In one of the earliest formal shamanic classes I ever took, we were guided into the Underworlds with the intention of meeting our spirit guide. More often than not, our instructor explained, this would be an animal spirit.
As I got used to the steady drum beat (à la Michael Harner, and so different from the slow, hypno-chant inductions I was more used to), I journeyed into a vast, magical landscape completely new to me, yet familiar, too.
As usual, my inner critic and monkey mind tried to take over. “What if I’m not doing it right? Am I just making this up? What if I call and no one comes? Oh, it will be an owl, of course! Or a cat. Or a.. Hey! What if my spirit guide is scary, or embarrassingly lame?”
Over the years, I have learned a lot about my inner chatter, and I know how to turn down the volume. So, I consciously released my ego and worries, found my center of stillness, and when I was ready, I sent out the call.
Although I was wide open and not aware of any expectations, I was still very, very surprised to see, galloping across the sky and landing at my side, a beautiful, pure white mare.
In the years since that day, I have gotten to know my beloved guide well. Although I do not confuse her with the Divine Goddess, I do know she is an emissary from Her, and a bridge of connection between us.
So I have a very special place in my heart for the great horse Goddess Epona of the Celtic tribes.
Epona (which means “Great Mare” and is Gaulish in origin) is a powerful and ancient Goddess that originated with the Celtic people.
Although we know quite a lot about Epona during the height of Her worship during the Roman Empire, much less is known about Her pre-Roman history. In fact, Her very name comes to us only from the Romans (and some Greeks) that were writing descriptively about Her. We do not know Her original name from the first people to honor Her.
She is the protector of horses, which are real-life magical creatures, as anyone who works with them, or who has ever parented (or been!) a little girl surely knows.
Epona was invoked in stables and barns, given honor at the birth of foals, and was called upon to protect travelers.
Throughout the world, horses have traditionally been associated with the Sun’s life force, power, and fertility. To own horses in ancient times was proof of prosperity, mobility, and the ability to defend one’s lands in time of war.
With the emphasis on Her warrior aspect, Epona was so greatly admired by the Roman invaders of the Celtic/Gaulish lands, they adopted Her as their own. As a result, Her popularity spread across Europe, along the Danube frontier, in northern Spain, where She was called Epane, and all the way to Greece, Turkey, and Africa.
More of Her artifacts have been found on the European continent than remain in Britain, leading some to speculate Her cult actually began in the lands around northern France.
Epona is mentioned in a number of works of Latin literature, referring mainly to the common practice of dedicating altars and icons to Her in stables and barns throughout the Empire. For centuries, almost every stable had a shrine dedicated to Epona, often garlanded with roses in Her honor.
Said to be the offspring of a mare and a man, Goddess scholar Patricia Monaghan tells us that Epona could take the physical form of either species. “Sometimes, too,” Patricia writes, “She appeared as a rushing river, which suggests that Epona was a fertility Goddess, often seen in the Celtic culture as a water spirit.”
Epona is often depicted with a cornucopia of fruit, a goblet, or an offering plate called the patera. She is therefore a representative of wealth, abundance, and generosity. She is a bringer of inspiration and represents the blessings of the wild, beautiful, free spirit that can also be harnessed and directed, in order to manifest success.
It has long been a point of controversy as to whether the famed White Horse of Uffington is a representation of Epona, as well as how old the site actually is.
Through new archaeological techniques, Patricia writes, recent excavations strongly suggest that the 360-foot-long horse carved into the hillside’s white, chalky soil is a depiction of Epona. “The identification of the White Horse with the Celts is now virtually certain — and as the Celts had only one horse-divinity, the likelihood is that the horse on the hill was Epona.”
One of Epona’s most important roles was as the bestower of sovereignty in the ancient Celtic rituals of kingship. In very ancient times, these rituals involved bestial sexuality and/or sacrifice of the horse. In later times, the sacrifice and sex became symbolic, with the emphasis still being that the king-to-be was marrying the power and spirit of his Land, in order to bring forth its fertility and abundance. All of this was presided over by Epona in Her aspect as source of life and abundance.
But Epona is not only a bringer of life, She is also a figure of death.
Epona is a psychopomp, a guide that accompanies the souls of the dead to their resting place.
Closely associated with the Welsh Goddess, Rhiannon, and the Irish Macha, Epona is sometimes depicted as carrying a key, and with this She offers passage between the worlds. Ever the guardian and protector, Her image appears on ancient gravestones throughout Europe.
In addition to carrying the beloved dead, She also guides living soul-flight travelers across the thresholds of the mysterious realms, for purposes of healing or seership.
Epona’s worship came to an end with the adoption of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Yet echoes of Her influence remain, such as within the art motifs of the Christian holy family’s flight to Egypt.
And still later, we may catch a glimpse of Epona in the legends of Lady Godiva, in folk tales of gentle, magical maids who tend the horses, the mysterious lady who rides the white horse from Banbury Cross, and the folk customs surrounding the Padstow hobby-horse celebrations. Some scholars even propose it is Epona’s influence behind the Anglo aversion to eating horse meat.
May Epona give Her blessings to your authority in the world, and protect well your personal sovereignty. May She be your steady, strong companion for creating a lush, fertile life of abundance. May She be the way-shower for the journeys your soul most needs.
And, a long, long, long time from now, may She be your gentle and good transport to the Blessed Isles.
All Hail to Blessed Epona.