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
: the influence of riders and grooms who depended upon their horses brought Epona into association with the midwinter rituals. Germany
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 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. Ireland
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
– 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. Egypt
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