Epona is a Celtic goddess of horses, particularly mares and foals. In Celtic, the word “epos” means “horse.” And while Epona was predominantly Celtic, meaning her followers would have been located throughout what is now the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as France, there is evidence of her worship throughout Germany and as far south as Rome. There is even a temple dedicated to her in Rome, and December 18th is a day they celebrated in her honor. She was incredibly important to Gallic followers because horses were so important to the way of life in Gaul. The Gallic cavalry was so powerful they were able to destabilize the Roman legions. Epona did not just protect horses, she protected their owners as well, and those who cared for them, all the way down to grooms. Many followers called her “The Great Mare,” “The Divine Mare,” and “Mare Goddess.” There are not too many stories about her personality within ancient mythology.
Epona also had several other names throughout the Celtic world. She was known as a Goddess of War named Macha in Ireland, and as a Goddess of the Underworld named Rhiannon in Wales. This is how she appears in the famous Welsh text known as The Mabinogion. Both of these associations make sense for Epona, as horses would have been essential in war, not to mention that horses are the animals who symbolize the journey between the worlds. She is also known as the Celtic Goddess Etain, whose full name translates to “Etain, rider of horses.”
However, no matter what name she was known by, Epona was always portrayed the same way in artwork. She is a young woman with very long hair, surrounded by horses. Many times she was riding sidesaddle on a white mare. If she was being portrayed as Epona specifically, rather than Macha, Rhiannon, or Etain, she was usually nude on the mare. Roses were sacred to her and those were often used to decorate any of her shrines. She was also occasionally portrayed with dogs, but usually with horses as well.
Epona was a shapeshifter and could change forms between woman and mare. When she was a mare was when she showed the majority of her powers. The horse is symbolic of both travel between the worlds, and fertility, so most of the powers Epona is known for involve those characteristics. Many consider her to be the patroness of all journeys, especially those to war and the underworld. She was most likely known as a powerful Mother Goddess in the early days before her role was reduced to the protector of horses and those who rode them. However, her capacity as a protector is considered one of her greatest strengths, and what is a mother if not a protector and a leader? Mares are the leaders of their herds, deciding where and when they move. Epona’s association with horses, and fertility, also gave her an association with land and sovereignty. Horses symbolize sovereignty, and Epona was invoked by the Roman Emperor.
There aren’t many stories of Epona, but this is one that survives today. According to Greek writer, Agesilaos, Epona was born of a mare, and sired by a man named Phoulonios Stellos. Her father decided he would mate with a mare because he was angry with all womankind. Her mother, a mare, is the one who named her Epona. Since naming was very important in Celtic legends, it’s likely her mother had some sort of divine nature herself, since her daughter became known as the Goddess of Horses and may have followed on from another.