This article was partly inspired by Wulf Ingesunnu's recent articles on his Inglinga blog, most notably http://inglinga.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/the-mysteries-of-ingwe.html in which he refers to Lady Godiva and the old English nursery rhyme Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross. Strangely several days prior to the posting of Wulf's article I kept getting the words of this nursery rhyme in my head for no accountable reason, so when I saw Wulf's article I came to the conclusion that this is an example of what Jung would call synchronicity.
The rhyme has several versions and these are quoted below:-
"Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes."
"Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To buy little Johnny a galloping horse;
It trots behind and it ambles before,
And Johnny shall ride till he can ride no more."
" Ride a cock-horse
To Banbury Cross,
To see what Tommy can buy;
A penny white loaf,
A penny white cake,
And a two-penny apple-pie."
" A ring on her finger,
A bonnet of straw,
The strangest old woman
That ever you saw."
The legend of Lady Godiva was apparently based upon an historical figure, the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry. Lady Godiva was renowned for her beauty and feeling pity for the overtaxed towns people who were treated as little more as serfs by Leofric, she pleaded with her husband that he may lighten their burdens. He initially paid no heed to her but Lady Godiva persisted until her husband in anger and frustration said that provided she mount her horse naked and ride through the market of the town from one end to the other he would grant her request on her return.
Lady Godiva or Godgifu was a Saxon noblewoman who died in 1067, shortly after the Norman Conquest. It is interesting that her name means gift of god and she was the daughter of Æthelred the Unready (or ill-advised). Gyfu of course is the Old English name of the 7th rune of the Nouthumbrian/Anglo-Saxon/Frisian Futhorc. God is a generic term for a deity and must not be assumed to refer to the Abrahamic god. The legend of Godiva was not recorded until the 13th century. Wulf compares Godiva with the Germanic Goddess Freya or Gefion which may very well be a hypostasis of Freya. I am inclined to agree but I would draw further parallels with for instance the Celtic horse Goddess Epona who was worshiped not only by the Celts but by the Teutons and Romans. The horse was an extremely important aspect of Indo-European culture so it is not surprising that our ancestors saw the need for there to be a tutelary deity to protect these precious beasts.
"Another important individual Celtic goddess, whose type however is widespread, is the well-known horse-goddess Epona, protectress of horses, and widely invoked in Gaul, and later throughout the Empire, where she was adopted by the cavalry sections of the Roman army. Her cult has been studied in Europe, and it was clearly imported into Britain during the period of Roman dominance. " (p.286, Pagan Britain, 1967, Anne Ross)
Although Anne Ross may be correct in her assertion that the cult of Epona was "clearly imported into Britain during the period of Roman dominance" the actual archetype of a horse Goddess existed in these islands well before the Roman period for the British Goddess Riannon (from *rigantona, meaning 'great queen') appears in the Mabinogion in the myth of Pwyll and Math. Anne Ross has this to say about Riannon:
"She makes her first appearance on a magic horse which moves at a steady, slow pace, but which no ordinary horse, however swift, can overtake."
In addition to Riannon there is the Irish Macha:
" A horse goddess of widespread popularity is attested for Gaul in the form of Epona, 'Divine Horse', and suggested for the insular tradition in the form of the British Riannon and the Irish Macha, both of whom display hippomorphic characteristics." (p.439, Pagan Britain)
The author suggests that there may be a connection between Epona and the Uffington horse chalk figure. However the generally accepted date of this figure is about 1400BCE, much too early to be influenced by the Roman importation of a Gaulish cult! So if there is a connection between the Uffington horse and an equine Goddess it must be an extremely ancient one. The name Epona ('Great Mare') is derived from the Proto-Celtic *ekwos, meaning 'horse'.
"Various Indo-European mythologies reflect the existence of a Horse goddess. Although the names of the divinities are not always cognate with one another, there are enough shared linguistic elements to reveal a common structural theme that may have been absorbed into the existing mythology of pre-Indo-European peoples. The horse goddesses are best represented in Old Indic tradition and among the Celts as the Gaulish Epona, the Welsh Rhiannon and the Irish Macha." (Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams)
Whatever may be the divine associations of Godgifu we can assume that the procession of a naked divine lady on horseback is the remembrance of an ancient heathen fertility rite. In the legend of Lady Godiva we have the character of Peeping Tom. Whilst all the other towns people of Coventry had agreed to stay indoors and not observe the procession of the naked Godgifu out of respect, the tailor Tom spied upon her naked form and as a punishment he became blind. Some say that this cost him his life. This reminds me of the story in Greek mythology of the young hunter Actaeon spying upon the naked Artemis whilst She was bathing. Consequently he was turned into a stag and then attacked and killed by his own hounds. Closer to home we have the curious myth recorded in Tacitus' Germania. Tacitus relates the story about the procession of the Goddess Nerthus, or perhaps Her image.
"Then the wagon and hangings and, if you will, the goddess herself are washed clean in a hidden lake. Slaves perform this service, and the lake at once engulfs them: there is as a result a mysterious fear and a sacred ignorance about something seen only by those doomed to die." (Germania 40.4, Rives translation)
The translation by Harold Mattingley is more graphic:
"After that, the chariot, the vestments, and (believe it if you will) the goddess herself, are cleansed in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is seen only by men doomed to die." (Germania 40)