EPONA and Horses

Photo by Carole Raddato

The worship of the goddess EPONA is generally thought of as being centred on Gaul though there are a few records of dedications in Roman Britain. There is a single example of a bronze statuette of EPONA from Britain which is now in The British Museum. It was purchased by a French collector somewhere in England, possibly Wiltshire, and came to The British Museum as part of a collection purchased in Paris in 1868. The statuette is about 7.5 centimetres high and features her sitting, but not on a horse as is most common, or on any other identifiable support,though she holds a yoke to identify her connection with horses and also some ears of corn which is another common feature of her depiction. On either side of her are ponies, a mare on her left and a stallion on her right, each face the corn sheaf. The statuette is thought by the Museum to have been part of a chariot fitting.

Although associated with horses Epona was a goddess of fertility and of the journey through life. Miranda Green also suggests that some depictions of her holding a key indicate her function in guiding the passage to the Otherworld. So where does the connection with horses come into this? It has been pointed out that the area of Gaul where her worship is most strongly attested is also an area where horse breeding was prevalent and so a goddess of fertility would therefore be associated with the fertility of horses. This may be so but it is an argument about social economics rather than the essential nature of a goddess. Looking at her wider provenance it is also significant that she was worshipped by calvary officers in the Roman army and there is the incidental reference in Apuleius which tells us that bouquets of roses were offered to her in stables. These are all sources from the Roman period when we know she was one of the array of deities acknowledged in the late empire with a feast day of 18th December assigned to her.

What would be interesting to know is the nature of her worship before it was incorporated into the Roman world. There is also the question of RIGANTONA as one of her manifestations in Britain, resulting in the medieval form of her name RHIANNON in the medieval Welsh tales in the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi. We know that several Brythonic tribes featured horses on their coinage and such archaeological evidence as the well-known white horse at Uffington suggests that horses featured in Iron Age devotional practice. But we don’t know if we can take the names Epona or Rigantona back that far, or even if these earlier Iron Age peoples specifically regarded the horse as a goddess. But by the Roman period it is clear that Epona is not seen as a horse but, rather, always depicted in association with horses, either riding one (usually side-saddle) or having some equine trappings about her. The corn sheaf is an equally common feature of her depiction. Her survival into medieval folklore and romance sets her astride her horse and stresses her Otherworldly nature making her not so much a devotional subject as an active player in the cycle of fertility and the traffic between Thisworld and the Otherworld. So are the stories of the gods told in literature in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages.

Going back to that statuette, it does seem to embody the idea that she takes human form while the appearance of horses of either sex facing each other across the corn sheaf on her lap encompasses both aspects of fertility and abundance. She has a yoke on one side of her (or is it, as Anne Ross suggests, a snake?) and a patera for offerings on the other. And yet her name is formed from the Brythonic word for horse – ‘epos’ together with the suffix ‘-ona’ signifying divinity. Clearly she is not, literally, to be thought of as a horse. But her horse nature is more than a simple matter of association. This is attested both by historical and personal testimony. It is yet another example of the need to merge the frames of the literal the perceptual and the mythical in order to find a language (visually or in words) to address or speak of the gods. It’s something we now find very difficult to do. ‘A horse -v- Not a horse’ gets us nowhere. To be able to hold both propositions at once approaches a necessary way of seeing. But it is at some axis across this one that we really need to be envisioning our perceptions of divinity.

Gaulish coin
Pre-Roman Gaulish Coin

Author: Greg Hill

Awenydd/Poet, Cultural Critic

5 thoughts on “EPONA and Horses”

  1. I’d never thought of Epona linking to the Brythonic Eponii etymologically, but of course!

    A while I back I remember Gordon MacLellan speaking at a talk about a Scottish spirit who was both man and horse, so they merged at the rider’s seat, a very strange one and can’t seem to find him… certainly not a horse or not-a-horse!

    I get the impression other Brythonic deities were theriomorphic – Blodeuwedd as an owl, Nodens as a wolf or hound? And maybe not even limited to only these forms!

  2. Yes Lorna I think we need to think of the gods as having much more fluid identities than the human ones which we, inevitably, give them in our stories about them. A topic I’m currently working on …

  3. Many Celtic coins minted in my town of Colchester includes the horse, barley and other qualities associated with good harvest. The horse has always been strongly representative even on cave paintings. I think the horse is symbolic of strength and the land, which is always associated with a female archetype. I think there is no connection between any female archetype in the Celtic tradition as a guide of souls, this is a task of male archetypes such as the Celtic Mercury, Bran and Gwyn ap Nudd.

    I have named one of my eight oak saplings Epona, which had a bad accident last year after something caused the stem to be broken. I thought this oak sapling was killed, but Epona survived the winter and regrew a new stem.

  4. @Alex : Yes the horse and the wheat or barley sheaf symbolism seem to be widespread throughout brythonic iconography. You certainly have a point, too, about the usual gender of the psychopomp and guide of the dead. I see hints of this role in the character of Manawydan who is Rhiannon’s partner in the third Mabinogi tale. But in the Goidelic tradition the female figure of the Cailleach does seem to fulfil elements of this role. My own feeling about Miranda Green’s identification of the role for Epona in a number of different references is that she is right in that the key she holds leads to and from the Otherworld in the sense of Faery rather than the Land of the Dead (though these overlap in the way they are represented as I have discussed elsewhere). Perhaps it’s better to emphasise the role of bringing people into the world rather than taking them out of it in interpreting this iconography more widely.

    Good to hear the sapling survived. It sounds as if bearing the name it did stood it in good stead.

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