For Epona’s Day, I’m sharing quite a bit from Steel Bars, Sacred Waters. If you would like information about the widely popular Dies Equeunu/ the Alci, Celtic funeral practices, to read the beautiful Epona ritual by Viducus Brigantici filius and learn more about the Folly Lane complex, check out the book. It’s less expensive here and all the profits go to sending copies to prisoners! Thank you!
Heads, Horses and Heroes: the Ancestor Cult
The Celtic Bronze and Iron Age religions focused a lot on death and rebirth. A stag cult with antlers probably symbolized the natural, never-ending cycle of life of everything. Roman records say that Gaulish Druids taught that after death comes rebirth in the Ancestor Paradise and then perhaps human reincarnation, continuing until everything is destroyed in fire and water. There is also a cult of important tribal ancestors.
In Southern Gaul life-sized statues of men in geometric-design armor sitting cross-legged on the ground began being made in the 7th century BCE. Over the next few centuries they became more realistic looking. They often sat in a row. Similar statues of at least four women were also recovered. Many scholars believe these statues depicted actual heroes or politically important ancestors.
As the Southern Gauls built oppida (walled urban centers usually on high land), they often included Greek columns, the ancestor-hero statues, along with images of horses and human heads. Space to display human skulls was included. Sometimes this shrine stood at the gates; at other places it was in the public center. The human head was a large part of the native Celtic religion.
Art of horses with pillars of male human heads were part of Celtic religion since the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age transition. Horses may have been guides home to the Ancestor Realm. Epona had a funerary aspect and it is the horse of Gwyn ap Nudd that is anxious to get the fallen heroes on the battlefield.
These seated warrior statues (often old and moved from another place), horse art, pillar and skull shrines were a central part of these Gaulish communities. The nobles kept the embalmed heads or skulls of their own deceased ancestors there. By displaying their own ancestors’ heads with the real or mythical ancestor of the community, they showed that they were the rightful heirs.
This cult was abandoned in the late Iron Age. Gaulish tribes migrated east and dynasties fought. The ancestor-hero statues were all destroyed, probably by rival Gauls. Later, the Roman Empire would not tolerate cults of tribal ancestors, because they kept Gaulish people from viewing themselves politically as Roman citizens. Some oppida probably were named after ancestor heroes which we assume are deities.
Continuing the Hero and Horse Cult Today
The ancestor cult involving horses was a pre-Roman Celtic religion for a long time. We can replicate the horse and head shrine, including images of our own dead heroes, those people who influenced us or had virtues or skills we desire and respect. At the horse and head shrine we can make offerings and pray for guidance from our heroines and heroes; serve others as a spirit worker communicating with ancestors; meditate on the mysteries of death and rebirth; or worship deities associated with those mysteries like Epona, Ataegina, Erecura, Gwyn ap Nudd, Arawn, Cernunnos, Sucellos, Nantosuelta, etc.
To bond a Celtic Pagan Circle, members can bring a human head or skull object that represents their own ancestors. Heads might show range of styles: Day of the Dead skulls, old ceramic doll heads, abstract skulls carved into wood, papier-mache heads, rocks that appear to have faces, etc. A tall, narrow shelving unit for the heads can serve as the pillar. Paintings, drawings, photographs or statues of horses, the guides, go around the pillar. Perhaps decorate with organic colorful striped or plaid fabrics, made from linen or wool if possible. (Even at Hallstatt the Celts were excellent weavers, the northwestern Iberian Celts invented new patterns used today, and Celtic cloaks from Britain became expensive luxury items in the Roman Empire.)
During a group ancestors ritual it’s important to make offerings like metal, ceramic or glass jewelry and art, handwoven fabric, daggers, small cauldrons of honeyed ale or grass fed butter (Kerry Gold butter is often with the fancy cheese in American grocery stores), and poetry, songs or stories about them. In Gaul offerings to the dead were often wrapped in expensive fabrics. The designs on metal are thought to originate from fabric. If you can knit with organic yarn (there’s cotton for vegans) or string glass beads into wildly colorful necklaces, you have perfect offerings!
In southwest Britain a point was made to destroy all the items used in a heroic ancestor feast, as seen in the Folly’s Lane complex. Enjoy a feast on wooden, ceramic or recycled paper plates and be certain the break, bend or tear all the dishes and utensils before burying them. You can find some beautiful inexpensive plates and bowls at second-hand shops. Do not use plastic, as it adds endocrine disruptors to the water supply.
Whenever the group meets, the shrine should be presented with offerings with feasts held when the year changes in November and May (and the night of June 23rd or daytime June 24th if you follow a Welsh tradition). New members can add their ancestor skull then. Leaving members should take theirs, unless they contributed a lot and still want to be remembered. (If the person or group cannot decide, use divination.)
Sometimes communities form around the values or skills of a common hero, dead or mythical. Marxists have Marx while Buddhists have the Buddha. The ancestor-hero joins people together. Humans are wired by evolution to want to belong. Cooperation, communication and collaboration has allowed us to survive and it’s a genetic desire to “fit in” and have a group home. Even if people do not share recent common ancestors, they can find a home with symbolic ancestors who represent the community’s virtues.
I once had a large mobile of Social Justice ancestors including Dorothy Day, Joe Strummer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Oscar Wilde, Bob Marley, Paula Allen Gunn, Dr Rev Martin Luther King Jr, Joe Hill, and a long list of farmers in Asia, radicals in England like the Diggers, lots of people from Central America and Haiti, early feminists, indigenous leaders, deep ecologists and slaves who led rebellions or were maroons, among others. It was the focus of a Samhain ritual I led in Sojourner Truth Park on the Hudson River. We called on hundreds of ancestors for support, guidance, wisdom and courage.
Although our culture has a genre of storytelling called “magical realism,” it is unknown in indigenous cultures. Magical realism is simply reality in traditional stories. The Celtic peoples accepted shapeshifting and monsters in their ancestor-hero stories. The Gauls were great followers of the Greek hero demi-God Hercules and the Gaelic tradition continued with Cu Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumail. Characters from books and movies are possible ancestor-heroes just as much as “real” dead people.
For many of us, especially women, environmentalists, people with disabilities and polytheists, that’s good news, because there are not very many well-known, dead people who probably share our vision for the future. We’re being the ancestors who are needed now. How many female polytheist, animist, ecologically minded, creative, disabled, NeuroDiverse, courageous, honest, generous, intersectional feminist Solutionaries have passed over who left impressive legacies for me to honor? Not a lot, but there are many people who shaped the world so someone like me may proudly exist. I can honor them as well as the characters in the comic books, mythology and sci fi/fantasy novels I devoured as a child who also helped me form my values.
A Few Important Celtic Horse Goddesses
Epona “Divine Mare” Pronounced: EP-oh-nah
Epona is the protector of horses, ponies, mules and donkeys. She probably began as a native Celtic Goddess, but she also became a Goddess of the Roman cavalry whose worship spread among Gaulish, Germanic, and Illyrian horsemen. The earliest statues of Epona are found in Italy, Romania, England and Bulgaria. Later She appears in Gaul, especially northern, central and eastern Gaul. Epona is the protector of the Roman Imperial Horse Guard. Associated with many Roman deities, She is also linked to the Germanic Goddesses of the parade ground, the Campestres. Many works of art and inscriptions to Her are from outlying posts of the Roman Empire, especially at the well defended borders of Western Europe.
In Gaul, statues of Epona usually depict Her riding sidesaddle or walking with a horse usually to the right (sun wise), holding offerings of baskets of fruit or a cornucopia. Imperial statues show her seated facing forward between two horses who look at Her or eat apples or wheat. The Romans mass produced cult items. Statues of Epona were made from molds out of bronze, or the less expensive pipe clay. They were often kept in stables and barns and decorated with fresh roses. Epona was also very popular with the farming and mining Celtiberians in the mountains of northeastern Spain. To the Gauls, She appears to be associated with abundance (owning horses was a sign of wealth), while in Rome Her cult was strong with the cavalry and their family members who honored Her as their patron. Some images suggest She led the dead to the Afterlife. A rustic Italian calendar marks December 18 as Epona’s Day, but if anywhere else used that festival date is unknown.
Rhiannon “Great Queen” Pronounced: Hree-ANN-on
In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is associated with sovereignty, horses, birds and being the wronged wife. Unlike the traditional women of Welsh medieval society, Rhiannon boldly chooses and courts Pwyll, King of Dyfed (pronounced Duv-ed) herself.
Pwyll (pronounced Pooy-ll) is now also called the King of Annwn, perhaps hinting at an earlier belief in His divinity. He purposely sits on an Otherworldly mound named Gorsedd Arberth where a noble will either be attacked or have a vision. Pwyll sees Rhiannon riding side saddle on a pale horse. She is so beautiful dressed in gold (perhaps a solar symbol) that even with a veil over Her face, He’s determined to meet Her. None of His men can catch Her, so Pwyll rides out himself. Her horse walks slowly and yet he can’t reach Her. Finally He calls for Her to stop. Boldly showing Her face (scandalous behavior when the Mabinogi was written), She makes the witty reply it would have been better for him and his horse if he’d just asked in the first place.
This is an important lesson about the Sovereignty Goddess. You cannot catch Her; you must ask Her to stop. She follows Her will. The Gaelic Aine is a good example.
Rhiannon explains that Her father has promised Her to another man named Gwawl but She wants to marry Pwyll. Pwyll doesn’t handle the fiancé situation very wisely, much to Her frustration. However, due to Her plan, they are married.
When Her child is born on May 1st (Calan Mai), He is mysteriously stolen and She is falsely accused of killing Her baby. As punishment, She is forced to carry people up and down the hill to the palace like a horse while telling them Her sad tale. (This is the popular French court theme “The Wronged Wife” which is added to Branwen’s legend as well.)
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Dyfed, a man who lost a foal every May 1st to a monster, waited in his barn to stop the theft. Much to his surprise, a male infant mysteriously appeared as he protected the newborn foal. (This is probably from the famous Celtic version of the Indo-European young horse brother Gods, the Alci and Dies Equeunu. The earliest myths about Irish hero demi-God Cu Chulainn have Him born with a colt, too.)
This man (whose name is related to “thunder” and Taranus) and his wife raise this remarkable child as their own while Rhiannon continues her punishment. After seven years watching the boy excel at an astounding rate, the kind foster-family bring Her son to the King, recognizing they must be related. She named Her son Pryderi (pronounced Prud-ERRY), meaning “anxiety” or “care” when she announced that her “pryderi” has been returned to Her.
Eventually Pwyll dies in battle and Rhiannon is widowed. She is courted by Manawydan, the rightful King of Britain who is wise and respected. While She had to be sharp tongued with Pwyll, Manawydan enjoys Her keen wit. Their marriage goes well until Rhiannon and Her son are captured and imprisoned by allies of the rejected suitor of her youth. Manawydan smartly negotiates their release and the tale ends happily.
Her name may come from Rigantona, a Celtic Goddess whose name is either “Great Queen” or “Divine Queen.”
The Mabinogi used many popular medieval folk tale themes that were popular with French and other nobles. Celtic deity names, often very similar to those in the Irish Mythological Cycle, are found throughout the Mabinogi but the context may be wrong. However, Rhiannon breaks many rules for women in that time period, especially by choosing Her own husband, speaking directly and showing Her face, which link Her to Gaelic horse Goddesses Macha, the Morrigan and Aine.
Macha Pronunciation: MAH-kuh
“The remarkable, spirited one unbound, Loosened the hair on top of her head. Without a fierce shout driving her, She came to the racing, to the games… Though swift the horses of the chief, Among the tribes strongly apportioned, The woman was swifter, without effort; The horses of the king were too slow.” – From The Metrical Dindshenchas (place lore)
Probably the oldest of the Horse Goddesses, Macha is an important Goddess of Sovereignty, especially of Ulster. Her many roles show her ageless power. There are four mythological women or Goddesses named Macha in Irish literature. Emain Macha (pronounced EH-vin MA-cha), a real place where the ruler of Ulster lived, is named for Her. Horses and crows and ravens are Her symbols, much like Her sisters the Morrigan and Badb. The three Goddesses worked magic together against the Fir Bolg. The severed heads of the Fir Bolg were called Macha’s acorn crop. Macha was Nuada’s wife when two were killed in the Second Battle of Moytura by Balor‘s deathly eye. Macha doesn’t stay dead and Nuada isn’t dead either. When composing these tales the Christian monks made everyone a mortal.
Macha first appears as the wife of Nemed (“sacred one” or “sanctuary”). Macha and Nemed both derive from pre-Bronze Age Celto-Germanic root words, hers for horse, his to sacred groves. Nemed cleared a plain where Macha died that He named after Her. Some say she died of prophetic heartbreak, seeing how the land would be destroyed by the battles told in Tain Bo Cualigne (“The Brown Bull of Cooley”). There were Lughnasa-style festivals held at Emain Macha, the royal center of Ulster. Macha doesn’t stay dead.
Next is the story for which She’s most famous. It sets up Ulster for its lack of warriors in Tain Bo Cualigne (“The Brown Bull of Cooley”). Macha now is an Otherworldly beautiful young woman who silently enters the home of Crunnchu, a wealthy farming widower, and begins caring for the house. She cleans it in a clockwise (deiseil pronounced JEH-shel) direction before going to his bed. Crunnchu watches his land flourish as Macha grows bigger with child. Macha is a fertility and prosperity Goddess. Her husband goes to the assembly, but Macha warns him not to mention her name. Watching the King’s horses race, Crunnchu accidentally says his wife can run faster. The King wants to see this and demands that Macha come to his court. To make sure She’ll arrive, the King puts Crunnchu in prison.
Macha now is nine months pregnant. She asks to give birth first, telling the King and all assembled “A mother bore each one of you.” No one showed compassion and they threatened to kill Her husband. Macha loosened her hair and ran the race, reaching the pole before the King’s horses. Macha then gave birth to twins. (They are considered to be the Gaelic version of Dies Equeunu/ the Alci.)
With Her dying breath Macha cursed the cruel men of Ulster to be as vulnerable and weak as women in childbirth during the five days and four nights whenever they would need their strength the most. For nine generations her curse would last, causing Cu Chulainn to fight alone in Tain Bo Cualigne (“The Brown Bull of Cooley”). Her role as Sovereignty Goddess is clear – when treated well things flourish, when abused the people are cursed. Macha still refuses to stay dead.
Last Macha is Macha Mongruad or “Macha of the Red Mane.” Now She is a warrior queen who is challenged by the five sons of Dithorba. Their father wants to be King and claims that Macha is unfit because She is a woman. While the five brothers eat, She appears looking like a hag and a leper, which Gaelic Sovereignty Goddesses often do to test men. Still they desire her. She lures them one at a time into the woods and has sex with each. Macha forces them to build the rath (a circular earthen enclosure) that today is still named Emain Macha. Emain Macha means the twins of Macha. Her tomb is in Armagh (Ard Macha) on the top of a tall hill. But she’s still not dead.
August 1st Ritual for Macha
Lughnasa-type festivities occurred at Emain Macha in late July and early August. If you feel a connection to Macha or Ulster, make Her the focus of your first fruits ritual.
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