Women and Horses in Mythology: Epona

In the ancient hills just 1.5 miles south of the town of Uffington, England is a three-thousand year old drawing of a horse that is both elegant and mysterious. Best seen from the air, the remarkable stylized horse drawn with white chalk is believed to represent Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. The 374 foot drawing was the focus of ancient religious celebrations. Every seven years, the horse drawing was ritually cleansed. Even today, the members of the English Heritage clean and maintain the beautiful drawing which calls to us with an air of mystery.

 Why Are Ancient Horse Goddesses Important Today?

Epona, like the horse goddesses from Celtic and other cultures, links the horse, the divine and the feminine. These ancient myths and legends can still inform us today and may help us understand the incredible draw that so many girls and women have to horses. Epona, depicted so beautifully on top of the English hill, reminds us of a time when women and horses were sacred, honored, and free. So, who was Epona? What did she represent? And how does she speak to us today throughout the millennia?

 Who was Epona?

The name Epona comes from the Gaulish word epos, meaning horse. The “on” and the “a” at the end of Epona’s name show that she was a female deity. Some translations of Epona are “divine mare” and “she who is a mare.”

 

According to Turner and Coulter,[1] Epona was a deity that reigned over the fertility of the land, who later became the goddess of the equine race. They suggest that she may have been the prototype for Lady Godiva, the woman who protested taxes levied on the poor in 1057 by appearing nude upon her horse in Coventry, England.

 

In Germany, [2] Epona was honored as a psychopomp, or spirit guide for the dead. In Ireland, she was associated with nightmares, and also with crossroads. Throughout western Europe, small devotional figures to Epona were widely found in stables. Epona was clearly revered as a protective deity with deep connections to other realms of knowing.

 Patriarchal Transformation of Epona

It appears that the original sacred meaning of this divine feminine deity was perverted by patriarchal domination and mores. Gaulish horsemen conscripted in the Roman conquest brought the worship of Epona to Rome, where she had her own holiday (December 18) as a goddess of war. Previously, Epona is known to have been widely revered as a protector of horses, cattle, donkeys and oxen. Until the Christian era, roses were used to decorate both horses and stables to honor Epona. Probably because of horses’ critical role in warfare, and Epona’s role mediating between the lands of the living and the dead, the devotion to Epona became linked to the winning of wars. The idea of Epona as a war goddess is repugnant to me, though it makes sense to me that a mother may have prayed to Epona to protect her sons and their horses fighting in a faraway land.

 

Epona’s connection with nightmares was probably a similar perversion and adaptation of her original role in mediating day consciousness, and the unique and uncontrollable world of night dreams. As a crossroads figure, Epona was a mediator between day and night, and between the living and the dead.

 Epona Today

Not much more is known about Epona, so it is up to us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. She is a very real presence that has resonance for many modern horsewomen. Countless women have taken Epona’s name for their stables and riding programs. Epona has appeared as a character in the popular historical fiction The Horse Goddess.[3] Judith Tarr is another novelist who blends history with fiction in her White Mare’s Daughter series that features reverence to the Horse Goddess. Epona’s re-emergence in modern culture may speak to our need to honor the strength and resilience of women, and our connection with the divine feminine.

 

As we ponder the mystery of Epona and the Uffington horse drawing, may the ancient Celtic goddess continue to guide us safely in transitions of life and death, bringing protection and wisdom to us during those times. May she assist us when we are at important crossroads in our lives. And, finally, may we honor Epona when we love a horse freely, provide for her care, and take in horses and other critters that need tending.

 

For more on Epona, See:

http://www.epona.net/introduction.html

http://www.wilsonsalmanac.com/goddess_epona.html

 

For More on the Uffington Horse, See:

http://www.hows.org.uk/personal/hillfigs/uff/uffing.htm

http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/majorsites/uffington.html
 


[1] Turner, P. and Coulter, C.R. (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Held, C.(2006) Horse Girl: An Archetypal Study of Women, Horses, and Trauma Healing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Carpinteria, CA: Pacifica Graduate Institute.

[3] Llywelyn, M. (1998) The Horse Goddess. New York: Tor Books.

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