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The Worship of Epona

Surprisingly little is known about the worship of Epona. This section summarises what is known based on the evidence we have.

Who worshipped Epona?

Epona seems to have been a protector of horses and was worshipped by people whose primary job function or livelihood depended on horses. Examples include cavalry (naturally Epona was more popular among the cavalry alae than among infantry), scouts, dispatch riders, mule drivers, carters, stable hands and grooms.

At all periods of the Roman empire the cavalry was primarily formed from foreign auxiliaries rather than Italian troops, so the ethnic composition of these cavalry units was quite mixed. Most were not Roman citizens, although they would gain the citizenship after 25 years of service. Some units however did hold the citizenship, which was awarded to individuals or even complete units for conspiuous bravery. Oddly, Gauls are not especially prominent in these units, but troopers originally from Germania Inferior are strongly represented [Dixon]. The maps show few Epona representations in the province of Germania Inferior itself. This is an important finding, and seems to indicate that Epona was worshipped, not so much because she was a native Goddess familiar from before joining the army, but because she formed part of the cultic esprit du corps of some of the Roman Army units.

This aspect is especially notable in the case of the emperors mounted bodyguard, originally called the Germani Corporis Custodesand later reformed as the Equites Singulares Augusti. The latter were so much associated with a Germanic origin that they were frequently called the Batavii, the name of a Germanic tribe living on an island in the Rhine, near the North Sea coast. Ex members of this unit would emphasise their high status and level of access to the Emperor by dedicating altars to the group of deities of the Equites Singulares Augusti, including Epona, the Campestres, and the Matres Suleviae, and by using particular loyal phrases in inscriptions such as domini nostri (our lord, a reference to the Emperor) [Speidel]

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Epona temples

The Romans were very accepting of other deities, regardless of origin, provided they were worshipped in what was considered an appropriate manner [Woolf pp1-23 and chapter 8]. Thus, in general, Epona was worshipped in the same way as any other Roman deity - praying by making vows, dedicating altars in fulfillment of a vow, erecting temples, sacrificing animals, incense, or wine.

Temples were set up (although in Gaul these would be the Gallo-Roman fanum type rather than the classical type [Faudet]) - a taller central cella surrounded on all four sides by a covered walkway.

gallo-roman fanum

Reconstruced Gallo-Roman fanum at the Archaeodrome, Beaune, France

Sacrifice of animals, incense, and libations of wine were made in the customary Roman manner, the same as other deities. Libations were made by pouring wine from a specal shallow dish called a patera; two silver paterae, one inscribed to Epona and one with what is assumed to be an Epona depiction are known from Mont Rudnik (Serbia, Yugoslavia) and are now in the museum of Belgrade [CIL III #6332a; Lambrechts p.126; Reinach 1895 #119]. Many sidesaddle depictions of Epona show her holding a patera in her right hand.

In the Apotheosis of Aurelius Clemens Prudentius we can see reference to sacrificing incense (kept in the acerra, an box of oiled wood) on an altar fire. Juvenal in the eighth satire mentions the sacrifice of a bull and a sheep at an altar of Jupiter, in conection with an oath to Epona. The Apotheosis adds a reference to divination by inspection of the entrails of the sacrificed animals. The literature does not specify which animals, but a large stone bas-relief of Epona from Beihingen (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) shows Epona in the top panel and at the right of the lower panel, two men sacrificing a pig [Magnen & Thévenot plate 62, Schleiermacher p.130]. A reference in the Apotheosis to 'grains of spelt' is presumably mola salsa, a mixture of salt and flour used for purification rituals.

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Epona in the home

Several of the Epona depictions are small, portable bronze or pipeclay figurines. These were probably used in a domestic or workplace shrine, or indeed in the lararium, the shrine found in each home and attended to by the paterfamilias or head of the household, who also acted as priest for the whole family in their daily devotions.

Moulded pipeclay figures were cheap to make and widely available; bronze figures would be used by the more wealthy. One beautifully sculpted bronze figure of Epona from Reims (Marne, Champagne, France) has her eyes picked out in silver.[Guillame plate IV; Magnen #41 and plate 8; Reinach 1895 #17 ]

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Epona in stables

The worship of Epona in stables is described in the Golden Ass, or Metamorphoses, by Lucius Apuleius. 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 is confirmed by archaeology; several Epona artefacts having been found in Roman stables such as the inscriptions in the stables of the praetorium of the governor at Apuulum, modern Alba Iulia (Alba, Transilvaniei, Romania) [Cserni p.45 & p.137; Husar pp.85-94], the worn sidesaddle Epona found on a cobbled floor believed to have been part of a stable at Bonviller (Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine, France) [Espérandieu #4415; Simon], another sidesaddle Epona found in a stable from Mainhardt (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) [Schleiermacher #34]. In the Golden Ass, the carved depiction is enclosed in a small shrine and fixed to the main pillar that supports the roof. Painted images of Epona on stable walls are also known; one is described in the Eighth Satire of Juvenal, and this is confirmed by a similar painting on the wall of the Circus Maximus in Rome [Burnand; Reinach 1895 #71] .

Apuleius tells us that it was customary to decorate such depictions with flowers, in this case fresh roses; presumably this was well enough known among the general population that finding an Epona shrine could be introduced into the story as a way to get the needed roses. Note that despite the non-temple location, the small shrine was still considered sacred - taking the flowers or other offerings would be considered sacrilegious.

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Burnand, Y. (1999). Note sur le vocabulaire épigraphique de la représentation de la divinité en Gaule romaine. in Signa deorum : L'iconographie divine en Gaule romaine. Communications présentées au colloque organisé par le Centre Albert Grenier d'antiquité nationale de l'Université de Nancy II et la direction d'études d'antiquités de la Gaule romaine de la IVe section de l'Ecole pratique des hautes études. Y. Burnand and H. Lavagne. Paris, De Boccard: pp. 49-56.

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), 15 volumes

Cserni, B. (1908). Alsöfehémegyei Történelmi Rég. Évk. 14

Dixon, K. R. and P. Southern (1992). Roman Cavalry : from the first to the third century AD. London, Batsford.

Espérandieu, É. (1907) Recueil général des bas-reliefs de la Gaule romaine. Paris, Imprimerie Nationale.

Faudet, I. (1993) Les Temples de Tradition Celtique en Gaule Romaine Paris, Editions Errance. ISBN 2-87772-074-8

Guillame, (1878) Mémoires de la Société des Antiquaires, XXXIX p.105 and p.112, plate IV

Husar, A. (1995). The Celtic Gods in Roman Dacia Acta Musei Napocensis (Muzeul National de Istorie a Transilvaniei) 32: 85-94.

Lambrechts (1951), Divinités équestres ou morts héroïsés. Antiquité classique.

Magnen, René; Thévenot , Emile Épona : déesse Gauloise des chevaux, protectrice des cavaliers. (1953, Delmas, Bordeaux).

Reinach, Salomon (1895, 1898, 1899, 1902, 1903) Épona. Revue archéologique 1895, part 1, 113, 309. Addenda ibid 1898, part 2, 187; 1899, part 2, 61; 1902, part 1, 227; 1903, part 2, 348.

Schleiermacher, W. Studien an Göttertypen der römischen Rheinprovinzen. 23. Bericht der Römisch-Germanischen Kommission, 1933.

Simon, V. (1850-1851). Mémoires de l'Académie de Metz, p.140 and plate I #2

Speidel, M. P. (1994). Riding for Caesar: the Roman Emperors' Horse Guards. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Walsh, P.G (trans) (1999). The Golden Ass. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Woolf, G. (1998). Becoming Roman : the origins of provincial civilization in Gaul. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.