The Celtic goddess Epona is specifically identified by her horse symbolism. Her name is etymologically related to a Celtic word for horse (see below), and she is defined iconographically by the presence of one or more horses. The goddess is usually depicted either riding side-saddle on a mare or between two ponies or horses. Epigraphic dedications and images of Epona indicate her immense popularity within the Celtic world, being venerated particularly in the east of Gaul and the Rhineland, but known also as far north as Britain, and as far east as Bulgaria (Green M. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London/New York 1992. P. 204 – 207).
The name of the goddess derives from the Proto-Celtic *ekWo- ‘horse’ [Noun], Gaulish Epos – ‘Horse’ (Olr. ech, Ogam EQO-DDI, W: MW ebawl ‘foal’ [m] (GPC ebol) BRET: OBret. eb ‘horse’, ebol ‘foal’, MBret. ebeul [m] CO: OCo. ebol gl. Pullus CELTIB: Ekua-laku [PN] (A.63). Gaulish Equos - ‘name of the ninth month’ (Coligny) may be an archaic form (with preserved qu < *kw). The Brit. forms (except OBret. eb) are from a derivative *ekwalo- (cf. also Celtib. ekualaku and ekualakos, which has been interpreted as a Nom. sg. of an adjective ‘belonging to ekuala’) (Matasovic R. Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic. Leiden/Boston 2009). The element is common in Celtic names (for example Epacus, Epasius, Eppius, Eppia, Επηνοσ (Epenos), Epomeduos, Eporedorix, and the names of tribes, such as the Επίδιοι (Epidii) in Scotland, or in placenames such as Epomanduodurum in France (Delmarre pp. 163-164 and pp. 355-389), and Indo European cognates of Gaulish epo- are frequent in PN’s over a wide area (see S. Feist, Kultiir, Ausbreitung und Herkunft der Indogermanen (Berlin, 1913).
Gaulish coin of the Meldi tribe, from 60-50 BC, bearing the abbreviated legend ΕΠΗΝΟ
It should be noted, however, that the supposed autonomy of Celtic civilization in Gaul suffered a major setback with Fernand Benoit’s study of the funereal symbolism of the horseman with the serpent-tailed (“anguiforme”) daemon, which he established as a theme of victory over death, and Epona; both he found to be late manifestations of Mediterranean-influenced symbolism, which had reached Gaul through contacts with the east (Benoît, F. (1950). Les mythes de l’outre-tombe. Le cavalier à l’anguipède et l’écuyère Épona. Brussels, Latomus Revue d’études latines).
Unusually for a Celtic deity, most of whom were associated with specific localities, the worship of Epona, the sole Celtic divinity ultimately worshipped in Rome itself, was widespread in the Roman Empire between the first and third centuries AD (see below).
Epona, 3rd c. AD, from Freyming (Moselle), France
(Musée Lorrain, Nancy)
Epona’s name is known through dedicatory inscriptions (mostly in Latin or Greek), and through passing references in Latin literature. Although the name Epona is Celtic, no inscriptions to the goddess have been found in the Celtic languages, as the custom of setting up dedications was introduced by the Romans.
The most northerly Epona inscription comes from Auchendavy (Strathkelvin District, Strathclyde Region) in Scotland. The altar was unearthed in 1771 during excavations of the Forth and Clyde canal and is now in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.
The altar from Auchendavy (Strathkelvin District, Strathclyde Region, Scotland)
Campestri/bus Herc(u)l(i) /
M(arcus) Coccei(us) /
|(centurio) leg(ionis) II Aug(ustae)
The altar is dedicated to Mars, Minerva, the Goddesses of the Parade Ground, Hercules, Epona, and Victory by Marcus Cocceius Firmus, a centurion of the 2nd Legion, and most likely a member of the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ bodyguard.
EPONA IN THRACE
The earliest evidence for the worship of Epona in Thrace comes from a small inscribed cult relief, discovered in the Sofia area of western Bulgaria. Dated to the late 4th/ 3rd c. BC, the carved ‘Scordus’ stone illustrates well the religious beliefs of the Celtic Scordisci who obviously worshiped Epona, the tribal ancestor-god and the warrior hero. The ritual function of the object is unclear, but carved stones displaying various imagery were widely used in Celtic cult practices (Manov 1993; Cunliffe 1992; 1997; Green 1986; 1992; 1995: 466-468; Megaw and Megaw 2001; Moscati et al. 1991). On one side of the relief a mare is depicted, which has been interpreted as a hippomorphic personification of Epona (Green 1986: 91-94, 173-174; 1992: 90-92; 1995: 479; Manov 1993 with cited lit.).
As mentioned, Epona was known as a deity of fertility and prosperity but she was also associated with beliefs relevant to death and the underworld. The other side of the carved stone shows a man in a fight to the death with an enormous snake. On the edge of the Sofia relief, a second snake is depicted together with a male facing to the front contiguous to a short incised inscription – ΣΚΟΡΔΟ (= genitive: ‘belonging to Scordus), i.e. the tribal eponym and ancestor-god Scordus, attested as Scordiscus in the sources (Appianus, Illyr. 2) (Manov 1993; see also ‘The Scordisci Wars’ and ‘Serdi/Serdica’ articles).
Inscribed cult relief bearing a dedication to the Celtic tribal God Scordus (Sofia region, w. Bulgaria. 4th – 3rd c. BC)
(After Manov 1993)
The survival and popularity of the cult of the Celtic horse goddess in Thrace in the Roman period is testified to by a number of inscriptions and depictions of Epona during this period:
An example from Aptaat (Kruschari district, Dobrich region, northeastern Bulgaria) is one of the few inscriptions in Greek (Reinach 1902 p.237; Magnen & Thévenot #33 (inscription), #219 (depiction). It does not name Epona explicitly, but is carved on an imperial type stone bas-relief of Epona seated between two horses which face inwards, offering them food from her lap. Passers by were thus expected to recognise the goddess by her attributes alone, the name being considered superfluous.
Θεαν έπηχοον Αίλιος Πανλίν [ος άνεθη]
‘Aelius Paulinus has given this image of the auspicious goddess’.
The inscription is dated to the beginning to the 2nd century A.D. (100 – 122) when the Celtic Cohors II Gallorum equitata was stationed in Moesia (see also ‘Hounds of the Empire’ article’).
An altar with an inscription to the Celtic Goddess Epona (Deae Eponae Reginae) by Valerius Rufus, beneficiaries consularis legionis of the XI legion confirms Celtic presence in the Roman forces at the Abritus military complex, also in northeastern Bulgaria. The inscription has been dated to 215 AD (Иванов, Р. 1993:29). Other evidence for the worship of the Celtic horse Goddess in Thrace comes from Augustae (modern Hurletz,Koslodui district, Vratza region) in northwestern Bulgaria where a marble votive tablet to the Celtic Goddess has been discovered (Reinach S. Rép. Des reliefs II, 153, nr. 3; Seure, Arch. Thrace II, 177; Kazarow – Die Denkmaler des Thrakischen Reitergottes in Bulgarien I-II. Budapest, 1938 = Dissertationes Pannonicae ser. 2 fasc. 14. P. 85. Inv no. 399. Fig. 224), and a bas-relief of the goddess from Plovdiv (Magnen R. and E. Thévenot (1953). Epona: déesse Gaulois des chevaux protectrice des cavaliers. Bordeaux; Tudor D. (1997) Corpus Momentorum Religionis Equitum Danuvinorum: The Analysis and Interpretation, P. 143, note 145; Green M.J., Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art. P. 22).
After G. Kazarow 1938, p. 84, Abb. 224. Now at National Archaeological Museum in Sofia, inv. No. 7518. (Thanks to E. Paunov)
Thus, the Epona cult continued to be popular in both northern and southern Thrace even after the Roman conquest. It appears that the influence of Celtic legions of the Roman army were instrumental in this phenomenon (see also Botoucharova L. Un nouveaux monument de la deese celto-romaine Epona. – In: RA, 1949, t. XXXIII, pp. 164-166; On Celtic legions in Thrace see ‘Hounds of the Empire’ article).