It is said of the goddess Epona that the key she carries in images of her at Gannet (Allier) and Grand (Vosges) in France signifies her role of opening paths between the worlds. So too an image of her at Metz where she sits on her mare with a man following behind her. Miranda Green comments that her depictions in these images from Roman Gaul suggest “a goddess who guarded her devotees throughout this life and into the next world” So this is a starting point: a goddess who passes to and from the otherworld, but who is present for us, is associated with fertility and with horses.
We know that horses were important for the celts. Coins from brythonic tribes in Britain and Gaul often featured horses. The figure in the chalk on the downs at Uffington clearly indicates a horse cult of some sort in Iron Age Britain. By the Roman period the equine nature of the goddess was just that: she was represented as a goddess in human form, but closely associated with horses and displaying this association wherever she is depicted. But she is also represented with a wheatsheaf as a goddess of harvest and abundance. In this respect she has certain things in common with other goddesses such as Rosmerta and the mother goddesses known as Matronae.
The worship of her as Epona is generally thought of as being centred on Gaul though there are records of dedications in Roman Britain and elsewhere. There is, for example, a bronze statuette of her which is now in The British Museum. The statuette is about 7.5 centimetres high and features her sitting, but not on a horse as is most common, or on any other identifiable support,though she holds a yoke to identify her connection with horses and also some ears of wheat which is the other common feature of her depiction. On either side of her are ponies, a mare on her left and a stallion on her right, each face the wheatsheaf. The statuette is thought by the Museum to have been part of a chariot fitting.
It is from depictions in stone, bronze and terracotta that we can gather most available evidence of the nature of her worship and her identifiable attributes. For the most part these date from between the First and the Third centuries and follow Graeco-Roman practice in depicting the gods iconographically in this way. We know she was one of the array of deities acknowledged in the Roman Empire with a feast day of 18th December assigned to her. But there is no surviving evidence of her specific depiction before the influence first of Greece and then Rome on the lands occupied by the Gauls. Although the main area in which these depictions are found is in Gaul, they are also found as far south as Spain, eastwards across Germany and as far as south-east as Bulgaria as well as in Britain. The range of her depictions and the emphases in different places have been usefully analysed by Kathryn Linduff. The most common are those where she is mounted side-saddle and are mainly found in central and northern Gaul and in Germany. There is a sub-group among this type where she is accompanied by a foal found around the French town of Autun (Roman Augustodunum, Gaulish Bibracte) and also a few from this area where she sits astride rather than side-saddle. The other main aspect of her depiction is where she is shown with a horse on either side of her, either facing away from her (mainly along the Rhine) or towards her (examples from along the Danube, Italy, Spain and Britain).
So where does the connection with horses come into this? It has been pointed out that the area of Gaul where her worship is most strongly attested is also an area where horse breeding was prevalent and so a goddess of fertility would therefore be associated with the fertility of horses. Looking at her wider provenance it may also be significant that she was worshipped by horsemen of the Aedui tribe, recruited by Caesar as calvary officers in the Roman army and there is the incidental reference in Apuleius which tells us that bouquets of roses were offered to her in stables. There is also the question of Rigantona as one of her manifestations in Britain, resulting in the medieval form of her name Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales in the Four Branches of Y Mabinogi. We know that several brythonic tribes featured horses on their coinage seeming to indicate a long tradition of horse iconography in their culture. But we don’t know how far back we can take the names Epona or Rigantona as a goddess in human form, or if these earlier Iron Age peoples may not have humanized the horse as a goddess before the direct influence to do so from Greece and Rome. But by the Roman period it is clear that Epona is not seen as a horse but, rather, always depicted in association with horses, either riding one (usually side-saddle) or having some equine trappings about her. The wheatsheaf is an equally common feature of her depiction and suggests a wider association with fertility and sustenance. Also to be considered is the role she plays in the concept of sovereignty. Her survival into medieval folklore and romance sets her astride her horse and stresses her otherworldly nature making her not so much a devotional subject as an active player in the cycle of fertility and the traffic between our world and the other world. So are the stories of the gods told in literature in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages.
Going back to that statuette from Britain, it does, along with other depictions of her, seem to embody the idea that she takes human form while the appearance of horses of either sex facing each other across the wheatsheaf on her lap encompasses both aspects of fertility and abundance. She has a yoke on one side of her (or is it, as Anne Ross suggests, a snake?) and a patera for offerings on the other. And yet her name is formed from the Brythonic word for horse – ‘epo -’ together with the suffix ‘-ona’ signifying divinity. Clearly she is not, literally, to be thought of as a horse. But her horse nature seems more than a simple matter of association. This is attested both by historical and personal testimony. In a detailed consideration of the horse-nature of Epona, Laura Oaks identifies this as a developed attribute in her iconography from the Aedui tribe of horse warriors. She suggests that “the cult need not have been confined to equestrian economics” and also notes evidence of her association with maternal deities, healing, sacred springs and the underworld. In the sacred precinct of Altbachtal in Trier she is depicted on her pony with a fruit basket. An inscription identifies the adherence of a local guild within the town. Miranda Green regards the presentation of her by classical authors as simply a horse goddess as superficial and outlines “a far more profound set of beliefs” following a closer look at her iconography . She cites examples of her depiction at healing springs where she appears in the guise of a water nymph and in a cemetery where she appears to be leading a follower to the after life. She is conflated with the Deae Matres – referred to as ‘Eponas’ at one site in Burgundy and depicted as a triple image at another in Moselle. Miranda Green concludes that Epona was not herself a horse, “However she was , in a real sense, identified through her equine imagery and the message of her concerns was conveyed by the constant presence of the animal in her iconography”.
Miranda Green Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend (London, 1992)
C. M Johns British Museum Quarterly 36 (1971)
Katheryn M Linduff ‘EPONA : A Celt Among the Romans’ Latomus 38 pp 817-838 (1979)
Apuleius The Golden Ass Trans. Robert Graves (Penguin ,1950) p.92
Laura S Oaks ‘Epona’ in Pagan Gods and Shrines of the Roman Empire ed. M Henning & A King pp77-84 (1986)
E. M. Wightman Roman Trier and the Treveri p.217 (1970)
Miranda Green Celtic Goddesses British Museum p. 185 (1995)