The Deer

Wood's Bible Animals, 1875

We now come to the Deer which are mentioned in Scripture. There are not many passages in which they are mentioned, and one of them is rather doubtful, as we shall see when we come to it.

There is no doubt that the two words Hart and Hind (in the Hebrew Ayzal and Ayzalah) represent Deer of some kind, and the question is to find out what kind of Deer is signified by these words. I think that we may safely determine that no particular species is meant, but that under the word Ayzal are comprehended any kinds of Deer that inhabit Palestine, and were likely to be known to those to whom the earlier Scriptures were addressed. That some kind of Deer was plentiful is evident from the references which are made to it, and specially by the familiar word Ajala or Ayala, as it is pronounced, which signifies the Deer-ground or pasture. But the attempt to discriminate between one species and another is simply impossible, and the more careful the search the more impracticable the task appears.

As far as can be ascertained, at least two kinds of Deer inhabited Palestine in the earlier days of the Jewish history, one belonging to the division which is known by its branched horns, and the other to that in which the horns are flat or palmated over the tips. Examples of both kinds are familiar to us under the titles of the Red Deer and the Fallow Deer, and it is tolerably certain that both these animals were formerly found in Palestine, or that at all events the Deer which did exist there were so closely allied to them as to be mere varieties occasioned by the different conditions in which they were placed.


We will now proceed to the various passages in which the Hart and Hind are mentioned in the Bible.

As might be expected, we come upon it among the number of the beasts which divided the hoof and chewed the cud, and were specially indicated as fit for food; see Deut. xii. 15 "Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh in all thy gates, .... the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the roe­buck, and as of the hart."

There is, however, an earlier mention of the word in Gen. xlix. 21. It occurs in that splendid series of imagery in which Jacob blesses his sons, and prophesies their future, each image serving ever afterwards as the emblem of the tribe: "Naphtali is a hind let loose: he giveth goodly words;" —or, according to the Jewish Bible, "Naphtali is a hind sent forth: he giveth sayings of pleasantness." Now, such an image as this would never have been used, had not the spectacle of the "hind let loose" been perfectly familiar to the eyes both of the dying patriarch and his hearers, and equally so with the lion, the ass, the vine, the serpent, and other objects used emblematically in the same prophetic poem.

The excellence of the Hart's flesh is shown by its occurrence among the animals used for King Solomon's table; see 1 Kings iv. 23, a passage which has been quoted several times, and therefore need only be mentioned.

Allusion is made to the speed and agility of the Deer in several passages. See, for example, Isa. xxxv. 6: "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing." Again, in 2 Sam. xxii. 33, 34: "God is my strength and power: and He maketh my way perfect.

"He maketh my feet like hinds' feet: and setteth me upon my high places."

Nearly four hundred years afterwards we find Habakkuk using precisely the same image, evidently quoting David's Psalm of Thanksgiving:— "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

"The Lord God is my strength, and He will make my feet like hinds' feet, and He will make me to walk upon mine high places." (iii. 18, 19.)

A passage of a similar character may be found in Solomon's Song, ii. 8, 9: "The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.

"My beloved is like a roe or a young hart."

There is one passage in the Psalms which is familiar to us in many ways, and not the least in that it has been chosen as the text for so many well-known anthems. "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.

"My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?" (Ps. x1ii. 1, 2.)

Beautiful as this passage is, it cannot be fully understood without the context.

David wrote this psalm before he had risen to royal power, and while he was fleeing front his enemies from place to place, and seeking an uncertain shelter in the rock-caves. In verse 6 he enumerates some of the spots in which he has been forced to reside, for away from the altar, the priests, and the sacrifice. He has been hunted about from place to place by his enemies as a stag is hunted by the hounds, and his very soul thirsted for the distant Tabernacle, in which the Shekinah, the visible presence of God, rested on the mercy-seat between the golden cherubim.

Wild and unsettled as was the early life of David, this was ever the reigning thought in his mind, and there is scarcely a psalm that he wrote in which we do not find some allusion to the visible presence of God among men. No matter what might be the troubles through which he had to pass, even though he trod the valley of the shadow of death, the thought of his God was soothing as water to the hunted stag, and in that thought he ever found repose. Through all his many trials and adversities, through his deep remorse for his sins, through his wounded paternal affections, through his success and prosperity, that one thought is the ruling power. He begins his career with it when he opposed Goliath: "Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel." He closes his career with the same thought, and, in the "last words" that are recorded, he charged his son to keep the commandments of the Lord, that he might do wisely all that he did.

We now come to another point in the Deer's character; namely, the watchful care of the mother over her young. She always retires to some secret place when she instinctively knows that the birth is at hand, and she hides it from all eyes until it is able to take care of itself. By some strange instinct, the little one, almost as soon as it is born, is able to comprehend the signals of its mother, and there is an instance, well known to naturalists, where a newly-born Deer, hardly an hour old, crouched low to the earth in obedience to a light tap on its shoulder from its mother's hoof. She, with the intense watchfulness of her kind, had seen a possible danger, and so warned her young one to hide itself.

There is scarcely any animal so watchful as the female Deer, as all hunters know by practical experience. It is comparatively easy to deceive the stag who leads the herd, but to evade the eyes and ears of the hinds is a very different business, and taxes all the resources of a practised hunter. If they take such care of the herd in general, it may be imagined that their watchfulness would be multiplied tenfold when the object of their anxiety is their own young.

It is in allusion to this well-known characteristic that a passage in the Book of Job refers: "Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?" (xxxix. 1.) A similar image is used in Psa. xxix. 9. After enumerating the wonders that are done by the voice of the Lord, the thunders and rain torrents, the devastating tempests, the forked lightning, and the earthquake "that shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh," the Psalmist proceeds: "The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to calve, and discovereth the forests,"—this being as mysterious to the writer as the more conspicuous wonders which he had previously mentioned.

So familiar to the Hebrews was the watchful care which the female Deer exercised over her young, that it forms the subject of a powerful image in one of Jeremiah's mournful prophecies: "Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook it, because there was no grass." (xiv. 5.) To those who understand the habits of the animal, this is a most telling and picturesque image. In the first place, the Hind, a wild animal that could find food where less active creatures would starve, was reduced to such straits that she was obliged to remain in the fields at the time when her young was born, instead of retiring to some sheltered spot, according to her custom. And when it was born, instead of nurturing it carefully, according to the natural maternal instinct, she was forced from sheer hunger to abandon it in order to find a sufficiency of food for herself.

That the Deer could be tamed, and its naturally affectionate disposition cultivated, is evident from a passage in the Proverbs (v. 18, 19): "Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe."

We might naturally expect that the Rabbinical writers would have much to say on the subject of the Hart and Hind. Among much that is irrelevant to the object of the present work there are a few passages that deserve mention. Alluding to the annual shedding of the Deer's horns, there is a proverb respecting one who ventures his money too freely in trade, that "he has hung it on the stag's horns," meaning thereby that he will never see it again. It is remarkable that in Western Africa there is a proverb of a similar character, the imprudent merchant being told to look for his money in the place where Deer shed their horns.

They firmly believed that goats and Deer associate freely with each other, and that a mixed progeny was the result, but some of them modify this statement by saying that this only holds good with the smaller kinds of Deer, i.e. the gazelles and other antelopes. This absurd notion has evidently taken its rise from the line of long bristly hair that decorates the throat of the adult male, and which these unscientific writers took to be derived from the beard of the goat.

On account of its watchfulness it was said always to sleep with one eye open, "which is well known to be the case with the hare." The ancient Jews used to catch it with nets, and then domesticate it, feeding it principally with a plant which has a very long and straight root, which was used by Joshua as a wand of office when he pointed out to the Israelites the portion of ground on which each tribe had to encamp. What the plant might have been they cannot precisely ascertain, and the looseness of their natural history may be imagined from the fact that some consider the plant in question to be the ivy and others the sugar-cane.

Some of the Deer, says these old writers, join the herds of cattle, and even accompany them to their stalls for the night. The reason of this gentleness of disposition seems to be found in the position of the gall-blander, which is said to be, not in the liver, but near the tail. It is remarkable, by the way, that Aristotle places it actually in the tail: "The Achaian harts have their gall in their tails;" while Pliny thinks that the gall is placed in the ears.

The curious superstitions respecting the enmity between the Deer and the serpent are of very old date, and have travelled all over the world. They probably took their rise from the esoteric teachings which were hidden under the symbolism of animal life, and were transmitted from country to country and from age to age, after the manner of superstitions generally. According to one form of the superstition, the Deer can draw serpents out of their holes by breathing into them, and then devour them; while, according to another form, there is such an enmity between the Deer and the serpent, that if even a portion of the Deer's horns be burned, all snakes that come within its influence are driven away.

Topsell, in referring to this subject, although he feels himself bound to believe the tradition, accounts for it in his own quaint fashion. "A Hart by his nose draweth a Serpent out of her hole, and therefore the grammarians derived Elaphas, or Hart, from elaunein tous opheis, that is, of driving away serpents.

"I cannot consent to the opinion of Ælianus, that affirmeth the Serpents to follow the breath of a Hart like some philter, or amorous cup: for, seeing that all authors hold a hostility in natures betwixt then, it is not probable that the Serpent loveth the breath of a beast unto whose whole body he is an enemy with a perpetual antipathy. And if any reply that the warm breath of an Hart is acceptable to the cold Serpent, and that therefore she followeth it as a dog creepeth to the fire, or as other beasts to the beams of the sun, I will not greatly gainsay it, seeing by that means it is most clear that the breath doth not by any secret force or vertue extract and draw her out of the den, but rather the concomitant quality of heat, which is not from the secret fire in the bones of the Hart's throat (as Pliny hath taught), but rather from her ordinary expiration, inspiration, and respiration. For it cannot be, that seeing all the parts of a Serpent are opposite to a Hart, that there should be any love to that which killeth her.

"For my opinion, I think that the manner of the Hart's drawing the Serpent out of her glen is not, as Ælianus and Pliny affirmeth, by sending into the cave a warm breath, which burneth and scorcheth the beast out of her den, but rather, when the Hart hath found the Serpent's nest, she draweth the air by secret and violent attraction out from the Serpent, who, to save her life, followeth the air out of her den. As where a vessel is broached or wrecked, the wine followeth the flying air; and as a cupping-glass draweth blood out of a scarified place of the body, so the Serpent is drawn unwillingly to follow her destroyer, and not willingly, as Ælianus affirmeth. The Serpent being thus drawn forth, addeth greater force to her poyson, whereupon the proverbial admonition did arise, 'Beware thou meet not with a Serpent drawn out of her hole by the breath of a Hart, for at that time, by reason of her wrath, her poyson is more vehement.' After the self-same manner do the Sea-rams draw the Sea-calves hid in the subterranean rocks, for by smelling they prevent the air that should come into them for refrigeration."

In consequence of this antipathy, travellers were accustomed to wear dresses made of deer-skin, because no serpent would dare to bite any one who wore such armour. The timidity of the Deer was attributed by these strange old authors to the great size of its heart, in which they thought was a bone shaped like a cross.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that in one passage the word which is translated as "Hart" is rendered differently in some versions. This passage occurs in Lam. i. 6: "And from the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed her princes are become like harts that find no pasture, and they are gone without strength before the pursuer." In some editions of the Hebrew Bible, the word Ayilim, i.e. "rams," is used instead of Ayzalim, or "Harts," and this reading is followed both by the Septuagint and the Vulgate. In two editions of the Hebrew Bible, however, the word is Ayzalim; and, as the Jewish Bible retains that reading, we cannot do wrong in accepting it as the correct one.