Epona and the cult of the Danubian Horsemen

The Getae (Dacians) and other peoples of the Danube basin developed a fascinating religious cult some time between the 1st and 3rdC CE whose imagery seems to have been a syncresis of the worship of Epona and that of the ‘Thracian Hero’ or Sabazios. The reason we know about it is from a collection of small lead plaques and occasional stone stelae  depicting cult images. After Trajan conquered the Dacians at the start of the 2ndC CE, his admiration for them as a military fighting force and organised society led to a rapid assimilation of them into the Empire and offered Dacian warriors and nobility an opportunity to serve with honour in the Roman army – particularly the cavalry. Dacians, Dalmatians, Moesians, Sarmatians and their Thracian cousins and neighbours had a great equestrian tradition and became key recruits to Rome’s elite mounted fighting forces. As such their native religious cults often appear to have involved the horse – in particular the mounted ‘Thracian Hero’ and the more northerly ‘Danubian Horsemen’ imagery come to mind. There was also the ‘celtic’ goddess Epona, whose idea and imagery was popular not only in the Balkans and down the Danube, but among the ‘Germanic’ peoples who existed along and around the river Rhine in Germania, and even in Gaul and Rome itself.

The phenomenon referred to as the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult is perhaps of greatest interest, as appears to show elements of syncretism uniting the more western or Celtic ‘Epona’ cult and the more eastern Thracian ‘Horseman’ cult. The lead plaques which are the most common source of the Danubian imagery are typically quite small – they’d fit in the palm of your hand – and were obviously devotional objects of some kind.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the 'Danubian Horsemen' and their central goddess... seemingly a version of Epona.

An exquisite example of a plaque depicting the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ and their central goddess… seemingly a version of Epona.

Apart from the central goddess and her two (or four) horses – an image familiar from the Epona cult – they typically show aspects of the chthonic imagery associated with the Thracian/Phrygian deity Sabazios, and Delphic Apollo: namely the serpent or dragon. The dragon was an important and iconic aspect of Dacian symbolism, as evidenced by their legendary ‘Draco’ banners as depicted on Trajan’s column in Rome. The other essential piece of imagery associated with the cult is the sacrificial fish which appears in the image above in three forms: under the hooves of one of the horses, on the ‘altar’ surrounded by three women, and upon a sacral tripod.

Epona with two horses - note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

Epona with four horses – note the similarity with the Danubian cult iconography

The usual appellation of  ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult actually removes the real central figure from the religion, which is actually the seated goddess. Whereas the ‘Thracian Horseman’ images usually represent the solitary hero on his horse vanquishing a boar or similar beast, here there are two riders – somewhat akin to the Greek Dioskoroi, the famed equestrian brothers of ancient Greek religion, one of whom was mortal and one of whom was divine. Such imagery is an important aspect of the ‘divine hero’ cults which drove societies in this age: it was important that humans could aspire to the divine through identity (tribal or spiritual) with such ideas. Although Hercules was a popular image in this age, his non-equestrian nature would not have appealed so much to warriors of the Danubian region…

By the ‘Dioskorian’ interpretation of this imagery, the goddess seated between the two horsemen would have been seen as an intercessor between the divine and the mortal and therefore a goddess of death and war. The Dioskouroi – Kastor/Castor and Polydeukes/Pollux themselves represented the combination of immortal with mortal – a fact as important to their cult as their association with horses. By common European norms of the day, the owners and riders of horses held a superior cultural and social status – a feature which has endured down to the modern day. The goddess who controls horses was therefore the goddess with power over human society’s elites – perhaps explaining the importance of ‘Epona’. The ‘fertility’ aspect of Epona has often been commented on – perhaps on account of this cultural power-relationship of humans with horses. The imagery of serpents associated with the Sabazios and Danubian cults reflects the power of decay to promote fertility – an aspect reflecting the ideas of kingship and ambition which lead to wars, which in turn led to death and regeneration in Europe’s ancient societies.

Writing in the 1stC BCE, Diodorus of Sicily had this to say about the Celts of Atlantic Europe (which if he is borrowing from Herodotus :

 “…The Keltoi  who dwell along the ocean venerate the Dioskoroi above any of the gods, since they have a tradition handed down from ancient times that these gods appeared among them coming from the ocean…” Library of History 4. 56. 4 (trans. Oldfather)

This may explain the fish in the ‘Danubian Horsemen’ cult imagery – the Dioskouroi were also favourites among Greek and Roman fishermen and mariners, and the Danube basin was famously associated with fisheries and river trade as well as its cavalry traditions, and the river was well-stocked with fish in ancient times, including the freshwater Danube Salmon (Hucho hucho) which can grow to a huge size – as big as a man! The giant fish being trampled by the hooves of the leftmost rider on the ‘Danubian’ plaque may well be one of these. It seems a good fisherman’s alternative to the ‘Thracian Horseman’, typically portrayed trampling his porcine or leonine prey.

So why Epona and what does she signify?

The Danubian ‘Epona’ is depicted making contact with the horses of the two mounted heros, and occupies the central upper part of the plaques’ imagery associated by the usual interpretation with the spiritual or otherworld realms.  In the plaque depicted above, under the arch (which depicts the vault of the heavens) is another figure who appears to be driving a quadriga chariot yoked to four horses and with the rays of the sun coming from his head – evidently this is Helios-Apollo. Other similar plaques depict Sol and Luna (or Helios-Apollo and Artemis-Hecate-Selene, interchangeably Sabazios and Bendis) in the same position. This syncretic imagery seems to have been shared with the late classical Sabazios and Mithras cults of Thracia and Phrygia which subsequently spread throughout the Roman empire. For the solar and lunar gods to be depicted above ‘Epona’ suggests to me that the events in the drama of her mysteries in this cult happened at the gateway to the otherworld, and places this ‘Epona’ as a receiver of the dead. Not a ‘goddess of horses’… She may have been viewed as this by Romans who absorbed Epona’s cult (see: Juvenal, Satires VIII), but they also popularised the Dioscuri as gods of horses! This was evidently a mystery cult whose outward façade hid higher truths.

Some of the Danubian plaques depict Epona interacting with the horses while simultaneously cutting/sacrificing the fish on a tripod altar, sometimes a pedestal altar. Others, like the one above in particular, leave this to a trio of apparently female figures. The image in fact looks like a depiction of Shakespeare’s ‘weird sisters’ around their cauldron, although it may be a pedestal altar. This may be a depiction of a cult practice, but it might equally portray the typically Celtic ‘triple’ aspect of the divinity above, which imagery seems often to have been borrowed by the Greeks and Romans. The left-most figure is dumpy and matronly, the right-most seems lithe and young, the one in the middle is difficult to age unfortunately, but I shouldn’t be surprised if she was supposed to be a crone

The ‘Great Mother’ – Cybele, Rhea and the Cailleach

The folklore and fairy-tales of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man maintain a memory of an important female character whose prominence and mystery outstrips all others of these regions. Known as the ‘Cailleach’ (pron. kal-yack), her mythology portrayed her as an ancient forebear of humanity – perhaps so old that her body, her existence, her very essence appears as one with the landscape, which she is credited with creating. On account of her age she is ascribed great knowledge of things past, but also in many traditions claims knowledge of what will come to pass in the future. She is a mistress of herds, an industrious worker, but somewhat reclusive and prone to be found in wild, out-of-the-way places – particularly mountain-tops. She clearly relies on no male partner, although in some tales she is associated with one – albeit in a somehow estranged manner. Students of ancient European paganism might well recognise in her the image of whom the Romans referred to as Magna Mater – the Great Goddess from Anatolia’s Phrygian highlands, known as Cybele who was identical with the Greek ‘Mother of the Gods’, Rhea, wife of old Kronos himself.


The Phrygian ‘Great Goddess’ was said to have originated among the Thracians who, according to Herodotus,  were once known as Bryges and crossed over into Asia Minor to occupy its central uplands. She was said in some sources to be the mother of the god Sabazios, the ‘wild horseman’ who became identified with the Greek Dionysos. It is of interest that the sacred rites of both Phrygian Cybele (who remained identified in Thracia as both Cottys (‘the sitter’?) and Bendis) and the Greek Dionysos consisted of wild orgia involving ecstatic dances, processions, the use of intoxicants and sacred rhythmic music involving drums, cymbals, flutes and horns. Participants emphasised the mysteries of nature’s chthonic fertility and recurring constancy. Whereas the Dionysia were typically led by female celebrants, the rites of Cybele were led by a priesthood of castrated eunuchs who took on the roles of women. In spite of this, the similarities were striking and point towards a common older religion, whose origins lay as much within Europe as they did in Indo-European Asia.

Cybele was particularly associated with cult centres in the Anatolian highlands – her shrines (like those of the Persians, Medes and many Celtic peoples) occurring on mountains. The same was true of Rhea, whose main shrine on Crete was situated high on Mount Ida: it was here she was supposed to have hidden the infant Zeus from his cannibalistic father Kronos. The other Mount Ida – in the Phrygian Troad – was sacred to Cybele. Other oracle sites from Greece to Asia Minor were located at high altitude – Delphi being a notable and famous example, which was apparently an oracle to Gaia/Ge before it became sacred to the ‘divine son of light’, Apollo. Mount Fengari on the island of Samothrace (‘Samos of Thrace’) was another site for the oracular cult of the Great Mother of the Gods, whereas on the island of Samos off the Lydian-Ionian coast of Asia Minor, the cult of Hera (a linguistic metathesis of ‘Rhea’) held sway.

When Rome officially adopted the cult of Cybele towards the end of the Punic Wars (3rdC BCE) it was at the behest of the oracular cult of the Sibylline priestesses who appear to have functioned as part of a network of Apollonian oracles across the ancient Mediterranean world, extending from Ionia in western Asia Minor. These appear to have had more ancient links with the worship of the Great Goddess than history generally leads us to believe – perhaps on account of the identity between the ever-youthful Apollo, and Cybele’s divine consort, Attis. The phonetic similarities of the words ‘Sybil’ (originally Greek) and ‘Cybele’ point towards a more ancient link, that the Roman Republic’s dominant and Hellenophile Patrician statesmen perhaps believed they needed to remind their peoples of during the crisis. Presumably, there was a connection between the ecstatic celebratory rites of Cybele and the ecstatic visionary states of the ancient Sybils, although the secret and initiatory aspects of the cults of these gods must leave much open to speculation.

Returning to the northwest shores of Atlantic Europe, is seems quite apparent that there must be some connection between Cybele/Rhea and the craggy old crone of Gaelic myth who seems to share these important mountain-loving and oracular attributes. We have no definite archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of Cybele or Rhea in Roman Britain, and the fact that the ‘Cailleach’ mythology comes from lands which largely fell outside of Rome’s direct cultural influence suggests that the Cailleach legends possibly evolved in-situ and before the coming of Christianity.

That there was certainly Bacchic/Dionysian and Mithraic cult practised among the Roman-Britons: we can be certain of this from archaeology, but there was no evidence of Cybele, which was apparently a city-cult at Rome. Instead, the closest ‘maternal’ divinities we come across are those known as the Matres or Nutrices – typically represented as a trio of seated women variously nursing or holding bowls or cornucopias. A number of stelae or carved stone panels depicting them survive, and they were also a feature seen in other Romanised Celtic provinces of Europe – perhaps bought to Britain by auxiliary troops serving in the legions.

A Romano-Gallic 'matres' statue from Germany.

A Romano-Gallic ‘matres’ statue from Germany.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

The same as depicted on a stela from the Roman fort at Housesteads, GB.

Apart from their seated pose, they have little else in common with the iconography of Cybele. However, the ‘Celtic Triplicity’ of their form must be considered to be a significant North European religious element. This idea (seemingly copied into Christianity) held that gods had three aspects, and were often depicted ‘3-in-1’. However these triune females still don’t on the surface exhibit any relation to the Cailleach myths from un-Romanised areas of Britain and Ireland.

It is possible, one might suppose, that mythology may have diffused out into these ‘peripheral’ areas and taken root, but it is much more likely that the Cailleach legends evolved in-situ rather than being introduced by continental legionaries. What seems more likely is that the Cailleach mythology formed under the same empirical pre-Roman, pre-Hellenic religious worldview that underpinned the origins of Cybele in Thracia and Phrygia – a worldview that significantly preceded the European Iron Age. This may have had its roots way back in the pre-metal ages when evidence of a widespread religious ideology begins to be demonstrated in the remains of stone and wood temple structures and burial sites with structural commonalities that occur in the archaeological record across Europe. Alternatively, the origins of metalworking in Asia Minor in the Chalcolithic period (c.4000 BC onwards) may have brought the goddess with this technological culture… The connection of Irish and Manx Cailleach legends to those of Cuillean the Smith (Weland to the northeastern Europeans) may indicate this to be true.