Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hippos, Hippos Hooray! It's Horse Goddess Epona's Day

Considering how much time, money, energy, and interest goes into everything horse around this house, it's rather astonishing that somehow it slipped right past us that December 18 is the feast day of Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses. (Thanks to author Susanna Forrest's blog for alerting us; we can always use another holiday.)

Epona (which means "divine mare" in an old Celtic language) was the protector of horses, donkeys, and mules as well as their riders and grooms.

She was also a fertility goddess (corn and foals are part of the symbolism in her statues, so this fertility seems to include agricultural bounty).

Unlike other Celtic icons, she found her way into the mythology of the Roman Empire and was granted December 18 as her feast day, continuing her equine stewardship by protecting the Roman cavalry as well as stables.

"Worship  me."
Why December 18 was selected seems to be a bit of an unknown. Her day of honor falls during Saturnalia, an approximately week-long festival celebrated by the ancient Romans beginning on Saturn's feast day, December 17. (She's bracketed by Saturn's wife on December 19, so she kept some pretty high-falutin' company.)

It's also close to the winter solstice, December 21. I will leave it to far more mystical types than me to make any connections they wish.

It seems an odd date on which to celebrate anything horsy, as nature intends for foals to be born in spring (and mares would naturally mate not long after their birth), so you'd think Epona wouldn't have much to do at that time of year. She'd hardly be blessing the clipping of a horse's winter coat or chipping away at frozen water buckets with a hoofpick.

Interestingly, though, the season surrounding the solstice (the ancient influence of which is reflected in the way we celebrate winter holidays with feasting, abundance, and light during this dark time in the northern hemisphere) is harnessed to a few other equine associations.

Saint Nicholas, for example, rides a white horse when he sweeps into the Netherlands in winter. On the eve of December 6, children leave out straw and carrots for this steed.

In Holland, Saint Nicholas rides his horse through the air; this animal leaps from roof to roof on the eve of December 6 so that the saint can climb down the chimney into the house (clearly the inspiration for the American Santa Claus, who needs eight reindeer to pull off this trick).

In Greece, horses and oxen enjoy a day of rest on December 18, as it's the feast day of St. Modesto, a patron saint of farmers.

December 26 marks the Christian saint's day for St. Stephen, patron saint of horses; in England and Ireland this day is a big one for horse racing, while in Austria horses receive a blessing.

"Hi, kiddies." (image courtesy Wikicommons)

In Wales, the post-Christmas season was traditionally marked by visits from the Mari Lwyd ("gray mare"), a creature represented by a horse's skull affixed to a pole, which was carried by a man hidden beneath a white cloth. The jaw was wired so the skull could open and shut its mouth to snap at people when it visited homes and pubs with its entourage, who engaged in singing, banter, and verbal one-upmanship in the hope of earning treats.

So...what does one do to celebrate Eponalia, if one doesn't happen to have a handy pony skull on a stick?

Offerings are always appropriate for Goddesses, so it's suggested that you leave out horsy treats such as apples and beer for Epona. (Beer? But of course. It's made from a grain, after all, and horses love their grain. Just ask Black Beauty in his eponymous film: "Oats! Wonderful oats!" And Irish trainers have long added Guinness stout to their horses' meals.)

Then feed a carrot to your friendly neighborhood horse. Lacking that, eat the carrot yourself and count out the date by stamping your foot 18 times.