Many times, when people hear the word Celtic, there is an automatic assumption that we’re referring to things related to Ireland and/or Great Britain. This is not technically accurate, because in academic terms, Celtic actually refers to a language group. The Celtic languages were present not only on the island of what is now Great Britain, but also in several areas within the European mainland.
One of the most influential groups of the pre-Roman era was the Gauls. This group, which was not a single unified culture but rather a collection of hundreds of tribes, inhabited the areas that are now France, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Germany and the Czech Republic.
Like most Celtic deities – of which there were several hundred – the Gaulish gods and goddesses were often deities of place. They were typically associated with a specific location – a sacred spring or a holy well, a rock formation – and not necessarily honored by anyone who lived elsewhere. However, a few deities appear to have been celebrated on a more widespread scale.
Epona, the Gaulish horse goddess, is one of these.
Similar in attribute to the Welsh goddess Rhiannon, who appears in the Mabinogion, Epona was associated with not only the magic and power of the horse, but also the fertility of motherhood. Dedications in her honor have been found all over what was once the ancient Celtic world, indicating that she was not a localized goddess at all, but one who was honored far and wide.
Image of Epona by Tilemahos Efthimiadis / Flickr / Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A likely explanation for Epona’s widespread appeal is that she was a popular goddess with travelers and merchants, who appear to have left offerings in her honor before departing on a lengthy journey.
They also thanked her for a safe arrival upon reaching their destinations.
Epona was also popular with another geographically mobile group: Roman cavalrymen, who adopted her as a patron during the time when the Roman Empire was expanding throughout southern Europe. Bear in mind that many Roman soldiers were not actually from the city of Rome itself, but were considered Romans because they were part of the vast Empire. As Gaul became more Roman, Epona became a protector of the cavalry horses and the men who rode them.
She was typically portrayed with images of horses and ponies, and often appeared riding a mare, usually sidesaddle.
Occasionally she is depicted atop the mare completely nude. In many images, she is shown distributing fruits and grains, or depicted with a young foal, to symbolize her role as a fertility goddess. Altars in her honor have been discovered in a number of locations across Western Europe. Perhaps the most notable finds have been inscriptions to Epona in the Burgundy region, an area that has been a center of horse breeding for centuries. Burgundy is also the home of the only known temple to Epona, at Entrains-sur-Nohain, Nievre.
Of note, Epona is the only Celtic or Gaulish deity to have been honored with a festival in the city of Rome. Each year on December 18, a celebration was held in her honor in Rome, although it does not appear to be something that actually took place in Gaul. The Festival of Epona was a time when worshipers paid tribute to horses, erecting shrines and altars in their stables, and sacrificing animals in Epona’s name.
In the English parish of Uffington, there is a large prehistoric chalk horse, or geoglyph, displayed upon a hill. For many years, scholars believed that the Uffington White Horse could have been an image of Epona. However, no one knows for certain – the Uffington horse was likely created prior to the time when the Romans brought Epona from the mainland to Britain.
Although she was connected with fertility and new life as a goddess of motherhood, it is possible that Epona and her fleet of horses were connected with the journey of the spirit to the otherworld. In some imagery, she is shown holding keys, or accompanied by a raven, both of which are typically symbols of the journey of the soul after death.