Epona (Intarabus, Interabus) is a Gaulish and Brythonic goddess known from inscriptional, epigraphic and pictorial evidence across Gaul and Britain. She is one of the great Celtic goddesses and represents one of the rare examples of a pan-celtic deity. She is associated with the cult of the horse and with fertility and survives in Welsh mythology as the figure of Rhiannon.
Epona is known from epigraphic and pictorial representations across the Brythonic world. She is an example of one of the true pan-Celtic deities and the ubiquity of her cult may represent the importance of horses to the Celts. Her name is derived from the proto-Celtic *epōs (horse) which gives rise to modern Cymric ebol (foal) and old Cymric epa (to steal horses). Epona’s name can therefore be interpreted as ‘Divine Horse’. Indeed, the association of Epona with equines in attested in the extant images of her (as above) and in the location of many of the inscriptions dedicated to her (which were found in stables or race-tracks).
She is depicted in three main ways, two of which are shown above. The main depiction shows a woman riding a horse side-saddle. The example (above left) is a Gallo-Roman relief from Altbachtal in the Rhineland and shows Epona with a dog in her lap. She is often, though not always, seen accompanied by a dog though the nature of the relationship can never be certain for a dog can be malevolent, helpful or magical in Celtic mythos. A dog may also represent the spirit of a person as it does for CúChulainn. The second image (above, right) shows the second most common depiction of Epona where she is seated with horses by her left and right hand sides. This depiction is derived from a bronze statuette found in Wiltshire and which now resides in the British Museum. In this case the equines are hound-sized with a horse on the left and a stallion on the right. Epona seems to be holding a plate bearing several ears of wheat and an over-sized wheat-sheaf lies on her lap. The horses both bear collars indicating their subserviant relationship to the goddess. A third, though rarer, depiction of the goddess shows her as a charioteer.
A good example of this being a bronze plaque from Alesia (modern Alise-Ste-Reine, Côte d’Or, Bourgogne, France) which has a fairly crude image of a figure sitting atop a two wheeled chariot and driving a single steed before her. This would not have been recognized as an image of Epona had it not been for the punched inscription Dea Epone Satigenus Solemni Fil VSL (To the goddess Epona, Satigenus son of Solemnis willingly fulfilled his vow) punched upon it.
Interestingly, though the majority of inscriptions (almost 150) dedicated to this goddess have been found in central Gaul the oldest datable evidence for her continued worship come from Italy (Cis-alpine Gaul), Southern Gaul, Britain, Bulgaria, Austria and Rumania. Suggesting that her cult may have been widespread from pre-Roman times but that official Roman acceptance (her festival in Rome being on the 18th of December) intensified her worship in the heartlands of Gaul. Very small Epona figurines have been found throughtout the areas of her worship, suggesting that, as well as having large cults associated with her (such as the temple dedicated to her at Entrains [Niévre]), she was also one of the personal or household gods.
During the later Roman period the Burgundian tribes of the Aedui and Ligones, as well as the Mediomatrici and Treveri of eastern Gaul seem to have been especially devoted to her. However, her iconography is complex suggesting that she was probably associated with fertility (depictions of her with fruit or corn, or with young foals) indeed, one of the main aspect of her cult might be to do with the fertility of horses (something very important to horse-breeding tribes). Though she is also depicted with dogs and sometimes even with ravens suggesting a healing and a chthonic aspect to her cult. Again, this would not be incompatible with Epona’s stewardship of horses for they need healing and eventually die. Also, horses are a form of transport and are one of the animals (birds being the other) that transport the souls of the departed after death, thus it has been proposed that Epona was a psychopomp.
The Epidii tribe of Kintyre may be the ‘people of Epona’. Their name certainly contains the epos (horse) root though the mane of the tribe could be rendered as ‘people of the horse’. Looking at the insular tradition, it has been suggested, and seems probable that the Cymric deity Rhiannon represents the survival of certain aspects of Epona into Medieval literature.