I've always loved the Uffington white horse. It was an important messagenger to me from Epona, a very long time ago, along with several of the more modern chalk horses which grace Wiltshire, where I spent a fair bit of time in the 1980s. At that time, I didn't know the history of any of these horses, or understand the vast difference in age between Oxfordshire's Uffington horse and the others. I certainly wasn't consciously devoted to Epona at that time, or involved with horses, either. But there is something about travelling down the road in a car, or on a bus, and suddenly you are looking at a large white horse in the landscape. Often it's distant and mysterious, occasionally up close and imposing. It just does something to me.
The Uffington Horse is about 3,000 years old. Britain's chalk hill figures are/were created by cutting away the upper layer of sod and soil and then are usually filled in with chalk rubble to make them uniformly white. This has to be renewed fairly regularly, or the sod will simly re-grow and the figure will disappear. It's possible that for every hill figure we see, there are many more which are lost forever, because if it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said for maintaining a hill figure. Someone has to care enough to organise people to keep the figure looking good, and a lot more someones have to be willing to put in the hours to actually do the work. This makes the existence of the Uffington horse an amazing feat of continuity, if nothing else. Until sometime in the 19th century a fair was held during the scouring of the horse.
No one is sure who made the Uffington horse, or why. At over 300 metres long, it is too big to be appreciated from up close, but can be seen clearly from the other side of the valley, and from the air. It might be the symbol of a Bronze Age Celtic tribe, or devotional art to a deity (Epona, Rhiannon, and Bel/Beli Mawr have all been suggested). There are vaguely similar stylised horses on Celtic coins and in other Celtic art from the Iron Age, like the Silchester horse. If you look closely at these, you can get a sense of how the lower part of the face of the Uffington horse might have ended up so beak-like. There is evidence that the horse has changed shape and position quite a bit over time.
The Silchester Horse. Iron Age artifact.
However, it's not the history I want to talk about, but the motivation that people have felt to keep it alive for so long, and since the 18th century, to start placing other horses in the landscape. And when I say in the landscape, that's what I mean. To carve something directly into a hillside seems more imposing, to me, than just putting up a statue of a horse -- even a large one. As soon a one makes a realistic statue of something, it has a different impact on the psyche, I think, than something which is stylised and carved directly into the landscape, or which becomes a new feature of the landscape, like the 21st century Kelpies, in Scotland, or Sultan the Pit Pony, in Wales.
Another horse that intrigues me is The Black Horse of Bush Howe, in Cumbria. Whether it is wholly or partially a natural patch of black scree is among its mysteries, but there is folk memory of school children "trimming" it, to help keep its shape in the 1930s and 40s, and before that of local farmers setting aside a day to do the same. If that's the case, then people were either accepting of its shape being only vaguely horse-like, or it has deteriorated. I love this part of the world, which is home to semi-feral herds of Fell Ponies. Reading about the Bush Howe horse was part of the inspiration for my story The Wild Mare.
As I was thinking about this article, and wondering what to write, I was looking through images of some of these horse figures, and decided to post a few on facebook. It was just a few images and a couple of sentences of text, but it got huge attention. I wonder what people find so exciting, but it excites me, too, and I'm thrilled to see so many really beautiful and excellent new horses appearing.
(Click photos to enlarge.)
In another piece of synchornicity, some friends were discussing Sultan this week, and wondering whether such places would appeal as new places of pilgrimage - especially to devotees of the horse goddesses. One or two people felt that they lacked meaning because there is no devotional intent behind their creation. Personally, I disagree. First, because I don't think devotional intent is limited to religious or Pagan devotion. Many people feel a kind of devotion to horses as an idea of beauty and wildness, or alternatively as allies of humans in ventures like agriculture, war or coal mining. They want to offer homage and thanks for what horses gave, and gave up, to do this. (I personally think this is a bit like thanking slaves, but we won't go down that road any further today.)
The second reason that I feel that these new horses make sense as pilgrimage and devotional sites, is that I believe that they must be very appealing to horse deities as potential places for us to go to honour them, and to commune with them. If you put a giant, attention grabbing horse in the landscape, why would a horse deity not find ways to take advantage of it? It fills the eye and it hits people in the pits of their stomachs. It's brought them halfway to something potentially spiritual or devotional already. If those of us who already feel some devotion add our intent to the mix, who knows what the overall effect will be?
Postscript: This evening as I was finishing up this post, I watched a documentary about the making of the Kelpies, and two things struck me. First, the enormous amount of negative environmental impact that went into the making of this installation has to be acknowledged. Scenes of excavation for the foundations, laying of vast amounts of concrete and other use of materials can't be denied, and I don't feel great about that. The second is the huge effort that was put into this project by so many people. And, yes, they were probably all paid handsomely, but years of effort, especially by the artist must be acknowledged. This is the reality of our anthropocentric view of the world. We do some harm, we create something amazing, and we rationalize it.
Do you celebrate Epona's Day - or Eponalia, as some people call it? Are you thinking about celebrating it for the first time this year? Here are some ideas for December the 18th, or for any day that you would like to honour Epona, whether you're new to this, or a regular devotee.
There is a single reference to December 18th as the Feast of Epona on an early calendar in Guidizollo, in Northern Italy. We don't know whether this day was observed widely in the Roman (or Celtic) world as a day for Epona, or whether it was a local custom. However, many modern Pagans have adopted this as Epona's special day, so it is a new tradition now.
If you have an altar or shrine to Epona, today is the day to show respect. Clean and tidy it, and the room it is in. Perhaps choose live roses to decorate it, or offer a rose scented candle or rose incense. My ponies used to love to eat wild rose hips at this time of year, and so sometimes I use those on my Epona altar, too.
I always mark the day in some special way, but my practice might vary depending on the weather, my energy level, and my ability to spend time with horses. So I thought I'd share a few of my devotional practices here, so that you can pick and choose. All of these things can be done at any time, as a way to honour Epona and help do Her work, but they are especially appropriate on Her special day.
Spend time honouring Epona.
If you have your horses at home, perhaps it's time to think about a small Epona shrine in your barn or storage area. I used to have mine on a wall in my feed room. I didn't keep my horses in the barn, but the feed prep. area was a place I went daily, and the shrine reminded me to think of my time there as sacred. As a bonus, I think it really encouraged me to keep my feed room clean and tidy. I sensed disapproval when it wasn't!
If you already have an altar or shrine to Epona, wherever it is, today is the day to show respect. Clean and tidy it, and the room it is in. Perhaps choose live roses to decorate it, or offer a rose scented candle or rose incense. Rose hips are nice, too. My ponies used to love to eat the wild ones at this time of year.
Say a prayer.
There are many devotional prayers to Epona on the internet that you can use, or you can write one yourself. You might also like this prayer, which I adapted from an old Gaelic charm to protect cattle. I used to say it every evening at sunset when I turned my horses out onto their night-time grazing. Sometimes I still say it, for all the horses everywhere.
Pastures smooth, long and spreading,
Grassy meads beneath your feet.
Epona's friendship to bring you home
To the field of the fountains,
Field of the fountains.
Closed be every pit to you,
Smooth be every knoll to you,
Cosy every height to you.
Oh, the care of all the band,
To protect you and to strengthen you.
Think more about horse welfare. Give to a horse charity.
Please excuse this digression on horse charities and horse welfare, but Epona is a protector of horses, and I believe that this is highly relevant. There are many charities that help horses. You may already have your favourite. Make sure you do research about the charity you choose. How much of your money actually goes where you want it to go? The bigger the charity, the more likely it is that a lot of money is going to pay someone a big salary, so check! I am drawn to charities that help wild and feral horse populations stay in nature where they belong, but other charities need help, too.
I would like to talk about the pitfalls I see with horse charities. This is only my opinion. You can take it or leave it! Most horse rescue organisations are overstretched. Only a few are in the business of keeping horses under great conditions on their own land for the rest of the horses' lives. The rest depend on re-homing the horses, either by giving them to adopters for a fee, or by fostering them out. The quality of the homes they choose for this varies, so satisfy yourself that their homing requirements include humane treatment of the horse both in how it is kept and how it is used for riding, etc. Many horses find themselves in a downward spiral of re-homing, abuse or neglect. Don't support charities which contribute to that.
Horses need more than food, water, shelter and medical attention. They need to be able to carry out their natural behaviours of free movement (like in a pasture) and natural grazing (health permitting). They need to be with other horses. Ideally, they need access to these things all day, every day. If they are used for something like riding or human therapy, they need for this to happen in a way which causes them the absolute minimum of mental and physical stress possible.
Sadly, not all "rescued" horses go to good facilities to begin with. Some rescues keep horses in small pens or stables most or all of the time. In my opinion, that's no life for any horse, but it is particularly stressful for horses who have been "wild" or had regular turnout in a pasture previously.
Saving horses from "meat men" and "kill buyers" also seems like a generous act, but please read this article and think about the implications before you make up your mind.
Spend time with your horses - on their terms!
If you do have horses, how can you make their day better? If you ride a lot, the answer might be to give them a day off. But whatever you do, let it be their day. Don't "pamper" them by grooming their tangled manes if they don't really enjoy that, or take them on a long "pleasure" ride if they aren't fit enough. Far better to give them a scratch in that one place that's always itchy, or chop an apple into their feed. I used to take my horses out in hand to browse on plants they didn't have access to in their pastures. In Britain at this time of year they might have eaten gorse, rose hips, or things like nettles and thistles which had been tenderized by the frost.
Make life better for your horse.
We all try, I know! But is there something you could change, large or small, that would make your horse's life better? More turnout? More appropriate feed? What about the right to have a choice about the activities you ask them to be a part of? The right to say "no".
Or maybe your horse needs you to change in some way. If you ride do you need to be fitter? Lighter? More balanced? Or maybe you need to learn some relaxation techniques, so that when you're around your horses they don't have to suffer your bad moods. Maybe you need to learn to control your temper better. (I'm not judging. That one was huge for me, back in the day.) Whatever you come up with, this is a great way to honour Epona, and your horses.
Be a willing servant.
Caring for horses is hard work. Most of us do that work in a hurry, or in anger or frustration some of the time. Let this day be different. Think about how each task on your list of chores helps your horse. Owning horses is such a privilege. Deep down we know that, but it's easy to forget - especially in the winter. Give yourself enough time to get your work done right today, and do a great job. Then give yourself a pat on the back. Follow that with a nice hot (or alcoholic, if you prefer) drink to celebrate your relationship with your horse. Maybe pour a bit of it out as a libation to Epona.
What not to do.
Do not offer any food or treats to horses that are not in your care. Although they are strong and sturdy, some horses suffer from invisible illnesses and allergies, just like people do. Some are on special diets for special reasons. If you have a bunch of extra apples or carrots, or something else you'd like to give to horses in your neighbourhood, find the owner and ask. Or leave them somewhere the owner will find them, with a note. I used to love finding bags of windfall apples left by my gate, and I appreciated being able to decide how many to feed at a time!
Also, do not mess with anyone's horses, in any way, without their full permission. Depending on where you are, you may be breaking the law, but more importantly, you could frighten the horse, cause it to injure itself, or be injured yourself. It's just good manners. There is nothing worse than coming home from work and having your neighbour phone you to say, "I saw someone in your field today, messing with your horses." Believe me, it's right up there with someone coming into your garden and messing with your kids. People love their horses, and these things worry them. If they see you approaching their horses, they may get angry with you. That's mostly because they are worried. You do not have the right to approach a random horse because you want to feel some equine energy! If you want to spend time with horses, you can volunteer somewhere, and they will give you a shovel. (Which is another way you can honour Epona, if you don't have horses of your own!).
Have a lovely day!
This book was published two years ago. I intended to review it much earlier, but with one thing and another I didn't get it done. Still, I suspect many readers won't have heard of it, let alone read it, so I offer my review now.
Epona, Hidden Goddess of the Celts
I'm always pleased to see a book about a horse goddess. Research on them can be frustrating and time consuming, so it's nice to have a collection of ideas and references in one place. Cook has gathered up quite a bit of the evidence relating to Epona in this book, including a few things readers won't have seen, or might not be expecting. His own fondness for Epona as a goddess also occasionally shines through in the more factual sections.
whom were Celts, that we have so much material evidence, and a few contemporary written mentions, of this goddess. Cook takes us in search of Epona's Greco-Roman antecedents, when in fact, there is no reason to believe that these exist. Are there deities who share associations with Epona in Roman, Greek and other pantheons? Yes, but that doesn't mean that they relate directly to Epona. However, as the book unfolds, Anatolians, Phrygians, Arcadians, Eleusians and even Egyptians are pressed into service, as required, to help paint a fanciful picture of the Epona-who-might-have-been.
In the prologue, Cook warns us that aspects of the book may shock some readers. Indeed, they might, although I wasn't shocked, personally. This warning refers, I'm sure, to the final section of the book, in which the author reports on interviews with several contemporary, self-styled priestesses of Epona, from various parts of the world, and their male acolytes. Each of these informants tells a similar story in which ritual use of a scourge or other means of inflicting pain is applied by the priestess to her willing male counterpart. Reasons given for this included the woman's need to express her rage and the man's need to learn submission to the female principle/Goddess.
As I say, this didn't shock me, but it certainly surprised me. The author interviewed six women and three men for this section of the book. (All these informants are given full anonymity, which is understandable, but also makes this part of the work impossible to confirm.) While self-declared priestesses of Epona are probably fairly rare, this still seems a small sample, especially considering that the subjects hail from five different countries. Regardless of the sample size, it is extremely surprising that all of them appear to have such similar stories. In my experience, it is rare for several Pagans to have the same personal gnossis or practices around a particular deity, at least unless they are all members of the same group. Use of the scourge is not unknown (but probably not all that common) in groups with a Gardnerian influence, for example, but if all Cook's informants are in some way connected, he doesn't mention it, nor does he share his method of seeking them out. I can't help but think that he was either intentionally looking only in places where he would find this, or that he didn't consider any other form of devotion worthy of reporting. The author gives us little else about the beliefs or practices of these individuals.
Leaving that to one side, if you are interested in Epona, there should be things in this book to interest you. There are plenty of illustrations of artifacts, and exploration of their meanings, and a considered look at some of the inscriptions to Epona, as well as an interesting discussion of sovereignty. The book is also well laced with the goddess theory, and belief in a matriarchal golden age somewhere in our human past. The author is comfortable conflating or making strong connections between many different deities. How the reader receives these ideas will depend on their own beliefs.
When you know where this book is headed, then it is easier to understand why the author insists on following a route through a variety of ancient religions not usually associated with the Celts. While he doesn't directly say so, it seems that his many references to non-Celtic religious thought, and analogies and associations between Epona and non-Celtic deities, are in service to arriving at the conclusion that the modern practices described above are the inevitable, or correct, method of devotion to Epona in the present day. However, Cook falls just short of plainly stating this as his thesis. If you have a controversial theory which you feel is correct, especially on a religious level, and that theory is worthy of the effort of writing a 300 page book with over 1,200 footnotes, then why not just state it outright? I think this book would have made more sense if he'd done that.
I'm am glad that someone has written a book on Epona. I believe that She deserves more attention and understanding than She is getting, both on a scholarly level and a devotional one. This book adds a little piece to that puzzle, but I feel it is not in the same league as Jhenah Telyndru's recent book on Rhiannon, which I reviewed here. I hope that we will be seeing more non-fiction books on the horse goddesses in the next few years, and that this won't be the final word on Epona.
Epona Hidden Goddess of the Celts, by P.D. MacKenzie Cook is published by Avalonia, London. It's available from Amazon and other booksellers.
Shetland ponies, water horses and oracle cards.
As some of my readers know, I have been experimenting with readings on relationships with animals. In one of the first readings I did, the Beach card came up. The Beach is one of several cards which describes a "thin place" or a liminal space where two entities converge. In Celtic spirituality, such places are particularly magical or prone to "supernatural" happenings. As I considered this reading I realised that there are points in human-animal relations that have this powerful, liminal quality, and that both animals and humans may experience this. I am talking about something different than simply sharing love or affection, companionship and mutual support. I think these experiences draw their power from the essential differences between the human and the animal involved. While the opportunity for such moments may always be there, many of us don't experience them, or only rarely, although part of our attraction to animals may be that we recognise the potential for them at a deep level.
I once did a reading for someone who was constantly plagued by feelings of both anger and anxiety. This card was central to her reading. It turned out that her husband was somewhat verbally abusive, but what she found most hurtful was that he never took her seriously. No matter what she did or said, he'd consider it childish or silly. The Shetland Pony is a card of the misunderstood, of the one not taken seriously. Frequently the response is to avoid eye contact and just put up with things, or to find an outlet in rebellion.
This failure to understand, and to think we know best, carries over into impatience when we find that the other person has dug their heels in over "something silly". But we're all afraid of something silly! I know people who would rather jump out of a plane than give a speech in public and others who would prefer to have a tooth pulled than learn to use a computer. Just as we might see someone's refusal to do something as stubborn, when they are really afraid, so we may make the same misjudgement about ourselves. Then we come up with phrases like "It's just the way I am, " or "No way am I doing that, it's stupid!" because these positions feel less threatening than simply saying, "I'm scared. You'd have to be really patient with me for me to even try that."
This is the obvious and "top layer" meaning of the card. It's the one I would probably focus on when it comes up in someone's reading. However, I knew there was more to this card, and for days, I have caught glimpses of it and wrestled with it, but there were missing pieces. I hope that I have found, if not all the missing pieces, at least enough of them to show us the way...
Water horse, liminal horse.
Some readers will recognise the Scottish/Irish Kelpie, or "water horse", in this description. (Forget the whole 2007 movie of the same title - just forget it. We're talking about someone's traditional beliefs here, not about Hollywood.) There are certainly parallels all over Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, where such creatures are sometimes called the nøk, or nyk, etc. Etymologists tell us that this may well be the origin of referring to the devil as "Auld Nick" as well as possibly relating to sea gods like the Celtic god Nechtan, and even Neptune (who created the horse, in some myths). Horses and water are frequently linked in both myth and folklore. I've also noticed that if you remove the letter N from the names Nechtan and Neptune, it is possible to see the relationship of both words to early word roots denoting the horse including the Latin equos/equus, the Greek hippos, and the Gaulish epos. These roots gave us words like Epona, pony, and the Gaelic word for horse: each.
Back in Shetland, another common prank of the njuggle was to inhabit the space under mill wheels and stop the wheel when it took their fancy. Maybe they were jealous, as the tails of some njuggles were said to be like wheels, which they used to propel themselves through the water. Or maybe they simply wanted to halt the wheels of "progress" which would eventually drive them into a kind of extinction. In these cases, they could be scared away with fire, like so many of the things we once feared.
At the liminal point between land and water there is a field of energy which at once repels and attracts - where we fear and yet desire to enter the wildness of the water, to give up control of the wildness in us to a greater wildness. The Irish mystic writer,John Moriarty, talked in an interview, about this need for wildness ~
"We shape the earth to suit ourselves. We plough it and we knock it and we shape it and we re-shape it. Dolphins were land animals once, and they went down into the sea. They said to the ocean, "Well, shape me to suit you." And now -- the Lord save us, I was in a house in Connemara sometime recently, and I saw a dolphin bone. The curve of it was as beautiful as any couple of bars of Mozart's music. It was so beautiful! I've no bone in my body that is shaped to the earth like that.
For some reason horses offer us a way to make this connection, but not by harnessing and forcing them into our control. Not by "knocking and shaping and re-shaping" them. It is only when we find a way to merge our wildness with theirs, or have the merger thrust upon us, that it actually does us any good. Still, this involves some danger. Swimming or putting a small boat out into wild water, riding a horse galloping out of control, both must be similar on the scale of dangerous things to do. There is always vulnerability in liminal experiences. The danger of getting stuck "in limbo", of not finding our way back...of somehow falling through the cracks of our own experience.
Modern people, I think, lack the liminal experiences which were once achieved through ritual, through feeling themselves a part of nature, through rites of passage and though belief in the supernatural. Yet these are things we long for. How and whether modern people manage to recover this part of life may just be the defining questions of our survival, and whether, if we survive, we thrive or we languish. Yet simply having a liminal experience may not be enough if we don't have points of reference for it. In "traditional" cultures, points of reference were marked by the rituals and prescriptions surrounding various life events, both the pivotal and the routine. They gave an assurance of success to the experience, if not a guarantee. Many folk beliefs, and their associated tales, offer advice as to how to avoid unwanted outcomes within liminal experiences or how to deal with them if they overtake us, and many heroic myths have grown up around dealing with such things.
Much has been written in the past twenty years about our spiritual connections with horses. Throughout human history they have been repeatedly raised as icons of something wild, free, powerful and supernatural. Perhaps only the sea, itself, shares a similar place in our deepest ideas of power and mystery. In northwest Europe, early peoples tended to gravitate to the coastline. Much of the land was boggy, steep or heavily wooded, making travel by sea much easier than by land, and the sea shore provided a bounty. The little primitive horses were probably only interesting as an occasional source of red meat. The sea was everything.
As populations grew and moved slowly inland, and farming and land travel became more important, so did the horse and its many uses. Yet most horses remained essentially wild animals, with many more being "owned" than were ever tamed, and this is still the case today with most of the mountain and moorland breeds of the British Isles, where many are still allowed to breed in semi-wild conditions and only some are tamed. As this shift was made, and men turned more toward the land and less toward the sea, perhaps the horse both replaced, and became mixed with the sea as the ultimate symbol of unknowable power and wildness. Spiritually, the horse led us back toward the water, and toward our wildness.
The small ponies of Shetland, a land hovering in its own liminal position between Scotland and Scandinavia, are the closest horses we have to the first horses to walk the earth. They are shaped to the earth, and not so much by the hand of man, as most animals we call domestic. As such, I think they are truly an ideal symbol of our longing toward our own inner wildness and a guide into the waters of liminal experience.
Today, the njuggle is often thought of as a story for children. Which may be to say "Something thought to be childish is entirely misunderstood..."
More on the ideas in this post -
Liminality - This article contains more than you ever wanted to know about the concept of liminaltiy, which I didn't explain very thoroughly.
Njuggles - My thanks to Adam Grydehøj's paper "The Dead Began to Speak" for insight into the etymology of njuggles, as well as some great insights into folklore studies. (p 139 for njuggles, nøks, etc.) And thanks to Adam for agreeing to make the entire text available on the internet.
The John Moriarty interview link
Radio Essay on Britain's wild ponies
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like The Beach, a series of posts exploring liminal space through myth, or Rambles with the Mari Lwyd, about horse traditions in British culture.
No plenty without earth energy.
This is the third of three visions I had in meditation recently. These may have partly been the result of saying a prayer which is addressed to the three deities Brigid, Manannán and Epona - I don't know. However since the first two visions concerned Brigid and Manannán I couldn't help but half expect to have a vision concerning Epona in the third meditation. I tried to keep my mind out of the way, so to speak, but I admit that it was more difficult this time, as I had an expectation which was difficult to suppress. If you are coming in in the middle of this series, and I'm not making things clear, then you might like to read the introduction to part one here.
I went to the beach once again in meditation. It got very dark. Storm? Nightfall? Of course, I thought, based on the prayer, that I "should" have a vision of Epona. Hmmmm...
At some point I remember thinking/saying that I would really like to see those forests and pastures I saw from afar in the first vision, with Bride. We went somewhere like that, briefly. It was full of colour and also full of predators and she struck at them with her forelegs in anger.
Everything went black. We were going down into a deep tube or tunnel. I couldn't see/feel anything, it was hard to stay "present". I think it was the terror/bliss of loss of control. This went on for a long time. I sensed that I wasn't alone. She was still there, but I must face it alone. Dark. Black. Emptiness. A feeling that it would split me in two. Power - energy - terror - bliss - death - birth all in one.
Finally it became lighter. I saw a red orange swirling stuff. Are we deep in the earth? I long for the surface, for plants, soil, water - but she is only concerned with energy!
~ ~ ~
I came out at this point. I think I was trying to make a landscape in which to exist, and when I saw it, it was devoid of biological life. However, I believe that this was the work of my mind and I stopped there.
Thinking on this, Epona doesn't bring us baskets of fruit or grain. She isn't a horse, or a woman -- She is an aspect of the earth itself. Perhaps She is the earth. The animating force, the energy without which life is not possible.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Moon Drum.
Were there horse cults in ancient Britain? Is there a cohesive thread connecting Macha, Epona and Rhiannon to hobby horses, the Mari Lwyd and the Uffington horse?
Sometimes, many signposts seem to be directing us to a single destination. Yet, when we arrive there, we find it difficult to recognise any landmark as the definitive reality of the place we had intended to go. This may be one of those journeys.
Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.
The Uffington white horse, a chalk hill figure of a horse in Oxfordshire, is around 3,000 years old. Around the same time, somewhat similar horse figures were popular on local coinage. A little later, the worship of the horse goddess Epona was popular in Gaul, and became widely adopted by the Roman Cavalry. The sun god Bel, or Belenos, and sea god Manannan mac Lir also had strong connections with horses. In Welsh mythology, Rhiannon is linked strongly with horses, as is her probably Gaulish cognate Rigantona. In Ireland, the goddess Macha is an important figure, and as late as the 12th century we have Geraldus Cambrensis relating the coronation of an Irish king including the requirement that he mate with a mare.
We bring from Cader Idris
Great light you shall gather,
Mari Lwyd. What does it mean? Mari can be translated as both "mare" and "Mary". "Mare", in turn, as well as meaning a female horse, seems to refer also to creatures of the night, to incubi and to "nightmares". Lwyd means grey (or white or fair) and also pure or holy. A white horse is correctly referred to as "grey" because most white horses are born black or dark grey and their coats lighten with the passing years. (In Christian times white horses and other livestock were often kept by monastic orders as a way to distinguish their animals from those of the laity - who were forbidden from keeping them.) So Mari Lwyd can be interpreted as simply "grey mare" or holy mare, or as Holy (or fair) Mary - and part of the tradition surrounding her is the story that she represents a pregnant mare who was turned out of the Bethlehem stable to make way for Mary the mother of Christ to give birth. Whether this is a cipher for the replacement of the horse cult with Christianity is probably an open question.
Under the womb of teeming night
Records of Mari Lwyd only go back to the 1790s, I'm told. However, since Wales was, at least at one level, a devoutly Christian country at this time, it's unlikely that the Welsh suddenly thought "Let's put a mare's head on a pole and pretend it's a magic horse," in the 1700s without a deeply rooted precedent. The Cornish 'obby 'oss tradition was recorded somewhat earlier, but it is still unlikely that it sprang into being fully formed just before someone thought it was worth writing about. The truth is, we don't know where these things came from, and we probably never will. In both traditions, there are aspects of wildness, of fertility rites, and of playfulness and energy raising activity. Things long associated with horses. Is this how early people perceived their horse deities? Did they dress up as horses to create a closer contact with these deities - to offer them a familiar looking form to inhabit or possess during some kind of ritual? Again - we don't know.
Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari:
What you might feel when you see a horse, or when you see a Mari Lwyd is a very personal thing. There is your primal response, which should always be given its rightful place. You may find the appearance of a skull and a white sheet scary. The snapping jaws may give you nightmares. Of course, many people find themselves frightened by up close contact with a real horse, too! You may also feel awe or reverence - but I guarantee that you will feel something a little out of the ordinary!
O white is the frost on the breath-bleared panes
And what of her snapping jaws? The snapping jaws of the Mari, of the hobby hoss who chases the maidens of Padstow to shrieks of fear and delight. Does this echo the strange beaked mouth of the Uffington horse - so often remarked at as being un-horse-like? Is it an accident that the Mari in her sheet so resembles Mary in her veil and robes? We are in goddess territory here, maybe in shaman territory, too. We are warm in the house, smugly awaiting the opportunity to be open-handed, and we are bone-cold at the window, desperate to gain admission to life inside. Perhaps we are required to know both realities.
Poetic quotes from Ballad of the Mari Lwyd by Vernon Watkins (1906 - 1967)
If you enjoyed this, you might also like Epona's Call.
Generally, I'd be instantly sceptical at the use of the words Celtic and shaman in the same sentence. So I forgive you if you are having the same reaction! However, here is my little story about how these prayer cards came into being.
In the spring of this year, I was feeling particularly frustrated by some aspects of my life. These aspects didn't feel easy to resolve, and at the same time I was having difficulty "accepting the things I cannot change". A perfect recipe for depression, anger, anxiety and sleepless nights. I had all of those things, and on a few occasions, the sleepless nights became real waking nightmares of anxious circular thinking where I even considered that the only way out might be to end it all. No, don't worry, I was a long way from the verge of doing so, but let's just say I can now better understand the hopelessness that can make that decision seem like the best one. That said, I was getting on with my life as best I could the rest of the time - as one does.
On a day, my friend Linda and I decided to visit our local new age fair. My intention was simply to walk around and see who/what I was drawn to. I was aware that I could use some help, and hoped I might get some. Almost immediately I did feel very drawn to a fellow offering Peruvian Shamanic work. He didn't look Peruvian, that's for sure, but there was what I can only describe as a really good vibe coming from him. I eventually headed over and had a session with him. He did some things with my chakras which made absolutely no sense to me, and also suggested that I needed to have some cords cut. Well, I had heard of chakras, and this cord cutting idea before, and he did what he did - which still didn't make a great deal of sense to me, and I didn't really "feel" anything, but I did feel a bit better, perhaps.
After we were done, he gave me a piece of paper with some prayers on it. One was a prayer for cutting cords, another a bedtime prayer. I kept the paper, but somehow, just didn't feel comfortable saying some of the words that were on it. It just wasn't me. However, I was feeling better. Afraid that I was going to slip back into my personal misery again, I decided that I would do what felt right for me, and after a couple of days, I re-wrote the prayers in a way that did feel right for me. It was an interesting process, remembering to do small things (like say these prayers) on a regular basis. I wrote a couple of pieces about this at the time, called Salmon in the Weir and Accepting the Salmon's Gift.
As it turned out, this process was the beginning of my creation of the meditation and prayer cards that I sell in the shop. Having re-written my prayers, I printed them off on the computer and glued them to some pictures I liked. Pictures which embodied the kind of natural beauty that feeds my soul and that symbolises what I am moving toward. I put these on the walls of my bedroom. The cord cutting prayer is by the mirror which I pass every time I go through the bedroom door. The bedtime prayer is above my bedside table, where I will be sure to see it as I'm getting ready for bed. My life has improved a lot, I believe, because I took the time to put those pictures on my wall. I felt inspired enough by them to put in the time (just a few minutes a day) and it has made a difference.
Ever the entrepreneur, it occurred to me that other people might like something like that. It is such a simple thing, but something beautiful, with some beautiful words to say, or (as in the meditation cards) a short, easy, thing to do, makes it so much easier to take action! I have wanted to make cards for those two original prayers for a long time. However, it didn't feel right to do that until I had talked to my shaman friend. I needed to know that he was okay with it. Well, I finally had that opportunity last month, and he was very okay with it. Yesterday, I felt inspired to get the graphic work done, and the results are what you see above. I haven't written the material for the backs, yet, or given much thought to whether I am creating another set of four cards here.
Hmmmmm... that might depend on your feedback. What would you like to see?
I'm on YouTube!