Stags in Heraldry

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Next to the symbols of a distinctly military nature such as the eagle and the lion also a stag or deer is a symbol of authority. It is not yet clear what symbolic value the deer has. We may point for example, to some Scythian examples and examples in which a deer’s antlers seems to serve as a symbol.

Usually the red deer (Cervus elaphus - Cervidae) is intended. The range of distribution of the red deer includes the Atlas region in North Africa, Corsica, all of Europe, a considerable part of Asia between 25-35° and 50-55°NL and a large part of North America between the extreme south of the US and 60° NL in Canada ..

A very old example in which deer appear is a copper relief from Lagash from the 25th century BC on which a Imdugud is depicted supported by two deer.

In this context, we may point at a  relief with a cross supported by two deer from the Egyptian Coptic period (now in R.M.O. Leiden).

Also there is an important link between St. Hubert, bishop of Liege (706-727), and a deer.

For some time also the latin cross of the Holy See was supported by deer.

To be mentioned also is the 2nd dalmatic of Halberstadt (12th century) on which deer are depicted placed inside a medallion. These could symbolize the post of a prelate of  the third degree (bishop).

A deer was also the emblem of Richard II of England and several French kings used (winged) deer as supporters for their arms.

That the deer so little occurs is probably due to the fact that from the time of Justinian the separation between the armed and administrative authority by the National Organization issues was lifted. The combination of these two in the Middle Ages, were also common in Western Europe.


An interesting hypothesis about its symbolic meaning is given by Georges Charrière: [1]


The Example of the Stag.


The ibex-stag correspondence or close affinity occurs in other connections: for example, the custom of tattooing the body, as we have seen, existed among the Scythians and, no doubt, among the men of Luristan. This distinctive practice, clearly attested in the case of the nobler dead in the virile society of the Steppes, seems to be confrimed by a bronze statue dating fom the seventh century B.C., which shows a bearded man, a Lur of mature age, wearing a short loincloth and with his chest bare: on his back there is a design of a male ibex, old and experienced, to judge by its horns. Also, near Issyk, in Kazakhstan, a man of the sixth of fifth century B.C. had been taken to his last resting place with clothes decorated with gold plaquettes, each having on it the figure of an ibex. The characteristic animal motif of Scythian art is of the same order: a stag with branching antlers that indicate age and express his patriarchal function.

It is not, however, certain that the Ziwiye gold plaque is therefore an equivalent of the Rosetta stone. The symbolic affinities of the stag and the ibex - through that common denominator, the resting but vigilant male - cannot  conjure away the fundamental differences between them: the former ranges the steppes and forest, the second climbs the mountains; the one therefore, may symbolize the nomad of the great plains, the other the alert mountain dweller, owner or exploiter of alpine pastures. With regard to the ibex, one remembers the mention in Herodotus of certain neighbors of the Scyhians and Issedonians, whom he describes as “goat-footed” men inhabiting a region of high mountains. This is probably a transcribed metaphor, more or less well understood by the Greek historian. In any case, one glimpses from this angle, if not the certainty, at least the possibility of a vassaldom or subordination of these two pacific beasts, perhaps dominated by the king of the jungle - that is to say by the king of a human society that likewise practised the brute law of the jungle. But the plaque may, by the lion, be reflecting the idea of a peaceful sovereignty: this would be borne out by noble attitudes of the stag and ibex - the same, indeed, as those of many animal figures, of Scythian and Urartian style, that decorate that sheet of gold from an ax handle from one of the Kelermes kurgans.


Stele from Reims

Sitting man with ox and stag at his feet


Sitting God from Verteuil (dept Charente) 2nd cent. AD (?)

Excavated from a Gallo-Roman settlement

(Musée d’Angoulème)


Man with a torque around his neck and several rings on his fingers indicating his wealth. A stag on his lap which is interpreted as a symbol of resurrection (?).



High-relief representing the Gaulish God Ernunnos, seated cross-legged and wearing a stapled coat on the right shoulder, holding a buck-skin bag Its head is surmounted by 2 deer horns held by 2 young and naked figures, standing on a snake. The one on the left has his foot on a step, the other holds a Gallic torch

Musée de Berry


Whether in the Val Camonica, in Cisalpine Gaul, or on a stele from Reims, the god is accompanied by a young and virile adviser, or by divine sons, whom the Roman conquest immortalizes as those handsome youths called Mercury and Apollo. Whether by being reduced in scale or by being turned toward Cernunnos, the young men seem to recognize in him a superior authority and to be subordinate to him, as vassals and children would be to the sovereign father. On the great silver cauldron found in Gundestrup (Jutland), which has been held to be influenced by Scythian art in spite of its Celtic technique, this prince may perhaps be commanding and directing the animals that are approaching him. As in other representations from Gaul, the god is shown seated as a king in majesty, with legs crossed in the Buddhist and oriental way. On the relief in question he appears as the assured man and leader; as a sign of his economic power, he is holding a bag from which coins and other signs of abundance are streaming.


Gundestrup Cauldron, 1st century BC

National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.


In the Tuva, as mentioned above, there are also funerary stelae engraved with stags: these clearly refer to the dead, to the famous warriors buried close by. Chenova even considers the animal as the tribal totem of the Sacians, the word sag meaning "stag" in modern Ossetic - and indeed an old Ossetian story makes a young hero say that his father was still "as vigorous as a stag." [2]) and the field where these stelae are to be found extends from the Altai through southern Mongolia into Transbaikalia, - that is, throughout the regions of Central Asia which were dominated by those peoples, at least as a thin ruling class.

            What, then, is the origin of this important role assigned by symbolism to the stag? In the herd of deer, it is not the stag who leads: the troop is organized matriarchally under the direction of a sterile hind. The male, apparently, is there only for reproduction: he trails behind the group, often accompanied by a young subadult male, as we see in the rock paintings of eastern Spain; and at the slightest threat the hinds, old or young, whether followed by fawns or not, abandon them. But in this solitude the fraternity that unites the two animals - the old one and his "page" (or brocket) - sees to it that the younger one, nervous and always on the watch, warns the old stag, who then arranges his flight in such a way as to draw the hunter after him and let his young sentry escape. In this respect the old stag is an excellent guide, a wise protector drawing the dangers upon himself and away from those under his protection - first of all, perhaps, the horde of females and fawns, and certainly his young attendant. The ibex also has the same altruistic customs.




a) Chased gold stag, probably the centre-piece of a shield, from Kostromskaya (Kuban), ca. Ca 600 B.C.

 Gold, 19 Î 31,7 cm. Hermitage St. Peterburg inv. nr. 2498/1

b) Gold stag of Greek workmanship, probably the centre-piece of a shield. Inscribed ΓAI. from Kul Oba (Crimea). Possibly 5th c. B.C. Ca. 31 cm. Hermitage St. Petersburg

c) Gold stag,  probably the centre-piece of a shield. From Tapioszentmarton (Hungary).

The eye and ear were originally filled with inlay. Not later than early 5th c. B.C. Budapest National Museum


In the classical Scythian version the artist treats the stag as an experienced male at the peak of his glory, equipped with his antlers at the season of mating, of which he is still capable, and so, in spite of his relative placidity, ready to fight with ardor to hold his own both against pretenders, against those who would contest his title as leader, and against dangerous predators. But the animal is also depicted in repose, with his muzzle raised in the contentment of his dignity and his experience, with his antlers resting on his back, and still ready to bell with his full force. Is he already somewhat solitary? Does he represent the old guard of veterans, the class of th elders?  There is really no means of knowing precisely, perhaps not even approximately, what age category he represents; one hesitates between the individual at the top rung of the social ladder and the venerable patriarch, worthy to represent divine justice by dispensing the human sort, that is to say, having more or less conferred a sacred quality on the latter in exchange for some gerontocratic advantage. For more than one reason this animal, which refuses any taming, was bound to attract the Eurasian warriors and hunters for its symbolic qualities - and priests and pontiffs, too, insofar as they wished to spread a belief that the knowledge of the elders became transformed into an occult power, capable of propitiating the gods.

There must also have been a need for an economic basis by which the elders, through their experience, would be useful to the society in which they lived and would not be merely mouths to feed. The ancient authors have, for example, recorded that among the barbarian Issedonians of Central Asia the useless old men were put to death. The importance given to the old stag as a symbol does therefore make it possible, in the case of a given culure, to measure the consideration or contempt which aged persons were held - and so to judge its degree of civilization.


Antler-crowned head from Ch’ang-sha in the Hunan, China.

Carved wood,  4th - 3rd c. B.C.

British Museum


Moreover, these two examples provide food for thought about the determinant value generally accorded, in the bestiary of the Steppes, to the stag’s antlers as an indication of the symbolic importance of the one who bears them. For stag’s antlers are represented ad infinitum in the art of the Eurasian nomads, especially in the eastern part of the great continental plain. The tombs in Hunan have yielded many small, wooden figures representing men or animals, all bearing these frontal ornaments; and this is a southern province which the Chinese chroniclers also considered as “barbarian”. These chroniclers even mention mythical creatures with animal bodies and human heads crowned with antlers. One thinks of the Pihsieh, that fantastic beast resembling a stag and believed, in southern China, to ward off the evil eye. Lastly, until quite recently, the Siberian shamans used antlers for similar purposes in their religious ceremonies.

It has been said that the allegory of the stag could be explained exclusively by themes of resurrection, since the male loses its antlers every year and grows them again: it is therefore the best possible symbol for the rebirth of the dead. But the association of lion, stag and ibex on the Urartian plaque weakens this explanation, since neither the ibex, nor the lion carries seasonal ornaments. In the pose given him by the Eurasian artist, the stag seems to have a virility in which sexual appetite is beginning to give place to a noble and reassuring calm, similar to that of the Celtic Cernunos, whose fortune is settled and who radiates the same impression of plenitude.

And this function of director, of leader, can no doubt easily drift, in course of time, into that of psychopompos (the Greek word for "guide of souls"), in which guise the stag still appears in the medieval Christian bestiary, where the animal is the patron of catechumens aspiring to the initiation of baptism. On a Hittite ensign an old stag is even seen apparently directing and herding two bulls or bullocks, whose scale the artist has reduced in order to show their subordination.

While mythology and protohistoric art thus offer considerable food for thought in their many examples of stags whose antlers attest advanced age, the same is true of the Paleolithic ones, such as those in the paintings of the Lascaux cave. Here they are grouped as though in a class united by age under the direction of a huge bovine creature. No less indicative of age are the antlers of the bearded monster, half man, half beast, painted in the Trois Frères cave. The same applies to those of a certain Hittite statue of the ungulate, and to those in a famous and clumsy Paleolithgic engraving, crowning a bearded individual whose venerable baldness also attests his maturity.

The male and patriarchal function of the stag is equally in the religious art of Gaul: Cernunnos - the god whose head is adorned with a luxuriant pair of antlers and who is shown carrying in his hand, or wearing on his arms, around his neck, or on his antlers, the Celtic torque, that sign of royalty or of identity in tombs - is likewise generally represented as bearded, or even bald.


Stags in Heraldry


However, even when the traditional Scythian motif at Kul Oba is a stag decorated with other animals, one can have no clear certainty (any more than with the Cernunnos on the Gundestrup caldron, toward whom griffins and agressive males are also converging) that the stag has been depicted as sovereign over inferior categories, or that these additional beasts are designed to complete the symbol of supremacy, to which the allegory of an old an majestic stag was not judged sufficient. True, the translation veers about themes that are close together; but in this case the picto-ideographic language shows its fundamental imperfections as a means to any exact version of the original meaning..

The fact remains  that, with the crouching animal from Kul Oba a symbolic range seems to appear that groups together the griffin, the hare, and the lion, as if to show that the stag posesses the attributes of each, - speed, agility, and feline suppleness. And close under his chest a dog, that faithful companion of man, but also pursuer of deer, singularly reinforces the allegory and humanization of the crouching beast. It does seem that, if the dog had been there only to reinforce the dynamic qualities of the stag, he would have been part of that range which includes the other animals, and would have been standing on the defensive; but the dog, like his enormous protector, is lying down, at rest. He gives the impression of being there like the anxious attendant, as an associated and protected subadult, having escaped from the sad fate which no doubt awaits the hare hemmed in by the two carnivores.”

[The symbolism of the Elder teacher of the deer makes him suitable to be the symbol of a higher ranking priest and in particular for the rank of bishop as can be deduced from the exammple of St. Hubert. There a role can have been played by a celtic tradition in which the deer could have been the symbol of a king-priest  Maybe also the pun servuscervus had some influence (servus probably initially guardian (of the flock) Servus Dei servant of God). A deer or stag with a cross between its antlers would mean: Servant of the christan religious authority.]

And this function of director, of leader, can no doubt easily drift, in course of time, into that of psychopompos (the Greek word for "guide of souls"), in which guise the stag still appears in the medieval Christian bestiary, where the animal is the patron of catechumens aspiring to the initiation of baptism.




By far the eldest occurrence of stags or deer with a symbolical meaning is from Iraq where a bronze relief representing stags was excavated.


Bronze  relief of  Imdugud.

A lion-eagle supported by two deer. Al-Obeid, ca. 2900-2400 BC.

(British Museum, London, acquired 1919)




Præfectus Augustalis of  Egypt


© fotografie Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden

Relief with cross and deer;

Coptic era (4e-5e cent); h 27, b 73, d 5 cm;

Rijksmuseum Oudheden, Leiden inv. F 1984/4.1;


Lit.: P. Jongste/M.Immerzeel, OMRO 74 (1994), 116 en pl. 6.2-4.


This achievement may have been of the patriarchal administration of Alexandria.


A deer or stag symbolizing a shaman occurs in Korea in songs from the Koryŏ-periode (918-1392).




Textile Fragment

Birds and stags flanking a Tree of Life.

Islamic (Near East), 11th or 12th century. Silk; warp-faced plain weave decorated with pattern weft 43.2 Î 40 cm. Provenance: Formerly in the Kelekian collection. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y. Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1952 (52.20.10) (Evans, 1997, p. 412 n° 269)


The stags make the achievement of a patriarchate. The birds, probably eagles, make the medallion of a military official, for example with the rank of an exarch or katepan. For its owner the catholicos of Armenia in Cilicia in the Dzamendav (1066–1116), Dzovk (1116–1149), or Hromgla, (1149–1293) era qualify. The ducks and the roub-el-hizb figure may be of Seljuqid origin.




Sens, 500ca

Cup and stags:  patriarchal vicariate


St. Ambrose (died c. 460)

St. Agroecius (Agrice), bishop around 475

St. Heraclius (487–515), founder of the monastery of St. John the Evangelist at Sens


Archdiocese of Monreale elevated 1183


Palermo, Stanza di Ruggero

Archepiscopal achievement.

Tree, supported by stags

Two date palms and two archers


Archbishops of Monreale

Theobaldus, O.S.B. (1176 – 14 May 1178)

Guillelmus, O.S.B. (1178 – 1183) (promoted Archbishop)

Guillelmus, O.S.B. (4 February 1183 – 28 October 1191)[6]

Carus, O.S.B. (23 May 1194 – after 3 August 1222)[7]




Greek cross and Stags: patriarchal administratioon


Mosaic of Jacopo Torriti in the apse of S. Giovanni in Laterano (1289-1291).

17th century engraving. The present mosaic is a 19th century copy.


Latin cross and dove symbolizing christian religious authority and the Holy Spirit. Two stags for supporters. Below a palmtree and a peacock and a castle with St. George in front. The believers are represented by sheep, drinking from the gospels flowing from the cross. In short this achievement symbolizes the Roman Patriarchate.


Present Absidial Mosaic


Foto H.d.V. 2012

Achievement of CharlesVII, le Victorieux 1422-1461

Wall painting in Loches


The arms of the King of France supported  by two stags send from heaven




The story of St. Hubert

Lintel of the chapel of St. Hubert, Amboise Castle (France) 1496


Hubert was a son of the duke of Aquitania (Loup, 671ca-688ca) and led a secular life. On Good Friday of the year 683 he went on hunting and spotted a large stag. When he almost had him the stag turned to him and a latin cross or crucifix appeared between its antlers. A voice said to him to go to bishop Lambert of Maastricht (669-705) to be teached. Later he succeeded him (705-727).


Saint Hubertus was born (probably in Toulouse) about the year 656. He was the eldest son of Bertrand, (Bodegistel) Duke of Aquitaine (*630-†688) As a youth, Hubert was sent to the Neustrian court of Theuderic III at Paris, where his charm and agreeable address led to his investment with the dignity of "count of the palace". Like many nobles of the time, Hubert was addicted to the chase. Meanwhile, the tyrannical conduct of Ebroin, mayor of the Neustrian palace, caused a general emigration of the nobles and others to the court of Austrasia at Metz. Hubert soon followed them and was warmly welcomed by Pippin of Heristal, mayor of the palace, who created him almost immediately grand-master of the household. About this time (682) Hubert married Floribanne, daughter of Dagobert, Count of Leuven. Their son Floribert of Liège would later become bishop of Liège, for bishoprics were all but accounted fiefs heritable in the great families of the Merovingian kingdoms. He nearly died at the age of 10 from "fever".

His wife died giving birth to their son, and Hubert retreated from the court, withdrew into the forested Ardennes, and gave himself up entirely to hunting. But a great spiritual revolution was imminent. On Good Friday morning, when the faithful were crowding the churches, Hubert sallied forth to the chase. As he was pursuing a magnificent stag or hart, the animal turned and, as the pious legend narrates, he was astounded at perceiving a crucifix standing between its antlers, while he heard a voice saying: “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell”. Hubert dismounted, prostrated himself and said, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me do?” He received the answer, “Go and seek Lambert, and he will instruct you.”

The story of the hart appears first in one of the later legendary hagiographies (Bibliotheca hagiographica latina, nos. 3994–4002) and has been appropriated from the legend of Saint Eustace or Placidus. It was first attributed to St. Hubert in the 15th century.


St Eustace


St. Eustace, 13th c. English ms.

Marciana Library, Venice,


The vision of St Eustache

By Pisanello 14328-42

National Gallery, London



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© Hubert de Vries 2020-10-05




[1]  Charrière, Georges: Scythian Art. Crafts of the early eurasian nomads. New York, 1979. p. 140 e.v.

[2]  See Dumézil, Le Livre des héros. Causasus series. Paris N.R.F., p. 77.