The horse was first depicted in art about 32,000 years ago on the cave walls of southern France and northern Spain. Though archeologists disagree as to whether the paintings are realistic depictions or symbolic markings, many concur that they are both. Perhaps our ancestors applied a numinous meaning to the horses and the symbols painted on those ancient cave walls.
Horses were domesticated in the western Eurasian Steppes about 5,500 years ago. New evidence places the domestication of the Arabian horse at 9,000 years ago in current day Saudi Arabia. Culture and the movement of peoples was forever changed with the domestication of horses. Hunting, herding, migration and warfare were all greatly heightened after the horse was brought into the human fold.
Worldwide the horse has come to symbolize power, grace, beauty, freedom, nobility and strength. The horse is emblematic of the life-force imbued with spirit.
The horse played a vital role in Celtic life and mythology. Horses were great status symbols to the Celts who were legendary cavalry fighters and charioteers. Horses figure prominently in the Ultser Cycle tale the Tain Bo Cuillaigne – the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The Goddess Medb/Maeve who legend tells could run faster than any horse and who riding in a chariot led her men into battle ultimately faced off against the hero Cú Chulainn who had two horses, Liath Macha and Dubh Sainglend, tamed for use in battle.
The importance of horses to the Celts is seen in their religious and mystical associations. Horse, harbinger of good fortune, appears as the Horse Goddess, Epona. Epona, a Gaulish Goddess whose name means Divine Mare, was depicted either riding a horse or standing between two mares, often holding the cornucopia or horn of plenty. She as Divine Mare offered abundance and nurturing to her children. The White Horse of Uffington, a 360 foot long chalk carving in Berkshire, England was most likely dedicated to Epona. It’s believed that a wish one makes while standing in the eye of this huge horse land-carving will come true.
In the Mabinogion, Rhiannon of the Steeds and Birds appeared as a Fertility Goddess, a Goddess of Love, and a Dream Goddess to Pwyll (Poys), King of the new tribes of Dyved. She was a beautiful dream vision, riding a glowing white horse, hair shining in the sun, her birds twittering in circles around her head. No matter how fast Pwyll urged his horse forward, Rhiannon remained just out of his reach. Until he finally asked her to stop and wait, which she did. This had been a test to see what manner of man he was. Rhiannon was pleased and invited Pwyll to her Otherworld home to seek her hand in marriage. Obstacles were overcome and the marriage went forward. For many years the couple was happy until Rhiannon was falsely accused of killing her own newborn son. Her punishment was to become like a horse herself and offer visitors a ride on her back to the steps of the castle. But few accepted because of Rhiannon’s beauty and humility. Ultimately the truth was discovered and her son was returned. Rhiannon of the Steeds and Birds was then returned to her place of honor as Queen of Dyved.
There are magical horses recounted in Celtic Myth. The Sea God, Manannán mac Lir, of the Tuatha de Danann owned the majestic horse Embarr. This horse could travel over both land and sea. Manannán was generous with Embarr. He lent the horse to his foster son Lugh, who rode him in battles for the Tuatha Dé Danann. His daughter Niamh also borrowed Embarr to search for the man of her dreams, the famous warrior poet, Oisin. Embarr. whose name means imagination, and was able to run on the waves of the sea. While the depths of regeneration, of life and death, ran silently below the surface of the sea, Embarr, symbol of freedom, endurance, and spirit, transported Niamh swiftly across the cresting waves with the power of imagination and intention.
Aine, (AW-neh) originally worshipped as a Sun Goddess and nicknamed Bright, could take the form of Lair Derg, a red mare that no one could outrun. As Lair Derg, She walked among Her people, offering aide where needed.
To the Greeks the horse was also associated with warfare and the spoils of war. They believed that the god Poseidon created the horse and the goddess Athena tamed it.
The Greeks had magical horses too – Pegasus, the winged horse, born of a union between Poseidon and Medusa who was later transformed into the constellation Pegasus and the centaur, Chiron who was Achilles’ tutor.
The Romans also saw the horse as a symbol of strength and power. They linked the horse to Mars, the God of War and to the continuity of life. Every October they would sacrifice a horse to Mars and keeps its tail through the winter in homage to the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
The horse is part of the Chinese zodiac, embodying practicality, love, endurance, devotion and stability.
In the sacred text of Hinduism, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the horse is raised to the status of “cosmic person” though ritual and sacrifice.
Native Americans regard the horse as helper and spiritual messenger, symbolizing loyalty, mobility, strength, stamina and power.
When horse calls your name feel the truth of your own power, beauty and freedom. Know that spirit is fully immanent in your physical being. Your essence is imbued with both dark mystery and luminous light. Imagination, creativity, and abundant opportunity are available to you.
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck on Judith’s website. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. In recent years Judith became very interested in the Goddesses of her own ancestors, the Celts. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.