On the Eponalia and the horse goddess Epona in ancient Rome

18 December: In Ancient Rome, the Eponalia, the feast day of the horse goddess Epona, was celebrated by all horse lovers, professional and otherwise, across the empire on the second day of the Saturnalia.
“Fulvius Stellus hated women and used to consort with a mare and in due time the mare gave birth to a beautiful girl and they named her Epona. She is the goddess that is concerned with the protection of horses. So Agesilaus in the third book of his Italian History. (Pseudo-Plutarch, “Parallela Minora“)

A relief of Epona flanked by two horses from the 4th century CE, found in Salonica.

There were times in old Europe, when everything the horse soldiers did and wore was the height of fashion, centuries even after the age of chivalry was dead and gone. Sporting fashionable moustaches and sideburns, wearing fashionable close-fitting breeches called charivari, gold-braided waisted tunics, the dolman or atilla, the furred pelisse or mente hanging over their shoulders, all derived from the Hungarian national costume, especially light cavalry cut quite the figure and set the course for male elegance. Until the cataclysms of mechanized war put an end to it and Julius Brammer rhymed scoffingly in 1928 in Vienna: “Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo / Denke nicht mehr an die Zeiten / Wo du als Husar / goldverschnürt sogar / Konntest durch die Straßen reiten“ (Handsome gigolo, poor gigolo / Don’t harken back to the times / When you, a hussar, / gold corded even / Would ride through the streets). But the tradition of dashing cavalrymen dates back to the days of the Roman Empire and their auxiliaries.

Roman light horse during a horse soldier's favourite pastime - a hunting, a mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, Sicily, around 300 CE

Traditionally, Roman soldiers fought on foot and their officers rode just on the march and barbaric riders were not quite de rigueur, however, military realities forced the Romans to recruit horsemen from conquered tribes or from those living beyond the borders of the empire and bolster their own meagre cavalry. Usually led by Romans or Romanised natives, these young officers brought quite a few customs and expressions from their men into better society, much to the dismay of the establishment. At the end of the 1st century CE, the satirist Juvenal castigated the manners of the officer class who swore like horse grooms by Epona, a name they had obviously found scribbled on smelly stable walls and Apuleius and Tertulllian mention the custom of worshipping Epona in small, rose-covered shrines, cavalry officers and cart drivers alike. A Celtic goddess had become an integral part of the Roman pantheon and holy helpers.

The Uffington White Horse, chalked into a hillside in Oxfordshire during the Iron Age

It’s not without irony that her feast day was celebrated on the second day of the Saturnalia, a week of continuous partying when Roman social norms were overturned anyway. The archetype of the horse goddess was far older, though, then the Roman need of a holy helper for an arm of the service that grew more and more important towards the end of antiquity. Horse sacrifices were quite common among the ancient Indo-European tribes and the idea of holy equines and their personification as goddess was quite common among people whose ancestors were nomads, whether they rode in chariots and carts or on horseback and the ages-old giant chalk horses carved in English hillsides still bear witness to the veneration of Epona and her divine sisters.

And more about Epona on: