Rhiannon is a prominent figure in Welsh mythology, mother to the Demetian hero Pryderi and wife to Pwyll (and later Manawydan fab Llyr). She is probably a reflex of the Celtic Great Queen goddess Rigantona and may also be associated with the horse goddess Epona.
Role in Welsh mythology
The First Branch
Upon ascending the magical mound of Gorsedd Arberth, the Demetian king Pwyll witnesses the arrival of Rhiannon, appearing to them as a beautiful woman dressed in gold silk brocade and riding a shining white horse. Pwyll sends his best horsemen after her, but she always remains ahead of them, though her horse never does more than amble. After three days, he finally calls out to her, and Rhiannon tells him she has come seeking him because she would rather marry him than her fiancé, Gwawl ap Clud. A year after their meeting, Pwyll accidentally and foolishly promises Rhiannon to Gwawl, before managing to win her back through outwitting, bloodying and dishonouring his rival.
Under the advice of his noblemen, Pwyll and Rhiannon attempt to supply an heir to the kingdom and eventually a boy is born. However, on the night of his birth, he disappears while in the care of six of Rhiannon's ladies-in-waiting. To avoid the king's wrath, the ladies smear dog's blood onto a sleeping Rhiannon, claiming that she had committed infanticide and cannibalism through eating and "destroying" her child. Rhiannon is forced to do penance for her crime.
The child is discovered outside a stable by an ex-vassal of Pwyll's, Teyrnon, the lord of Gwent Is Coed. He and his wife claim the boy as their own and name him Gwri Wallt Euryn (English: Gwri of the Golden hair), for "all the hair on his head was as yellow as gold". The child grows to adulthood at a superhuman pace and, as he matures, his likeness to Pwyll grows more obvious and, eventually, Teyrnon realises Gwri's true identity. The boy is eventually reunited with Pwyll and Rhiannon and is renamed Pryderi, meaning "loss". Some time later, Pwyll dies peacefully and Pryderi ascends to the throne, marrying Cigfa and amalgamating the seven cantrefs of Morgannwg to his kingdom.
Having honoured the last requests of his brother Bendigeidfran by burying his head facing France so as to ward off invasion, the usurped British king Manawydan accompanies Pryderi to Dyfed where the latter is reunited with his wife Cigfa. During his stay, Manawydan meets and marries Rhiannon, while Pryderi heads off to Kent to pay homage to the usurper Caswallon. Soon after, a magical mist descends on the land leaving it empty of all domesticated animals and humans apart from the four protagonists.
Pryderi and Manawydan travel to England to make a living making saddles and then shoes, but are forced to leave one town after another to avoid conflict with other tradesmen who resented their superior skills. Returning to Dyfed, Manaywdan and Pryderi go hunting and, coming across a white boar, follow it to a huge, towering fort. Against Manawydan's advice, Pryderi enters the fort and is drawn towards a beautiful golden bowl. Upon touching the bowl, his feet stick to the floor, his hands stick to the bowl and he loses the power of speech. Manawydan waits in vain for his return before giving news of his disappearance to Rhiannon. Chiding her husband for his poor companionship, Rhiannon too enters the fort and suffers the same fate as her son. In a "blanket of mist", Pryderi, Rhiannon and the fort itself, vanish. Cigfa becomes fearful when she sees that she is left alone with Manawyddan until he reassures her that he will not molest her. They set forth to Lloegr where Manawyddan once more begins making shoes and they are driven out again.
Upon returning to the wasteland, they sow three fields of wheat but the first field is destroyed before it can be harvested. The next night the second field is destroyed. Manawydan keeps watch over the third field and when he sees it destroyed by mice he catches one and decides to hang it the next day. A scholar offers him a pound to spare the mouse and he refuses. A priest offers three pounds without success. A bishop then offers him 24 pounds and is refused. When the bishop asks what he wants in return for the mouse's life, he demands the release of Pryderi and Rhiannon and the lifting of the enchantment over Dyfed. The bishop agrees, revealing himself as the grey mage Llwyd ap Cil Coed, the mice as his attendants magically transformed, and the captured mouse as his pregnant wife Gwenaby. In this way it is revealed that the catalyst of their suffering was Llwyd, who sought revenge for the humiliation of his friend Gwawl ap Clud at the hands of Pwyll and Gwawl's rejection by Rhiannon. The enchantment over Dyfed is lifted.
Interpretation as a goddess
The Mabinogi do not present Rhiannon as anything other than human. Scholars of mythology have nevertheless speculated that Rhiannon may euhemerize an earlier goddess of Celtic polytheism. Similar euhemerisms of pre-Christian deities can be found in other medieval Celtic literature, when Christian scribes and redactors may have felt uncomfortable writing about the powers of pagan gods. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge, for example, Macha and Morrígan appear as larger-than-life figures, but are never described as goddesses, very similar to the presentation of Rhiannon in the Mabinogion.
Proinsias Mac Cana states: "[Rhiannon] reincarnates the goddess of sovereignty who, in taking to her a spouse, thereby ordained him legitimate king of the territory which she personified". According to Miranda Jane Green, "Rhiannon conforms to two archetypes of myth ... a gracious, bountiful queen-goddess; and as the 'wronged wife', falsely accused of killing her son".
- Rhiannon, song by Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac
- Welsh mythology
- Welsh mythology in popular culture
- Gruffydd, W. J. Rhiannon: An Inquiry into the Origins of the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi
- The Mabinogion. Davies, Sioned. 2005.
- Mac Cana, p. 56.
- Green, p. 30.
- e.g. Sioned Davies (trans.), The Mabinogion, Oxford 2007, p. 231.
- W. J. Gruffydd, Rhiannon, Cardiff, 1953.
- James MacKillop, "Rhiannon" in A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (2004).