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

Chiron, the Centaurs and the Solar hunter-gods.

Chiron (Kheiron – ‘hand’) was the wise Centaur who plays the role of mentor-instructor to a number of youthful heroes of ancient Greek mythology. Unlike most Centaurs (whose nature was generally as excitable, wild and untameable as young stallions) he was often depicted in earlier Greek art with the full body of a man, having the torso and rear quarters of a horse coming from his back. This depiction is at odds with that usually associated with centaurs, who tend to be shown with all of their limbs being those of the horse:

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Chiron the hunter-instructor: In his right hand he holds a youthful Achilles, and over his shoulder he carries a captured hare.

Our earliest sources (eg – Hesiod c.8th-7thC BCE) suggest that Chiron was a son of Cronos (Chironos?) who was sired upon the Okeanid nymph Philyra of Mount Pelion in Thessaly. To quote the summaries on the fabulous Theoi.com:

Hesiod, Theogony 1001 (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or 7th B.C.) :
“Kheiron (Chiron) the son of Philyra.”

Eumelus of Corinth or Arctinus of Miletus, Titanomachia Frag 6 (from Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius 1. 554) (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C7th or C6th B.C.) :
“The author of the War of the Giants (Gigantomakhia) says that Kronos (Cronus) took the shape of a horse and lay with Philyra, the daughter of Okeanos. Through this cause Kheiron (Chiron) was born a kentauros (centaur): his wife was Khariklo (Chariclo).”

The Okeanids were the nymphae daughters of primal Titan, Okeanos, who represented the waters just as Gaia represented the land/earth. For this reason, they represented aspects of Okeanos including rivers, clouds, lakes, streams and (as Naiades) springs of water. The Centaurs in general were supposed to have been the children of the cloud-nymph Nephele and were born on Mount Pelion. The horse-men of Greek mythology were associated with water, just as the legendary Pegasus had his name and origin derived from natural springs (Pegaoi). This origin of the divine-monstrous reflects medieval pagan tales from Scandinavia such as the legend of Sigurd and Fafnir: the dragon and his brothers also have chthonic-aquatic origins. The Greek myths show evidence of parallel colliding traditions: Tethys (wife of Okeanos) was supposed to be the mother of clouds, although not explicitly Nephele in the Olympian mythology. Readers might realise an etymological similarity between Philyra, Pelion, Nephele – even the semitic Nephilim might have similar origins, as might the 9thC CE Meresberg Incantation divinity called Phol, and even maybe the Macedonian kings who called themselves after the equine designation Phillip

The name itself, ‘Chiron’ or ‘Kheiron’ means ‘hand’ – that useful attribute which sets the average centaur aside from his equine relatives. The ‘Thracian Horseman’ god from the northern Aegaean, Sabazios, was also worshiped in Anatolian Phrygia and was associated with the slaying of dragons or serpents (a motif for the conquest of death and disease) and a hand was used as a votive effigy in his rites.

A 'Sabazios' votive hand - image from the British Museum.

A ‘Sabazios’ votive hand – image from the British Museum.

The Healing Hand:

Chiron was, by his name, the ‘hand’ that guided mythic heroes in their development. In Greek mythology, this included both Achilles (a warrior-hero-ancestor of both the Greeks and Romans) and Hercules/Herakles who was perhaps the most famous hero-forebear, who conquered the forces of chaos and monsters on behalf of mankind. As a ‘teacher-protector of the people’ a (demi) god such as Chiron was therefore (like his pupil) associated with healing and medicine, linking him in Greek mythology to the serpent-slaying solar god Apollo and his medical son Asklepios (a name which incorporates an old Indo-European word for ‘serpent’ or ‘fish’: ask/esk). Chiron taught Achilles about the eponymous wound-herb famous throughout Europe: the Achillea or Yarrow (Homer: Iliad), and was famed in myths for his skill with wild herbs. He therefore functioned as the primal empirical teacher for ancient Europeans of the Aegean.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7. 197 (trans. Rackham) (Roman encyclopedia 1stC CE) :
“[On inventions:] The science of herbs and drugs was discovered by Chiron the son of Saturnus [Kronos] and Philyra.”

As a son of Cronus (Saturn), Chiron was therefore a (half) brother of Zeus. The name of the Thracian/Phrygian god named ‘Sabazios’ might even be considered to be a derivation of ‘Salva Zeus’, meaning ‘Rescuer God’ or ‘Healer God’. Sabazios was more often affiliated with Dionysus in Greek thinking, albeit because the Greeks seem to have originally inherited the traditions of Dionysus AND Sabazios-Chiron from their northern barbarian neighbours – probably during the 2nd millennium BCE or maybe the early 1st millennium BCE. The ‘wild’ Kentauroi and the satyrs would certainly both certainly be considered fit partners for the ‘Bacchanal’ party of Dionysus, although developing perhaps from a separate tradition to that of the fauns and satyrs.

The ‘Horseman’ god known in Thrace and Phrygia Sabazios (later envisioned as St George killing the dragon) seems, as mentioned, to be in many ways equivalent to the solar dragon/snake-slayer god, Apollo of Delphi. In Greek myths, Apollo slew the ancient snake Python: symbol of putrefaction and death, the afterworld and regeneration, and hence he became associated with the sorcerous practice of divination, intended to call on the knowledge of the reincarnating dead once believed in across Europe. As the snake symbolises regeneration and rebirth, Apollo’s ‘dragon-slaying’ was a metaphor for conquering death, hence his primary role as both a god of prophecy and a god of healing.

Apollo was typically represented as an archer (his statue at Delphi probably depicted him holding a bow and arrows). He used his arrows to slay the death-serpent, Python, and its decaying body was probably supposed to give off the vapours which inspired the Delphic Pytheia with their visions and oracles from the Otherworld. Chiron was also depicted with the prey of a hunter – a branch from which dead hares were suspended, like ‘fruit’. His disciple, Hercules, inadvertently caused his death with his own poisoned arrows. The arrows of Apollo were probably considered as a means by which disease was conveyed – an ancient prefiguration of the north European belief in disease caused by the darts of fairies and elves, although it should be clear by now that Apollo was linked to another serpent-slaying healing god tradition originating among the barbarians, and linked to horses. The archer constellation of Sagittarius is most usually depicted as a centaur and mythologically it is linked to both Chiron and a character called Krotos, who was a horse-legged satyr who lived with the mysterious Muses on Mount Helicon. He, like Apollo, was said to have invented the bow, to be a hunter, and (in this case, rhythmical) music – Apollo was said to have invented the lyre. Mount Helicon in Boeotia in Greece had strong associations with horses, it being the site of the birth of Pegasus, who emerged from a well on its slopes. This suggests another proto-religious link between Apollo and an equine man-beast god, but there are certain other aspects to the Krotos myth which links with that of Zeus:

The Idaean Dactyloi:

The myth of Zeus being hidden on Mount Ida from his cannibalistic father Cronus is a key element to the story of the rise of the Olympian gods over the primeval Titans, and from its location to Crete, suggests Minoan origins. This act was done by Gaia (the Earth), also often cognate with Rhea (mother of the gods), who was known in Anatolia among the Phrygians as Cybele – the prophetic ‘mountain mother’, and officially venerated by the Romans after the second Punic wars as ‘Magna Mater‘ – the ‘great mother’. The guardians of infant Zeus were a band of curious characters called the Kouretes who would stamp their feet and clash their weapons in order to cover the thunderous cries of the young god-on-high, Zeus. This was also said to be the invention of rhythmic music, and the connection with the thunderous sound of horses’ hooves becomes suggested for the Mount Helicon mythology associated with horses. The Kouretes were also known as the ‘Daktyloi’ (‘fingers’) which links back to the name ‘Chiron’ (‘hand’) and the hand-symbol associated with the worship of Sabazios. Their rustic and ‘dextrous’ nature were emphasised in their traditions, and they had a fairly widespread cultic expression in religious ritual, being called by additional names such as ‘Korybantes‘ and ‘Kabeiroi‘ in various other traditions outside of Crete.  Hercules was sometimes considered one of them, and they were also linked to the invention of skills such as smithcraft (the clashing of metal on metal being an essential part of this). This links them to some notable north European mythology, which I have already discussed.

The Celtic horse coins:

The vast majority of the coinage produced among European Celtic tribes of the late Iron Age depicts the horse, often in conjunction with a solar wheel symbol. Although often explained away as crude copies of Greek coins, their symbolism goes much deeper than these and hints at many ancient religious secrets which the coming of Romanisation and Christianisation would increasingly obscure. The horse depicted seems highly likely to be a supra-regional god, and the existence of many coins depicting a centaur-like man-horse, a horse-like rider or a human rider seem to confirm this theory, which is worth considering in the light of the information I discussed above about the older Greek and Phrygian myths…

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

A centaur depicted on a coin of the semi-Romanised king Cunobelinos (1stC CE Britain)

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

1stC BCE coin of the Venetii (Brittany) showing the horse-man. Definitely a wholly Celtic design!

The Osisimi of Gaul (atC BCE) also produced many indigenous 'centaur' coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also depict many human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.

The Osisimi of Gaul (1stC BCE) also produced many indigenous ‘centaur’ coins. Like those of the Venetii, they also sometimes depicted human heads attached to ?cords in the designs.