The Celestial Stag or Celestial Roe is an undead creature from Chinese folklore that lives in mines. It is mentioned in the Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, but was described prevously by the Dutch historian Jan Jakom Maria Groot and the British writer Gerald Willoughby-Meade.
It is unknown what exactly a Celestial Stag looks like, as no one has gotten a clear look at one and lived to tell of the encounter. Despite their name, however, Celestial Stags were once human miners who were trapped underground when the mines that they worked in collapsed, killing them. The corpses of these men were brought back to life by the metals within the mine. They wander the tunnels endlessly, searching for a way back up to the light. If a Stag does reach the surface, though, it is said that its body and clothing melt into a vile liquid so foul-smelling that to breathe in its presence brings disease and instant death, spreading plague and rot across the land.
Although undead, unlike zombies Celestial Stags are intelligent and capable of human speech. They desire intensely to reach the surface of the earth, and are prepared to achieve this goal by any means necessary. At first they beg miners to escort them to the surface, promising them rich rewards in exchange for their help. If the men refuse, however, the Stags become violent, taunting and harassing the miners. Sometimes they were known to overwhelm people, trap them underground, and torture them to death.
If there are enough people in the mine, the Stags can be overcome and sealed up in clay. To pacify the angry spirit within the corpse, a lit lamp must be left above the creature. If this is done, the Stag will find rest and no longer disturb the miners. Alternately, miners sometimes allow the Celestial Stag to show them to gold, gathering it up before finding a lift. They tell the Stag that they must go up first, and when the creature gets in the lift and attempts to follow them they cut the rope, causing it to fall to its death.
The Celestial Stag appears to be a more malevolent variation of the similar Kobold or Knocker, perhaps a personification of the poisons and respiratory diseases that miners were exposed to during their work. It is like the Knocker that it can help find riches, but, like the Chilean Alicanto, it can also be extremely dangerous to those unprepared for dealing with it.
Because the creature, judging from Groot's description, is humanoid and not at all like a stag, some writers, including Willoughby-Meade, believed that Groot's translation of the original Chinese word was incorrect, or that it is a variation of another word. This has also led to the popular depiction of the being as a black-furred deer with blank eyes.
Celestial roes are no men, but belong to the class of kiang si or corpse-demons... Yunnan province has many mines from which five kinds of metal are extracted. If they collapse, preventing the miners from getting out, then, if these men are fed for ten years or even for a hundred by the breath of the earth and of those metals, their bodies do not decay. Though they are not dead, their material substance is dead.
It being underground perpetual night for those who work those mines, these men mostly carry a lamp on their forehead. When, while working their way into the ground, they fall in with a celestial roe, this is entranced with joy. Complaining of cold, it asks them for some tobacco, which it smokes immediately; then it prostrates itself upon the ground, entreating the men to take it out of the mine. In reply the miners say: 'We have come here for gold and silver, and we have not yet discovered any veins from which to procure some; do you know where the gold grows?' And the celestial stag guides them to a mine where they can reap a rich harvest. But on leaving the mine, they delude the spectre, saying: 'We must get out first, and then we shall take you out of the shaft with the lift'. And by the rope fastened to the bamboo lift they haul the creature up, but halfway they cut the rope, letting it fall down and die.
It has occurred that the men in charge of the mine-sheds were more benevolent and compassionate, and hauled up some seven or eight of those beings. But as soon as these felt the wind, their clothes, flesh and bones changed into a liquid giving out a rancid, putrid stench, which smote with contagious disease all those whose olfactory nerves it affected, so that they died.
This is the reason why, ever since, those who haul up celestial stags cut the rope, lest they have to endure again that stench and lose their lives. Should they refuse to haul them up, they risk being molested by them incessantly. It is also said, that when a small number of celestial stags are overpowered by a great number of men, tied, placed against an earthen wall, and immured firmly on the four sides with walls of clay, a sort of terrace with a lamp being built overhead, they will do no further harm. But if men are outnumbered by stags, they are tormented to death by these, and not allowed to escape.
- Jan Jakob Maria Groot, The Religious System of China