Archive for Horse Goddesses

Horse Girl: A Poem

I wrote this poem in 2002. It became the basis for my doctoral dissertation from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Depth Psychology, entitled Horse Girl: An Archetypal Study of Women, Horses, and Trauma Healing.

Horse Girl by Catherine Held

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. She was exiled 40 years ago. She was exiled 5,000 years ago. Kurgan men who conquered horses rode over the Russian steppes and slew the Goddess. 

When I was six I was an Indian girl. I led my Palomino pony down to the ravine where we put our long necks into the water and drank from the creek. We tossed our manes at the same time. Palomino. Pal o’ mine. Pony. Pony up.  

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. She dreams herd dreams. She dreams of the Girl, exiled in her strange land and longs to meet her. 

My pony was a raffle prize in the Chagrin Falls Fair. I had the winning ticket. My pony, my companion. Heartbreak. Sick. Envy. Not fair. My horse. Just next door. Wrong girl. Moved away. Horse gone. 

Mare. Nightmare. “Don’t be on your high horse.” “No more horsing around, young lady.”  

“Wild horses can’t make me!” 

Horse. Horse sense. Horse laugh. Horse power. Breaking a horse. Horse whip.  Bridle. The old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be. 

I have been bridled twice now. They tried to break me but I bolted my corral. I roam the world, sometimes leaving my colts behind. 

At the edge of the world, Horse Girl paws and snorts. The rest of the world is getting closer now.  She whinnies and then stops to listen. 

Brood. Brooding. Brood mare. Skittish as a mare. Runaway horse. Runaway bride. Stallion. Black Stallion. Prince on a white horse. 

One night a stallion makes love to me in my dreams, then holds me with human arms in the night. When I awake, I hear a sound, a distant sound. 

On that day, 8 million women swallow pregnant horse urine.

On that day, 75,000 foals are slaughtered to serve those 8 million women. 

On that day, the Chairman of the Board reports to the AHP stockholders that the Premarin family of products broke the $1 billion sales mark. “The future for Premarin—the most prescribed medication in the U.S. remains highly promising. Research continues to reveal new ways in which conjugated estrogens can contribute to the well being and longevity of postmenopausal women.” 

On that day a Tennessee Walking horse has kerosene poured on his fetlocks to make his distinctive walk. 

On that day I meet a woman who rescues horses. Or does she rescue women? They are called throwaways, discarded because they cannot be ridden or bred. 

On that day, at the edge of the world, Horse Girl waits with quiet expectation. She knows I am finally coming.


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Saranyu: The Runaway Horse Goddess: Part II

In Part I, I described the Hindu horse goddess Saranyu who left her husband, the sun, by turning herself into a mare and running away. When Saranyu ran away, she left a double—an imposter wife—behind. The imposter took care of the husband, Surya, and even had more children with him. In this conclusion to the story, we learn what happened to Saranyu and why her story still resonates today for modern women, 3,000 years later. 

Born into Illusion 

The imposter or shadow wife left behind gave birth to Manu, a son whose name is the derivation for the English word human. In the ancient Hindu Rig Veda, Manu was the father of the human race. In Hindu understanding, Manu, as the child of the false wife, was thus the result of an illusion, underscoring the belief that as humans, we are born into illusion, and our task is to awaken.

 “She is Not My Mother”  

In Part I, I described how Surya did not notice that his real wife had left and what a poignant metaphor that is for modern women who often must repress their true selves to stay in their marriages. It was actually Saranyu’s young son who noticed the deception when the imposter wife/mother mistreated him. The young boy knew that the imposter was not his mother and complained bitterly to his father. As soon as Surya learned the deception, he turned himself into a stallion and ran off to reclaim his bride.

 Desire or Curiosity? 

There are different translations of the ancient Rig Veda, leading to alternate interpretations of what happened next. They do agree that Surya, as a stallion, found Saranyu the mare. In his excitement at seeing her again, Surya spilled his semen on the ground. She sniffed at the semen which entered her nose and impregnated her. Saranyu had a second set of twins, Nasatya and Dasra, known as the Asvins.

Where the interpretations differ is whether Saranyu’s curiosity caused her to smell her husband’s semen, or if she purposely chose to smell the semen because she desired more children. The myth is curiously similar to the Greek Persephone who bent down to smell a flower. Her action caused her to be abducted into the Underworld by Hades on horseback.

 Important Themes 


Birthing of a new consciousness is one theme in the story. The Asvin twins born from the joining of the mare and stallion were physician-gods that appeared in the heavens in the dawn to guide their father’s solar carriage. Their purpose was to “protect humanity from suffering and misery and guide human beings to enlightenment.”[1] They were also the gods of agriculture. Just as their big brother Manu brought the birthing of humanity, the Asvins brought healing. Without Saranyu’s bid for freedom, neither humanity nor healing would have been brought to the earth.


Another important theme in the story is that of splitting. Saranyu shape-shifted into two forms: a mare and the imposter or shadow wife. As a mare, she was wild and free in a way that she was unable to be as the wife of the sun god. In psychology, splitting is an important concept that often happens as the result of a trauma. A false self often arises to appease the world and protect the “real” self. How often do we do that as women even when no trauma is evident? How many times do we tell others, “I’m fine,” when our heart is broken, our world has been shattered, or we can hardly face the day and we don’t even know why?  

Solar Consciousness

Solar consciousness and its effects are another important facet of this potent myth. If we had all sun and no rain, the earth could not survive. Just as global warming threatens our very planet, the kind of consciousness that does not recognize and value the dark, the natural world, the importance of the feminine, and the mysterious is lopsided. Death, decay, aging, suffering, illness, and loss are all facets of life that our solar culture often avoids at all costs. When my father died, for example, he requested that there be no memorial service. He wanted to spare us our grief. Yet there was no opportunity for the extended family and community to cry together share our grief, which made his passing harder to work through.

 Saranyu’s Choice

Whatever the reason Saranyu sniffed the semen, it was a very sensible thing to do. Smell is an important sense in our daily lives and also metaphorically. We use expressions like, “something just doesn’t smell right about the situation” to discern the truth. In the wild, it is the mare in estrus that chooses her mate. I prefer to think that Saranyu chose to smell the semen knowing the consequences, and that she chose willingly, and on her own terms.

 Running Away as Running To

Finally, we often consider running away as a poor alternative to facing the obstacles in our path. In this case, Saranyu’s running away led her to birth humanity and healing. More women, even mothers of young children, leave their marriages in the U.S. today than men. Saranyu’s story points out why: women often cannot express their authentic selves within the confines of traditional marriages and so they are leaving. Rather than scapegoating women as failures when they initiate divorce, we must examine marriage and our assumptions about marriage. No one seems to be asking the important question, “Why is marriage failing so many women, and especially mothers of young children?” Saranyu’s running away is a “running to” the authentic self that was vital to humanity.


The story of Saranyu is a potent story for women in our time as we juggle multiple roles and demands. Our deepest desires for authentic relationships—with our mates, our children, and with others—can go unsatisfied unless we undertake the often-difficult journey to know ourselves. Just as Saranyu needed to leave her husband and children behind, we need to find ways to be true to our authentic needs and create openings for soul to come shining through. There are many pathways—therapy, journal writing, women’s circles, retreats, meditation, being with horses and other animals—that help us to hear our own true soul voice. Make a date with yourself today, and keep it. The world will be a better place because of it.


[1] Fischer-Schreiber, I. (1989). The encyclopedia of eastern philosophy and religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Boston: Shambala.

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Saranyu: the Runaway Horse Goddess: Part I

What can an ancient Hindu horse goddess who was the mother of the human race teach modern women today? In the Rig Veda, composed more than 3,000 years ago, is a potent story of a runaway wife and the rebirth that resulted. This two-part article tells the story:


Saranyu was given in marriage to Surya, the solar god, who daily rode through the sky in a chariot drawn by seven red mares. She was young, beautiful, and fertile, and her name meant, “flowing.” Saranyu gave birth to a set of twins and, according to the Rig Veda, Saranyu was overcome by her husband’s “heat.”  Perhaps this means that Saranyu did not share the same sexual attraction that her husband exhibited. More likely, it was Surya’s solar consciousness that was too much for her to bear. Being with her powerful husband was like having the sun constantly bearing down; powerful, oppressive, drying up the very life forces that need wetness, darkness, and shade.

Two Selves

Saranyu did the only thing she knew to do—she turned herself into a horse and ran away. First, though, she split into two beings by creating an exact double that stayed behind. The imposter, known as “shade” or “shadow,” took care of the children and shared her husband’s bed. As Saranyu breathed in the moist air of freedom and grazed in the deep grasses, her other self continued on in the old life.

I remember the feeling of that very split when my children were very young and I was still married. There was my “real” passionate life that I hungered for, and my life subsumed in the needs of my children, work, and husband. Time spent with women, making art, or just being alone in the quiet hours before my family awoke were drops that filled an aching well of need. I felt unseen.

Waking up the Husband

Although it may seem curious, many women will resonate with the next part of the tale: Saranyu’s husband never noticed that his real wife had left. Surya was so busy getting the sun going every day, that as long as his meals were provided, children tended and sexual needs met, he was satisfied. He even had more children with his shadow wife.

Stay Tuned for Part II:

  • Does Saranyu reunite with her husband?
  • How does the human race get born?
  • What can an ancient horse goddess myth tell us today?

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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:


For More on the Uffington Horse, See:

[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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