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The Religion of the Ancient Celts

Page: 94

The horse had also been worshipped, but a goddess Epona (Gaul. epo-s, "horse"), protectress of horses and asses, took its place, and had a far-spread cult. She rides a horse or mare {214} with its foal, or is seated among horses, or feeds horses. A representation of a mare suckling a foal—a design analogous to those in which Epona feeds foals—shows that her primitive equine nature had not been forgotten.721 The Gauls were horse-rearers, and Epona was the goddess of the craft; but, as in other cases, a cult of the horse must have preceded its domestication, and its flesh may not have been eaten, or, if so, only sacramentally.722 Finally, the divine horse became the anthropomorphic horse-goddess. Her images were placed in stables, and several inscriptions and statuettes have been found in such buildings or in cavalry barracks. The remains of the cult have been found in the Danube and Rhine valleys, in Eastern Gaul, and in Northern Italy, all Celtic regions, but it was carried everywhere by Roman cavalry recruited from the Celtic tribes. Epona is associated with, and often has, the symbols of the Matres, and one inscription reads Eponabus, as if there were a group of goddesses called Epona. A goddess who promoted the fertility of mares would easily be associated with goddesses of fertility. Epona may also have been confused with a river-goddess conceived of as a spirited steed. Water-spirits took that shape, and the Matres were also river-goddesses.

A statuette of a horse, with a dedication to a god Rudiobus, otherwise unknown, may have been carried processionally, while a mule has a dedication to Segomo, equated elsewhere with Mars. A mule god Mullo, also equated with Mars, is mentioned on several inscriptions. The connection with Mars {215} may have been found in the fact that the October horse was sacrificed to him for fertility, while the horse was probably associated with fertility among the Celts. The horse was sacrificed both by Celts and Teutons at the Midsummer festival, undoubtedly as a divine animal. Traces of the Celtic custom survive in local legends, and may be interpreted in the fuller light of the Teutonic accounts. In Ireland a man wearing a horse's head rushed through the fire, and was supposed to represent all cattle; in other words, he was a surrogate for them. The legend of Each Labra, a horse which lived in a mound and issued from it every Midsummer eve to give oracles for the coming year, is probably connected with the Midsummer sacrifice of the horse. Among the Teutons the horse was a divine sacrificial animal, and was also sacred to Freyr, the god of fertility, while in Teutonic survivals a horse's head was placed in the Midsummer fire.728 The horse was sporadically the representative of the corn-spirit, and at Rome the October horse was sacrificed in that capacity and for fertility.729 Among the Celts, the horse sacrificed at Midsummer may have represented the vegetation-spirit and benefited all domestic animals—the old rite surviving in an attenuated form, as described above.

Perhaps the goddess Damona was an animal divinity, if her name is derived from damatos, "sheep," cognate to Welsh dafad, "sheep," and Gaelic damh, "ox." Other divine animals, as has been seen, were associated with the waters, and the use of beasts and birds in divination doubtless points to their divine character. A cult of bird-gods may lurk behind the divine name Bran, "raven," and the reference to the magic birds of Rhiannon in the Triads.

{216}

3.

Animal worship is connected with totemism, and certain things point to its existence among the Celts, or to the existence of conditions out of which totemism was elsewhere developed. These are descent from animals, animal tabus, the sacramental eating of an animal, and exogamy.


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