The Celtic Goddess Epona that Rode Swiftly Across the Ancient Roman Empire
The protector of horses, mules, and cavalry, Epona was one of the only non-Roman goddesses to have been wholly adopted by the Roman Empire. Often depicted astride a horse, Epona resonated in the forces of the Roman cavalry as an inspiration and guide through even the darkest of battles, and she remained one of their most worshipped goddesses between the first and third centuries AD.
Interestingly, Epona was also seen as a goddess of fertility, accompanied in many of her depictions by grain or a cornucopia. Coupled with the worship of her equine prowess in the military, it is evident she was seen both in Gaulish and Roman cultures as a deity of prosperity within the equestrian home and on the battlefield.
It has also been argued that Epona served as an escort for souls into the afterlife. The presence of a statue of Epona in her horse form was found in the grave of a young girl who died in the 2nd century and seems to support this notion. That burial was discovered in Godmanchester (Roman Durovigutum), in the Huntingdonshire district of Cambridgeshire, England.
Originally from Gaul, Epona was worshipped in Britain throughout the Iron Age, coming to the continent during the time of the Romans. As far as modern scholarship can tell, her worship extended as far north as the Strathclyde Region in Scotland, with depictions of her found on the Roman wall forts of Hadrian and Antonine, but her veneration stretched no further than the farthest reach of the Empire. There is no evidence of Epona in the Near East - an understandable lack, as the Romans were never able to conquer or occupy the Persian Empire. It is unknown from where, exactly, Epona originated but she was prevalent throughout the tribes of the Celts and quickly became widespread throughout the Empire as well.
Epona made her way to Rome through the aid of the Roman military. The Roman cavalry was formed of foreign auxiliaries from groups and tribes conquered by the Empire. Though many of these men were not citizens, citizenship could be attained after a certain number of years in the military, which meant that the Roman forces were exposed to foreign religions quite often and for long periods of time. Even though Gauls were not one of the prominent groups in the cavalry, Epona was introduced to this amalgamation of men during their time fighting in Gaul. With so many men from so many different cultures gathered together with such a prestigious equestrian duty to perform, it is natural that they would desire their own religious spirit or guide. Upon discovering her impression in Gaul, Epona became the perfect choice.
Small sculpture of the Roman/Celtic goddess Epona, third century A.D. Public Domain
Epona's distribution throughout the realm was greatly aided by the fact that the Romans were already a religiously tolerant culture. Many gods of Gaul had been brought into the Empire by marrying Roman gods (as was the case with Mercury and Rosmerta) or by re-appropriating their names and affiliations to align with pre-existing Roman gods.
Relief of Mercury and Rosmerta from Eisenberg in present-day Rhineland-Palatinate. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Epona is unique in that she was not renamed or married to a Roman husband—she came to Rome as herself and blended quite smoothly into the Roman military. She is the only known Celtic deity to have been embraced in her original form by the Empire, with little adjustment made to her list of attributes. Her likeability spread outside of the military and into the homes of the Roman people as well.
The countryside of Rome consisted of widespread farmland, an environment that led to a need for a goddess who could protect and look over the stables and horses of the common people outside of the military. As Epona was introduced into the city of Rome, her name and image spread like wildfire. Farmers, stable hands, grooms, drivers, and so many other ordinary people who interacted with horses and mules on a day to day basis welcomed Epona into their own lives and homes, and worshipped her as frequently as the Roman military.
She was revered in various ways throughout the region, depending on whether the worshipper was military or civilian. The cavalry erected small shrines wherever they went, which was one of the reasons why her cult was so widespread. They sacrificed to her before important battles and wrote numerous vows and inscriptions to her.
Small Epona sculpture from Auxois, France. Public Domain
In the home, there were more diminutive devices for her worship—tokens and flowers were laid out to her in countless equine locations, and small statues were often erected in houses and stables. It was on these statues that cornucopias were depicted, revealing the desire of the Roman people for her to bring fertility to their stables and strong mares to their herds. A good horse or donkey was an important source of transportation in ancient Rome—among the elite in particular, a strong horse was a valuable source of prestige.
Statues depicted Epona in three varying forms: astride her horse, as an imperial goddess, or riding upon a cart. It should be noted that in the Gaulish tradition, it was not customary to portray the gods in human form but rather in the form of an animal, plant, or other appropriate emblem of their worship. Previous to the Romans, Epona was merely the image of a horse or mule. Upon coming to Rome, she was altered to appear as the Roman gods did, thus in the three aforementioned ways.
A relief depicting Epona and horses. Vorarlberg Museum, Bregenz, Austria. Public Domain
Riding was the most common way in which Epona was shown, always sidesaddle and often with a cornucopia in her hands signifying both her fertility and that of the horses under her guidance. The imperial image portrays Epona in a more regal fashion, often standing between two to four horses and either standing or seated on a throne. Images such as these were undoubtedly inspired by the art of the Roman emperor and meant to show Epona as the sovereign of both equestrians and their owners. The cart image has the least circulation and it shows Epona in a cart or chariot lead by horses. Interestingly, these images can be seen as a servile relationship between the goddess and her creatures which may (though there is little evidence) be the reason such depictions are few and far between.
The motif of the "Lady of the Animals" lives on this religious depiction. Flanked by two horses, Epona is shown sitting on a throne holding a fruit basket on her lap. Circa 200 AD. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Epona is easily one of the most interesting goddesses assimilated into the Roman Empire. The apparent seamlessness and ease of her transition is only one of the reasons why she was such a fascinating addition to the culture of the Romans. She remains an example of the ways in which foreign gods were adopted into the Empire and the reasons for these adoptions. Furthermore, her fusion into the Empire allowed for rare extensive knowledge of her original Gaulish character and her subsequent alterations to be passed down for modern research.
Featured image: A relief of Epona, flanked by two pairs of horses, from Roman Macedonia, foruth century C.E. Wikimedia, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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By Ryan Stone