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Epona was worshipped throughout the entire Celtic world in a variety of other, different aspects. In Ireland she was known as Macha, the Goddess of War, while in Wales she became Rhiannon, the Goddess of the Underworld. It was in the aspect of Rhiannon that Epona appears in the Welsh collection of tales known as The Mabinogion. She has also been identified with the Celtic Goddess Edain, or Etain, whose full name, when translated, is Etain Echraidhe, which means “Etain, the horse rider,” or “Etain, the rider of horses.”
Epona was worshipped widely throughout the entire Celtic and Roman worlds, and her worship was exceptionally strong in both Rhineland and Gaul. In fact, Epona’s worship became so strong that it spread as far away as the Danube River, Yugoslavia, North Africa and Rome. The Roman army was so impressed by her that it eventually adopted her cult, and the Roman soldiers introduced Epona's worship to the many people that they encountered in their travels.
The British worshipped Epona in the form of a cult, and they gave her the title "Rigantona" or "Rig Antonia," which means "Great Queen." The Goddess Rhiannon, whose worship occurred at a much later point in time, was strongly associated with Epona, and she was known by that title as well.
Epona was also known by a variety of other names, which changed according to the various languages and myths that were indigenous to each particular region. It actually matters little whether she was known as Rhiannon, Macha or Epona, because no matter which aspect she happened to appear in, her image always remained the same. She appeared as a woman with very long hair who was riding sidesaddle upon a white mare. When she appeared in the aspect of Epona, however, she was depicted as a woman with very long hair, lying half-naked on a white mare.
Epona was frequently portrayed, either standing next to or being surrounded by horses. Sometimes, however, she also appeared to be feeding foals, or else she had dogs, sitting by her side. Throughout parts of Central Europe, Epona was believed to have the ability to shape-shift between the form of a woman and that of a white mare. It was when she appeared in the form of a white mare that Epona was believed to have magickal abilities, which allowed her to carry shamans upon her back so that they could travel to, and then return back, from the spirit world.
Epona was also known as the Gaulish Moon Goddess and the Goddess of Abundance, since she was believed to represent fertility, freedom and creativity. She was also considered to be the protectress of horses, mules, stables, equine caregivers and cavalrymen.
Stories about Epona, however, were lost to the world forever, although one story regarding her origin remains. During the decline of the Roman Empire, a Greek writer named Agesilaos wrote a story in which he claimed that Epona was the product of a man named Phoulonios Stellos, who had no interest whatsoever in women. Instead of mating with a woman he preferred to mate with a mare, and when that mare gave birth, it was to a beautiful human-looking daughter. Interestingly, it was actually the mare, herself, who named her daughter Epona, and by her doing so, she deified Epona as the Goddess of Horses.
In many Celtic legends, the giving of a name has always been of great importance to a person's future. That appears to be quite evident in the tale known as Math the Son of Mathowny, which appears in The Mabinogion. In that tale, the Goddess Arianrhod refused to name her second son, after having been humiliated by her brother and uncle before the entire Court. By naming her daughter, the mare also implied that she herself was divine, and that Epona was carrying forth a great tradition which had been handed down to her from yet an earlier Goddess of Horses.
In the Fourteenth Century, a Welshman named Giraldus Cambrensis wrote a story in Latin, in which he described a Ritual for Sovereignty that was performed by the Celtic kings. This ritual made it extremely clear just how important the Horse Goddess actually was, to both the Celtic people and their culture. In that tale, Cambrensis described a ritual that took place in a town in Northern Ulster and involved all the people in the town. First, the townspeople assembled, and then they formed a circle, into the middle of which a white mare was led. It was then that the King, in full view of the townspeople, mated with that mare in the same manner that a stallion would.
When the King had finished performing that act the mare was slaughtered, and then she was carved into small pieces, which were thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. The broth, which resulted from the boiling of that meat, was used as a bath for the King. Still surrounded by the townspeople, the King bathed in that broth, and while he did so, he also ate small pieces of the mare’s meat, and frequently handed out pieces of it to the people around him, so that they might partake of its powers, as well.
Once the King had finished washing himself, he proceeded to drink the bath water. However, he did not drink it with a cup, nor did he drink it by scooping it up with his hands. Rather, he drank the broth directly from the bath with his mouth, in the exact same manner that a horse would. This ritual was of great importance to the King, and it was also a ritual that he was obliged to perform. That ritual was extremely important, because by doing so, he asserted both his kingship and his kinship with the land. It was necessary for the King to mate symbolically with the Goddess, because by joining with her, and then taking her into himself, by drinking the bath water and eating her flesh, his sovereignty, or authority to rule, was assured.
In Britain, Ireland and Wales, as well as in Gaul, several Great Mother Goddesses existed, and there also existed a strong association among them, and Epona. In fact, Epona had many characteristics that suggested that she might, indeed, have been a different form of a Great Mother Goddess herself. Epona was always considered to be an extremely generous Goddess, and since she possessed so many of the characteristics that were usually associated with Great Mother Goddesses, that only helped to extend her authority beyond horses, and directing it towards humanity, itself.
Like Rhiannon, Epona was frequently described as being accompanied by three birds from the Otherworld, who had the ability to restore the dead to life and to heal all sadness and pain. Three birds have also appeared in connection with other deities, in a variety of different cultures. Birds have always been associated with travel to the Otherworld, and when three birds were seen together, that might suggest a Triple Goddess. As well, these birds were believed to represent fertility and sexual love.
If someone happened to envision Epona upon her white mare, then that might be seen as a symbol of the afterlife. Then, if an image of a man appeared upon her back, that might represent Epona carrying a human soul to the Otherworld. Then again, it could also represent death. Epona has been associated with a variety of other things besides death. She has frequently been associated with water, and with healing. In fact she was sometimes portrayed in Gaul in the form of a water nymph.
Epona has also been depicted carrying a large key or set of keys. That tends to support the belief that she had strong ties to the Underworld. Keys might also suggest that Epona guarded her followers throughout their entire lives, and that she continued to to so, even after they had reached their next stop on the wheel of reincarnation. If you take that assumption, and combine it with the fact that Epona was accompanied by three birds, then that might mean that Epona could unlock the gates of Heaven, as well as the gates of the Otherworld.
The Romans regarded Epona so highly, that they actually adopted her into their own pantheon of deities. There sat Epona, upon the ancient Roman alters, surrounded on all sides by a variety of Roman Goddesses and Gods. Rome’s almost immediate acceptance of Epona into their own pantheon of deities, in all likelihood occurred because the Roman cavalrymen, who had been stationed in Gaul, became so impressed by the riding skills of the Celts, that they also began to worship Epona. Quite interestingly, and rather surprisingly as well, if the fact that the Romans not only accepted Epona as their patroness, they also looked upon her as the protectress, not only of their horses, but also of their horses’ riders. That was particularly true of the Roman officers who served in the areas surrounding the Danube and Rhine Rivers.
That was, indeed, an extremely great honor for Epona, since no other Celtic Goddess had ever been adopted by the Romans and allowed to keep, not only her original form, but also her original name. Whenever the Romans came across a deity that they liked, they simply appropriated it. Then, they just gave it the name and the attributes which belonged to that Roman deity that they believed it most closely resembled.
The Imperial Bodyguard even built a shrine in their barracks to Epona. More importantly, however, was the fact that the Romans chose to take Epona with them, when they returned to Rome. That was, indeed, an extremely rare honor.
The names of the Gaulish deities were hardly ever known throughout the Roman Empire, much less in the great city of Rome, itself. Epona, however, was immediately cleaved unto the Romans’ breasts, as though she had always been one of their own. They even gave her her own temple, and her own feast day, the “Festival of Epona” which was held on December 18th. She was even given another holiday as well, which was known as “Epona's Celebration,” and took place on June 13th.
Once Epona arrived in Rome, she became so well known and so greatly admired that she was worshipped as “Epona Augusta,” or “Epona Regina.” Moreover, she was even invoked on behalf of the Emperor. That, and the various other honors that had been awarded to her, only helped to support the premise that Epona, and other Horse Goddesses, were symbolically attached to the recurring theme of sovereignty.
Epona’s worship originally came from the Gauls, in Northern France. Their ancestors, and the ancestors of the Celts, had both grown out of nomadic tribes which had arrived from the East and then spread throughout the Danube Valley; eventually populating Central and Western Europe. Since the ancestors of the Gauls and the Celts were nomadic by nature, it is easily understandable why they would choose to worship horses. It makes perfect sense when you think about it, that a nomadic people would worship a horse as its primary deity. Horses were of great importance to them, since they spent so much of their lives traveling.
The theology of the Gauls tended to associate the male energies of nature with a variety of horned animals, such as the stag. Since that happened to be the case, it appeared completely natural that mares were associated with the feminine aspects of nature, such as nurturing and fertility. In Ireland, Epona was frequently mated with Cernunnos, the Horned One, since the Mare and the Stag were both considered potent symbols of fertility. That pairing changed, however, when Epona’s worship was taken to other, different locals, and she was paired, at other times, and in other places, with deities such as Taranis, the Thunder God.
Carvings of Epona have been found in Britain and throughout most of Europe, as well, and they showed her either surrounded by foals or else feeding them, which only helps to emphasize her nurturing and fertility aspects.
Throughout history, white mares were worshipped more then any other color mare. That was most likely due to the belief that the color white has always been associated with purity. It was also believed that the color white was deeply spiritual, while at the same time, white horses were extremely rare. When you combine those three reasons together, you can easily see why white mares were considered to be so special.
Even though all the Gaulish Kings had been killed during the Roman invasion, Epona’s worship continued to exist, because the Roman Cavalry Legions had adopted her. Apuleus wrote, in his work, The Golden Ass, that while Epona had originally been worshipped solely as a Goddess of the Cavalry, the scope of her worship began to grow until she soon became known as the Goddess of everyone who worked with, or even had dealings with horses.
When Christianity first began to gain a strong foothold in Europe, the Roman Empire's power rapidly declined. The worship of Epona also declined, although she did continue to exist, in a rather unique way. Since so many people continued to worship Epona, the Church decided that rather then loose those converts, the best thing that they could do would be to absorb Epona into the Church. That was not the only time that the Church found it necessary to absorb a Pagan Goddess into the Church. A prime example of a Goddess, who survived into modern times, was the Celtic Fire Goddess, Brigid. The Church claimed that Brigid was the daughter of a Druid, and that she had predicted Christianity, and then later, became the foster mother of Jesus Christ.
Christianity has always considered white horses to be symbols of purity, and it was for that reason that many of its saints were depicted riding upon them. The Church, however, refused to allow anyone to worship the divine in the form of an animal, and although it had been strongly suppressed by the Church, the "obby oss," dances of old continued, even though they were most likely disguised in a variety of different ways. The hill carvings, such as the White Horse of Uffington, and Weyland’s Smithy, were still maintained, and the annual, "ritual" scouring and cleaning of the horses continued, just as they always had in the past. That ritual had always been accompanied by revelry and games, and they continued, just as they always had.
Epona was worshipped for much more then just her association with horses. She was, in all likelihood, also worshipped for fertility and prosperity. The imagery that was associated with Epona contained symbols of fertility, such as the fruits that come forth from the Earth. Images of Epona were frequently placed next to Cornucopias, or baskets of fruit, or corn. By placing her images next to them, Epona became known as a symbol of the Earth and of its abundent fertility.
Horses were also held by the Celts to be of great importance, and Epona was, perhaps, their most important Goddess, not only because of her powerful association with horses, but also because she was a symbol of immense fertility. That is most likely why she appears to wear the role of the Mother aspect, in a traditional Maiden, Mother, and Crone Triple Goddess trinity, with such ease.
The Gauls, as well as the other cultures that were influenced by Epona, left a rich heritage behind, which consisted of inscriptions and writings about Epona. They also left many monuments which had been built in her honor. It was from those particular works that the world has learned whatever it could about the Goddess Epona. What is extremely interesting, is the fact that while Epona may be lacking in myths, archeologists and other researchers have been able to discover more inscriptions and statues of her, then of any other Celtic deity.
Many relics which depict Epona have been discovered in various stables and barns throughout Europe. The Celts have also given the world a variety of relics, ranging from small carved images, to small items, such as coins, and then on to the larger and more massive hill figures, which always appear to embrace the Goddess Epona. Niches have also been discovered, where they had been cut out of stable or barn walls, and inside of them, small statues of Epona have frequently been discovered. Some of those statues depicted Epona wearing a garland of roses, while at other times a small carving of a horse’s head was all that was found. Horse owners frequently built small shrines, known as aediculae, to honor Epona, and they would often decorate them with roses.
Epona was a Goddess of great magnitude to the ancient Celts, because she symbolized the most positive characteristics that are most frequently associated with horses, such as independence, vitality and intuitive understanding. These characteristics, however, were more then just characteristics pertaining to horses; they are also powerful attributes of the Divine Feminine. It was for that reason that some people looked upon their horses as though they were actually human.
Epona was a major patroness of horses, but that was not only because horses were a means of transportation. Horses could also reflect a man’s wealth, power, and prestige, within his community, and they were frequently a part of his religion, as well. Horses were major necessities, especially when men had to go to war. Also important, and perhaps even more so, was the strong belief that Epona reflected great mysteries, which were associated with life, death, and rebirth, thereby indicating that Epona may actually have been a Goddess of the Cycle.
Epona was also considered to be a Dream Goddess, and while little information exists regarding this role, it is known that each and every one of those dreams was a nightmare. As a way of controlling unruly children, Irish mothers would frequently warn their children that if they did not behave, Epona, the Goddess of Nightmares, would come to visit them. Minimal information also exists about a Germanic Horse Goddess named Mora, who was known, quite simply, as the "Nightmare." No other information about this Goddess has been found, other then the belief that she may have possibly committed infanticide.
Epona was an extremely ancient Goddess, who was so much more then just a Goddess of Horses, and the people and things that accompanied them. Rather, Epona’s worship grew so great, in both stature and scope, that she become a Goddess that was linked to the land, a Goddess of Fertility, and a Goddess of Soverignty and Rulership, as well as being a Goddess who had extremely powerful ties to the Underworld. She also had the rare distinction of being welcomed, with open arms, into the Roman pantheon of deities, where she was accepted, just as she was, for exactly what she was, which was an amazingly unique and individual Goddess. That, in and of itself, was quite a feat, yet Epona was so much more then just that. She was a Goddess who affected so many different kinds of people in such a wide variety of ways, and it is for that particular reason that Epona was able to wear the title of "Great Queen" with such distinction, and with a great amount of pride.