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A contemporary image of Epona with donkeys by Reverend James and John Wilcox

Epona, whose name means "Great Mare" or "Divine Mare," is the Gaulish and Celtic goddess of horses, donkeys, and mules. She is also known as Epane, Eponina ("Dear Little Epona), Atanta ("Horse-Goddess), Potia ("Powerful Mistress"), Dibonia ("Good Goddess"), Catona ("Of battle"), and Iccona Loiminna ("Luminous Icon"). She is the guardian of all equine creatures, patroness of cavalry, and a goddess of fertility associated with the birth of young equines. A tale from the Parallels Minora ("Parallel Lives"), relayed by the late Greek writer Plutarch (46-119 CE), recounts her origin, stating that she was born of a union between a mare and a man named Fulvius Stellus who hated women and thus consorted sexually with horses. The mare gave birth to a beautiful girl, whom he named Epona, and she became the goddess of horses. Her feast day is December 18th and according the Celtic linguist Alexei Kondratiev, she is also associated with the Welsh Mari Lwyd ("Grey Mary" / "Grey Mare") who is represented to this day in the form of a hobby horse that is taken about by mummers during the month of December.

Epona holds a primary association with the Celts and Gauls, however, her veneration was adopted by Roman cavalry units stationed in Gaul and they carried her fame to the far borders of the Empire, which was unusual for a deity who originated in a conquered territory. Her worship was made official in the Roman Empire in 50 CE, and due to the central importance of horses and donkeys in the Roman era, her influence then transcended regional boundaries, and small images of Epona adorned stables all across Europe, often depicting her garlanded with flowers and feeding or holding the reins of horses, donkey, or foals. Even in distant regions like Dacia, near modern day Romania, she assumed a prominent role, and was featured on a stela in which she was seated frontally on a throne with her hands on her paired animals. She also held a significant place in the Roman Imperial Religion, and her aid was invoked on behalf of the Emperor between the first and third centuries CE.

Ancient sculptures and frescoes of Epona have been categorized into two distinct types, each conveying her connection with horses and donkeys in a different way. In the "equestrian" type, prevalent in Gaul she rides side-saddle on a horse, and may even be shown lying on one, stressing her intimate familiarity with the animal. In the "imperial" type, more widespread beyond Gaul, and often found as a stable-votive, she is portrayed as a benevolent patroness, seated on a throne and surrounded by symmetrical pairs of horses, donkeys, or foals. Symbols associated with images of the imperial form of Epona include the patera, a shallow bowl for holding libations; the cornucopia or horn of plenty; and sheaves of grain, baskets of hay, or bundles of cut grass for feeding the animals under her care. Devotees of Epona most often petition her by making offerings, ranging from plants, fruits, and grains to jewelry, precious metals, and items associated with equine animals, such as horseshoes, carved figurines, and clay votives.


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