I’m doing the God of the Month Club at Neos Alexandria again. Last month’s Deity was Epona, the Celtic Goddess. Now, Celtic Gods are NOT my specialty, so this new to me. I have ZERO experience with Them, so this required a lot of research. Apologies if I got anything wrong.
Epona is a Celtic-Gaulish Goddess, but like the Egyptian Aset-Isis She became extremely popular with Romans. Most Celtic Gods were associated with a single place, being extremely localized in Their worship, but Epona was worshiped all over the Empire and in Rome itself. In fact, she was the only Celtic Goddess Who had a regular Roman feast day established (December 18th if you’re wondering). Perhaps predictably, it was the Roman cavalry that was especially devoted to Her and spread Her worship across Europe. She was especially popular from the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D. In fact it is only because Epona was so loved by the Romans that we know of Her, because all of the writing about Her that has survived the ravages of time was done by Romans. This can also lead to problems, however – we don’t know any Gods or Goddesses She may have been originally associated with in Her homeland, Who Her parents were, if she had family or children and how She may have fit into the Celtic myth cycle. Again, we know very little, and it all comes to us through a Roman lens. According to Plutarch, Epona was born from a mare that was impregnated by a man who hated the company of women. This is an unusual birth for Celtic mythology (and like a lot of sex and birth in myth, is kinda gross :p) but it effectively lifts Her out of a Celtic pantheon, leaving Her (in Plutarch’s version) with no ties to Celtic Gods.
Epona was originally associated with the Aedui tribe of the Gauls, before Her worship spread to other groups. It’s important to remember that these tribes shared a loose connection as being Gaulish, but were still district tribes with their own folkways and Gods and spirits and ways of life. Sadly there is a lot that we simply don’t know.
I found a few different meanings of her name, including “Great Mare” and “Divine Mare”, and “She who is like a Mare”, but they appear to all be some variation on the Gaulish word for “Horse”. As the name implies She is the patron and protector of horses, but also, ponies, donkeys and mules. She protected those who cared for equines and it wasn’t long before Romans began to build small shrines to Her in their stables. Roses were woven into the manes and tails of horses and donkeys during processions for Epona, implying that roses may have been sacred to Her. She is also believed to be a Goddess of fertility, having been shown carrying sheaves of grain or a cornucopia. (Horse manure has been used in the fields by farmers for thousands of years, and our ancestors would have noticed anything that made the crops growth better!)
Like the Morrigan She was believed to give the king the authority to rule, which would make Her a Goddess of sovereignty as well. When She was adopted by the Romans She eventually became one of the Gods of the Emperor, gaining the titles “Epona Augusta” and “Epona Regina”.
Many of the websites I did my research on seemed to want to connect Epona with Rhiannon or Macha, but I don’t know how historical this is. I think this is more of a soft Polytheism “connect the dots” between some Goddesses Who share a lot of similarities (like the association with horses for Rhiannon, although I can’t say I know anything about the Irish Macha). However you may want to meditate on this connection if you worship any of these Deities and see what happens.
Like dogs, horses are an animal that humans have a special bond with. Our association with them is not quite as long standing as dogs, whose wolven ancestors were with us in the caves already. Horses were not tamed until well after the invention of agriculture, sometime around 3000 BC, 5000 years ago. For comparison, dogs were most likely domesticated 15,000 ago in Europe (12,000 years ago in China), although there are estimates that go back as far as 20,000 BC. Sheep were first domesticated 13,000 years ago, cows and goats 10,000 years ago, Chickens 9,000 years ago.
Horses are relatively new to us, as a species. Yet they have been incredibly important to our survival and mitigation, making travel over long distances not only possible but easy, relatively speaking. They have been vital to the spread of civilization. Horses are used for travel, work on farms, in wars, and some cultures even drank their mare’s milk. There is a bond that grows between horse and rider that is almost mystical in nature.
Horses were very important to the Gauls, and so Epona was naturally a much revered Goddess. High class Gauls were buried with their horses and saddles, suggesting that they believed the horses would carry them to the afterlife, or at least join them. The Neolithic ‘White Horse of Uffington’ drawn in chalk on the hillside in Oxfordshire, England is believed to be related to Epona’s worship. Part of the White Horse was apparently a funerary complex and the White Horse was likely believed to watch over the souls of the ancient Britons buried there, which suggests that Epona had a role in the afterlife of Her worshipers as well.
Horses are still a creature that captures the imagination. This is all the more interesting when we consider that so few modern people have daily contact with them, and some have never seen any in their lives. Yet every young girl seems to go through a “horse phrase” where they are utterly obsessed with horses. I certainly did!! Long before I even knew what a Pagan was, I had what was basically a shrine to the Horse Spirit – horse toys, horse books, artwork of horses (both other’s and my own first fumbling attempts), all arrange on a shelf in an artful, pleasing way. I had never ridden a horse, just a mini pony at a daycare event when I was very small. I could have told you so much about how to care for horses, random breed and show information, and just incredible small minutiae (although I’ve quite forgotten it all now). But I couldn’t have told you WHY they captured my heart, other than “they’re pretty and they’re cool and I love them.”
Horses are still seen as beautiful and powerful symbols of freedom and creativity. Ted Andrews had this to say about Horse:
“Rich in lore and myth, horses have been associated with magic, divination, and astral travel. If Horse has shown up, there is going to be movement. This movement will best be accomplished through self-discipline, both physical and mental.
Horses can also be a symbol of desires – especially sexual. The stallion in particular is an old symbol of sexuality. The breaking of the stallion is the taming of our sexual energies (physically or spiritually), the harnessing of dangerous or out-of-control emotions.
Horse reminds us of the need for self-discipline helps our growth to be controlled and steady. Horse reminds us to continue forward in our efforts. If we discipline our movements and ourselves, we will find our sense of power renewed.” (Page 32 of the Animal-Wise Tarot handbook)
I would add that horses have both an instinct for independence and an instinct for nurturing. Look at how many “horse therapy” programs there are traumatized kids and autistic adults, and you’ll see that there is indeed something very special in the human-horse bond.
Hail Epona, Lady of Horses!
Suggested Links for more info:
White Horse was Guardian of Souls – the White Horse of Uffington in Briton
Epona: Ancient History Article
Epona: One of the Oldest, Most Widely Known Celtic Deities
The Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids: Epona
Straight From the Horses Mouth: Celebrating Epona
Horse Magic, Folklore and Legends(this link only has only a little information about Epona, but I’m including it because of some information about an interesting form of divination practiced by the Western Slavs that includes horses.)