Antlered Associations

I found this mule deer antler in the bosque near Los Vegas, New Mexico.* I have been dancing around the cave with it ever since, throwing strange shadows on the wall. (While I have some sympathy for Bohemian imp Joe Gould’s definition of “My Religion” — “In winter I’m a Buddhist/In summer I’m a nudist” — I generally veer more towards the animist.)

The surprisingly lush riparian thicket of the bosque was being used by Ruby Ranch to pasture its randy bulls away from the cows. There was a bull, a tawny-hided behemoth, there in the cool, cool shade. We cautiously skirted the edges of his territory, for here was most definitely a creature to respect, and to fear. The place was hot and dry, yet green, buzzing with late summer life. It made me think ancient thoughts. Greek thoughts, Minoan thoughts. Thoughts out of the ashes of human time, of the old bull-god, or, later, the bull-headed onewho had to be appeased with sacrifice. Come the crowded pantheon, though, it was the bull’s turn to became sacrificial: how often Homer’s crew roasts the choicest joint for the now too-human — greedy, vain, vindictive — gods.

from Wikimedia Commons

Cave paintings are perhaps an inevitable association. The picture above is from the limestone fornix of Lascaux, where, approximately 17,300 years ago, our ancestors painted the animals they venerated and hunted. A pair of aurochs frame a horse, and, harder to see along the bottom, a herd of deer. I find “auroch” to be a rather magical word. It comes from the Greek for ox; conveniently, it sounds, like “Ur-ox,” the first ox; the scientific name for these creatures is Bos primigenius, but, extinct now, they are just outlines on the wall, and incantatory.

Yes, I confuse my Horns and Antlers, since people have been using them for similar things for years, as totems, as medicine, as media. But they are different anatomically. Horn is sheathed in keratin, similar to our fingernails, and surrounds a bone core. Antler is pure bone; the “velvet” that coats young antlers is a kind of blood-rich skin, nourishing these fast-growing structures. Deer shed their antlers every year. As the buck — only males grow them — matures, it grows a more elaborate set each year as it ages, branching into more and more “points,” or tips, the hunter’s phallocentric prize. Bonanzas of calcium, shed antlers are usually absorbed back into the life cycle rather swiftly by tiny digesters, animals, and the weather.

*The snaps on this recycled, a.k.a. “vintage,” shirt caught my eye at Double Take on the Ranch in Santa Fe.

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