There are moments, for each of us I think, when we come to feel utterly alone in the world. It seems an absurd notion when the vast majority of us are so packed in together that we could scarcely throw a rock without doing damage to another human being. And maybe that particular reality is the source of our loneliness. It is not the masses of humanity that surround us, which gives us pause, but rather the sheer numbers of them that seem determined to do damage to their neighbors.
In a season when many feel an unspoken obligation to feel “merry” the harsh realities of the world around us can be hard to bear. Some of us react to these feelings of isolation by withdrawing further into ourselves. When the world seems different and alien, it may feel only natural to pull back from it, to sink further into the safety of the shells which we construct around our inner selves.
We compound feelings of isolation with the real thing, creating a monster that feeds upon itself until there is nothing left and it moves on to feed upon others.
Better to reach for a lifeline, an idea or memory which connects us back to something familiar and safe, an island of security in a world turned suddenly hostile.
For many, that lifeline is a belief in deity and for those of us who are polytheistic in our outlook, there are many deities to choose from. There are, scattered around the various pantheons of the worlds religions, gods of war and peace, vengeance and forgiveness, chaos and justice, and yet, when I feel particularly alone, I will close my eyes and call upon one goddess in particular.
The Goddess Epona.
I have not spoken her name in prayer for many years, but just lately I have found her often in my thoughts.
Considering that my spiritual focus has always been primarily with the gods of ancient Ireland, she may seem a strange choice for me. She is a protector of horses and those who care for them. Worshipped by the continental Celts as well as the Romans and a number of other tribes scattered across Europe, she was the only foreign deity ever added to the the official pantheon of Rome. Some believe that she functioned as a psychopomp, guiding newly departed souls into the afterlife. For others she became a symbol of royalty and wealth.
While it is true that I am no eclectic and I try to restrict myself to honoring the Tuatha Dé Danann, there are a few notable exceptions.
Cernunnos, the Horned God is one of those exceptions, which I have discussed in a previous post.
Epona, the “Divine Horse”, is another.
I met her like this…,
Several years ago I was working as a graphic designer at a magazine which was itself part of the marketing arm of a horse breed association. Among other duties I was responsible for the design of editorial layouts in which the magazine writers extolled the virtues of the horse. Friend, companion, healer and workmate, the breed was praised for its versatility, intelligence and its special place in the history of the American West.
That was what we put on the pages for people to see. Under the surface however, it was all about money. The great American working horse, praised by light of day, was seen as nothing but a commodity to be used, bred and then disposed of as determined by that greatest of masters: greed.
As difficult as it was for me to deal with that daily hypocrisy, there was also the fact that the environment of our offices was very unfriendly for anyone who wasn’t some variety of Christian. Had I been as honest about my beliefs then as I am today, I have no doubt that they would have found some excuse to let me go. One of my best friends also worked there but he kept his beliefs as closeted as I did. We had to leave the building to have open discussions of any kind.
Surrounded as I was with offices and cubicles that were festooned with crosses and engravings of “praying cowboys”, I found myself feeling very alone and in need of some visual connection to who I really was outside those doors.
And then one weekend, I took up my paints and brushes in a frenzy and the horse goddess of the ancient Celts began to appear on stretched canvas.
When the painting was done and dried and framed it found its way onto my office wall. It seemed the right place for her. From there, I thought, perhaps she could exert some influence over the place. At the very least, I could look up at her there, hanging above my computer, and feel a connection to my true self in those moments when the isolation and hypocrisy seemed too much to tolerate.
Many of my co-workers seemed to enjoy the painting as well. A few, who would have been utterly horrified to discover that there was a Pagan working among them, said they were particularly moved by the painting. Some enquired after the subject matter and to those who asked, I simply repeated the name of the painting, “A Dream of Horses,” and left it at that.
Several years have passed since those days and my current work environment is much more accepting of those who are “different”. Yet there are moments still, when I must close my eyes and fix the memory of that painting in my mind.
When I feel attacked by those in a position of authority or isolated from those who I call friends or family, I can hear the beat of distant hooves. When the news is filled with reports of innocent children murdered by some mad fool and the squabbling of politicians over the merits of more guns or less, I can close my eyes and see a great white horse running across endless fields of green. Look closer and see the rider upon her back, a woman of unearthly beauty and grace, riding sidesaddle, auburn hair whipping in the wind. Draw closer still and behold, there is every horse that ever was or will be, thundering through her long mane. I wonder if they carry the souls of the unfairly departed into the welcoming arms of their ancestors in the next world?
I do not know, but it feels right, none the less.
December 18th is the Feast Day of the Goddess Epona, according to the old Roman calendar. It is a day easily lost and forgotten among the other more popular holy days which we celebrate these days. Most of these modern traditions have their origins in the more ancient celebrations of our various ancestors. Scratch through the thin veneer of Christmas Present and you will easily locate the spirits of Saturnalia and Yule just beneath the surface, tying us together when the world around us suddenly seems so strange and uncaring.
Sadly, not all traditions have the same staying power. Scholars believe that Epona was likely the most widely worshipped of all the Celtic gods. Yet there is nary a trace of her surviving into the melting-pot of our seasonal celebrations.
It has been long since I marked her holy day, but this year I will give sacrifice in her honor. I will pray for those for whom the standard holiday cheer rings hollow, those who have not found a place of safety within their own hearts.
I will close my eyes and wish them a dream of horses.