Epona, Gaulish goddess of horses and an august queen among deities, is one of the most famous divine figures from Gaul. After Cernunnos, she is probably the most widely known and widely worshipped today. And she has figured in my religious devotions for nearly as long as I can remember. I’ve written hymns in her honour, designed rituals for her, put together digital simulacra of her. Her image, along with a quotation from Apuleius about her, is on the keychain that I take with me every time I get behind the wheel of a car. And last December 18 (a date figuring on a local calendar from Guidizzolo, and since kept by many pagans and polytheists as Eponalia), I made a vow to Epona that I would finally get a statuette of her for my domestic shrine.
As yet indistinct… a vision of an Epona statuette for my domestic shrine.
I think when I made this vow, I had in mind an item that I had seen somewhere, thought it was a bit more expensive than I would like, and filed away in my mind as ‘purchase this in the fullness of time’. But where was the item in question? I thought it was from Sacred Source, which is where I’d ordered the lovely Cernunnos statuette that now adorns my domestic shrine. I looked there and I looked elsewhere, and the only comparable item I could find didn’t quite seem as I remembered:
“Epona of Denon”, from Sacred Source. (Either Sacred Source or the artist, or both, hold the copyright to this particular design.)
Now, there a lot of things I like about the statuette pictured above. It is avowedly inspired by an ancient model, namely that from Mellecey now in the Musée Denon in Châlons-sur-Saône. It belongs to the category of Epona images showing both a mare and a foal, which I find really delightful. (This motif is more typical of the Æduan region than of the Treveran, but one need not be over-precise about such things.) The horses are very well represented, as is the goddess herself (riding sidesaddle, as she typically does), whose face and expression seem beautiful and serene. (Is it just me, or do I detect a distant family resemblance to the divine Faustina the elder here?)
At the same time, there were one or two things about this image that didn’t quite satisfy me. First and foremost, the statuette’s angry orange-red hue seemed curiously at odds with the otherwise nurturing, calm quality of the composition. I also wondered at first why Epona is here apparently depicted as Shiva (!), complete with kaparda hairstyle and a hand gesture not too far off from an abhaya mudra, rather than her more usual attributes, such as a patera or basket of fruits. Admittedly, on a certain level, the idea of syncretism between Epona and Shiva seems rather awesome. On the other, why choose this arrangement for one of the very few models of Epona statuette on the market? And if I’m wrong to see this as a gesture towards Shiva syncretism (about which I am less than half serious), then what is that perched on top of her head? Is it the world’s smallest Isiac throne-headdress—and if so, why? Some of my confusion on these points was answered by seeing a photo of what was undoubtedly the original piece that inspired the Sacred Source sculpture. Here is the photo from Espérandieu (NB Miranda Green’s photo on p. 19 of Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art is clearer, but I’m loath to push the ‘fair use’ doctrine of copyright law too far in this blog post):
Stele of Epona from Mellecey in the Æduan country, now in the Musée Denon in Châlons-sur-Saône (Espérandieu no. 2128, in vol. III).
In the original, she really does seem to have something or other on her head (this is more visible in Miranda Green’s photo), though not as elaborate as the one in the modern statue. As her right hand is missing, our contemporary artist has replaced it with an open, upraised hand; however, my guess is that it would have held a patera from which the foal is eating. (Espérandieu thought there might have been a patera there as well.) An outstretched hand is more likely to break off, as the one in the original from Mellecey did, whereas the hand in the Sacred Source sculpture is articulated with the body.
Taking all in all, I decided that the best thing to do would be to buy the statuette from Sacred Source, paint it (as such images were typically painted in ancient times…), and embellish it with some additional items obtained from Etsy. For one thing, since I didn’t quite know what to make of the headdress or topknot, I figured she could wear a wreath of roses around her head. This would not only mask or distract from the topknot, but also serve as a nice offering to Epona rooted in our historical sources. (Apuleius at least mentions carefully arranged roses at a shrine of Epona. I’ve also seen a relief of Epona in Salonica with a wreath about her head, though admittedly not a wreath of flowers.) In addition, I thought it might be feasible to suspend a little basket of apples (and perhaps other fruits) from her hand.
With these considerations in mind, I devised a plan for how I wanted the image to look:
Thankfully, the artist(s) who designed the statue have a clearer sense of anatomy, particularly equine anatomy, than I do. (Yes, my mare drawing does rather resemble a Seth animal!) The next step was to replenish my supplies of acrylic paint, slap the said paints on the statue…
Epona’s brief phase as a deathly pale redhead…
…then do some fine-tuning, notably to add a bit of colour to Epona’s complexion and to transform the mare and foal into a (classic) dun and a blue dun (or grullo), respectively. This involves what’s called point coloration (darker legs, faces, and tails), dark manes, and dark dorsal stripes. I have no idea why I thought these horses should be dun, but somehow it felt right. While reading up on the subject of horse colouring, I found that dun is considered to be a primitive coloration—lost, as it were, in the atavistic reaches of our collective memory. Or some such.
Epona (and horses) with their paint job almost complete.
Meanwhile, I was in touch with an extremely helpful, friendly, and responsive Etsy artist in Hawai‘i (aren’t Etsy people the nicest you’ll ever deal with? PS: she donates her proceeds to children’s charities, so please do check out 4hala’s store) who gamely took on my commission to make a wreath for the statuette even though she typically does these sorts of things as decorations for dollhouses. It didn’t take her long before a lovely crown of roses was speeding Epona’s way across the Pacific. With this, a basket custom crochet’d by a woman in Wales (honestly, the craftsmanship of this blows me away!), some wee clay apples from Thailand, and a few finishing touches with the paintbrush, I arrived at the final product:
The finished image: Epona with her basket of fruits and wreath of roses.
A by no means contemptible tribute to the great Celtic horse-goddess, wouldn’t you agree?
In addition to being a legit devotional exercise, this whole business of painting statuettes is, I have to say, a ton of fun. You don’t have to worry about counterfeiting light and shadow, the way you do in two-dimensional painting, because of course the sculpture takes care of that itself. Instead, you just need to think about the colours that things are supposed to be in themselves, and of course the order in which to put down the layers of paint. This last part was very familiar to me, since I’d been doing it digitally with photographs of ancient statues for years. And the outcome is a simulacrum far more vivid and charismatic than the monochrome statues one usually sees—and hence potentially more effective in meditation and devotional exercises.
In fact, for both of these reasons, I’m now thinking of painting the Mercury statuette who has been watching over me, in all his monochrome glory, since 2006 if not earlier. The Mercury image is resin, like the Epona statuette above, so I’m confident it would take to acrylic paint happily enough. However, I’d be a bit more worried about trying to paint my statuettes of Ðirona (apparently unglazed clay—would a layer of gesso do it?) and Aveta, or Treveran mother-goddess with lapdog (which is terra cotta).