Epona has always galloped across sky and earth with her beloved horses. Not horses alone, but all creatures. They are her kindred and her kind. It is for them she provides fields and forests for browsing, nourishes the fruit trees, planted the herbs. She leads the herds unfailingly to clear waters. Her hands aid the birthing of every living thing, singing joyfully over each new life.
Perhaps it was the familiarity with Epona that animals came to be tamed by mortals. It was certainly the association of animals with humans that drew Epona’s interest to them. Their care of her creatures warmed her heart, endearing them to her like any mother watching the kindness given her children. In return, Epona extended her largess to man.
Unlike creatures, mortals could not see her, save little children and mothers dying in childbirth. In the final anguish before Epona bore a mother’s soul to the otherworld, Epona was visible to her. Often the last words of the woman would be, “My Lady!” Mortals began to sense her love for them. As they began to love Epona, they began to glimpse through her glamour to see her. To some she was a dazzling white mare, to some a terrifying black one, to others a long legged woman running with horses. They showed their reverence by creating shrines to their vision of her, leaving offerings of apples, grain and roses.
Only one ever saw her truly, face to face, and he a soldier in the heat of battle.
As men stole ascendancy from women, wars began. Creatures died in countless numbers. Epona knew every one from their birth. On the battlefield her heart wrung in pity for soldiers dying, men she had cradled in her lap as tiny babes. She screamed in fury with the screams of dying horses, each one a foal she had danced with in spring. With the rain she wept over the rotting corpses strewn across her lands. Gently, she bore the souls of horse and man to the otherworld. Epona flew through battles an angry wind, weeping in rage and futility. The eyes of the dying beheld her and cried out, “Mother!”
Though she brought forth life from the womb and returned it to the otherworld, she could not interfere with destiny.
Except once, for a man’s love of his horse. For her love of that man.
His name was Equinnus. For many generations past, his family bred the finest warhorses in the Empire - stallions of exceptional strength and speed, fearless in battle, trained to slash with hooves as its master slashed with sword. To Equinnus war was the dance of manhood, a glorious rondele of muscle and might. He never felt as truly alive as when battle raged around him, Death nipping at him. Those that fell beneath his sword into Death’s maw were simply enemies. Equinnus never thought about what enemy meant. It was his life or that of a stranger, a meaningless entity from his point of view. He was bred to be a soldier as his horse, Cicero, was bred to do battle.
Cicero, the best of the best. The Caesar had wanted Cicero for his own son’s battle mount. But Cicero had thrown the young man time and time again, making it clear his heart’s loyalty lay with Equinnus alone. Equinnus had raised him from foal to the magnificent fighter he was. Together they were legends.
Though it is not for battle they are remembered.
With his last strength, a dying soldier impaled Cicero on his sword. Equinnus was thrown. Cicero’s gushing wound poured blood over his master. The battle frenzy left Equinnus as suddenly as swordstroke. He saw only Cicero. Disbelief paralyzed Equinnus. He struggled to the side of his beloved companion as the battle clamored around them. Disbelief turned to despair, Equinnus buried his face in the blood drenched side of Cicero and wept.
Equinnus’s grief made him an easy target for a Gaul swordstroke. But Epona plucked the sword from the air. The Gaul saw a dark horse-woman grasping it by the blade. Fire poured from her hand as if blood. He turned and fled, leaving Epona standing over Equinnus. One by one the soldiers became aware of her. Their weapons dropped as they stood gaping at her. She turned slowly, towering above the battlefield, raising the sword above her head fire streaming down her arms. As her eyes met those of the mortals, they fell prostrate. The horses nickered recognition, the men fainted in terror. She hurled the sword into the sky. It disappeared with a thunderous crack.
Epona knelt by Equinnus, gently turning his face until her eyes met his. Equinnus did not see the fierce eyes of a giant horse-woman. He looked into the deep eyes of a slight, pale maiden. Epona turned her gaze to the fatal gash in Cicero’s side. Equinnus watched her lay her hands over the wound. The flesh melted together under her slim fingers. Cicero jerked, snorted, rose to his feet. He curled a foreleg back, pulling back in a bow to Epona, nuzzling her hand, the hand fragrant with his blood. She stoked his cheek, and turned her gaze back to Equinnus.
Epona knew Equinnus from birth. She knew him as the youth training horses, his face alight with exuberance. She knew him as soldier. Now she saw him as a man. Not a handsome man, but one whose heart was knitted with his horse. She who had loved as mother, now felt the love of woman.
Equinnus raised her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. “My Lady,” he murmured.
Epona‘s mouth blossomed into a gentle smile. “My Love.”
Their lips met in Epona’s first kiss. Equinnus knew nothing more than the woman before him
Hands clasped they walked through the thunderstruck battlefield, Cicero following, his head held proudly. The eyes of battle-horse and soldier followed as the three walked into the sky.
The legendary facts about Epona are few. There are no records of mother, spouse or child of Epona. Her sculpted images have three usual forms: a woman riding a horse, a woman sitting with horses or foals on either side, a woman feeding horses from a cornucopia. Dogs and birds are sometimes included in her images. Whips, harnesses and keys are also symbols found in her shrine images. The name Epona is from the Celtic language Gaulish, the root being 'epa' or 'mare'. She was sometimes addressed in the plural, Eponabus. She was adopted by the Roman calvary as patron goddess. Almost all stables in the Roman Empire had a shrine to Epona. She was given offerings of grain, apples and roses. She is traditionally the protectress of horses, particularly mares and foals, animals, riders and stables. Rhiannon of Wales, Macha of Ireland, the Divine White Mare, and Edain are manifestations of Epona.
Assumptions are more numerous. The lack of family associations and being referred to in the plural suggests she is a Mother goddess, the three fold goddess, a goddess of fertility. Horses, more than any other domesticated animal, are associated with wealth and status. Horses were valued as animals of transport, war, power, and prestige. The patron deity of horses would rank high in the celestial pantheon. In ancient Rome only the very rich or nobility sacrificed a horse. The cornucopia is the horn of sacred cow, overspilling abundance. It appears in fairy tales where the hero removes a horn from cow or bull which feeds the hero with fine foods. This cornucopia associates Epona with the sacred cow image of the goddess common in other cultures. The addition of birds and dogs gives her additional deeper meaning.
Birds fly and therefore symbolize many forms of spirituality: the departed soul, messengers of heaven, givers of omens and enlightenment, carriers of secrets. Birds and feathers symbolize the air element, air the home of invisible souls, gods of winds, air is the essence of the Supreme deity. Bird language is a Buddhist metaphor for enlightenment, flying a metaphor for holy trance. The Latin word 'aves' means both bird and ancestral spirit. Angels and fairies have wings. Vultures and ravens take the dead to the otherworld, doves carry souls to be born. Birds suggest Epona guides souls to the otherworld to be reborn.
Dogs have mythical symbolism as well. They are companion to Diana, Roman goddess of the moon, the Goddess in crone form. Also companions to goddesses in Babylon, Greece, Persia, and Scandinavia. In Hebrew dogs alone can see the angel of death, they howl at the moon when death approaches. Dogs/wolves share tales of nursing human children who often have divine powers, like Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who founded Rome. Sirius is the dog star, and dogs have the constellations of Canis major and minor. Dogs further connect Epona to being a goddess of death and dying, or goddess as crone.
Grain, apples and roses give still more layers of meaning.
The 'Ancient Corn Mother' of Europe is mother of all grain. Grains are the sons of the Earth Mother who, for the sake of humanity, die at harvest, descend into the otherworld (planting), and are reborn to give people life when their flesh is eaten. Egyptians called the moment of death a 'grain, which falls to earth in order to draw from her (Earth) bosom a new life." A similar analogy is found in John 12:24. In Egypt wheat was the grain of truth. Bread was placed in tombs. Grain links Epona to being Earth Mother.
Apples are symbolic of the goddess, a pentacle within a circle is in the center of an apple, which is the symbol for Venus and the Egyptian symbol for the underworld and womb; the apple blossom has five petals, like the rose which is also sacred to Venus and the Virgin Mary - which is why both are wedding flowers. The apple symbolizes the goddess in all her 3 forms blossom = virgin, fruit = mother, pip = crone. The Norse believed apples carried the souls of men from one life to another, symbolized the heart (similar shape) and were buried with the dead as symbols of the souls resurrection. The Norse goddess Idun kept the gods alive with her magic apples, as did Hera nourish the gods of Olympus with apples from the Tree of Life. The Irish hero Connla was given an apple of immortality from a woman of the other world. The mortally wounded Arthur was borne to the Apple- Land, or Avalon, by a woman from the other world. Cutting and eating an apple was part of Gypsy marriage rite. A girl chose her groom by tossing an apple at him. Apple pips are poisonous (they contain cyanide), from whence comes the poison apple of fairy tales.
Apples connect Epona to the mother aspect Three-fold Goddess, as the rose connects her to the virgin becoming lover aspect.
The rose is the flower of many goddesses from Venus to the Virgin Mary. The image of Cybele was carried in procession through Rome covered in roses. Gnostics claim roses sprang into being from the menstrual blood of Psyche when she became enamored with Eros. The Arabian Gulistan or 'Rose Garden' is a paradise centered on a 'rose of love', a motif of magic, sexual, secret gardens or trysting places. Rose buds resemble male genitalia and the full bloom resembles female. The slang 'rose of love' has referred to sex from ancient Arab poets to French troubadours. "La Rose' is still slang for female genitals. Apple blossoms symbolize Eve, and five petaled roses the Virgin Mary or the reincarnation of Eve.
Put it all together and Epona becomes much more than just a horse deity.
Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, by Barbara C Wallace
Women's dictionary of Signs and Symbols, by Barbara C Wallace