Most of us probably made our first faltering steps into the magical world in a similar way -through books.
Starting out as an early teen in regional Australia in a pre-Amazon world, every magic book was a good book… even the ones that subsequently turned out not to be.
(Working out which is which is half the battle and also the reason why I don’t give out book suggestions to newbies when they email in. The bad books you read build the wizard just as much as the good ones.. sometimes more so.)
Without mentioning any names, one publisher in particular dominated the range at my only independent bookstore and whilst it certainly had -and continues to have- some quality titles on its list the reality of commercial publishing means quite a number of them were… less good.
It was in one of my first ever (probably less good) books that I encountered Epona.
This was one a title that -in a practice that we’ve all seen way too many time- bulked out its pages by giving you an alphabetical list of “Celtic” gods. You’d get a corresponding element, a semi-precious stone and maybe a paragraph of detail. It’s a bit ridiculous for a god, when you think about it -like some sort transdimensional telephone directory- but I guess we all work that out the first time we dial one up.
Anyway, Epona struck something deep in me. Since then she’s been rolling around somewhere in the back of my head. As previously mentioned she’s a local girl made good, pretty much the only domestic goddess to be worshipped across the Roman empire. (Most made the reverse journey.) And today is her feast day.
Now, I’m not exactly a horse person but I’m certainly from a horse family. My mother had horses growing up and was (is?) an accomplished rider, my grandfather was lifetime member and president of the Newcastle Jockey Club, my cousins up the valley in wine country still have horses. So whilst I can ride a cantering horse without falling off for instance I can’t saddle one or do any of that other horsey crap. And horseracing bores the absolute pants off me.
The typical qualities associated with Epona today are to do with horses and how we use them. She was the protector of Roman cavalry, for example. (There are also secondary Otherworld associations because of the horse/rider metaphor of the soul in the body but also because horses can literally take you further or bring messages from further away… from the Farthest Shore.)
So what’s with this connection to a deity of “things I really don’t care about”? I mean, I have no connection to deities of childbirth, for instance (and obvious reasons). So why a horse goddess?
- First answer: Many of you will likely agree with this but probably because Epona is really approachable. She’s reasonably well disposed toward us. She’s up for the connection. Maybe it’s less about me and more about her?
- Second answer: Because of what Captain Jack says about ships:
“That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.”
So a horse needs four legs and a large heart and hooves and such. But perhaps that’s not quite what a horse is?
Whilst we are used to the concept that ideas can tumble down to us from the late medieval period to today, it’s important to remember that we have been tumbling for a long time. Ideas tumbled from the truly distant past into the classical age.
For me, it seems that Epona of the imperial era is a tumble down.
This is what surfaced last year during my contemplo-medi-visuo-pathworky ‘tune in’. (Wasn’t as far as trance, wasn’t as close as contemplation. You all know what I mean.)
It wasn’t just some horse spirit. The intelligence I touched seemed older than classical and more… inquisitive.
Here’s the thing about humans. We don’t actually have all that many animal allies in the physical realm -as in creatures going with us on this journey.
Canine domestication was pre-agricultural (dogs being good in a hunt). Feline domestication was post-agricultural (granaries attract rats and fixed settlements accrue luxury/status symbols. See Bast.) Bovine domestication was both pre and post agricultural. There are a handful of others such as pigs but that’s about it.
And none of them have changed the destiny of mankind quite like the horse.
Think about it. Horse-riding was the first time we could travel at faster-than-human speed over land. It was in fact the only way to travel at faster-than-human-land speed right up until the Industrial Revolution (and we still measure power in ‘number of horses’.)
Suddenly we could cover much greater distances. Suddenly we could transport more than we could physically carry. Our daily communication ‘bubble’ -the distance news and culture can travel in a single day- expanded twentyfold.
And you know what? This great leap forward wasn’t a one way transaction. No mere domestication here. This was a contract… a Pact.
You all know we like to speculate about First Things here, like the first time humans ingested hallucinogens. Well, one day long ago… probably in what is now Mongolia… a human looked at a horse and thought “I have an idea”. More significantly, the horse looked back and said “actually, so have I.” It strikes me that this First Thing… the first time a human managed to successfully mount and ride a horse… is almost as significant as our first meatsuit ejection.
My mother the psychonaut tells stories from her childhood where she and her friends would play tag on horseback in an old quarry near where she grew up. The horses knew exactly what was going on. They would comically try and hide behind ludicrously ineffective piles of gravel and then squeal with delight when they were discovered before taking off in the opposite direction -leaving their hapless teenage riders clinging on for dear life. Horses are intelligent, curious about the world around them and adore companionship.
So… picture that cold morning in Mongolia where the first human takes timid steps toward the first horse. And the first horse -being naturally curious- thought to itself “what’s all this about then? I may stick around to find out.”
And so began the deal of both our lifetimes. You can very easily make the case that pretty much all human achievement is built on horseback in one way or another. And for the horse itself the Pact did great things from an evolutionary perspective.
Because they are everywhere. The animal we built together journeyed with us to almost every corner of the planet. They otherwise would not have. The wild horse is extremely rare and endangered. (What we commonly call “wild horses” are actually feral horses.) The Pact brought returns for us both. We both permanently altered each other’s evolutionary journey.
Those early moments of domestication -those rare times where mankind interfaced with the wild and made something new- occasionally tumble down to us in a mythic way. For instance, you can see the challenge, reward and importance of bovine domestication in Northern Europe in the interplay between the runes Fehu and Uruz.
I also suspect -based solely on working knowledge of ritual meaning and absolutely no training whatsoever- that the Minoan Bull Leaping ceremony is another cultural memory/representation of bovine domestication. (If it turns out that bull leaping was an adolescent right of passage then going from ‘wild’ to ‘settled’ would match going from ‘child’ to ‘civilised’.)
These are profound moments in the human journey and they cast very long “memory shadows”. They are big enough events that we can use them to talk about Universal Ideas… to understand the numinous.
This then, would be what a horse is. Movement, enquiry, industry and companionship. And this is what we contemplate at Eponalia: a dear old friend… and a very long journey.
Here’s to you, Epona, my darling. Thanks for the ride.