Celtic Goddess: Epona, Sovereign Goddess of Avalon

Celtic Goddess: Epona, Sovereign Goddess of Avalon

Katinka Soetens:

Epona, Sovereign Goddess of Avalon,
28th to 31st July, 2022 Glastonbury Goddess Conference

I call to She who is the free empowerment and manifestation of the sacred land, the still point within motion, the heartbeat of the Earth and the hoofbeat of the heart. 

Beloved Epona; Horse Goddess of sovereignty and leadership, of endurance, initiation and empowerment. 

Liminal Lady, Cosmic Creatrix of all journeys, including those through the veils of death and rebirth, for Yours is the womb-tomb of becoming and unbecoming. 

Great Goddess, Sovereign Queen of sexuality, transformation, abundant joy and freedom, come and speak to us of Your ways so that we may know you.

The European Goddess Epona, a central, defining, and unifying Goddess of Celtic culture and peoples, is a name of Gaulish origin for the ancient Horse Goddess of our Stone and Bronze Age ancestors.They saw Her as the liminal Great Mother, the womb-tomb of life, death and rebirth, and as their Sovereign Queen, not limited to the immediate tribal lands, but as the source, or Goddess, of Sovereignty over a much larger territory.

Long before She was given human form, the European shamanic cultures recognised Her chthonic (= of the earth) Horse form as magical. Able to cross between, and transcend the boundaries of place and space, of different dimensions, She became the guide through the portals between realms or worlds.

The horse as symbol was emblematic of the womb/tomb Goddess and Her wisdom. She is the fertile Mother, constant as the Sun and Earth, forming and giving birth to the wholeness of life, nourishing and providing, with an abundance sourced in the underworld, which is a part of Her realm, part of Her great cycle of life, death and rebirth. She carried us, into, through and from the underworld.

In Old Europe, Her yonic crescent hoof shape was carved in the birthing-initiation cave walls to bring protection and guidance. Linked to the moon and the blood mysteries of fertility, birth and death, the Horse Goddess was also associated with the (birth)-waters of life, and as a guide into the mysteries and initiations for wellbeing and greater wholeness. She was a gateway to the ancestral realms from which life returned, as new plants grow each year from the earth after the death of winter. She was also linked to the Winter sunrise, the time of the rebirth of the sun, which She, as Solar Horse represented and simultaneously gave birth to. 

As time passed, people saw Her as Star Horse of the constellations that spin the great wheel of time. She became the Great Goddess of the cosmos and the seasons, of the liminal spaces between realms, of power, virility and fertility, of healing spring waters rising from the underworld, of initiation, of the sun and of abundance, of freedom, honour, courage, sovereignty, and of sacred union.

Depicted on the walls of their initiation caves, our ancestors painted Her especially as pregnant mare. 

The ancient Horse Goddess however, had an androgenous nature: She was seen as Divine Mare, Divine Foal/child, as well as Divine Stallion. Continuing on from the old Goddess-centric worldview, the relative androgyne of the Horse Goddess, who became known to us as Epona, draws on the archaic thread in mythology, going back to the earliest written account of Creation in ancient Sumer, that became the mythological and ritual practises of Divine Union. 

As such, Epona embodies the nuances and dynamics of polarities. More importantly, She is the meeting place beyond these dualities.  For the Celts Her partial androgyny embodied sacred union and encapsulated their aversion to rigid definition in religion or artistic expression or identity.  

Epona’s Celtic name though, is unmistakably female and means ‘Divine Mare’ or ‘Horse Goddess’. For the Celts, as Horse Goddess, She carried the intrinsic essence of harmonious balance between inner Feminine and Masculine, and of all their outer interactions. 

Throughout the Celtic lands and during the Roman area, Epona was recognised as Horse Goddess of many regions. It follows that Epona, like other Celtic Deities such as Don, Elaine and Bridgid, who we also celebrate as Sovereign Goddess of Avalon this year, was beloved Goddess of many different people and experienced as many diverse landscapes. 

No matter where you were from, the love for Her was a uniting of kinship with each other for the Celts, and kinship was one of the cornerstones of Celtic ‘right behaviour’ and honour. It created a beautiful commonality over a fast area, that offered a meeting point between unique polarities or differences: 

The Sovereign Goddess becomes a place where unity in the diversity of different Celtic tribes, could be experienced and celebrated, as well as learned and benefited from.

(map of Her lands and major sites, source: Epona.net)

In most of these regions, She was the land itself: Her realm encompassing the territories (meaning ’Earth place’) of many tribal lands. 

In the UK, as well as the land and fertility in general, She was often associated with the sowing of the winter wheat, when Her star horse form, seen as the cosmic constellation of Pegasus ridden by Andromeda, becomes visible over the horizon. 

Epona, as depicted on the ‘Pegasus stone’ from Old Oswestry Hillfort in Wales, found in 2008 and probably Iron Age in date.

It is very likely that Epona was only depicted in Her horse form until the early 3rd century BCE, though She had an intimate connection with ‘humanness’ from the very beginning. Her Human-Horse Goddess form most probably originated in the Danube river basin.

In most statues She is seated either on a throne between horses on either side of Her, or is seen riding, often sideways facing, so that we see Epona in Her horse- and human- form, in face-on and in profile simultaneously. 

A good example is the bronze altar statue of Epona found in Wiltshire (now in the British museum) 

From Roman times, Epona is linked to the Welsh Goddess Rhiannon and the Irish Goddess Morrigan in the British Isles. Epona is the only known Celtic deity to have been embraced in her original form by the Roman Empire, with little adjustment made to her list of attributes. This happened because Roman cavalry units stationed in Gaul followed Her and adopted her as their patroness and brought Her with them wherever they went. In Rome, as protectress of horses and of all journeys, She was given her own feast day (18th Dec in our calendar) and called Epona Regina. Uniquely, She was also not renamed or married to a Roman husband- God.

To find Epona in the land is part of the pilgrimage of connecting with Her and for me, She has come through particularly strong, and surprisingly, in some of the places I am lucky enough to travel to teach in Goddess circles.

She is very much part of the Priestess of Rhiannon-Epona training in Northern Italy that the Path of Love Mystery School facilitates, and where I spend time in Her valley of Epona, near Ivrea by the Dora River. It was entirely magical how She brought us to Her ancient valley, where the memory of Her priestess embodiment who was the Queen of her people, remains alive in the land. 

Queen Ipa, who was named for Epona, was probably a priestess as well as queen of the Salassi tribe, in the European tradition of embodied presence of the living Goddess, that was still part of Celtic spirituality.

As queen, Ipa was an embodiment of the Goddess and had implicit sovereignty. It was through Celtic priestesses like her that the rituals of kingship (the ritual initiation of sovereignty knows now as Hieros Gamos) would have taken place. Ipa choose her lovers freely. Her lands were rich in fertile earth, in life giving water and in gold, washed down from the mountains. The great dragon pass through the Alps was hers to guard. Unfortunately, she got drunk on her power and distorted the gifts of Epona for her own gain. Ipa fell into the trap of pride and greed. The sad demise of the Salassi tribe under her leadership, is a very good reminder how not to enact the distortions of the ‘queen’ as power-over rulership, but instead to stay true to the inner and outer sovereignty that Epona offers and elicits.

Valley of Epona, nr Ivrea, Italy

In the UK, I went to feel and honour Epona in the Uffington horse-dragon.
The Uffington horse was carved in the chalk hill between 1350 to 550 BCE in the late Bronze. It is magnificent to see Her in the landscape and to feel Her powerful living presence at this sacred site.

The tribal people who marked their sacred hill with Her image, perhaps did so to connect Her in that particular place, to the cosmic aspect of Her. Imagining that, from the celestial realm Her Star-Self form, could look down to see Her Horse/Dragon self as the land below, and bless it. 

Though very much of the Earth and on the earth, this expression of Epona, aligned to the mid winter period sunrises and sunsets, is actually not static, but an animated sacred portal between celestial-ancestral realm and the underworld.It symbolises the enduring sovereignty of Epona at the rebirth gateway in the seasonal wheel of the year, and in relation to the sacred landscape that is Her body and living presence.

In my walking with Epona for the Goddess Conference this year, She has brought interesting insights into the nature of Sovereignty, especially in relation to intimate kinship with the Sovereign Goddess of place, in this case, Epona as Sovereign Goddess of Avalon, and how this may express or manifest through us. 

Our ancestors must have observed how, amongst wild horses, it is often the experienced mare who leads the herd. This leadership may be taken on by more than one individual mare, in a shared leadership. This is distinctly different to the driving of the herd the alfa stallion is on occasion known to do. As the herd follows where the lead mares take them, so the people learned and gave the Lady of the Horses Her rightful place as Wild Feminine Power, as Sovereignty, as She who bestowed ‘Kingship through intimate kinship’.

It brings Epona’s quality of Sovereignty into alignment with responsible healthy leadership in intimate connection to the wisdom of the earth. Not only in a returning to lived guardianship of the land so needed in our world in climate crisis, but as an inner core resource for beingness and belonging, that remains untouched by any separation wounding we may carry and perpetuate. 

In Avalon, I have felt Epona especially in the crystal caves within the mythical Isle of Glass, and in the dragon back ridge of Wearyall Hill in the Glastonbury landscape. For me this is an entry point onto the sacred Isle and offers a fantastic view of the Tor. The overview of the bigger picture of the Sovereign One is what Epona opens up for me to experience here.  

Through the mists of time and of place, I can feel Her in the heartbeat of the land and in the hoofbeat of my heart. I surrender to Her presence, and She carries me. 

She is the stillness at the centre of motion, Sacred Presence at the centre of the active power of life, of the dancing life force, of love-in-action. 

She shows me how there is no need to compete, that there is no lack, and how there is true abundance and power in co-operation.

In recognising and honouring Her as Sovereign Goddess of Avalon, She asks me to really find and encourage space within my personal devotion to- and love for Her, for the importance of a circle of equals, a group of lead mares, a circle of Sovereign Ones. For me this has been manifesting and expressing this year through the work with priestess sisters and their love and connection to other Sovereign Goddesses of Avalon, as held by the circle of equals of the Goddess Conference ceremonialist this year. 

‘Deer Leap’ portal in the Vale of Avalon

Epona’s gateway into the sacred Ilse in the Vale of Avalon is ‘deer leap’, a liminal place on the dragon back of the Mendips, where the portal energy into the mysteries of the Sovereign Goddess of this land can be strongly experienced, not dissimilar in feeling for me to the gateway of Uffington Horse.

I have a love for both the Dragon and Woman form of this portal of Epona. I can feel it deeply in my body and in my subtle energy, when I stand between these two ancient guardians to the mysteries of Epona. Can you see them both in these stones, evidence of Her enduring presence? 

  Dragon stone and Priestess stone, guardian forms of Epona in the sacred landscape.

Epona’s veneration remains in traces of Her celebrations still found in the pagan festivals of Celtic Europe and Britain. For example:

  • At Beltane, in Padstow’ Obby Oss celebration, we can feel Her essence of sexuality and fertility, sacred union with the land and with the Goddess as initiation of fertility and the empowerment to leadership.
  • In the mid-Winter, at the ritual of Wassail, which falls between Winter Solstice and Imbolc, the rebirth of the sun and of life’s vitality is celebrated with Epona’s horse rituals as Mari Lwyd in Wales, as well as the Hooden Horse in Kent.
  • At Summer Solstice, at the height of Her solar power, we also remember that this is the point from which the return of the solar wheel’s journey into the underworld starts. Here the energy of Epona as Goddess of death and rebirth can be felt in Penzance’ Penglaz during the Golowan celebration, coming to remind us of death as initiation in the fullness of life.
  • In Minehead, in Somerset, the sailors horse as a Morris Dance Obby Oss, survived to the mid-twentieth century, and is thought by folklorists to have deep roots in the ceremonies of Epona, as may the British aversion to eating horsemeat.

All these traditions that have survived the ‘Great Forgetting’ of patriarchy, and echo the proto-Celtic archaic nature of Epona’s essence, and of Her roles and realms of influence. The time for remembering is now, and the Goddess Conference is one way in which we can support and inspire each other in that remembering of the living ways of Goddess.

I look forward to stepping through this gateway with you, into the presence of Epona and Her sister circle of Sovereign Goddesses of Avalon, as we enter the in person, and online Goddess Conference this month.

By Katinka Soetens, Priestess of Rhiannon of Avalon, lover of Epona, devotee of the mysteries and co-organiser of the Glastonbury Goddess Conference. https://pathoflovemysteryschool.com