In the rolling hills just 1.5 miles south of the town of Uffington, England is a three thousand year old drawing of a horse with a mysterious history. The horse is best seen from the air to take in the full effect. The horse was drawn and then filled with crushed white chalk. In mythology it is believed to represent Epona, the Celtic horse goddess. Epona, depicted so exquisitely on top of the English hill, reminds us of a time when women and horses were sacred, honored, and free. The 374-foot drawing was previously the focus of ancient religious celebrations. In the past the horse drawing was ritually cleansed every seven years. Today, members of the English Heritage continue to clean and maintain the picturesque drawing.
Epona was a goddess of horses honored by the Celtic tribe known as the Gauls (from what is now France.) Some translations of Epona are "divine mare" and "she who is a mare.” Epona was a deity that reigned over the fertility of the land and who later became the goddess of the equine race.
Interestingly, she was one of the few Celtic deities who were celebrated by the Romans in an annual festival every December 18. 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. Scholars say that the reason Epona was adopted by Romans was because of their military’s love of the horse. Roman cavalry members honored her with temples of her own. 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.
In many sculptures, Epona is represented by symbols of fertility and abundance, such as cornucopias, along with young foals. She is typically portrayed either riding, usually sidesaddle, or taming a wild horse. Legend holds that Epona was born to a white mare that was impregnated by a man who didn’t much like women. According to Plutarch, Fulvius Stella “loathed the company of women”, and so decided to focus his desire on the mare instead. Although this story of Epona’s birth is the popular one, it is a very unusual beginning for a Celtic deity.
In Ireland, she was associated with nightmares, and also with crossroads. Epona's connection with nightmares was probably an 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.
There is more to Epona’s mythology but it might be too long to put into a post. If you’re at all interested in the Celtic mythology of Epona there are many web sites to investigate. Have a magical St. Patrick’s Day… even if you’re not Irish.
Until next time
An Irish Prayer
May those we love, love us.
If they cannot love us,
May God turn their hearts.
If God cannot turn their hearts,
May they turn their ankles,
So we may know them by their limping.