Heads

A volley of gunshots in the woods. It sounds like a war zone out there. But it’s deer hunting season. Some deer are dying. Some escaping. Some hunters have deer to take home for meat, skins, trophies. Some leave empty-handed. Deer do not die for everyone.

I have a mounted deer head on my dining room wall which I have to justify to some of my shaman friends who, when they first see it, are a bit startled that I would have such a thing. Isn’t it disrespectful? they sometimes ask, but more politely than that. So here’s my story.

First, I did not shoot it. Second, it is not a trophy. Third, I liberated it from the basement of a German restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York. True. The decor in the restaurant, which has been there since the late 1940s, is what you might call “psycho hunting lodge.” I never saw the basement, but I hate to imagine what it looks like.

About 20 years ago I heard that the family who owns the restaurant wanted to get rid of some of the “extra” stuffed animal parts that were moldering in the cellar. So I bought a handsome buck with an eight-point rack. I’ve been told that it is rather old, judging from the ornate wooden shield on which it is mounted. They don’t carve shields like that much anymore. I feel privileged to have it and give it a place of honor in the dining room near the wood stove. We call him Dasher.

I think of Deer as the guardian of the forest and the spirit of the forest. Over the years we’ve had this fantasy that burglars see the deer’s head from the road or porch and think we must be hunters (we’re not). So we must have guns (we don’t). So they don’t burgle us. Deer is the guardian of our home. I can’t say that Deer is the spirit of our home, though, because I agree with Jean Cocteau, the movie director, who said that the cat becomes the soul of the home. Different animals have their different roles and duties.

My Celtic ancestors collected human heads. Some they chopped off enemies. Some they saved after the deaths of revered relatives or holy people, preserving them in cedar oil. In Christian times the practice continued, and the skulls of saints were kept in special niches in churches and chapels, or at the bottom of sacred wells that they guarded. People made pilgrimages to these places to consult with the heads, using them for divination. There is a tale about the Welsh leader Bran who asked that his head be chopped off and taken home from Ireland where he was mortally wounded. His men did so, but they detoured into the Otherworld where Bran’s head entertained them for seven years! A wonderful head! There are tales of Celtic chieftains who wouldn’t allow a feast to begin until there were a few heads around the table. Plates of food were set before them. It’s still a practice among shaman folks to put out food for the spirits, whether there are heads present or not. It’s a good custom.

The Celts thought of the head as the seat of the soul, or what we might call the soul’s headquarters. In the head are located all the five senses which we know from another old Irish tale are the portals through which the waters of wisdom flow from the Otherworld. Our senses, in other words, connect our souls with the sacred, not just the physical (but of course the physical is sacred, and that might be the whole point). I often think of Dasher’s head as still connected with the Otherworld and the ancient deer wisdom that flows through it.

I sometimes wonder what might have become of Dasher if someone else had purchased him, or if no one purchased him. I wonder that about the cats too. If some other family with demonic children had adopted any of our cats, would they have had a good and peaceful life? There are tales about what children do to cats when no one is watching. Would our cats miss sleeping in front of the wood stove in winter? Would Dasher have had a good life-beyond-life in someone else’s home? He might have, but I feel obligated to do him justice here where he ended up. I certainly think he’s better off than in the basement of a restaurant.

Of course, Dasher’s spirit is still out there. I’m sure the Old Bone Mother collected his bones however many generations ago he died and sang over them, and so he was reborn. He might be out there today running the hills, leaping over stone walls, splashing through creeks, startled by hunters. Deciding (once again) whether or not to die today.

We decorated for Christmas last week, cut the tree, brought it home, hung ornaments and strands of lights, and strewed colored lights on the bushes out front. And, as we do every year, put the red-and-white Santa cap on Dasher. He looks smashing.

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