Epona – The Celtic Goddess of Horses
It was set up for you, Sacred Mother.
It was set out for you, Atanta.
This sacrificial animal was purchased for you, horse goddess, Eponina.
So that it may satisfy, horse goddess Potia; we pay you,
Atanta, so that you are satisfied; we dedicate it to you.
By this sacrificial animal, swift Ipona, with a filly, goddess Epotia
for a propitious lustration they bind you, Catona of battle,
with a filly, for the cleansing of riding horses
which they cleanse for you, Dibonia.
This swift mare, this cauldron, this smithwork,
beside fat and this cauldron,
(This dedication was found in 1887 at Rom (Deux-Sevres) on a thin lead plate in Latin script dated to around the first century BCE. Dr Garrett Olmsted, who has made the most recent translation of the inscription, comments that the closest example to the Rom inscription is a Vedic hymn to Indra.)
Epona is also known as the Great Mare. She is, first and foremost, a Goddess of Horses associated with the Gauls. In spite of Her popularity there seems to be little information readily available about Her.
Unfortunately, any legends Gaulish Celts may have had have been lost to us. The legends and myths of the British Celts were written down by early Christian monks. However, the Gauls and others did leave a rich legacy of inscriptions and monuments and it is from this that most of the evidence for Epona comes.
However there is one tale of Epona’s origin that has survived. A late Greek writer, Agesilaos wrote that Epona was born of a mare and a man, Phoulonios Stellos. He chose to spurn womankind and instead mate with a mare. The mare gave birth to a beautiful and lively daughter whom she named Epona, and who became the Goddess of Horses. The giving of a name in most Celtic legends is of vital importance in that individual’s future. The naming of Epona by her mother implies that the mare may have had a divine nature herself and that Epona followed on in some way from an earlier Horse Goddess.
Small images of Epona have been found in stables and barns all over Europe. A niche would be cut in the walls and a little statue of the Goddess would be found often garlanded with roses and sometimes with a mare’s head. The German legions made plaques depicting Her in human form with a foal or feeding foals. In imagery Epona is normally portrayed as a woman either sitting on, or surrounded by, horses. She may have been another form of the Great Mother Goddess as in some cases She is also often portrayed with a Cornucopia, a symbol of the land and fertility. She has also be portrayed as carrying keys, which may indicate a role in the underworld and accompanied with birds, often symbols of a happy otherworld. The Uffington White Horse may be one of the largest remaining monuments to Epona in the British Isles although it is not known for sure that it was carved by those who worshiped Epona.
Epona is known to be one of a very few Gaulish deities whose names were spread to the rest of the Roman Empire. This seems to have happened because Roman cavalry units stationed in Gaul followed Her and adopted her as their Patroness. This may have started because many of the cavalry troops were conscripted from Gaul as they were superb horsemen. From Gaul the Romans took Epona with them including to Rome where She was given her own feast day on the 18 December. They worshipped her as Epona Augusta or Epona Regina and invoked her on behalf of the Emperor. She even had a shrine in the barracks of the Imperial Bodyguard.
There is some evidence that Epona could have been linked to the idea of sovereignty as well as being a horse goddess and linked to the land and fertility. Certainly, the fact that she was invoked on behalf of the Roman Emperor implies a link of some kind to rulership and horse symbolism is a recurring theme of sovereignty. In some Kingship rituals the King had to first mate with a mare and then that mare was sacrificed and, in some cases, the King was then required to sit in a bath of broth made from the mare. There are other deities that have the horse as one of their sacred animals but few, if any, with as strong a link to the land as Epona seems to have had. From a Patroness of Horses, Epona has become a Goddess linked to the Land and Fertility, Rulership and possibly the Underworld.
For me personally Epona is the Patroness of all journeys, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. She is the Goddess of the Land and its seasons, of fertility in all things. She is my Mother, my Sister and my Friend. I feel Her presence beside me keeping me safe, giving me strength for each day. I see Her touch in every new green shoot of the Spring and in every fruit of the Autumn. I hear Her voice in the whispers of the breeze through the trees and in the song of the river. She is the Great Mare!
Davies, M. (1995) Lore of the Sacred Horse. Berkshire: Capall Bann Publishing
Farrar, J. & S. (1987) The Witches’ Goddess. Washington: Phoenix Publishing
Farrar, J. and Russell V. (1999) The Magical History of the Horse. Berkshire: Capall Bann Publishing