Epona – Goddess of the Land by Deanne Quarrie


celtic-horseDeanne QuarrieThis week I bought a pendant that caught my attention.  It is Celtic knot work of horses, meant to represent Epona.  This triggered my interest in Epona and off I went to learn more.

Epona is a goddess from Gaul.  Sadly, any information about her from those early days of worship are lost to us. This is the case of the most ancient deities from that region and time in history. It is thought that she was picked up in Gaul by the conscripted soldiers of the Roman Army who saw a depiction of her upon her horse and they adopted her. Since this army rode across the land on horseback, she was the perfect deity to pay homage to and so, she traveled with them. She soon made it to Rome and is one of only a few deities, not originally Roman, to be worshiped in the Roman Empire.

ep3

But who is she?  Horses were revered by the Celts for their speed and beauty, as well as their bravery. The horse eventually came to symbolize the warrior who, in Celtic society, was part of the elite, the aristocracy. Horses were not owned by everyone.  To own a horse meant that you were prosperous.  If this goddess looked after horses, then she had to also be a symbol of prosperity. Because horses were so intimately connected to the land, because of their use by farmers, she also has to be a goddess of the land.  The land that provides for us in abundance.Epona

In  another image of her she is seen with a cornucopia. I am not sure it is actually a cornucopia but it is at least a full basket of something! In one image it looks like some sort of bread.  To be perfectly honest, it looks to me like this basket of grain is meant for her beloved horses.  That tells me she cared for them and took care of all of their needs.  It just sounds like what a Mother Goddess would do.

exquisite-example-of-a-plaque-depicting-the-e28098danubian-horsemen_-and-their-central-goddesse280a6-seemingly-a-version-of-epona

I think this image is the most telling of all. She is still seen with her horses but look at where she is – Above All Else! There are some winged beings resting on the clouds below her – perhaps angels and then below them the people she protects and provides for.

As I said earlier, there is very little to find about Epona through Celtic or Gaulish sources.  What we have comes from the Romans who adopted her! We do know that almost every stable had a shrine to her.

Miranda Green, an expert on Celtic religion and mythology, tells us that Epona may have been one of the most popular deities of the Celtic pantheon.  Her name comes from the Gaulish word ‘epos’ meaning ‘horse’.  Archaeological evidence shows that she was venerated not only in what was once Gaul but in areas as far away as Bulgaria and North Africa.

Patricia Monaghan wrote, “Epona could take the tangible forms of both parents.  Sometimes, too, She appeared as a rushing river, which suggests that Epona was a fertility Goddess, often seen in Celtic culture as a water spirit. Similarly, the connection among Celtic peoples of the horse and the sun suggests a solar nature to Epona, supported as well by the patera or round sunlike plate that She carries in many sculptures.”

Epona was the bestower of sovereignty in the ancient Celtic rituals of kingship in which the future king is “wedded”to the Land. There could be no more powerful ally to have than Epona.  The idea that a king must have union with the Land – this same Land that he will now rule. It is through Epona that he receives this responsibility and sovereignty.  A goddess who started out in Gaul and traveled with the conscripted soldiers, beloved of the Roman people whose rule spread across many lands.

White Horse of Uffington

White Horse of Uffington

Look at the White Horse at Uffington, it has long been a mystery. It is now being considered as representative of Epona, the Celtic Horse Goddess.

The horse – how many young girls had their love affairs with the horse?  So regal, so powerful. To ride on a back of a horse, to become one with that horse, we become a spirit soaring free. That is Epona – we are Epona when our spirits find freedom to ride with the wind.

In this season of plenty, having just passed the Summer Solstice, all we have to do is look around and we see the bounty of the Land before us.  Epona is providing for our needs. She is a benevolent Mother Goddess and a generous Goddess of the Land. With Epona life is rich and good and we are well cared for.

Now that I know her, I will wear my new necklace with pride and gratitude and feel the wind in my face as I soar with her.

 

Deanne Quarrie. D. Min. is a Priestess of the Goddess. She is the author of five books. She is the founder of the Apple Branch where she teaches courses in Feminist Dianic Witchcraft, Northern European Witchcraft and Druidic Studies. She mentors priestesses who wish to serve others in their communities. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Ocean Seminary College and is the founder of Global Goddess, a worldwide organization open to all women who honor some form of the divine feminine, and publishes the Global Goddess Oracle at each Sabbat.

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Categories: Earth-based spirituality, General, Goddess, Goddess Movement, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Nature, Pagan Holidays, Paganism

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21 replies

  1. The images of Epona are beautiful.

    I am not so happy with the association of Epona with Celtic warriors and Roman soldiers.

    Marija Gimbutas writes that the Indo-European invaders used their horses to conquer Old Europe. Of course horses are not to be blamed for what people have done with and to them. But on the other hand, as feminists, don’t we need to criticize the “patriarchal paganism” of the Indo-Europeans and the celebration of war, kingship, and domination that it often legitimizes? (I personally do not identify with the horse-riding warriors of any group, but rather with the people whose land was trampled by them and the women who were raped by them.)

    Also, if we criticize a God who rules the world from above it, should we adopt a Goddess who is pictured above the world?

    The word for horse has an Indo-European root. The horse was not part of the real world or worldview and symbolism of Old Europe.

    I wish you had commented on all of this. I hope you will in another post.

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  2. Thanks Deanne for this fine post, much enjoyed. And it sent me a flashback, too, where you mention: “The horse – how many young girls had their love affairs with the horse? So regal, so powerful.” There was a time when I was very young and I began obsessively drawing horses. And I had no idea why? Reminds me too of Rosa Bonheur’s great masterpiece, called THE HORSE FAIR, 1853 (see online at the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

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  3. Beautiful painting – the horses look so powerful!

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  4. Thanks for this lively post, Deanne. Beautiful pendant!

    When my 20th century cartoon character Madge allowed as how she might be willing to star in a novel about a red-headed Celtic Magdalen named Maeve, I began to do research on Celts. I was dismayed to discover that they were, for the most part, war-like patriarchal hordes who swept across Europe from the Steppes. Are you sure you want to be a Celt? I asked her. I am, she said. Then I discovered that in Celtic legend there were island strongholds of women. It seems the hordes, at least in the British Isles, met with a native population of whose culture was matriarchal. The insular Celts felt their influence. (I don’t know as much about the continental Celts). Their laws included Mother Right, full reproductive sovereignty and the right to own and inherit property. Not till the Roman rule and occupation were deities depicted in human form. Deity resided everywhere—in springs, groves, mountains, animals, birds. Lady Sovereignty was the land, the source of all life.

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  5. Fascinating article – I didn’t know anything about this goddess. The thing that struck me was that she is a goddess (Nature) that is still ruled by the king. Her warrior aspect doesn’t seem to give her enough power to engage with the king on a more equal basis.

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  6. I also agree (1) that your post is excellent and the pendants and other illustrations are beautiful but (2) why should we worship the Indo-European cowboys (well, at least horse riders) that galloped across peaceful lands and brought along their sky-storm-thunder god? I wish the Indo-Europeans had been a more peaceable bunch. After all, they also gave us their language.

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  7. ruled by a king? Well, to me it means the opposite – she gives him the responsibility of caring for the Land. Certainly his stewardship is controlled by her. At least that is how I see it!

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  8. Certainly, at least later, Epona becomes a guardian of horses, stables, riders and anyone involved with horses. She’s also sometimes shown carrying a cornucopia, and her name translated as “fertile mare” so perhaps she’s an echo of an earlier fertility goddess, too. (Being present at the dropping of a foal is downright magical, even today…)

    Horse can serve other, peaceful, purposes too, as anyone raised on a farm can attest: and there’s also the very deep bond that can happen between horses and their people.

    So (despite the enslavement of horses by cavalry) enjoy your pendant, and thank you for the post, Deanna.

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    • Oh I am thank you. I am a bit amazed at how my little bit here has created such critical responses by some. It would be nice if we could rewrite history. I have, like you chosen to see the magnificent aspects of the relationship between horse and rider and the horse and the land and do know her origins were Celtic (Gaul) but she comes from a time when the deities were not yet anthropomorphized so she was the horse and all that the horse meant at the time. There is a myth out there about the king mating with a horse!!!.

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  9. Somewhere long ago I read that the word ‘pony’ came from Epona.

    On a flat surface things in the foreground get placed at the bottom and things in the distance, things that can be seen only by looking beyond the unobstructed and obvious, get placed at the top, especially by conventions of depiction not the same as modern imagery.

    So some symbol of original source that generates the processes of life from the beginning of the river or the well of time would go at the top edge, as the back of the surface of the world.

    Then along comes the modern hierarchy of symbolism and dumbs it down to a deity up above.

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  10. Makes perfect sense! Thank you!

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  11. In my studies, I’ve found a decent amount of evidence connecting Epona to Rhiannon, who is Herself linked to Rigantona. Rhiannon being Brythonic (Welsh) and Rigantona, possibly of British indigenous origin. Epona is likely a post-Roman, continental European evolution of Rigantona. In all three of those forms, She is a Lady of the Otherworld associated with the ancient British Sovereignty Goddess tradition. She is certainly no man’s possession. If anything, it is the other way around. Only those princes who proved worthy were chosen by Her to enter into relationship with Her– and therefore into full guardianship (kingship) of the Land.

    I also want to mention that the concept & definition of who a Celt was and what cultures were Celtic is an incredibly complex one these days. Current scholarship is actually moving away from the Victorian “Invasion Model” thanks to the latest archaeological excavations & archeogenetic work. It seems much more likely at this point that the Celtic “invasion” of the British Isles was more a migration of ideas via commerce & intermarriage in the Atlantic Zone, than a subjugation of native Isles populations by invading armies on horseback. (See Cunliffe & Henderson).

    Also, there is a great deal of discussion happening around the genetic bedrock of the Isles. Sykes, Oppenheimer, & others believe that the basic genetic material of British “Celtic” lands seems to have been set since the Neolithic, if not the Mesolithic. Donnelly & Robinson paint a somewhat different picture with their studies, but both groups are challenging previous Celtic invasion models.

    At this point there is even a fascinating & convincing argument that it was women marrying back and forth across the channel who actually brought the Beaker package into Britain. (Again, Cunliffe & Henderson) And there is also quiet a lot of evidence pointing to the impressive legal, cultural, & spiritual status of women in the Isles being quiet egalitarian, even during periods we’ve previously associated with the “bloody-thirsty invading warrior” images of the Celts. Assorted surviving Brythonic & Brehon texts contain a great deal of legal material addressing the status of women into the British Middle Ages, even.

    It’s not so easy to simply call a Celt a Celt these days. Or to make the sweeping generalizations we once did about “Celtic culture.” The pre-Roman continental Hallstatt & La Tene cultures were influential on the pre-Roman British cultures certainly, but as our understandings of them continues to evolve, they cannot necessarily be lumped together as one unified “Celtic” people any longer.

    Deanne, blessings on your developing relationship with Epona, wherever She may lead you!

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    • Where does this fit in, Kate? http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-12-30/dna-solves-mysteries-ancient-ireland

      I am aware that the idea of invasions is not popular among archaeologists, who prefer to speak of evolution and interaction. In fact, the Americas, Asia, and Africa were “invaded” in recent times and “evolution” and “interaction” would not be my choice of terms for the transformations that occurred. So it seems to me that the new archaeology can be read as self-serving, ie, in the service of not criticizing IE ancestors and their cultures, what do you think?

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      • The more matriarchal Beaker package discoveries & newly developing hypotheses are anything but self-serving. They are a rejection of the theory that IE patriarchs and their Corded Ware descendants get all the credit for the flourishing arts & technology of the British Isles as a result of conquering indigenous European populations. Instead, this work is examining the real possibility that it was matriarchal methods of development & transmission that were responsible for those cultural shifts.

        It’s a fairly revolutionary idea, from my perspective. And one that requires looking at archaeological data in a very different manner, a manner that credits women with being much stronger, more capable, & more involved in culture formation than older archaeological perspectives would have ever considered legitimate. It also continues to further call into question the appropriateness of applying the term “Celt” to such a wide spans of time & space.

        Archeogenentic studies are still developing data and methodology. So, stating anything as absolute fact in that field right now is still very tricky. But I do find a few glaring issues in that article you linked. The statement about “Maria’s” Neolithic people “displacing” the previous inhabitants of Ireland is inaccurate. Human populations did come into the Isles in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic for a period of time, but were completely pushed out of those land masses during the last major glaciation. Current best guess is that they took temporary refuge in the Iberian Peninsula. When the ice receded, they then followed the food back into the Isles (before the Isles were islands, technically). So, it’s more likely that the hypothetical “Maria” this article uses to tell their chosen story WAS indigenous British, returning to the Isles in the Neolithic after the end of the last great Ice Age, which I believe places the arrival of her genetics in the Isles prior to the Kurgan hypothesis migrations that far west.

        As far as the Rathlin work, I’ll have to go review the actual journal articles directly discussing those scientists’s finds. The summary in this particular pop science article seems to directly contradict the findings of other established scientists in the field. I’ll be interested to compare their bodies of work.

        There is also the need to be clear about whether or not one is looking at mtDNA haplogroups vs. Y-DNA haplogroups. Or both together for any given region. This article mixes them negligently– to be fair, probably without realizing it– by starting to speak to women’s genetic migration and then switching subjects to men. In the British Isles, both paternal & maternal genetic lineages have been studied and are both contributing to reanalysis of migration patterns and timelines. Interestingly, archeogenetics is supporting Maria Gimbutas’ work in certain areas, (but not all) and so far, I’ve only seen Y-DNA Kurgan hypothesis-related work.

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    • This is very interesting Kate, sounds like a topic for a blog.

      In terms of ancient Crete the standard view following Sir Arthur Evans was always that the Minoans were peaceful. Now the trend is to try to find evidence that they were warlike, despite the absence of warrior graves, or portrayals of kings or warriors. Also, the standard view is that the bronze age Minoans represented a new cultural and ethnic group, because the Neolithic culture could not have “evolved” to such a “high” state.

      I have noted a strong “revulsion” against Gimbutas’ idea that the later Indo-European cultures were not necessarily “higher” than the ones they conquered/overthew. I find this self-serving insofar as Gimbutas’ theories challenge us to question our assumption that warfare is an aspect of all “higher” cultures and “inevitable” in human life or as it is sometimes put “if humanity is to evolve.” If we begin to ask these questions, we come smack up against those who in more recent times colonized Africa, the Americas, and Asia, in the name of the “higher” European (Indo-European language group) cultures.

      In terms of Europe as a whole, the genetic evidence seems to show that the most common Y DNA comes from north of the Black Sea about 2500 BCE (which would be the end of the IE invasions), while the M DNA is much older. This seems to suggest that invading groups killed many of the men and had children (rape/marriage) with the women.

      I look forward to your blog on the Celts. I have don’t know too much about them.

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  12. Fascinating, Kate! So much to learn…

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  13. Thank you for your wonderful essay, Deanne! Beautiful images!

    Just jumping off of some of the comments above. Horses live in a matriarchal herd structure! The saying goes, “Tell a gelding, ask a stallion, negotiate with a mare.” The dominant mare is the leader of the herd and the stallion follows her.

    Here’s an essay my mare wrote on her hoofpad a while back. :) Maybe the association with soldiers is that anyone who worked with horses, including calvary soldiers, found that it behooved them to make offerings to Epona. In historic times, as now, horses were generally expensive and the elite were more likely to own them. Those working the land were more likely to use oxen to plough the fields, etc. Then again, the humbe donkey was also sacred to Epona. Are you familiar with the human/donkey transfiguration in Ascelpius’s The Golden Ass, where Epona appears as an aspect of Isis?

    http://marysharratt.com/main/?p=85

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