Horse Gods and Goddesses
Origin of Animal Gods
Gods and goddesses of the ancient world often held a connection with certain animals. Some say this is because the beliefs of our ancestors were animistic, meaning to believe everything in nature has consciousness and/or a soul. This would include animals. Wildlife was thought of as sacred in ancient times, and there are scholars who believe ancient land guardian spirits were once worshiped by tribes and would eventually rise to become great gods and goddesses. To find an image of a god or goddess in the likeness of an animal was commonplace. Some of the more obvious animal-god connections can be seen on the ancient temple walls in Egypt. For example, the ibis-headed god Thoth. Or the hawk-headed god Horus.
One of nature's most majestic and noble creatures is the horse. Dating back thousands of years are stories of these beautiful animals. All over the world, shamans of each culture have revered the horse for its swiftness, but also for their power and uninhibited desire for freedom. Horse medicine is strong medicine. The Celts and the Native Americans revered the horse, as did the Germanic and Norse peoples. All over the world we read legends and myths of heroes and their horses. The gods also had a strong connection to the horse.
Aine: The Red Mare Goddess
Aine is a Celtic Irish goddess who was known as a Fairy Queen who could heal and also grant great fertility to her followers. Her center of worship was in County Limerick on a hill known as Cnoc Aine in Knockainey. In ancient times, royalty would perform marriages at the top of the hill as a sacred rite to honor Aine and to seal the marriage and kingship. Aine's sacred lake, Lough Gur, which isn't far from Cnoc Aine, was used as a place of healing and transition from this life to the next. Aine was a fertility goddess, but also a goddess of healing, sovereignty, the otherworld, and abundance.
As a fairy queen, Aine had the ability to shapeshift like any other fairy. She was said to turn into the form of a large red mare, making her a sacred horse goddess. The color red to the Celts signified the otherworld, bloodline, and the mysteries, and so Aine was a guide or a psychopomp for those who followed her.
Ares and His Warrior Horses
Ares, the Greek god of war, who was mostly known for his destructive ways. Born to Zeus and Hera, Ares was said to have been the god that Zeus kept at arm's distance. While he was venerated as a god of war, the Greeks were rather wary of him as he could be a man-slaughterer with no regard to the consequences. Perhaps he is most well-known for his scandalous affair with the married goddess of love Aphrodite in which he was trapped in a golden net by Aphrodite's angry husband Hephaestus and humiliated in front of many. Following this event, Ares turned himself into a boar when he learned Aphrodite had fallen in love with yet another god - Adonis. Then he charged at the boy with all his might. So while Ares' animals include the boar, the vulture, and the dog, Ares is also closely linked to the horse.
Ares is said to have charged into many battles in a chariot pulled by two divine horses. On his shield was an emblem of two war-waging, powerful horses. And in parts of Greece, sacrifices of horses were made in Ares' vengeful name.
Belenus: The Shining Sun God
Belenus, also known as Belenos, was another of the Celtic deities who survived the Roman conquest and became part of the Gallo-Roman religion. He was mostly known as a sun god and solar wheels were sacred to him. He was the "Shining God". Apollo was his equal in Greek mythology. Some sources say Belenus came after Apollo and spread throughout continental Europe because of Apollo's origins; however, there are others who believe he was a Celtic deity first who might've originated at the same time or before the cult of Apollo.
Beltane, an ancient Celtic fire festival celebrated around the first of May, is said to be named after him as he was worshiped on this day. He was a sun god, and the beginning of May was once considered the official start to summer in Celtic times. He is sometimes depicted as being led by a horse-drawn chariot similar to Apollo. Another connection between horses and Belenus is in the offerings of clay horse figurines found at his shrine in Burgundy, France.
The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact
with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom.— Sharon Ralls Lemon
Epona: The Celtic Goddess of Horses
No deity's name evokes the image of a horse like the name of Epona. Epona was a widely-worshiped equine goddess of the continental Celts who lived in the region that is now present-day France and Germany. Her cult survived the Roman conquest and became a part of the Gallo-Roman religion with her name spreading into what is now modern-day Italy. Sculptures and artifacts depicting Epona and her horses have been found all over what was once the Roman Empire. Her name literally means "Great Mare".
Epona was a goddess who ruled over horses and other equine animals like donkeys, ponies, and mules. She was most likely a fertility goddess, because in addition to being flanked by horses she was seen carrying cornucopias, sheaves of grain, and was flanked by foals. Epona could be viewed as a young maiden or as a mother ripe with life in her womb. There is some speculation that Epona was worshiped in Britain under the name of Rhiannon.
Rhiannon: The Welsh Fairy Queen
Rhiannon is a mythical figure from the Welsh prose story The Mabinogion. She is a beautiful fairy maiden who marries a mortal Welsh king. Her story is a sad, yet inspiring one. Her son is kidnapped by an enemy and it is made to look like Rhiannon murdered her own child. She is then punished by being stripped of her dignity and made to carry each guest that arrives at the castle on her back like a horse. Rhiannon never runs away and never complains, as she has faith that her name and good character will be restored. Her story is one of hope and strength and is empowering to women.
Rhiannon is a fairy queen and therefore has dominion over all wildlife, but her favorite animals are birds and horses. In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is portrayed as a mare and her son as a foal. She is so strongly related to horses that some scholars believe she could be the Welsh version of the continental Celtic horse goddess Epona, though this is strongly debated by others. The fact that she carries people around on her back like a horse is strong enough evidence, in my humble opinion, to relate her directly to horses. Not to mention when her mortal husband first pursues her, she is said to ride her fairy-horse slowly yet always somehow escapes his reach.
Shango and the Black Horse
Shango is a god in the Yoruba religion. He is known as an orisha of thunder, justice, virility and fire (among many other things). In legend, he was the fourth king of Oyo, the second dynasty of Oduduwa in the Yoruba empire in West Africa. His consorts were Oshun, Oya, and Obba. He was son to Oddumare in some legends, and in others he was the heir of Obbatala and Oddua. His sacred number is six, his colors are red and white, and his sacred day is December fourth because of his comparison to Saint Barbara.
Sources say tools to put around Shango on a shrine include a black horse. There are sculptures from the early Dark Ages found in Africa that depict Shango riding a black horse. In many places in Africa in ancient through Medieval times, horses were seen as powerful figures because they were mostly owned by warriors and royalty. Because of Shango's kingship, he has a close association with horses but also because of sacred rituals.
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© 2018 Nicole Canfield