Offerings to the Roman-Celtic Horse Goddess Epona: Eponalia

Epona Regina, Lady of Horses, Goddess of the Fields and Stables, we honor you on this feast day!

Epona is one my favorite goddesses in the Gaulish pantheon, but like many deities in the Gaulish pantheon, our historical understanding of her is limited. There are several layers of analysis that are ultimately involved when learning about Epona. While we know little about her from Gaulish sources, Roman depictions give us interesting insights to her associations and importance. She was considered the protector of horses, and was honored in stables and also by the Roman calvary. Furthermore, horse goddesses are widely attested in Indo-European (IE) studies, showing Epona is a goddess of sovereignty.

Epona as a Gaulish Goddess

As far as we know, the Gauls did not make statues of their deities. We aren’t even sure that the Gauls had anthropomorphic deities (like the Romans). From linguistic knowledge of the Gaulish language, we know the meaning of her name “Divine Mare,” or “Horse Goddess,” or “Great Mare.” To see a summary, see here or get a copy of Ancient Fire by Segomaros Widugeni.

Relief of Epona from Wikipedia

Katheryn Linduff wrote an excellent analysis on Epona, looking at her role in Roman times, but also analyzing how she would have been understood by the Gauls. She states that horses were important to the lifestyle and survival of continental Celts, and horses were important for everything from battle to agriculture. She also says Epona was associated with the breeding and caring of horses, which probably stemmed from Gaulish times.

Since the Gauls left little behind in terms of how they practiced their religion, we don’t know how Epona or other Gaulish gods would have been worshipped. If you want an example of a modern Gaulish ritual, which takes inspiration from various sources, you can look at this article.

Epona as a Gallo-Roman Goddess

As you might have noticed, scholars pretty much have to look at Epona from the context of the Gallo-Roman culture and times. Nantonos and Ceffyl of Epona.net have a list of archeological and literary evidence of Epona, showing her worship was being accepted into Roman society starting around 100 CE. Linduff states Epona was also eventually accepted into the broader Roman calvary, probably starting with Gaulish calvary units and expanding from there.

The depictions from this time period are usually in a few forms – sidesaddle and imperial. Sidesaddle depictions are more common in Gaul, and are possibly a more accurate depiction of how the Celts perceived her. The Imperial style shows her surrounded by horses. You can look at a fascinating map of where depictions and inscriptions of her were found. Linduff lists other common attributes: a patera, a cornupcopia, fruit, flowers, a foal, a dog, or a bird.

An ‘Imperial’ style Epona statue from Wikipedia

Epona would have been worshipped in a Roman style during the Gallo-Roman period. A Roman ritual (particularly one done at home) included honoring Vesta, lighting incense, and giving other offerings. For an example of this, check out this article by Roman Pagan.

Epona as an Indo-European Goddess

Finally, Epona and goddesses like her can be traced to the theoretical Proto-Indo-European goddess *Hékwonā. Ceisiwr Serith discusses this goddess in his book Deep Ancestors. Her name can be guessed at by linguistically going back through time using names like Medb (Ireland), Meduna (Gaul), Epona (Gaul), and Mādhavī (India). Mādhavī was able to give several kings a son in exchange for rare horses, restoring her virginity each time. When she finally was able to choose a man to marry, she instead married the forest and became a nomad.

Deo Mercurio has an excellent article on Epona. They highlight comparisons to the Welsh Rhiannon and the Irish Macha, through themes of power, fertility, and connection to heroes. Rhiannon (or Rigantona) in the Mabinogi was first seen by a prince as a beautiful lady riding a horse. After the kidnapping of her child, her punishment is to offer to carry people around like a horse. In “The Debility of the Ulstermen,” Macha wins a horse race (while pregnant with twins) and curses the crowd that made her race. As one of the Morrigan, you can also consider her associations with war, fate, crows, and is also a goddess of the land and sovereignty.

Before we start thinking horse goddesses are motherly deities, Ceisiwr Serith notes that horse goddesses aren’t portrayed as good mothers. Rather, the lore shows that they are fertile, which connects horse goddesses to the fertility of the land.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

In fact, Serith heavily analyzes stories about sexuality, horses, and kingship. *Hékwonā is the root of prosperity, the sacred connection, between the people and the land. She is also dangerous when she is spurned. Lore often involves a warrior hero accepting or denying sex with a horse goddess. Just think how the Morrigan brought on Cu Chulainn’s downfall. The emphasis on horse goddesses is not on a mother/wife figure, but on sexuality and fertility.

Through an IE perspective, Epona is not just a “queenly” goddess. Epona’s sovereignty (sometimes portrayed through her sexuality) is outside human society and control, and those in society must not cross her. That’s not to say Epona isn’t generous or kind. But we would do well to remember and acknowledge her power, which is the underlying theme through all of these stories. Remember: we are not sovereigns of the land – she is.

What is Eponalia?

I will be honest: without access to print books, I am not sure of much when it comes to how Eponalia was historically observed. I may update this section when I know more. For now, I will list secondary sources at the bottom of the article which may shed light on the subject.*

We do know that her feast day was on December 18th, which was attested to in a calendar found in the Venetia region of Italy. As previously mentioned, we also know that Epona was worshipped in Gaul in a Roman style.

How to Celebrate Eponalia Today: Offerings and Rituals

Offerings

According to Epona.net, the Roman Apuleius wrote that offerings of roses were possibly given in stable shrines. Roman worship also included animal sacrifice, incense, and libations of wine poured into patera. And Deo Mercurio notes evidence that Epona was given offerings of incense and ground meal (mola), but these were standard Roman offerings.

Photo by The Smell of Roses on Pexels.com

The Bloody Bones lists a potential calendar for modern Gaulish pagans. Offerings on this site for Eponalia include horse effigies, roses, and “items associated with calvary” like horse brushes, bridles, etc. (I’ve even been told that horse-shaped biscuits are a good offering!) At Dun Brython, the authors note that roses and wheat are good offerings. Similar harvest offerings could be oats, porridge, etc.

Rituals

There are varied ritual outlines for the modern Eponalia, which is appropriate. After all, this ritual was de facto the result of a blend of cultures. I have collected a list of rituals, hymns, reflections, etc for Eponalia.

ADF: Gaulish Kin’s ritual for Eponalia.
An Epona/Eponalia devotion on Scottish Druid.
Ways to celebrate Eponalia by Go Deeper.
A beautiful Eponalia altar by selgowiros_caranticnos.
An Invocation to Epona (and others).
Dun Brython also has prayers.
Another prayer on the Dun Brython WordPress.
A reflection on Eponalia by Rune Soup.

Outside of a Gallo-Roman Eponalia

Some modern Gaulish pagans want to honor Epona in a Gaulish way, outside of a Roman context. While that is fine, we have little evidence of how ancient Gauls worshipped, so reconstruction is difficult. You can certainly be inspired to make your own ritual based off of the comparative analysis in this article. However Epona has two additional associations that connect her to death, winter, and even the winter solstice.

Linduff has an interesting analysis showing Epona may have had an Underworld function for the Gauls, specifically for funerals. Her analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but she connects Epona’s image on funeral plaques and connection to water/springs to other female deities associated with death and water (like Rhiannon and the Matronae). Some modern pagans consider her a psychopomp for these reasons. Again, little can be attested to outside of comparative analysis and bits of archeology.

Photo by Vedran Miletiu0107 on Pexels.com

Some Gaulish pagans connect Epona to the Winter Solstice. Alexei Kondratiev in The Apple Branch compares Epona to the Mari Lywd and to the mother of Maponos. Most of our knowledge of a “child of light” around the Winter Solstice comes from Irish and Welsh lore. You can also see Chris Godwin’s article for more information. (Interestingly, this comparison connects Epona to the Matronae again.)

In these roles, Maponos and his mother could be honored at a feast for the return of the sun. If you plan to do a Winter Solstice ritual for Epona, consider offerings for the harvest, for the coming year, and for the divine mother-son pair. Just keep in mind that this is a mostly modern connection based on broad analysis in Celtic Reconstructionism.

Sources

All articles accessed in December 2020.

*Future Secondary Source Material

Basically anything by Miranda Green, but in particular: Gods of the Celts, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, Celtic Goddesses, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, and Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art are titles that at least mention Epona.

Epona.net has an extensive bibliography, but some of the sources are in French and German. Two English articles they recommend are:

Oaks, Laura S. “Epona.” Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire ed. M. Henning and A. King (1986).

Linduff, Katheryn M. “Epona : a Celt among the Romans.” Latomus, vol. 38, no. 4, 1979, pp. 817–837. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41531375. Accessed 10 Dec. 2020. (I used this article as my main scholarly source on Epona.)

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