Epona as Transfunctional Goddess

In the course of her article “Dumézil’s Three Functions and Indo-European Cosmic Structure,” Emily B. Lyle (1982) discussed the transfunctional goddess present in Indo-European mythology. She notes that the “goddess as trivalent is active in all three functions [the sacred, physical force, and fertility], or, as one can say in terms of vertical space, she is active at all three of the superimposed levels of the cosmos” (p. 31). Contrary to Dumézil who viewed the goddess as belonging to the third function, Lyle states that “she and the god of the third function share a half in opposition to the gods of the first and second functions” (ibid).

She then looks at the five sacrificial animals according to Indic sources – man, horse, bull, ram, and he-goat (p.33). She lays out these five sacrificial animals according to the agnicayana, the Indic sacrifice of raising the fire altar, according to the normal associations of the animals with their related functions: “The man is placed in the center and seems to represent the king. The ram (second function) and the he-goat (third function) are placed opposite each other, and opposite the bull (first function) is placed the horse” (p. 34). By doing so, Lyle was able to ascertain that:

It seems that placed in the quarter which has no equivalent function we have the theriomorphic form of the “Indo-European mare goddess” recently studied by Wendy D. O’Flaherty. The many-faceted goddess can, of course, be represented in various theriomorphic guises. She may be cow, ewe, or sow when matched with the gods of the three functions, but, as the above scheme indicates, in her own right she is mare, and we can see how appropriate it is that the marriage of king and goddess should have been represented theriomorphically as the mating of stallion and mare (ibid).

She later states that through his marriage with the goddess, the king acquired the highest of his virtues – “truth” or cosmic order, which Lyle suggests was the “special virtue of the goddess” and that “while each of the gods of the functions is concerned with one function, the goddess, as relating to all the functions, has an overview and is in a position to strike a fair balance” (p. 35).

Lyle furthermore relates that, while the gods of the three functions can be associated with one of the three Indo-European realms, the goddess is related to the cosmic pillar or the world tree (p. 40). And finally, Lyle states “in the year cycle, there are three seasons related to the three gods of the functions – spring, summer, and winter” and that “the goddess is related to the year as a whole which is represented by a short period of time that comes […] at the point between summer and winter where autumn later emerged” (p. 42).

I have summarized Lyle’s article at such lengths so that there is a clear framework to utilize while discussing the possible role of Epona as the Gaulish equivalent of the Indo-European transfunctional goddess. By looking at etymology, epigraphy, and iconography, I hope to show that Epona possesses all of the qualities that can make her the Indo-European transfunctional goddess. I could also look at the Insular Celtic equivalents of Epona – the Irish Macha and the Welsh Rhiannon – but I would rather rely on the Continental Celtic evidence for the goddess.

The etymology of the theonym Epona is based on the Gaulish word epos, ‘horse’ (Delamarre 2003, p. 163). The suffix -on has been interpretted as meaning ‘divine,’ ‘great,’ or simply ‘relative to’ by various scholars (Duval 1989, p. 269). Nevertheless, the goddess is associated with the horse through the etymology of her name, one of the characteristics of the transfunctional goddess (Lyle 1982, p. 34).

Iconography does give us a few examples of epithets for Epona. She is referred to by the Latin epithet Rēgina Sancta, ‘Sacred Queen’ ¹ and Rēgina, ‘Queen’. ² She is also referred to with the imperial epithet Augusta, ‘Majestic’. ³ If Olmstead (1991) is correct in his interpretation of the Rom inscription as a hymn to Epona, we also have the epithets Atanta, ‘Mother,’ Catona, ‘Battle Goddess,’ Dunna, “Noble,” Vovesia, ‘Good,’ and Imona, ‘Swift’ (p. 284). All of these mentioned epithets can be related to the three Indo-European functions: Rēgina (Sacra), Augusta, and Dunna are first function epithets; Catona and Imona are second function epithets; Atanta and Vovesia are third function epithets. Thus, we see through epigraphy, Epona is active in all three functions and all three levels of the cosmos (Lyle 1982, p. 31).

In iconography, the attributes of Epona “include the cornucopia, patera and basket of fruit,” attributes which are “concerned with fertility and nourishment” (Mackintosh 1992, p. 82). Due to her attributes, she has often been compared to the Gaulish Matres figures (Lambrechts 1950, pp. 109-110). These attributes emphasize that “she and the god of the third function share a half in opposition to the gods of the first and second functions” (Lyle 1982, p. 31). She is also portrayed holding or in the company of animals such as a foal, a dog, and a bird (Linduff 1979, p. 821).

According to Mackintosh (1992, p. 84), there is a large concentration of finds beginning at Alise-Sainte-Reine (Alesia) and running south along the Saône river and then west to Autun (Augustodunum). This was the territory of the Aedui and the Lingones. The second largest area of concentration is in Gallia Belgica, between the Rhine and Main rivers and around the cities of Trier and Metz. This was the area of the Belgic tribes the Treveri and Mediomatrici.

There are five types of portrayals of Epona in sculpture: riding a horse, standing or seated before a horse, standing or seated between two horses, a tamer of horses, and as a mare with a foal. A large number of the finds for inscriptions and statues coincides with where Roman legions were encamped (Linduff 1979, p. 825). This was due to the Roman auxiliary cavalry (ala) and the mounted cohorts (numeri) being composed mainly of Gauls and Germans (Linduff 1979, pp. 827-832). By worshipping the familiar Epona, “a soldier could hope for protection for himself and perhaps his horse and for a continued good and productive life” (Linduff 1979, p. 836). Representations of Epona have also been found in graves and on funerary steles, relating Epona to the role of a protector of the dead or a psychopomp (Mackintosh 1992, p. 83; Linduff 1979, p. 835). Images have also been found in wells, springs, or lakes suggesting either a healing quality (Mackintosh 1992, pp. 82-83) or “suggest the belief that water, as the genesis of life, could confirm the powers of Epona to regenerate life” (Linduff 1979, p. 834). She has also been interpretted as a source of waters goddess based on finds near water (Thevenot 1949, pp. 396-398).

On a rustic calendar from Guidizzolo, Italy, we know that her feast day was on December 18th. This date would have been before the winter solstice, which was celebrated on December 25th with the festival of Brumalia, which derived its name from the Latin bruma meaning ‘short day’ (John the Lydian, De Mensibus 4.158). Although we have no way of knowing the origins of the date for the Eponalia, we can assume that it has some significance to the pre-Roman cult of Epona. According to Olmstead (2019), “an oenach ‘festival gathering’ was held by the Ulaid […] dedicated to Macha (the Irish equivalent of Epona) and took place during the week surrounding samain ‘the first day of winter’”. Nevertheless, we have a feast day associating Epona with the season of autumn, the time of the year that Lyle (1982) assigned to the transfunctional goddess (p. 42).

We have seen in the above discussion how the etymology, epigraphy, iconography, and festival date of Epona can place Epona in the role of the Indo-European transfunctional goddess. But what does this mean in terms of the cosmos and the Gaulish world view?

The Gaulish world view consists of Albios (Upper World), Bitus (Middle World), and Dumnos (Lower World) with the World Tree, Drus, extending through all Three Worlds. Each of the Three Worlds can be associated with an Indo-European function as well: Albios with the first function (sacred), Bitus with the second function (physical force), and Dumnos with the third function (fertility). One way we could understand these associations is to look at the compound names Albiorīx, Biturīges, and Dumnorīx, which are composed of the three roots for the Three Worlds and the Gaulish rīx, ‘king.’ All three compound names essentially mean ‘king of the world.’ Albiorīx is a theonym and is associated with the sacred, Biturīges is an ethnonym and is associated with physical force, and Dumnorīx is a personal name and is associated with fertility. As Lyle stated, the transfunctional goddess was associated with the World Tree. This would be because the World Tree exists in all Three Worlds and thus in all three functions, and also because the World Tree can be viewed as the means by which the transfunctional goddess moves among the Three Worlds.

As Lyle (1982) stated, cosmic order was “a special virtue” (p. 35) of the transfunctional goddess. As such, Epona can be expected to display this quality as well. The Proto-Indo-European word for cosmic order is *h₂értus, ‘properly fitted, right, true.’ Cognates include Sanskrit ṛtá (cosmic law, order, truth), Avestan aṣ̌a/arta (order), Hittite āra (right, proper), Latin artus (joint), and Greek ἀρτύς (arrangement). Unfortunately, Gaulish does not have a word descended from this PIE root. But it does have words conceptually related to it. Possible reconstructed Gaulish words which could be used would be either assus (ordered, ordained, initiated according to rituals) or iānos (true, right, following the divine order).

Nonetheless, it is interesting that Thévenot (1949) suggested that Epona may be the paredra of the rider-god from the Jupiter columns (pp. 398-400). Taranis has been associated with this rider-god, and I have shown elsewhere (here) that Taranis is the upholder of cosmic order. Furthermore, Taranis is, after all, caelestum deorum maximum (greatest of the heavenly gods) according to the Berne scholiasts on Lucan’s Pharsalia, and he also imperium caelestium tenere (holds the command of heaven) according to Caesar (De Bello Gallico, VI.17). It would not seem unlikely, therefore, that the most powerful god is paired with the most powerful goddess and that she gives him the cosmic order which he upholds.


¹ CIL 3, 7750

² CIL 3, 12679; CIL 3, 7750; RIU 3, 869; AE 2009, 1111; AE 1993, 1370; AE 1933, 76; ILD 00779; IDR-03-05-01, 00069

³ CIL 3, 4776; CIL 3, 5176; CIL 3, 3420; CIL 3, 5312; AE 1983, 815; AE 1992, 1417; TitAq-01, 00052

Mars Albiorīx (CIL 12, 1300)

Delamarre, Xavier (2003). Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise: Une approche linguistique du vieux-celtique continental (2nd Ed.). Paris: Editions Errance.

Duval, Paul-Marie (1989). “Cultes gaulois et gallo-romaine. 3. Dieux d’epoque gallo-romaine,” Publications de l’École Française de Rome, 116, pp. 259-273. Available online: https://www.persee.fr/doc/efr_0000-0000_1989_ant_116_1_3667

Lambrechts, Pierre (1950). “Épone et les Matres,” L’Antiquité Classique, 19-1, pp. 103-112. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3406/antiq.1950.2905

Linduff, Katheryn M. (1979). “Epona: A Celt among the Romans,” Latomus, T. 38, Fasc. 4, pp. 817-837. Available online: https://academia.edu/resource/work/9249787

Lyle, Emily B. (1982). “Dumezil’s Three Functions and Indo-European Cosmic Structure,” History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 25-44. Available online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1062201

Mackintosh, Majorie Carol (1992). The divine horseman in the art of the western Roman Empire.Ph.D. thesis The Open University. Available online: https://oro.open.ac.uk/57334/1/303404.pdf

Olmstead, Garrett (1991). “Gaulish, Celtiberian, and Indo-European Verse,” The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol. 19, pp. 259-308. Available online: https://academia.edu/resource/work/42263117

Olmstead, Garrett. The Gods of the Celts and the Indo-Europeans (Revised 2019). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330357347_The_Gods_of_the_Celts_and_the_Indo-Europeans_Revised_2019

Pearse, Roger (2009). “A translation of John the Lydian, “De Mensibus” 4.158 (on December).” Blog post: https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2009/12/18/a-translation-of-john-the-lydian-de-mensibus-4-158-on-december/

Thévenot, Emile (1949). “Les monuments et le culte d’Êpona chez les Éduens,” L’Antiquité Classique, 18-2, pp. 385-400. Available online: https://doi.org/10.3406/antiq.1949.2891

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