Rhiannon is a Welsh goddess of the earth, fertility, birds and horses. She appears in the First and Third branches of the Mabinogion, as well as the Arthurian tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Through her marriage to Pwyll pen Annwfn she is also connected to the Otherworld.
Rhiannon is thought to be predecessor of the Brittanic goddess Rigantona (‘Great Queen’), and therefore could have a possible link to the Irish Macha and Morrígan (also ‘Great Queen’). She is also linked to the Gaulish goddess Epona through their association with horses.
The First Branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed , tells of how the Demetian king Pwyll sees Rhiannon in a forest riding a shining white horse. Even though she is already engaged to Gwawl ap Clud, Pwyll and Rhiannon eventually marry. They produce a son, however the boy disappears on the night of his birth while under the watchful eye of Rhiannon’s ladies-in-waiting. Fearful of the king’s wrath, the ladies smear dog’s blood on the sleeping Rhiannon, and claim she killed her son by eating him. Rhiannon was found guilty, and as punishment was forced to stand outside the castle for seven years and offer strangers a ride on her back like a horse.
Meanwhile, the boy is found outside a stable by Teyrnon and his wife, who claim the boy as their own and name him Gwri Wallt Euryn (‘Gwri of the Golden Hair’). The boy grows quickly, and soon his resemblance to Pwyll grows more obvious. Teyrnon realizes Gwri’s true identity, and he is eventually reunited with Pwyll and Rhiannon. Gwri is renamed Pryderi, meaning ‘loss’.
Rhiannon later marries Manawydan fab Llyr (equivalent to the Irish Manannán), the god of the sea, after Pwyll’s death. Their adventures, outlined in the Third Branch of the Mabinogion, Manawydan fab Llŷr, describe how a magical mist descends over the land of Dyfed, leaving it empty of animals and humans apart from Rhiannon, Manawydan, her son Pryderi and his wife Cigfa. The group travels to England where they unsuccessfully try to make a living making saddles and shoes. Pryderi and Rhiannon eventually get trapped in a magical fort and vanish from sight.
Manawydan and Cigfa continue to try to make a living by farming, however their crops are continuously destroyed. Upon catching one of the mice who had devoured his grain, he finds out that the mice were attendants of the mage Llwyd ap Cil Coed who had been magically transformed. Llwyd was friend to Gwawl, Rhiannon’s former fiancé, and they find out the trouble which had plagued the group was done out of revenge.
Rhiannon had three magical birds, the Birds of Rhiannon, whose song can wake the dead or lull the living to sleep. One of the birds was thought to be Badb, the crow, which deepens Rhiannon’s link to the Morrígan.
Rhiannon is a symbol of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.
© The Celtic Journey (2013)