Mythical Beasts and Real Ones

An award-winning author of American history books and biographies, Leslie Wheeler has written three living history mysteries: Murder at Plimoth Plantation, Murder at Gettysburg, and Murder at Spouters Point. Her most recent novel, Rattlesnake Hill, is the first book in a new series of Berkshire hilltown mysteries. Leslie’s short stories have appeared in such anthologies as Day of the Dark, Stories of Eclipse, and Level Best Books’ New England Crime Stories series, where she was formerly a co-editor. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Berkshires, where she writes in a house overlooking a pond. Visit her website at www.lesliewheeler.com.

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I’m delighted to be back on “Buried Under Books,” talking about my new book, Rattlesnake Hill, and a mythical beast that figures in it. No, it’s not a humungous snake, the Loch Ness Monster, or a unicorn, though if you guessed a unicorn, you’d be close.

On a visit to Rome several years ago, I glimpsed a church with a cross and the head of a white deer crowning its roof. That’s odd, I said to myself. Later, I noticed a country inn in Connecticut called The White Hart. How quaint, I thought. But wasn’t until I came upon an issue of The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, devoted to articles about hunting pro and con, that I made the connection between church and inn.

The article that particularly intrigued me concerned a large, light-colored deer known as the white stag or white hart. Legends and myths about this beast span the centuries from ancient times to the present-day, and the world from Europe and the British Isles to Asia and the Americas. In Celtic and other pagan mythologies, the white stag was a wild spirit of nature, leading those who pursued but never captured it to new places, knowledge, and understanding. In Christianity, the white stag sometimes represented Jesus. Which brings me back to the church in Rome and St. Eustace, for whom it was named.

Eustace, a Roman hunter, was about to shoot a large white deer when it suddenly jumped onto a rock and spoke to him, revealing itself as Jesus. Eustace was immediately converted to Christianity, gave up hunting and spent his life communing with wild beasts in the forest. When the Romans threw him to the lions, the lions refused to eat him.

Other stories involved quests, spiritual or otherwise. In Arthurian legend, pursuit of the white stag was a noble venture, while in both Hungarian and Japanese mythology, its pursuit resulted in the discovery of new countries. In these tales, the white stag was portrayed as an elusive creature. Although hunters tried repeatedly to kill it, it always escaped. And those who encountered it were changed in some way.

Hmm, this sounded like something I could use in my novel. After all, several of my characters are deer hunters, and my main character, a non-hunter, is involved her own quest. Still, as a fiction writer, I couldn’t resist taking certain liberties with the legend. In the book, one of my nastier characters hunts the white stag, not for noble reasons like the knights of old, but for pure self-aggrandizement, like today’s trophy hunters. Other hunter characters bond—at least temporarily—over white stag lore. One man reveals that his grandfather carried with him a piece of bark scratched by the white stag as a lucky charm. The other man claims that the white stag actually spoke to great-great uncle and accurately predicted the uncle’s future. They share these stories at a local bar, appropriately named The White Stag. But it’s my female protagonist who actually sees the white stag—not once, but twice in the same day, and each time, it’s an awe-inspiring experience that brings inner change.

As a lover of legends and myths, I almost hate to admit that white stags exist in the real world. They’re red-tailed deer that have been affected by leucism, a condition that causes their hair and skin to lose their natural color. Unlike albinos, however, their eyes keep their natural color instead of turning red. The largest known herd of white deer in the world was found on an old army depot in Seneca County, New York. Another herd grazed the grounds of a science laboratory in Illinois. Other sightings have occurred in the Scottish Highlands and in Gloucestershire, England. Additional glimpses of these marvelous creatures are shrouded in secrecy to keep trophy hunters away.

Unlike my protagonist in Rattlesnake Hill, I doubt I’ll ever see a white deer on my property in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts, though I’ve observed an abundance of other wildlife: white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and bears. And I experienced my own “white stag moment” when a one-year-old cow moose made the rounds of my land for an entire weekend. Totally fearless, she allowed me to get close to her on several occasions, before finally hoofing it into the woods.

If you have a favorite mythical beast, or would like to share an encounter with wildlife that was meaningful to you, please do. Thanks for having me on your blog, Lelia!