Epona

The Celtic goddess Epona is specifically identified by her horse symbolism. Her name is etymologically related to a Celtic word for horse and she is defined iconographically by the presence of one or more

horses: the goddess is usually depicted either riding side-saddle on a mare or between two ponies or horses (figures 8.5, 8.6). Epigraphic dedications and images of Epona indicate her immense popularity within the Celtic world: she was first and foremost a Gaulish goddess, being venerated particularly in the east of Gaul and the Rhineland. But she was known also in Britain, perhaps having been introduced by travellers or by the army;18 and she was worshipped as far east as Bulgaria. Epona's cult was practised by a wide range of people in Romano-Celtic society: she was a soldier's goddess, beloved especially by cavalrymen stationed along the Rhine frontier. But she was equally at home among the peaceful communities of the Aedui and Lingones of Burgundy and among the romanized Treveri of the Moselle Valley.

Figure 8.6 Stone relief of Epona with foal, Brazey, Burgundy. Miranda Green.

Epona's horse gives her a composite yet cohesive identity. To soldiers, she was perhaps above all a protectress of both the cavalryman and his mount. It was natural for the horseman to worship a deity who would keep his horse from harm on the battlefield and thus keep the soldier, Celt or Roman, safe as well.19 To the civilian population, Epona was primarily a kind of mother-goddess: her imagery frequently suggests fertility symbolism. These images are particularly powerful in Burgundy, where the on goddess sits side-saddle on a mare beneath which is a suckling or sleeping foal (figure 8.6). Sometimes Epona feeds the foal with corn or fruit: on a bronze statuette from Wiltshire, the goddess sits between two ponies who turn towards the corn held in a dish on her lap. It may be significant that the one pony is male and other female, a detail which enhances the fertility symbolism in Epona's imagery.

Figure 8.5 Stone statuette of Epona, Alesia, Burgundy. Paul Jenkins.

Among the Burgundian Aedui, where the mare-and-foal image is such a strong tradition, it is probable that Epona was perceived especially as a divinity who presided over the craft of horse-breeding. Some

iconography in this area depicts simply a mare and foal (figure 2.12): Epona herself is absent. Aeduan cavalry were renowned and used by Julius Caesar in his Gallic campaigns (chapter 4), and their territory is good for horse-rearing. Indeed, it is in the land of the Aedui that the only known temple dedicated to

Epona has been discovered, at Entrains-sur-Nohain (Nièvre). Epona's imagery is full of symbolism of the earth's bounty, just like that of the Mothers: she frequently appears carrying baskets of fruit or loaves of bread.24

The fertility aspect of Epona's cult, indicated by her corn, fruit, bread and mare-with-foal, is endorsed by her overt link with the Celtic triple mother-goddesses: on a stone at Thil-Châtel in Burgundy, a dedication alludes to both Epona and the Mothers, and the horse-goddess herself is referred to in

multiple form, echoing the plurality of the Deae Matres; and at Hagondange (Moselle), Epona is actually depicted as a triple image,26 a direct borrowing of the Mothers' iconography. Like the mother-

goddesses, Epona was associated with the cults of healing springs, especially in Burgundy, implying that her role was as wide as that of the Mothers themselves. She was associated also with death and regeneration beyond the grave: this is shown partly by the context of some of her images and partly by symbolic details. Depictions of the goddess have frequently been found in cemeteries: one of the most important of these is at La Horgne-au-Sablon which was used for burials of the people of Metz, capital

of the Mediomatrici of eastern Gaul. Here, several images of Epona were dedicated by relatives of the deceased, and one depicts the goddess on her mare, leading a mortal to the Otherworld. Some of Epona's attributes or emblems point to a dual level of symbolism: one is the key, which the goddess carries on

carvings at Gannat (Allier) and Grand (Vosges). At one level, this symbol may be interpreted as the key to the stable door, reflecting a straightforward horse association. But in wider perspective, the key may also symbolize the entrance to the afterlife, the Otherworld. Another dual motif is the mappa, a kind

of napkin, held by Epona on a sculpture at Mussig-Vicenz near Strasbourg — In a secular capacity, the mappa is closely linked with horses in that it was traditionally used as a signal for starting Roman horse-

races. But if we look behind this mundane symbolism, we can see a more profound meaning, perhaps suggestive of Epona's role as presider over the beginning of life, just as her key may be indicative of death and the afterlife.

Epona was a popular goddess precisely because of the complex nature of her cult. Her essential association with horses led to a series of extensions to that nuclear role, all of which remained sympathetic to the basic zoomorphic identity. The horse is absolutely crucial to Epona's definition: the equine symbolism gave rise to many different levels of meaning, with the result that Epona was worshipped not only as patroness of horses but also as a giver of life, health, fertility and plenty, and as a protectress of humans even beyond the grave.

The horseman cults

A cult of an equestrian warrior-god was important in both Gaul and Britain. On an Iron Age carving at Saint-Michel-de-Valbonne (Var) in southern Gaul is depicted the simply incised image of a horseman

with a head of exaggerated size, riding over five severed human heads. This may reflect the Celtic practice of decapitating enemies and collecting their heads as trophies, which is so graphically illustrated by classical commentators on the Celts, who describe the Gaulish cavalryman hanging these grisly spoils

of war from his saddle.33 A sculpture from the Provençal oppidum of Entremont depicts just such a horseman, with the severed head of his opponent, eyes closed in death, hanging from the neck harness of his horse.34

In Britain, a god perceived as a warrior on horseback was venerated particularly in the east of the country, among the Catuvellauni and Coritani. Brigstock (Northants) was the site of a series of shrines dedicated to a horseman-god depicted on small bronze figurines. Amongst the many eastern British horseman images, we should note the warrior, carved on a small stone, at Margidunum (Notts.), with his

spear and shield (figure 4.8). One named horseman was Mars Corotiacus, represented by the statuette of a warrior riding down a fallen enemy, at Martlesham in Suffolk —

A powerful deity who was sometimes depicted on horseback was the sky-god. He appears thus on the top of the 'Jupiter-giant columns', monuments that were set up especially in eastern Gaul and the Rhineland (figure 8.7). These columns represent trees: they are decorated with stylized bark and

occasionally also with oak leaves and acorns, as at Hausen near Stuttgart. Frequently the monuments are dedicated to Jupiter, the Roman sky-god, but the sculptured groups which surmount them represent a Celtic god. He is depicted galloping on a speeding horse, cloak flying, riding down a semi-human, semiserpentine monster beneath his mount's front hooves. The god brandishes a thunderbolt and sometimes a solar wheel which he bears like a shield. The iconography appears to represent a dualistic cult, with the celestial horseman and the chthonic giant locked together in an interdependent relationship. Here, the never-ending opposition of life and death, light and dark, day and night, summer and winter, sky and underworld is enacted. There is little evidence of actual conflict - the sky-god carries no weapon - but the symbolism clearly reflects the dominance of the celestial world and the subjugation of the giant, whose face is frequently contorted with the agony of his equine burden. In these images, the horse has a crucial role, firstly as the mount of the sky-god. But it has a deeper significance too: it is the horse which has physical contact with the chthonic being beneath its thrashing hooves, and it is the horse which, together with the god's shield-wheel, represents the solar nature of the cult. In Celtic religion, horses had a very close affinity with the sun.40 Indeed, before the first millennium BC in temperate and northern Europe, the horse was a solar animal which was depicted in iconography pulling the sun's chariot across the sky. At Trundholm in Denmark, a community of worshippers in about 1300 BC dismantled and deliberately buried in a peat-bog a model wagon drawn by a slender figure of a horse and carrying a great gilded bronze sundisc. The solar horse was equally important to the Celts: many coins depict a horse associated with sun symbols and the wheel of a chariot (figures 4.9, 6.22), the latter motif deriving from gold staters struck by Philip II of Macedon in the fourth century BC. Some derivatives of the equestrian sky-god support the interpretation of the horse as a solar animal: sometimes, as at Mouhet (Indre),41 the horse itself is missing from the group but instead the giant kneels, crushed by the weight of the sun-wheel on his shoulders, as if the solar image were perceived as interchangeable with the horse. The beast was deemed an appropriate companion to the sun and sky-god: swift, beautiful and proud, invaluable in warfare and prestigious as a riding-animal, its high secular status was reflected in its importance as a means of transporting the lord of the heavens across his celestial domain.

Other gods possessed horses which were sacred to them, although the anthropomorphic images of these deities have not themselves survived. A magnificent bronze horse from Neuvy-en-Sullias (Loiret) (figure 4.4), dating to just before the Roman conquest (and thus at the interface of free Celtic and

Romano-Celtic culture), bears a dedication to 'Rudiobus'. Another bronze figurine, from Bolards in Burgundy (figure 8.8), consists of a horse inscribed to 'Segomo', a Celtic epithet meaning 'victorious'.43 Mars Mullo, the surname meaning 'mule' was invoked at Rennes and Allonnes in north-west Gaul.44 The healer-god Apollo in his Celtic guise was associated with horse imagery: thus at Sainte-Sabine in Burgundy Apollo Belenus was venerated in a shrine in which supplicants dedicated clay horse figurines to their patron god.45 We know of Apollo Atepomarus, 'Great Horseman' at Mauvières (Indre).46 Horses were given as votive offerings to other curative deities: at the healing shrine of Sequana at Fontes

Sequanae near Dijon, pilgrims purchased wooden images of horses and dedicated them to the goddess; the same practice occurred at the sanctuary of Forêt d'Halatte near Senlis (Oise), where simple stone horses were presented to a curative divinity whose name is unknown.48

Figure 8.7 Reconstructed Jupiter-giant column, Hausen-an-der-Zaber, near Stuttgart, Germany. Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart.

Figure 8.8 Bronze horse dedicated to the god Segomo, Bolards, Burgundy. Paul Jenkins.

The Celtic deities with whom horses were associated in epigraphy and iconography were those whose images were enhanced by the qualities which this animal possessed as a secular companion of humankind. The speed, courage, intelligence and fertility of horses were all admired by the Celts and they thus formed part of the symbolism of divinities to whom such qualities were also ascribed.

Figure 8.9 Romano-Celtic bronze horse figurine, Carrawburgh, Northumberland. Miranda Green.

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Responses

  • Debora
    Where did celtic goddess Epona live?
    7 years ago
  • Preston
    What are some of the horse goddess eponas enemies?
    7 years ago

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