One of the notorious aspects of Nara is the deer that wander around in some parts of the city. There are many and not shy. They are cute, and people feed them. Sometimes they become a little aggressive asking for more food. But why are there so many of them?
The Shinto legend
In Shintoism deer have been messengers of the Gods or Kamis and venerated as such. Encountering a deer in the wild was a good omen.
According to the legend, over a thousand years ago Kami Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto arrived to the mountains of Nara riding on a white stag. In the year 768 the Kasugataisha Shrine was founded and Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto was enshrined there with three other Kamis.
Since those times, people venerated and protected deer. In the year 841 the government issued a decree prohibiting hunting and tree felling in the sacred hills of the Kasuga.
Deer and Buddhism
Buddhist beliefs also influenced the protection of the Nara deer. In some Kasuga Deer Mandalas, Shinto Kamis appeared as Buddhas. In older accounts, Buddha set in motion the first turning of the wheel of Dharma in Sarnath Deer Park. There, in his first sermon, Buddha advised his disciples to follow the middle path and taught them the Four Noble Truths.
In a different story Buddha was himself a deer in a previous life. In this tale, there was once a human king that created a park for hunting and collected two kingdoms of deer inside. He promised never to kill either deer king. To avoid excessive damage, the deer kings came to an arrangement. Each day, alternately one of each herd would sacrifice to the king. When the turn came to the mother of a fawn, she pleaded to be passed over until her fawn were old enough to take care of himself. Her king refused to excuse her, but the Banyan king offered to go in her place. The human king, moved by the merciful deer, decided not to hunt them again.
Deer, Catholicism and Alchemy
In the Western world, the stag has been an allegory of Christ. The stag tramples and destroys the serpent, a common symbol of evil in Catholicism. It was believed that when a stag that was ill or old would swallow a snake and then drink large amounts of water to overcome the serpent’s poison, and thus be rejuvenated. Like the stag shedding its horns after drinking from the spring, so those who drink from the “Spring of the Living Waters” are rejuvenated and shed their sins. The deer became associated with the soul’s desire for purification through baptism and the eucharist. For this reason, it is often found on baptismal fonts, communion rails and chalices.
The self-renewal capacity makes the stag a symbol of Mercurius in Alchemy. Mercurius was also named cervus fugitivus as a reference to his elusive nature. In the image below the unicorn, is the spirit, the masculine principle, the deer the soul, the feminine principle.
So, deer have been adopted as religious symbols because of their beauty and strength. Not only Shintoism projected their intuitions into the deer but other religious too. Now, when you visit Nara you will know the reasons for so many deer been there.
The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Complete Digital Edition (Jung, C. G.). Locations: 165920-165949, 100739-100745.