February 3 2021

Returning to the myths and symbols with which its antlers have been decked out, this issue will explore how the deer has been a central figure in the imagination of the wild in the West, and has done so since Antiquity. We will see how these representations, renewed in the contemporary ecological context, are interwoven with the history of the real presence of the deer in European and French forests in particular. 


Billebaude Collection

96 pages, 230 x 300 mm
Public price TTC France:

François Sommer Foundation

Anne de Malleray
Director of collection
Tel: 01 53 01 92 40

Facebook page Billebaude

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On the square of slab, at nightfall, the show begins. Binoculars in hand, hidden in a lookout, the group is silent, in the hope that the deep cry of the rutting deer resounds. How to understand what is going on each autumn while waiting for the slab? In our Western imagination of the wild, the deer seems to hold a central place. Widely represented in cave art, then associated with ancient deities - Cernunnos, the horned god, whose cult seems attested in the Iron Age, Artemis / Diana, goddess of the hunt - he will become the emblem of royal power and the incarnation of Christ, appearing in the guise of a white deer, cross erected between the woods. 

This imagination finds its source in part in the history of hunting practice. An essential game in the Paleolithic, the deer, unlike other species, was not domesticated in the Neolithic but moved and introduced by humans, for hunting, in certain ecosystems. The pursuit of this animal, reserved for the lords, then the king, is the subject of rituals analyzed by the anthropologist Charles Stépanoff in the treatises on venery published regularly between the 13th and the 18th century. He noted the unusual presence of a “corbin bone”, which ended up disappearing from treatises during the Renaissance. In the act of reserving this bone for the crow to thank it for its help during the hunt, he sees “The vestiges of an animate relationship with the forest in a Christian Middle Ages, moreover rather characterized by a form of hierarchical relationship with the rest of the living in which the human being is at the center of Creation”. Returning to the myths and rituals linked to hunting and the wild world, in which the deer plays a leading role, allows us to understand the evolution of relationships with animals and nature in the West, and in particular what they were before the Christian era and scientific modernity. Another illuminating symbolic system in this regard is that of “black blood”, analyzed by the anthropologist Bertrand Hell, who describes the ambiguous power of this vital flow circulating between hunters and certain wild animals through the consumption of game. Hell identifies a continuity of cults associated with black blood and returned to those he calls the "Masters of the Wild" - Cernunnos, Artémis / Diane and finally Saint Hubert, patron of 

rabies hunters and healers, in a Christianized version. In this way, this issue seeks to give a historical depth to our representations and our contemporary sensitivity to living things in a context where different visions of animals and nature are opposed head on. 

This route also goes through literature, with a dossier of extracts from texts selected by Anne Simon, specialist in ecopoetics, which stages, but also into play, the imagination of the wild and sexual power associated with this animal. We find it at Pascal Quignard (The Unsettled), where the deer "Spends his time living in the world's forest, throwing his sperm into the winter", unlike the semi-domesticated deer, "Half beast and half tree", by Giono (That remains my joy) which we see "Shine eyes soft, but male" (!). Claudie Hunzinger, in The Great Deer, linger, she, at the time, in the middle of winter and until spring, when "The clan is hiding". A moment of fragility when deer, deprived of antlers and vulnerable, "Walk carefully between the trunks of trees". An essential part of this animal escapes us if we only pay attention to the spectacular attributes of its power. This is striking when one looks at his behavior. "There are a lot of fantasies about the deer", explains David Pierrard, manager of the Belval estate in the Ardennes 1. "The first of them being the size of the antlers", linked to the tradition of the trophy. If since the Middle Ages, fights between deer have been erected as a model of chivalrous virility, in reality, he emphasizes, it is rather avoidance that is required, both the energy cost and the risk of injury. are high. Through the sensitive accounts and nourished by long observations proposed by Georges Gonzalez, specialist in the behavior and ecology of the deer, we try to restore the world woven of habits, relations of companionship and avoidance between males, hinds and juveniles, over the seasons. Finally, we can feel the tension between the power of the deer and its uneasy life form of a large ruminant herbivore while listening to Virgile Parpinelli, European champion of slab, who, in the fall, in the forest, calls the males to rut: “Sometimes a form of relationship sets in, the deer will look at us and it gives chills. They have these faces and these facial expressions! They look like they have baby heads, we just want to stroke them too much. " 

  1. Territory of 1 hectares in the Ardennes, historic property of the François Sommer Foundation, today a place for studying biodiversity, a hunting school and an artists' residence attached to the Hunting and Nature Museum. 


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