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Epona in Classical Literature

Epona is mentioned by name several times in the classical literature.

Satires, by Juvenal

Decimus Junius Juvenalis wrote sixteen satires, probably between 100 and 128 CE; the 7th, 8th and 9th satires were probably written between 113 and 121 CE [Green, pp. xv-xvi]. 'His verse established a model for the satire of indignation, in contrast to the less harsh satire of ridicule of Horace' [Columbia]. Little is known of his life except that much of it was spent in poverty, he had a hatred of decadence and corruption, and his writings reveal a deep dislike of the Emperor Domitian.

The theme of the eighth Satire is that true nobility comes from the actions of a person in life, not just their respectable linage and the deeds of their ancestors [Fredericks]. Juvenal is satirising the horse-mad nobleman Lateranus [1], a well-born youth who is rebelling by associating with the lowest elements of society such as mule-drivers - sharing their daily stable routine, and worshiping their deities. At a sacrificial rite at the altar of Jupiter, he refuses to swear an oath by any other deity than Epona "or some other figure painted on the walls of sickening stables". The small social gaffe of driving one's own carriage is a deliberately anti-climactic satirical device [2]:

[8.146] Driving flat out past his ancestors' bones and ashes
there speeds fat Lateranus in his gig, himself, himself,
locking the drag on the wheel, the Consul as muleteer!
It's night, but the moon can see him, the stars peer down
as witnesses - and as soon as his term of office
is ended, why then Lateranus will flourish his whip
in broad daylight, quite shamelessly, flick a cheerful salute
to respectable elderly freinds as he passes; he'll untruss
the hay-bales himself, and fodder his weary horses.
But though he'll sacrifice 'a dun steer and eke a shearling',
as ancient ritual prescribes, he swears at Jove's high altar
by Epona, whose picture's daubed | on the doors of his reeking stables.
[Green p.66]

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The Golden Ass, by Apuleius

Lucius Apuleius was born around 123-125 CE in the Roman colonia of Madauros, Numidia (modern Mdaurusch, Libya). Son of a duumvir (magistrate), he attended university in Carthage, Athens, and Rome and studied, amongst other subjects, Platonic philosophy and Latin oratory. In 155 CE he began a journey to Alexandria, but fell ill and rested in Oea (modern Tripoli). Prosecuted on a charge of poisoning, witchcraft, and using magic to gain the inheritance of a wealthy widow, he wrote a treatise on magic as his defense. An initiate of Isis and a priest of Aesculapius, he traveled in Asia Minor and Egypt. The Golden Ass is assumed to have been written after his trial and acquittal. He is thought to have died around 171-180 CE [Graves, introduction; Walsh, introduction]. This tells us that tells us that the worship of Epona was well established by the mid second century, a fact that can be added to the timeline.

The Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses is both a bawdy tale and an allegory of the journet for spiritual enlightenment, here seen as the worship of Isis. The hero of the story, also called Lucius, has been transformed by magic into an ass (donkey) and has been told that he can only become human again by eating roses. He finds some, unexpectedly, in a stable [3]:

[3.27] These thoughts were interrupted by my catching sight of a statue of the goddess Epona seated in a small shrine centrally placed, where a pillar supported the roof-beams in the middle of a stable. The statue had been devotedly garlanded with freshly picked roses. So in an ecstasy of hope on identifying this assurance of salvation, I stretched out my forelegs and with all the strength I could muster, I rose energetically on my hind legs. [Walsh]

This tells us that small shrines were made to Epona not just in temples but also in stables, presumably to protect the horses and asses in them. This example of Epona in a stable is further discussed in the section on Epona in stables.

Why would Apuleius write about Epona? Two possible reasons present themselves. The first was that he saw a parallel between Epona and Isis, and the Golden Ass may be summarized as twelve chapters of bawdy tale leading up to one chapter of religious conversion and lengthy poetic adoration of Isis. There is a 'development of the soul' parable as well as the slapstick. Epona may have been introduced as one step along the way. The second is that he wanted to introduce roses into the story and that it was well enough known among the general population it was customary to decorate such depictions with flowers, in this case fresh roses; so that finding an Epona shrine could be introduced into the story without further explanation, as a convenient way to get the needed roses.

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The Octavius, by Minucius Felix

Minucius Felix was a Christian apologist of the North African school, believed to have been born in Cirta (modern Constantine, Algeria) [Salmon]. His one surviving work, the Octavius, has been variously dated to 166 CE and 198 CE depending on whether he drew on Tertullian or the reverse.

Aimed at an intelligent and philosophical Pagan audience, the Octavius takes the form of a debate. The Pagan Caecilius attacks the Christian doctrine and defends the conventinal Pagan one, drawing largely on Cicero; the Christian Octavius rebuts the attack point by point ending in the conversion of Caecilius [Salmon]. While rebutting the charge that Christians worship the head of an ass or donkey (a charge which was also made against the Jews), the worship of Epona is referred to in passing [4]:

Unless you consecrate whole asses in your stables along with your (or their) Epona, and adorn these same asses in a superstitious manner with Isis, and likewise sacrifice and worship the heads of wethers, and dedicate gods made of a mixture of a goat and a man, and gods with the face of a lion and a dog. [Quintus]

From this we may deduce that the general workings of the cults of Epona and of Isis were sufficiently well known at that late second-century date that they made a good counter-example without further explanation. The association of Epona with stables is plain. It is unclear in this text if decorating or adorning an ass (with flowers, ribbons, etc) is also considered part of the cult of Epona, or just of Isis.

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The 'Apotheosis', by Prudentius

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius was born to an upper-class family in Tarraconensis, Northern Spain, in 348 CE. After a distinguished career in government he retired aged 57 to write Christian devotional poetry, becoming 'the first to use the classical Latin verse forms with complete success in the service of the new faith' [Thomson, introduction]. He died in Spain around 413 CE.

The Apotheosis, a work on the doctrine of the Christian Trinity, was thus written in the early years of the fifth century (405-413) which implies that the worship of Epona was still extant in the early fifth century, a fact that can be added to the timeline. The mention of Epona is brief [5]:

Nobody gives a throne to the goddesses Cloacina or Epona above the stars, even though he opens an oiled incense-box and investigates grains of spelt and entrails with sacrilegious hands [Quintus]

Various elements of sacrificial ritual are mentioned here, all of which fall firmly into the normal spread of Roman religious practice but were destested by the Christians. There is a reference to sacrificing incense on an altar fire, and also to divination by inspection of the entrails of sacrificed animals. The 'grains of spelt' are probably mola salsa, a mixture of salt and flour used for purification rituals. Cloacina was the goddess of sewers, and is presumably chosen here for maximum repugnant effect; it is not clear whether the mention of Epona is intended to be similarly derogatory or what the reference to 'under the stars' conveys.

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'Expositio Sermonum Antiquorum', by Fulgentius

Little is known for certain about Fabius Planciades Fulgentius. Historical and literary references in his work date his writings to around the year 500, and a passing reference to the Libyan alphabet as 'ours' indicates he was of North African extraction. The Expositio Sermonum Antiquorum is a short glossary of obscure terms, explained with illustrative quotations from other authors. Epona is mentioned in the definition of the term 'Semones':[6]

11. [What the Semones are] They wished those gods to be called Semones whom they considered unworthy of heaven on account of the meagreness of their deserts, such as Priapus, Epona and Vertumnus, yet they were unwilling to class them as earth-bound gods because of their veneration of [these deities’] favour, as Varro says in his Book of Mystic Guides: ‘I shall abandon Semo below and extoll the god with a winged address of prayer. [Quintus]

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1. Lateranus is described as being a consul. The consuls for the year 94 CE [Smith 2 p. 724] were L. Nonius Calpurnius Torquatus Asprenas and T. Sextius Magius Lateranus; possibly this is the Lateranus to whom Juvenal refers. The estates of the Lateranus family were confiscated under Constantine, who donated them to the Church; the Lateran Basilica and adjoining Lateran Palace, on Piazza San Giovanni are built upon the foundations of one of the Lateran houses plus the Castra Nova (New Fort) of the Equites Singulares [Speidel pp. 126-128].

2. The text from Juvenal, in Latin, is as follows: praeter maiorum cineres atque ossa uolucri carpento rapitur pinguis Lateranus, et ipse, ipse rotam adstringit sufflamine mulio consul, nocte quidem, sed Luna uidet, sed sidera testes intendunt oculos. finitum tempus honoris cum fuerit, clara Lateranus luce flagellum sumet et occursum numquam trepidabit amici iam senis ac uirga prior adnuet atque maniplos soluet et infundet iumentis hordea lassis. interea, dum lanatas robumque iuuencum more Numae caedit, Iouis ante altaria iurat solam Eponam et facies olida ad praesepia pictas.

3. The text from Apuleius, in Latin, is as follows: Dumque de insolentia collegarum meorum mecum cogito atque in alterum diem auxilio rosario Lucius denuo futurus equi perfidi vindictam meditor, respicio pilae mediae, quae stabuli trabes sustinebat, in ipso fere meditullio Eponae deae simulacrum residens aediculae, quod accurate corollis roseis equidem recentibus fuerat ornatum. Denique adgnito salutari praesidio pronus spei, quantum extensis prioribus pedibus adniti poteram, insurgo valide et cervice prolixa nimiumque porrectis labiis, quanto maxime nisu poteram, corollas adpetebam. Quod me pessima scilicet sorte conantem servulus meus, cui semper equi cura mandata fuerat, repente conspiciens indignatus exsurgit et: "Quo usque tandem" inquit "cantherium patiemur istum paulo ante cibariis iumentorum, nunc etiam simulacris deorum infestum? .

The term simulacrum is used nine times in the Golden Ass. The use of the term signum in Gaul and the Germanies, in preference to other terms such as imago, simulacrum, statua or forma, is discussed by Burnand [Burnand 1999, 49-56]. The word corolla, literally meaning a little crown or garland, is mostly found in poetry [Lewis & Short 1879]. The verb resideo means both 'to reside' and also, in later latin 'to sit up'.

An alternative translation of this passage [Taylor 1822] may be found on the AKA Mary Jones site.

4. The text from the Octavius in Latin is as follows: Nisi quod vos et totos asinos in stabulis cum vestra vel sua Epona consecratis et eosdem asinos cum Iside religiose decoratis, item boum capita et capita vervecum et immolatis et colitis, de capro etiam et homine mixtos deos leonum et canum vultu deos dedicatis.

5. The text from the Apotheosis in Latin is as follows: Nemo Cloacinae aut Eponae super astra deabus dat solium, quamuis olidam persoluat acerram sacrilegisque molam manibus rimetur et exta.

6. The text from Fulgentius in Latin is as follows: 11. [Quid sint semones.] Semones dici voluerunt deos quos nec caelo dignos ascriberent ob meriti paupertatem, sicut sunt Priapus, Epona, Vertumnus, nec terrenos eos deputare vellent pro gratiae veneratione, sicut Varro in mistagogorum libro ait: 'Semoneque inferius derelicto deum depinnato orationis attollam alloquio'.

7. The merits of the Walsh translation are discussed in Bryn-Mawr Classical Reviews by Penwill and Ruden.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2003, Columbia University Press.

Fredericks, S.C. (1971) Rhetoric and Morality in Juvenal's 8th Satire Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 102 111-132

Graves, R. (translator) (1950). The transformations of Lucius, otherwise known as the Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius. London, Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044011-9

Green, Peter (translator) (1999) Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires. Penguin, ISBN 0-14-044704-0.

Lewis, C.T. and C. Short. (1879) A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by, Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Quintus J. Holland, (translation), pers. comm. 22 June 2003

Salmon, G. Minucius Felix, Marcus in Wace, Henry (1911) A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. London: J. Murray

Smith, William (1849) Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

Speidel, M. P. (1994). Riding for Caesar: the Roman Emperors' Horse Guards. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-76897-3.

Taylor, Thomas (translator) (1822) Apuleius. The Golden Ass. ed. & trans. Thomas Taylor. London: W.J. Cosby.

Thomson, H.J. (translator) (1969) PRUDENTIUS Volume I. Preface. Daily Round. Divinity of Christ. Origin of Sin. Fight for Mansoul. Against Symmachus 1. Loeb Classical Library.

Walsh, P.G (translator) (1999). The Golden Ass. Oxford, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-283888-1 [7]