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.”
Epona was a deity that reigned over the fertility of the land, who later became the goddess of the equine race. Some historians suggest that she may even 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, 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 altered by prevailing patriarchal values. Horsemen from Gaul (now France) that were 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, though it makes sense that a mother may have prayed to Epona as a strong feminine figure to protect her sons and their horses fighting in a faraway land.
Epona’s connection with nightmares was probably a similar 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 is Re-emerging in the Culture
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 by Morgan Llywelyn. 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 Epona and the mysterious Uffington horse drawing, it appears that there are ancient stirrings at the heart of the deep love that modern girls and women have for their equine companions.