Stag Mask Portals

Deer Biography Cham Main

Bon Influence

Deer Dance as Site of Mixture and Creation in Multiple Cultures

{a} Yaqui Deer Dancer in Mexico
Every spring in Tapje, Nepal, the Gurung people capture a live deer and bring it into the village. Having performed rites over it, they then carry it to a ritual place, cut it open and remove its heart. This serves as an offering to the deities and spirits of the area. The neighboring Tibetan villagers consider such rites sins of a high order but Stan R. Mumford, who has studied this tradition notes that it bears very strong resemblance to sacrifices that were still carried out in Western Tibet at least through 1936 (Mumford, 257). In his examination of cham, Richard J. Kohn also looks to practices in Nepal for clues of pre-Buddhist remnants. Nepal’s Vajracharya dances are dances performed by a priest caste of Buddhists and are mainly limited to view by initiates. Given Nepal’s geographic and historical position between Tibet and India, it could represent an intermediate space in the transmission of practice and could also serve as a peripheral place where otherwise fallen away practices may live on. Kohn suggests the carya dances may indicate cham’s roots (Kohn, 55). Indeed, cham was originally only performed for initiates.

Guiseppe Tucci describes deer dances performed during New Year’s celebrations and notes that Bon
practitioners used to sacrifice deer at the New Year (Tucci, 155, 268, 273). Both the Buddhist deer dances and the Bon sacrifices held the intent of driving away evil forces to establish a good start to the new year. Tucci explains that with the increase of the influence of Buddhism in Tibet, sacrifices were made into metaphor, with animal skulls or effigies made of tsampa and butter (torma) replacing live animals. Nebesky-Wojkowitz similarly determines the deer's pairing with its master Yama in cham to be a remainder of pre-Buddhist sacrificial rites since he failed to find references in Yama's spiritual practices to a deer attendant. In his estimation, the stag and the yak as Yama's messengers are "undoubtedly figures of the old Tibetan folk religion," (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 77-8)

Though these scholars offer their suggestions, and the connections and distinctions between Buddhist and Bon practices is informative, it is impossible to neatly parse Buddhist and pre-Buddhist elements of the dances. Even those practices that can be identified as non-Buddhist in origin are not necessarily pre-Buddhist in terms of the time of incorporation. They could be remnants that entered the tradition at a later date (Kohn, 56). On a more basic level, presuming monolithic, dual categories of "Bon" and "Buddhist" belies the complexities within each and flattens their histories. Mona Schrempf, in her examination of cham today, takes Bon monks performing cham as one of the cases in her paper. They also represent Tibet and they also practice cham dances. This shows what a difficult term "Bon" is to use broadly.

In the following paragraphs, I will take a look at other cultures' deer dance traditions with an eye toward a similar kind of mixture, blending and the production of a new creation from dissimilar elements.

Yaqui Deer Dance

The Yaqui Indians of the
Southwestern United States and Eastern Mexico are particularly known for their Easter celebration and the deer
dance which is a main part of it. As is the case with cham dances, the Easter celebrations have become a focus of tourist attention. Note that on the website of the city of Cuidad Obregon in the Yaqui valley, the image of the deer dancer features prominently twice. The tradition has stood for 400 years and remains a site of interaction between Yaqui and Spanish traditions of religion and dance. Valentina Litvinoff’s examination of the practice highlights the blending of Spanish rhythms with native dance movements and a Christian setting with shamanistic elements.
{b} AMNH horns for Native American deer dance, Taos, NM

In the deer dance, there is a specially trained deer dancer who dances bare-chested, with rattles in his hands, and a stuffed deer head with antlers affixed to the top of his own head. A white kerchief is tied under the deer head, obscuring the dancer’s eyes. His performance is not meant to naturalistically portray a deer as much as to abstractly suggest its movement (Litvinoff, 56). He dances throughout Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday, sometimes alone, sometimes as a part of a larger drama. On the Saturday before Easter, he repels men representing Pharisees from the church building with bursts of confetti, symbolizing the power of Christ’s blood to overcome evil. On Easter Sunday, he leads a procession into the church and does his dance on the altar (Litvinoff, 61, 62). In Litvinoff’s analysis, “The Indian has welded the very center of his native culture to the newer religiosity, thus making the newer, the imposed, one genuineness with the primacy of the native” (Litvinoff, 55, 62). The deer dances in Tibet could be seen in a parallel way: as a combination of Buddhism with the pre-existing religious traditions of Tibet to create something new and distinctly Tibetan.

Abbots Bromley's Horn Dance and the Ariège"Sorcerer's" Enigmatic Antlers

Indeed, dances in which people personify deer exist all over the world and similar mixture, blending and creation appear again and again. For example, the
{c} Abbots Bromley Horn Dance
British town of Abbots Bromley is known for its annual horn dance, pictured left. According to the festival's website, residents there don reindeer antlers which are property of the parish and stored in the church year round. Because of the impressive weight of the antlers, the men do not wear them on their heads. Rather, as may be seen in the rightmost figure in the photo, the antlers are affixed to a wooden deer face on a short pole with the antlers resting on the dancer's shoulders. The dance has been associated with Christian festivals since 1226 and they claim carbon dating has shown some of the antlers still used to be over a thousand years old. As in the case of the Yaqui, it seems likely that these practices predated Christian presence in the area and negotiated a way to adapt to it. The tradition is so longstanding now that the integration is seamless and, like the Yaqui and the Tibetans' dances, it is still adapting to new circumstances. Today it is has added meanings as a tourist attraction. Note that, as in the Obregon website, the Abbots Bromley website likewise gives a prominent place to its deer dancers. Souvenir t-shirts are available for purchase through the website, with images of the deer heads in silhouette.

A truly ancient case of antler dance comes from the Trois Frères Cave in Ariège, France and dates back to 14,000 BCE. The star of this cave is an image popularly known as the "Sorcerer" and is generally taken to be a dancing man wearing antlers on his head (Leeming and Page, 13). While exactly what is represented in the image is subject to interpretation, it would not be surprising if it is in fact a remnant of a bygone shamanic stag dance, as several have hypothesized. The appearance of the same elements across time and space indicates the abiding significance they have.

Dance is a special context to express significance because it exists in performance. This means that in a sense, it is recreated every time the dance is performed. While tradition remains important, there is fluidity to the form which allows for the incorporating of new elements and the diminishing of obsolete ones.

Masks make for units of meaning that can be shuffled into new combinations or ascribed various personalities. This is particularly true of a character as elemental as a deer. For the Yaqui, the deer is more abstract as a headdress than as a mask, and for the men of Abbots Bromley, the antlers are yet another step into the abstract. The faces of deities, by contrast, are perhaps not so malleable to altered characterizations. A deer face, however, especially in combination with ornamentation on the antlers and accompanying dress, can stand in for a number of characters. A mask or a headdress is a kind of container that is meant to be filled with a person. When a person gets inside, he activates it, giving it life and meaning. It is striking what a great difference there is between the feeling created by looking at the Tibetan stag mask in isolation, and the mask used in performance. The combination of music, movement and ornamentation animates the mask. The act of dancing transforms both the mask and the dancer into something else.

Stag Mask Portals

Deer Biography Cham Main


Kohn, Richard J. Lord of the Dance: the Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Leeming, David and Jake Page. God: Myths of the Male Divine. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Litvinoff, Valentina. "Theatre in the Desert: The Yaqui Easter." The Drama Review: TDR 17.3 (1973): 52.

Mumford, Stan R. "Shamanic Sacrifice and Buddhist Renunciation" Shamanism. Ed. Andrei A. Znamenski. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Schrempf, Mona. "From 'Devil Dances' to 'World Healing': Some Representations, Perspectives and Innovations of Contemporary Tibetan Ritual Dances." Tibetan Culture in Diaspora, Papers for the 7th PIATS, Graz 1995. 91-102.

Tucci, Guiseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Trans. Geoffrey Samuel. New York : Kegan Paul International, 2000.

Wilson's Almanac provided examples of antler dances that helped direct my research: 16 Apr. 2008.


{a}"Yaqui: deer dancer, Sonora, Mexico." Online Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 15 Apr. 2008. <[[|>.</span]]>
{b}"Deer Dance Horns." American Museum of Natural History North American Ethnographic Collection. Catalog number 50.1/ 4264.
{c}Abbots Bromley Horn Dance <>