Relief of Epona from Roman Macedonia
Epona was a pre-Roman Celtic/Gallic divinity who was a goddess and protectoress of horses. who also had connotations of fertility worship. Indeed her name is derived from the Celtic word for horse being referred to as ‘Divine Horse’ (Gelling, 1969). She was worshipped throughout Europe, as well as Iron Age Britain, from circa 400 BC to around 400 AD. Widespread in north west Roman Europe (Corkhill, 1950), her cult centres from Spain, Eastern Europe, Italy and Britain spread outwards from Gaul to Rome, of the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, and beyond to the Balkans. In Cantabria in northern Spain she was called Epane. Epona was the only Celtic goddess in the Roman pantheon. In ancient Rome she was worshipped as Epona Augusta and Epona Regina in the Roman Imperial cult.
Epona and her horses, Kongen, Germany 200 AD.
Epona was considered as both a woman and a mare (Brown, 1950), and widespread monuments depict her as a half-naked riding a horse (Coleman, 2007). Worship of Epona had its roots in Gaul and was a horse deity imported from Moselle in the Rhineland (Bacon, 1950), hence the traces of her worship in Germany and the Danube countries. Epona is known from many dedicatory inscriptions from Gaul. Her Gallic importance was connected to the importance to the Celts of cavalry.
Many of her decorative representations have been found in Gaul (France), Britain, Spain, the Danubian provinces of Roma, and Italy itself. Epona was also known as the Three Eponae or, according to Pausanias, as Demeter the Greek great mare goddess (Colman, 2007).
Epona from Auxois, France.
Etymologically Epona is rooted in the radical epo which is the Celtic version of equo in Latin, and the hippo (horse or mare) in ancient Greece. Epona is also cognate with the proto-Celtic eknos (horse), the Old Cymric epa (to steal horses), and the modern Cymric ebol (or foal).
As the Divine Horse or Great Mare the Edain of Ireland equates with the Hippon of Greece. and the Augusta of Rome with Rhiannon of Wales (Coleman, 2007). The suffix ona translates as ‘connected with’. Rhiannon who is paralleled in the Mabinogion of Wales, was the ‘Mare Queen’, who with the Three Macha of Ireland, was associated with the many myths and legends involving horses. Similarly, as a fertility goddess Epona is often regarded in connection with the Gallic ‘Mothers’ or ‘Matres’.
Even though Epona is never shown with a companion male she is nevertheless a goddess of fertility, Her depictions as a fertility deity often show her with a little girl, carrying a cornucopia, corn sheaves, baskets of fish and fruit. Epona, as protectress of travellers, also had access to the hereafter (Coleman, 2007), in which role she was not only involved with healing but also in the mythical journey to the underworld. In other words this goddess of horses was a conductor of the soul along the ride of life.
The common iconography of Epona links her earliest cult to the Danubian provinces of Rome and places occupied by Rome such as Germany, Syria and Rome itself. Her other names include Eponina (‘dear little Epona’), Potia or ‘powerful mistress’, as well as the horse-goddess Atanta.
References and sources consulted
Brown, F. (1950). Tertullian and Horse-Cults in Britain, Folklore. LXI (1), March.
Coleman, J. A. (2007). The Dictionary of Mythology. Capella, London.
Cooper, (1992). Dictionary of Symbolic and Mythological Animals. Thorsons, London.
Corkhill, W. H. (1950). Horse Cults in Britain. Folklore.
Frazer, J. G. (1922). The Golden Bough. New York.
Gelling, P. & Davidson, H. E. (1969). The Chariot of the Sun. J. M. Dents, London.
Green, M. (1992). Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London.
Merrifield, R. (1997). The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford.
To be continued