic way of thinking how they connect. I belong to two heritages betwixt and between. My works explores ways of mixing and transforming these histories. Through working on this series, I intended to transform how I view the past from the perspective of the present.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 18 – FABULA

The Autumn 2020 issue is dedicated entirely to fiction, featuring short stories, illustrations and colour artwork
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Comments
  1. Hi Sara

    Thanks for an interesting post on a subject close to my heart!

    Some years ago I designed a circular calendar to better reflect my internal view of the year as a circle, very different from the rectangular shape of conventional calendars. (An early version appeared on this blog: https://dark-mountain.net/a-2015-calendar-mandala/ ; later versions can be found here: http://abrazohouse.org/calendar/) … though sadly I haven’t been able to update it in recent years as it’s very labour-intensive. I’d be interested to know more about your own design for a simple circular calendar, and how it “supports people in pattern-sensing, purpose-finding”.

    Of course, a circular calendar isn’t at all the same sort of thing as a cyclical calendrical system. It’s much harder to persuade people to change their calendrical system than to adopt a different shape of calendar! How can this be done without just imposing it by force, as the Romans did (successfully) and the French revolutionaries tried and failed to do? Maybe the Earth Timekeepers website has some ideas.

    NB. I’m not really convinced by the 28-day month idea; lunar cycles are (on average) 29.5 days and don’t really line up with our 365.25-day year. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunar_phase) Mind you, our 31/30/28 day months certainly don’t make a lot of sense, either.

  2. Thanks for this. Dark Mountaineers might also be interested in the Sámi story of Meandas-pyyrre (also called Golle Coarveheargi), a fabulous golden-antlered reindeer with a black head, a white body, burning eyes, and a silver coat, who is pursued across the sky by Diermmes, a giant hammer-wielding thunder god who controls storms and grasps a rainbow in one hand and a lightning-throwing bow in the other.

    Diermmes will eventually reach the reindeer and has already hit it with his first arrow, causing the world to suffer widening deserts, barren oceans, and lack of rain. The second arrow begins to boil the mountains and melt the northern ices. When Diermmes finally gets close enough to stab Meandas-pyyrre, the sun and moon will go out, and the world will come to an end.

    (From http://www.chalquist.com/sami.html – I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but can attest to its relevance.)

  3. I enjoyed reading the article and two things came to my mind.
    Tamil calendar has names for sixty years that rotate again. When a person witnesses the year of his birth again, it is time to look back.
    When Ravana wanted to separate Sita from Rama, he sought the help of fellow demon Maricha. Maricha assumes the image of a deer that leads Rama far in to the forest before stalked by Rama’s arrow. But, not before Ravana abducts Sita.

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