Rhiannon is one of the major figures in the earliest prose and mythology of Britain, the Mabinogi. The Mabinogi were stories compiled in the 12th-13th century from earlier oral traditions by medieval Welsh authors. Rhiannon herself was the Celtic goddess of the moon and her name meant ‘Divine Queen’ of the fairies.

Rhiannon features prominently in the earliest of these British prose texts from the first three medieval manuscripts. Her original story features mainly in the First Branch of the Mabinogi, with more told in the Third Branch. She is portrayed as a strong-minded otherworld woman, who chooses the Prince of Dyfed (West Wales), Pwyll, as her consort, even though she has already been betrothed to an older man whom she found to be repugnant. In the stories, Rhiannon is portrayed as being highly intelligent, politically strategic and famed for her wealth and generosity.

Rhiannon first appears at Gorsedd Arberth, an ancestral mound near one of the chief courts of Dyfed. Pwyll, has accepted the challenge of the mound’s magical tradition to show a marvel or play a hand. These mounds, called tors, were thought to be magical places, believed to cover the entrance to the otherworld beneath the earth. Most avoided them, believing that if they stood on them they could become enchanted. After accepting the mound’s challenge, Rhiannon appeared to Pwyll and his court as the promised marvel. Although Pwyll was intrigued and enraptured at the site of Rhiannon, dressed in gold, silk brocade, and riding a white horse, his companions were concerned.

Ignoring the protests of his companions, Pwyll sent his best horseman after Rhiannon for two days, running to try to catch her and ask her to return to meet the Prince. Although her white stead never seemed to pick up a pace more than an amble, she always remained ahead of the horsemen, riding so swiftly that they could not even follow her to learn where she went. On the third day, Pwyll finally followed Rhiannon himself and although he could not catch up with her either, he called out and appealed for her to stop. After initially rebuking him for chasing her, Rhiannon explained that she had sought him out to marry him, in preference to her betrothed, Gwawl ap Clud.

After two happy years of marriage, the couple came under great pressure to produce an heir and finally, in their third year of marriage, their son was born. However, the child was to become the source of great strife and sorrow for the royal couple. As was custom then, six women servants or nursemaids had been assigned to stay with Rhiannon and help her care for the infant. Although the women were supposed to work in shifts and tend to the baby throughout the night (so that Rhiannon could sleep and regain her strength) one night they all fell asleep, not fulfilling their duties. When they woke they found the cradle empty and feared that they would be punished for their carelessness. They devised a plan to place the blame on the goddess Rhiannon, who was still viewed as an outsider. Scared of being put to death for their mistake, the women killed a puppy and smeared its blood on the sleeping Rhiannon, scattering its bones around her bed implicating her in her son’s murder. After sounding the alarm, they accused Rhiannon of infanticide and cannibalism.

Although she protested her innocence, Rhiannon was forced to undergo penance for her deeds. She was ordered that as punishment she would, every day for the next seven years, sit by the castle gate in both the bitter cold of winter and the dusty heat of summer. There, she was forced to tell her story to any travellers and to offer to carry them on her back as a beast of burden. Meanwhile, the newborn child was discovered by Teyrnon, the Lord of Gwent-Is-Coed (South-Eastern Wales). Teyrnon was a horse Lord, who initially encountered the young Prince as a young foal, before he transformed back into a newborn. He and his wife claimed the child as their own, naming him Gwri Waalt Euryn, meaning, ‘all the hair on his head was as yellow as gold’. The child grew at a superhuman pace and had a great affinity to horses. Over time, Teyrnon, noticed a resemblance of the young boy to Pwyll, having previously served the Prince as a courtier. As he was an honourable man, he returned the boy to the Dyfed royal house. Pwyll and his people quickly recognised the young boy as Pwyll and Rhiannon’s son, later renaming him Pryderi. As a result of the young Prince’s return, the goddess Rhiannon was restored to her honour and her place beside her husband.

In some versions of the legend, Rhiannon was the Celtic goddess who later became Vivienne, more commonly known as the Lady of the Lake. She was the Celtic goddess who gave Arthur the sword Excalibur, which empowered him to become King in the legends of Camelot.

When Rhiannon first appears in the Mabinogi she appears as a magical figure, arriving as part of the Otherworld tradition of Gorsedd Arberth – her paradoxical style of riding slowly yet unreachably – can be seen as both strange and magical.

Rhiannon’s tales have been retold today through countless retellings and performances of the Mabinogi and in a variety of publications, plays, films, storytelling and other arts. For example, Rhiannon appears as a modern day inspiration for the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Rhiannon’.

-Emma Bryning
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

Pin It on Pinterest