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Exploring Myth, Divination and the Western Mysteries.

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Saturday 17 December 2011

Epona's Day

EPONA’S DAY – the Gifts of Midwinter
By Caitlín Matthews

This morning I rise early with anticipation and excitement. Snow was forecast last night.  Drawing back the curtains, I find a thin layer of fine whiteness making bright the early morning darkness. No bird breaks the stillness with song or movement. It is a perfect hour for the dawning of Epona’s Day.
I go to my shrine and light up the altar of Epona/Rhiannon and consider all that this day means.

18th December is the day on which the pan-Celtic Horse Goddess, Epona, was celebrated – the only feast in the later Roman calendar dedicated to a Celtic divinity.  It was the day when all the cloven-footed beasts – horses, donkeys, cattle, oxen – were rested and not made to work.  She is remembered every year by me for this day is one on which I never work. That tender, fiery-passionate saint, Francis, often referred to his physical body as ‘Brother Ass,’ and, indeed, sometimes the old ass refuses to shift another inch without a rest! At other busy points of the year, I often declare it to be ‘a refreshment day,’ in Epona’s honour when I feel that the pressure of work is creating stress and disconnection from the important roots of my creative fertility.  She will bear me far but not to the world’s end unless I spend time listening to her wisdom.

What is the reason for Epona’s incorporation into the Roman calendar?  And why is it remembered so near the Solstice? Well, the early Romans celebrated midwinter with rites to Ops and Consus, the Sabine deities of the underworldly earth whom they saw as resonant with Rhea and Saturn. Ops
was the goddess of abundance and is related to the word opus or ‘work.’ Consus had a temple upon the Aventine but, as god of seeds and grain, he had an altar in his underground granary under the Circus Maximus – the entrance to this was ceremonially uncovered on his feast days.  Consus was associated with horses and, by extension, by those beasts that ploughed the fields. 

The midwinter rites of Ops and Consus on 17th December began the festival of Saturnalia – the intercalary days when business ceased, when people could publicly gamble and wear informal clothing, and when slaves’ duties were relaxed and households elected a mock king to preside over the festivities.  Prior to Christmas, Saturnalia saw much merriment, feasting and giving of gifts.  Horses and mules were rested from ordinary work duties and garlanded, while the pontifices (priests) used the Circus Maximus arena to race mules.  This custom of racing mules in honour of Consus reveals his close connection with Saturnine duty of restoring the flagging midwinter sun to its point of renewal over the solstice.  The Gaulish goddess Epona became incorporated into Roman religion  because of the Roman army whose cavalry was made up of levies of men from Gaul, the Low Countries and Germany: the influence of riders and grooms who depended upon their horses brought Epona into association with the midwinter rituals.

18th December is also when we begin the winding down to Solstice – literally ‘the sun’s stand still.’  Although the busy days of Christmas preparation consume our hours: getting the tree up and decorated, buying and packing the last presents, stocking the larder with rich foods to share with friends and family,  Epona still has her place, though we do not remember her.

There is little myth or story that has come down to us about Epona who was worshipped among the Gauls and in Britain and Ireland under a variety of names, including Rhiannon and Macha. One fragmentary source tells us: 'A certain Phoulonios Stellos, who hated women, had intercourse with a mare. In time, she brought forth a beautiful maiden whom she named Epona, a goddess of horses.'  This ability of Epona to be both a woman and yet have the ability to change into a mare remains strongest in European folk story where the enchanted mare is the source of great wisdom and redemption, as we can see in the First Branch of the Mabinogion where Rhiannon is falsely accused of eating her own child and is forced to stop all comers to the gate, tell the false tale about her deeds to visitors and bear them into the hall on her back. Or in the Irish stories of The Haggery Nag or Baranoir where wise mares become women.

Classical sources reveal something about the rites of Epona. The Roman satirist  Juvenal writes about the horse-crazy young noble, Lateranus, who hangs out with low-life grooms in order to tend to his horses: ‘he swears at Jove's high altar by Epona, whose picture's daubed/ on the doors of his reeking stables.’

Epona’s image appeared in stables from Gaul to Thessaly: ostlers offered her roses. The Roman legions in Germany and the Low Countries dedicated many inscriptions  to her, where she is shown with a foal following her progress, or with a foal or pair of foals eating from the manger of her lap or as a woman seated upon a horse. The custom of Epona's rose garland and her association with asses and horses may also give us a new insight into the predicament of Lucius Apuleius who, in The Golden Ass, is turned into an ass by mistake. He is destined to remain in this unfortunate shape until he can consume roses. While in the stable he notices a little shrine of the Mare-Headed Mother, the Goddess Epona, standing in a niche of the post that supported the main beam of the stable. It was wreathed with freshly garlanded roses but, unfortunately, before he is able to eat them, thieves break in and he begins a long series of adventures in his asinine shape. It is not until he encounters a procession in honour of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, at which he eats a garland of roses, that he becomes a man once more.  His shapeshifting can only be ended by the Goddess.

Many depictions of Epona show her as a woman riding a horse, always moving left to right.  In Christian iconography, the Flight into Egypt – the occasion when the Holy Family had to flee from Herod’s child-massacre - shows Mary upon a donkey with the child Jesus in her arms.  She does not ride astride but is seated on the right side (not the more usual left) of the animal.  The chalk hill-figure of the White Horse of Uffington is also facing the same direction, moving sunwise, pulling the sun from solstice to equinox again.

Epona ushers us into the deep gifts of midwinter and invites us to rest, to cease from our shapeshifting and realize that we are not super-beings but souls whose bodies need the grace of refreshment and the garlanding of festival.  In midwinter’s rest lies the deep wisdom, the seeds of our renewal whereby the new year can be fruitful.  If I run headlong from one task to the other without that grace, I make a bodge and become just a work horse. 

I invite you, enter now into the stillness of solstice, uncover the altar of your deep gifts and give thanks for Epona’s wisdom.

To read more about Epona/Rhiannon, see chapter 2 of my Mabon and Guardians of Celtic Britain (Inner Traditions), which is volume one of my study and key to the Mabinogion  - the major sourcebook for early British myth. Signed copies available from www.hallowquest.org.uk

Wednesday 8 June 2011

SHOWING FORTH THE STORY: Belief, Tradition, Prophecy and the Hierophant

The Hierophant is one who shows forth what is holy. He is primarily associated with the flow and transmission of tradition, a concept that troubles a few in our free-thinking times. Let’s remember that ‘tradition’ derives from the latin traditio or ‘I hand over.’ Tradition is not fixed, but is an ever-flowing wisdom in every generation.
          The ancient tarots make this card a Pope, while the more recent ones return to an older tradition of the hierophants of the Greek Mysteries.  Both Pope and Hierophant drawing upon earlier traditions and represent important concepts. Drawing upon pre-Christian Roman religion, the Pope is called the pontiff or bridge who, in his own person, bridges this world and the other.  The ancient Mystery Religions were largely about the revelation of myth through dramatic representation or sacred ritual.  This is still an important part of our divinatory profession whereby the tarot-reader bridges the everyday and the deep worlds for the client, through the medium of the cards’ story.
          The stories that we tell and the ones we believe in, guide our souls.  This is why, when I created the Arthurian Tarot, the Hierophant card depicts the Welsh poet, Taliesin, relating his own story of intitiation and transformation to the two children hearing him.  Over the back of his bardic chair and falling through his fingers is the golden chain of the story that helps hearers make and keep their own links with the holy and mythic.

Taliesin from the Arthurian Tarot by Caitlin & John Matthews, art by Miranda Gray

          For me, this concept of sacred connection has been central to my life.  I would argue that, rather than representing a fixed and inflexible dogma (which I would associate more with its reversed meaning), the Hierophant stands for those traditional life-guiding myths and stories that uphold our life.  When the Hierophant speaks ex cathedra, in him are met both the authority of experience and the authenticity of living from that deep knowing. 
          We live in times where the river of tradition has flowed out from religion into spirituality.  Tradition finds its own level in every generation, flowing wherever we can catch its precious drops.  We learn from its stories and myths and we make them bridges that enable us to live effectively: our belief in them captures our imagination, so that we can enact all the gifts we’ve been given in this life.
          But there are some who cannot feel safe unless their religion or belief becomes a perimeter fence that separates them from the world: the fundamentalist mentality is fearful, clinging to known constructs and fending off any changes.  This is where tradition becomes rigid concrete rather than a river that flows and finds new channels.  Traditional and holy precepts can become mandatory and imprisoning under such a régime.  The original sacred sayings freeze-dry into dogmas.  This is where the Hierophant becomes dictator and spiritual tyrant.
          There are also those who have little or no purchase on any tradition. Rather than finding the tree of tradition, they cling to the wind-blown twigs and leaves of the  –isms, -ologies and self-help theories, the very tattered remnants of tradition that bear little relationship to the tree on which they once grew.  For them, every little movement is a sacred omen and anyone who sounds authoritative is someone to follow, as we saw when the US preacher Harold Camping’s belief that the world would end on 21 May  2011 (now ‘postponed’ till 21 October 2011!),  caused believers to imagine they would ‘enter the rapture.’ Many believed implicitly in Camping, selling their goods or sending their children’s education money to his campaign funds.  False prophets and those voices that whisper ignorant stories into our ears are also part of the reversed Hierophant who undercut our primal, sacred belonging and replace it with fear.
          In our own field of operations, we should be aware of how much 2012 mania is severely affecting people, making them panicky as Mayan Prophecies and the progress of a long star-cycle comes to its end and starting point again.  When Christian millennial prophecies join up with esoteric prophecy and the astrological observations of an ancient people, we have an explosive mix.  This came home to us recently when my husband, John Matthews, who has just sold The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus, overheard one of his publishers remark:  ‘Didn’t Nostradamus prophecy the end of the world in 2012? We should aim to get it published as early as we can!!!!’  This kind of consciousness, based on fear-mongering is not what we want to foster, we assure you!  John immediately pointed out that his new tarot wasn’t about doomsday scenarios but how to live wisely and with insight all the years of our life.
          Such literal-mindedness is a real fact of our times, as many lose their links with the holy bridge that connects us with the other side of reality.  We really need the wise voice of the upright Hierophant, reminding us of the life-guiding myths and telling us once more the saving stories that uphold and affirm our life-purpose. The myths and stories that guide our souls enable us to have flexible imaginations,  helping us find our way out of the unhappy corners that the loss of resourceful stories pastes us into, and showing us the wider wholeness in which we live.
            Omens and portents are the traditional signposts of the true prophet and way-shower to come and point the way back to the ancestral restorative of thankfulness and offering, as Merlin reminds in his prayer: ‘Highest Creator, I should be obedient to thee, and show forth Thy most worthy praise from a worthy heart, always joyfully making offerings.’ (Vita Merlini) When human anxiety and trouble overwhelm us, the truth is hard to seek.  But instead of ploughing on till the last day of doom in fulfilment of horrific, world-ending prophecies, we can look once more to the treasury of our destiny.  The gifts that have been given to us look not only forward to the future but also back to their roots in the past.  They are a precious wisdom that frames and shapes our story.
          I am out to allay the kind of fears that arise from believing in stories and omens that warp our lives, and to reconfirm the resources we have.  It is part of the tarot reader’s hierophantic task to tell the story of the cards in such a way that it will be helpful to the client, so I’ve devised the Hierophant’s Bridge Spread that may help guide the fearful through this year, next year and beyond.  This includes three factors that shape our lives: Fate, Destiny and Free Will.
          Fate is that which we cannot alter – e.g. our place of birth or basic physiology.  Destiny is that which lies potentially within each of us: e.g. the gift of art that can develop, with practice, until we attain artistic expertise, or that can simply remain a pleasant hobby.  Free Will is about the choices we make for ourselves, the game we play with what we are given (both our Fate and the potentialities of our Destiny) and where we centre ourselves.  


Shuffle and cut, laying the cards as following.  Whichever card lands on position  5 is the Significator or ‘yourself as hierophant,’ who represents you through this three year reading and who is the fusion of your authentic and authoritative self. This is what the horozontal lines mean:

          Wisdom of the Years Behind Me:        top 3 cards -  Before 2011
          How I Wisely Traverse 2012:        middle 3 cards  - 2012
          Wisdom of the Years Ahead of Me:  bottom 3 cards - 2013 onwards
The Hand I’m Dealt/   The Game I Play            The Hand I Create
Me & My Fate          /Me and my free will       /Me & my destiny
           1                               2                        3             2011 & before
           4                               5                        6             2012
           7                               8                         9            2013 onwards

I hope this spread enables us all to see our lives as an ungoing totality. Fate, Free Will and Destiny are the hierophantic triple crown of all human beings: let’s wear them with pride and confidence and not be afraid of beliefs and prophecies that remove us from our own sacred connections.

The Arthurian Tarot will be reprinted in August 2011 and will be available from http://www.hallowquest.org.uk/. The Lost Tarot of Nostradamus by John Matthews & Wil Kinghan is published in 2012.