Like many legends, those surrounding the white hart come with their fair share of curses and prophecies of bad luck to anyone who crosses the creature. For the ancient Celts, the white hart was a harbinger of doom, a living symbol that some taboo has been transgressed or a moral law broken. To come across a white hart was to realise that some terrible evil or judgment was imminent.
The white hart’s reputation improved in Arthurian legends, where its appearance was a sign to Arthur and his knights that it was time to embark on a quest – it was considered the one animal that could never be caught so it came to symbolise humanity’s never-ending pursuit of knowledge and the unattainable.
Soon, the white hart was appearing in stories throughout Europe.
To Hungarians, it was a white hart that led their ancestors to their homeland; in a French legend, anyone who killed a white hart was cursed with the pain of unrequited love. It was not long before Christianity managed to appropriate the white hart for its own purposes: the white stag came to symbolise Christ and his presence on earth.
Fundamental to this myth was the story of David I, King of Scotland, whose encounter with this animal led directly to the establishment of the royal palace, Holyrood House, in Edinburgh. It is said that in 1128, a rebellious King David was warned by his priest not to go hunting on the Feast Day of the Holy Rood (Holy Cross). Stubbornly, he set off on the hunt and came across a large white deer, which he chased. Thrown from his horse, the deer charged him. David cried out to God to save him, and at that precise instant, the deer’s antlers miraculously turned into a cross, and the animal vanished in a puff of smoke.
The shamed King built a church to the Holy Rood on the spot where his the vision occurred. From then on, the white deer became a symbol of purity, redemption and good fortune in Scotland, and eventually took a leading position in English heraldry alongside its cousin, the mythic unicorn, whose horn was supposedly endowed with magical properties.
King Richard II adopted the white hart as his personal emblem. Its meaning and origins can be found in the reign of an equally mysterious king whose beauty, capriciousness and obsession with purity left traces in the satirical portraits of the vernacular literature written during his reign (1377-99), including some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Cheshire poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, and in the 16th century in Shakespeare’s Richard II, which portrays a monarch familiar with alchemy.
Even today, white harts are seen to be lucky charms, and anyone who spots one is said to have a dose of good fortune just around the corner.
The information presented on this page came from a U.K. site called Daily Mail in an article titled How the magical white hart inspires legends. And from History Today, an article titled Richard II: King of the White Hart.