EPONA is a Celtic goddess associated with horses. Her name is attested in Gaul and throughout the Roman empire of the first three centuries CE by about 250 figurative monuments and more than 60 votive inscriptions. In fact, she is the Celtic divinity whose name, if not whose cult, appears beyond the Gaulish borders. It is also exceptional that her name has been retained by several Latin writers.
Her Celtic name is related to the general designation for the horse, epos (Irish, ech; Welsh, ebol; Breton, ebeul, "foal," from *epalo-s ), and a suffix of theonymic derivation, -ona, suggests that Epona was the goddess of horses, if not of stables. Actually, the Gallo-Roman iconography of Epona is divided into two main types of depictions: Epona on horseback and Epona between two facing horses. It is very likely that Epona represents a Celtic transposition and interpretation of the Hellenistic theme of the "lady of horses." The images are foreign, but the name is Celtic and has been applied to the great sovereign feminine divinity (often called Augusta and Regina in the Celtic-Roman inscriptions). There is no correspondence in the insular Celtic cultures.
Care must be taken not to see Epona as a hippomorphic divinity, that is, as one possessing equine attributes. Henri Hubert and Jean Gricourt have made comparisons—all fallacious—to insular deities, the Welsh Rhiannon ("great queen") and the Irish Macha ("plain"), eponym for Emhain Mhacha, residence of King Conchobhar in the tales from the Ulster Cycle, but neither of these mythic figures is any more hippomorphic than Epona herself. In the Mabinogion Rhiannon is the wife of Pwyll, and after being falsely accused of slaying her newborn son she is condemned to carry on her back the visitors to her husband's court for seven years. Macha is a war goddess of Irish tradition; after some imprudent bragging on the part of her husband, Crunnchu, Macha is forced, despite her advanced pregnancy, to run a race on a solemn feast day against the king's horses. She wins the race and then dies giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl. But before dying she hurls a cry to punish Ulates, and all the men of Ulster who hear her (and all their descendants for nine generations) are condemned not to have more strength during military encounters than a woman in childbed.
It is difficult to view Rhiannon as anything other than a queen or sovereign deity. As to Macha, she is a trifunctional divinity who also goes by the names of Bodb and Morríghan, warrior goddess of Ireland. The problem posed by Epona's plurality must be reexamined in light of these facts about Rhiannon and Macha.
Benoit, Fernand. Les mythes de l'Outre-Tombe, le cavalier à l'anguipède et l'écuyère Epona. Brussels, 1950.
Le Roux, Françoise. "Epona." Ph.D. diss., École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris, 1955.
Le Roux, Françoise, and Christian-J. Guyonvarc'h. "Morrigan-Bodb-Macha: La souveraineté guerrière de l'Irlande." Celticum (Rennes), no. 25 (1984).
Magnen, René, and Émile Thevenot. Epona, déesse gauloise des chevaux, protectrice des cavaliers. Bordeaux, 1953.
FranÇoise le Roux (1987)
Christian-J. Guyonvarc'h (1987)
Translated from French by Erica Meltzer