April 20, 2013

Epona: Goddess of Horses, Travelers & Dreams

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , , , , , at 9:32 am by Babs

Celtic Goddess Epona and her white mare bring dreams to you.  She helps manifest the dreams if you allow her to accompany you on your path.

The maiden Goddess Epona is usually portrayed as riding a white mare side-saddle, sometimes with a foal, or standing while surrounded by horses.  Her symbol is the Cornucopia (horn of plenty) which suggests that she may have been honored as a fertility goddess, although she is most commonly known as a goddess of horses and travel.  She fed her beloved horses from her cornucopia filled with corn and apples, symbolic of mother-love and abundance.

From the Iron Age, the Celtic goddess’ faith spread across the whole of ancient Europe, eventually being embraced by the Romans and to a certain extent, Christianity.  Epona had a shrine in almost every stable of the Roman empire – in fact, she was the only Celtic goddess to be honored by the Romans with a temple in their capital city.

According to many pre-Christian Roman sources Epona had a shrine in almost every stable of the Roman empire.  The cult seems to have been very popular.  Historians count more than 343 inscriptions worshipping her.

Still in the Christian middle age she was worshipped as a kind of holy maid for the horses. possibly the origin and one of the main centers of her cult seems to have been east France with the city of Alesia.

Only in Roman times she was brought to the Britain Islands and worshipped there, but Rhiannon and Macha show that the horse cult was famous on the Britain Islands before that.  Even in Romania and Yugoslavia there were found a lot of inscriptions worshipping her.  Spain also has some statues and inscriptions.

Lately, it seems that Epona is coming back into Her own with the growing popularity of the internet.  Most people identify with Her through Her connection with horses – She is the protector of them, after all – but most people don’t seem to be aware of all Her aspects.

Our Lady Epona seems to have her beginnings in Gaul and then spread from the western coast of Ireland to the lands of Bulgaria.  In Ireland, She was paired with Horned One, Cernunnos – the Mare and Stag being two potent fertility symbols.  In other places, She was paired with the thunder-god Taranis – why, I don’t know.  She was and is also a ‘domestic’ deity, being a goddess of fertility, prosperity, abundance as well as the aforementioned horses and horse breeding.

Horses are such a part of Her, She is never depicted without them.  She is always shown either standing beside a horse, usually a mare, or is riding side-saddle.  Other symbols She is sometimes depicted with are a cornucopia, ear of corn or a key.

In ancient times, horses weren’t always so easy to come by.  In Europe, they were considered ‘prestige’ animals.  Still, they did all the usual jobs – mostly by providing transportation, either by carrying humans directly or pulling carts.

The Celts revered the horse for several things; its beauty, speed, bravery and vigor in the sexual arena.  In time, the horse came to symbolize the warrior – elites, the aristocracy, in Celtic society.  They thought so much of their horses that even their greatest horse deity’s name incorporates the very word, epos, in Her name.

Our Lady Epona was the only deity, Celtic or otherwise, that was adopted by the Romans without changes.  Usually when they found a deity that they liked, they appropriated it and gave it the name and attributes of the Roman deity that it most closely resembled.  Even poor Isis suffered, even though she got to keep Her name, believe me when I tell you that She got stuck with the Roman ideals for a deity.  The Roman Calvary adopted Epona wholeheartedly, giving Her a feast day of December 18.  This is where part of Epona’s war attributes comes in.  They looked to Her as a protector of both horse and rider especially the officers who served in the areas of the Danube and Rhine.  Celtic warriors may have also called on Her to protect them and their horses, they used two-horse teams to pull light and fast chariots in battle.

Epona was also a dream goddess, Her specialty seems to have been nightmares.  She was even immortalized in a painting by Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare.  Many a child in Ireland wer told to be good or Epona would visit them with horrific nightmares.  A folk custom from Western Ireland seems to confirm this:

Just before dawn, find a place where two roads cross each other – they must be perfectly oriented to the four directions (north, south, east and west).  Light eight small fires, one for each side of the roads and be sure to leave enough room for a horse and rider to pass through.  Next, play ‘horsie’ yourself – ride three times around the intersection on a besom and then the fun begins.  Sit and wait for a dark lady dressed in black riding a horse, fleeing west from the approaching rays of morning.  It is said to be Epona, returning from Her night of dispensing dreams.

Epona is the only Gallo-Celtic goddess that made her way into the Roman empire pantheon where she was highly worshipped especially as the protectress of horses and foals.  Almost every stable had a shrine for her and she was very famous in the Roman cavalry.  In earlier times she must have been an incarnation of fertility as the Divine White Mare.

Known as Rhiannon in Wales, Macha in Ireland and Epona to the Gauls this ancient horse goddess is one of the most well-known of all the Celtic gods and goddesses.  Horses played an important role in Celtic society.  Naturally the protector of horses wold play an equally important role in Celtic society.  Naturally the protector of horses would play an equally important role.  Epona has been revered since the Iron Age.

Epona is the protectress of horses, animals, riders and stables.  She is the mistress of animals.  Her many fertility attributes make her a Mother Goddess, which was maybe only reduced later to the horse-aspect.

Epona is depicted sitting side-saddle or lying on a horse, or standing with multiple horses around her.  Much of Epona’s imagery displays the symbolism of fertility and the earth’s abundance.  Epona was also associated with both water/ healing and with death.  The goddess is frequently represented with a dog, which could reflect either healing or death.  She is also identified with the Celtic Goddess Edain.

The symbolism of Epona is complex and multifaceted.  Mediterranean commentators speak of her purely as a goddess of horse and stable.  Horses were of fundamental importance to the Celts, in terms of economics, transport, war, power, prestige and religion.  The Gaulish cavalry in the Roman Army formed a large group of worshippers, Epona may have been perceived as a protectress of horsemen and their mounts.  The symbolism of her key also suggests that here was a goddess who guarded her devotees throughout life and into the next world.  She was the patroness of horses, cavalry, and the craft of horse breeding at one level and at another, she reflected the deep mysteries of life, death and rebirth.

Epona – The Divine Horsewoman, by Veronica Doubleday

In Roman times the 18th of December was the official festival of Epona, the Celtic horse-goddess.  This was a unique honor bestowed on no other Celtic goddess.  According to Miranda Green, an eminent expert on Celtic religion and mythology, Epona may have been one of the most popular deities of the Celtic pantheon.  Her name Epona comes from the Gaulish word ‘epos’ meaning ‘horse’.  The heartland of her cult was Gaul and the land along the Rhine river.  Under Roman rule Epona worship spread, and archeological evidence shows that she was venerated in areas as far-flung as Bulgaria and North Africa.

Most of the information we possess about Epona comes from the Roman period.  Only one Epona temple has been discovered, in Gaul, at Entrains-sur-Nohain (Nievre), near the Loire river.  She was popular in small house-shrines in Burgundy, and probably elsewhere.

Epona shrines may also have been common in Roman stables: Lucius Apuleius (c123-180), the author of The Golden Ass, describes one such shrine: I notice a little shrine of the Goddess Epona, standing in a niche of the post that supported the main beam of the stable.  It was neatly wreathed with freshly gathered roses.

Under Roman rule Epona was important to anyone connected with horses and to soldiers, ordinary foot soldiers and officers, but particularly cavalrymen serving along the Rhine frontier provinces.  In Britain there are significant vestiges of Epona’s cult which predate the Roman period, and we find that she has many divine aspects.  The 360 foot White Horse of Uffingham cut into the chalk in Oxfordshire’s Vale of the White Horse (which runs along the river Thames) dates from between the 1st centuries BCE and CE and was probably carved by Dobunni Celts to signify their territory.

It is close in its design to horses depicted on Celtic coins dating from about 150 BCE.  Thow other very old chalk cut horses are the White HOrse of Westbury in Wiltshire and the Red Horse of Tysoe in Warwickshire.

A well-known nursery rhyme connected to Banbury, in Oxfordshire, also evokes a powerful horse-woman: ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady on a white horse, with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, she shall have music wherever she goes’.  The well-known British folktale of Lady Godiva is located around Coventry, an area occupied by the Celtic Brigantes tribe.  In the story Lady Godiva rode naked through the town of Coventry, with her long hair as her only covering, to shame her husband into lifting onerous taxes on the people.  She blinded a ‘peeping tom’ and her significance as a powerful horsewoman may well connect with Epona’s cult.

Thus far one strand of Epona’s significance emerges: she was connected with territory (and perhaps with rivers as territorial markers).In connection with territorial rule, Epona is probably linked to ancient Celtic horse-ceremonies to inaugurate a sacral king, although she is not specifically named in this context.  The horse-ceremonies entailed ‘sacred union between the king and the goddess of sovereignty, the personification of territory and fertility symbolized as a mare’.

Sculptural depiction of Epona bear out connections with fertility: we find a woman flanked by ponies, or with a mare and foal.  In one statuette the woman offers corn to the horses.  A relief from Beilingen, Wurtemberg, shows the seated goddess flanked by triads of horses and the sacrifice of a pig (another symbol of fertility).  Another relief, from Kastel, Germany, shows the mounted goddess holding a round object which might be a fruit.  Epona is also connected with Celtic ideas about the Otherworld.  Caitlin Matthews defines this supernatural realm: it is the source of their (the Celts) wisdom, the place of their gods, the dimension in which poets and wanderers are most at home.  Whoever has visited the Otherworld becomes more than mortal.  The Otherworld is generally understood to lie close to the borders of the manifest world, but, more especially, to lie within the compass of one ship’s sailing, to the islands of the furthest West.

The goddess is frequently depicted sitting side-saddle, facing right, on a horse that is moving at a leisurely pace; walking, not galloping.  Epona’s posture may connect with the ritual right hand turn which ensured good fortune.  The mare that carries her (and is part of her identity) evidently knows her way to the Otherworld.

Miranda Green connects the Otherworld with death, and provides evidence of Epona in funerary plaques and monument.  The cemetery of La Horgne-au-Sablon at Metz, the capital of the Mediomatrici tribe, produced several Epona monuments, one of which was Epona riding her mare and leading a human, whom she may be conducting to the Afterlife.  The fragment of a lintel from Nages, Gard (in France), decorated with two severed human heads and two galloping horses, is also suggestive of Epona’s cult.

Epona is linked in myth to other Celtic goddesses.  Rhiannon appears in Welsh mythology, riding on a white horse, and her name from Rigantona means ‘great, divine, queen’.  Although she rides slowly no one can catch up with her.  Macha is a three-fold Irish goddess: in one story Macha is a pregnant woman forced to run in a contest against royal horses.  She won the race but immediately gave birth to twins, crying out in pain and putting a curse on Ulstermen (because her husband had broken a promise).

Epona has many meanings, but first and foremost she is a divine woman riding on a mare.  Her swiftness and beauty, her supernatural power, linked with fertility and tribal territory, make her a formidable goddess, especially since she may represent a path to the Otherworld.

Suggested Mantra: Live my dream.

Suggested Affirmations:

  • I see the path intended for me.
  • My future is full of possibilities.
  • I invite new choices into my life.
  • My goals are becoming manifest.
  • I deserve to have my dreams realized.

Gemstones:

  • Cat’s Eye
  • Ruby
  • Moonstone

Epona’s Signs, Symbols, and Sacred Animals:

  • Horses (particularly: mares and foals), birds and dogs.
  • Whip, harness and the key to the doors of the Otherworld.
  • Basket filled with fruits, corn and especially apples. (Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty)
  • Rose garlands were put around her pictures and shrines.
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2 Comments »

  1. Hi there. Would you please credit me for the use of my original illustration of Epona? I am happy for my work to be shown on personal blogs and educational websites, etc. but would like to be credited so people can look me up if they like my work.

    If you’d like to be especially helpful, you could link to my Etsy shop where I have a print of it available: https://www.etsy.com/listing/160039015/epona-goddess-illustration-print-in

    However, a credit of “Joanna Barnum” would be sufficient.

    Here is where the illustration appears on the first edition of my website: http://www.joannabarnum.com/gallery/pinup/epona

    Meanwhile, as I post newer art online, I am being more diligent about including built in watermarks on my artwork to make it easier for people to share and credit me, since I know it can sometimes be hard to track down the original source of a work once it starts floating around online.

    Thanks so very much for your cooperation and understanding!

    • Babs said,

      Absolutely! I have linked the illustration and also put your name on it if people mouse over it. If they click it, your site will open. Thanks so much for letting me continue to use it. I simply fell in love with it as soon as I saw it on a Google search for Epona. Cheers!


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