Who is Rhiannon?

What we know from myth, history, and inspiration

Scuplture and photo by Toin Adams.

In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon Daughter of Hyfaidd Hen is associated with Sovereignty, horses, the Calumniated Wife and The Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon) "they that wake the dead and lull the living to sleep." Rhiannon’s name is believed to come from *Rīgantōna, a derivative of *rīgan- "queen", meaning “The Great, or Divine, Queen.”

In Her first appearance, Pwyll (whose name means Wisdom or Caution), prince of Dyfed in Southwest Wales, sits on the mound Gorsedd Arberth, where you will either have a vision or go mad. Pwyll sees Her wearing a shining golden silk dress and riding on a tall white horse. Wanting to know who She was, Pwyll sent one of his men to meet Her, but although Her horse seemed to walk at slow pace, he could not catch up. Finally Pwyll himself rode after Her, calling for her to wait for him. Her first words show Her control of the situation and Her biting wit. “I will wait gladly and it would have been better for the horse is you asked that a while ago!”

The first branch of the Mabinogi tells the tale of their wedding, where Pwyll makes a terrible mistake of granting Gwawl son of Clud, the man Rhiannon was to marry against Her wishes, anything he wants. Rhiannon is angry with Pwyll and calls him stupid, arranging for Gwawl to be tricked so they can marry in a year. In the third year of their marriage Rhiannon has a son but the baby disappears while She and the birth women sleep. The women, afraid of getting in trouble, kill a puppy and smear its blood on Rhiannon’s face and hands, leave some bones, and tell everyone that Rhiannon ate the child. As punishment, Rhiannon sits at the mounting block (where riders get on and off their horses) telling everyone the story that She ate Her son and offers to carry them on Her back. 

Meanwhile, Lord Teyrnon Twrf Laint (whose name derives from Tigernonos “The Great, or Divine, Lord”) has the best mare in his kingdom and every May Day she births a foal that disappears. That year Teyrnon waits, sees a claw try to take the foal, rushes outside to find no one there, and when he returns to the stable finds a strong baby boy. As the boy ages, it is obvious he is Pwyll’s son. Teyrnon brings the child to their court and Rhiannon says “what a relief from my anxiety,” thus naming the boy Pryderi (“Anxiety”).

Artwork by Heather Awen.

The third branch of the Mabinogi finds Rhiannon a widow. Returning from an epic battle in Ireland, Her son Pryderi gives Her to Manawydan who should be the rightful chieftain of Britain but whose cousin Caswallon son of Beli (perhaps based on a memory of the king of the Belgic tribe the Cattuvellauni) has taken the title. Manawydan and Rhiannon get the benefits of Dyfed while Pryderi rules in name. Pryderi speaks highly of Rhiannon’s ability to talk with others and when Manawydan speaks with her the first time he falls in love. Rhiannon agrees to the marriage and She, Manawydan, Pryderi and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa daughter of Gwyn Gloyw (“Fair Shining One”) became inseparable friends.

They visit Gorsedd Arberth, the mound where Pwyll had first seen Rhiannon, and a great mist covered the land. When they can see again, all the people and houses had disappeared. After a year of hunting, they moved to England and the men worked as making saddles, shields and finally shoes, but were so good they were driven away. Hunting, they followed a white boar to a newly built fort. Pryderi enters to retrieve his hunting hounds and sees only a well with a beautiful hanging bowl. When he touches it, his hands become stuck and he is rendered speechless. Rhiannon is angry with Manawydan and finds her son, but when She grabs the bowl she also cannot move or talk. The mist then returns and the fort is gone. In the end it is revealed that all this was done by Llwyd son of Cil Coed to avenge his friend Gwawl son of Clud, the man who was supposed to marry Rhiannon. Manawydan wisely negotiates the return of Pryderi and Rhiannon, who had the collars of asses around Her neck.

Due to the Christian time period in which the Mabinogi was written, none of the characters are referred to as Deities. We cannot prove that there ever was the worship of a Goddess named Rhiannon. By connecting Her with Rigantona and the symbols of the Mare Goddess, we can speculate that She was a Goddess who became an Otherworldly woman in these medieval court tales the way that some Deities in Ireland became Fairies.   

Rhiannon chooses Her husbands, with whom She is often short tempered. To become King in Indo-European tradition the candidate must be sexually chosen by the wild, sometimes dangerous Mare Goddess of Sovereignty.  Although She was arranged to marry Gwawl, She refused. Pwyll She sought out and while Pryderi may have arranged Her marriage to Manawydan, Rhiannon had the final say.

Although clearly human, Pwyll was Prince of Dyfed and had been initiated into the Underworld by his relationship with the ruler of Annwn, Arawn. Pwyll even had the title Pen Annwn when Rhiannon met him. Annwn, the land of the dead, naturally is associated with ancestors. Without his connection to the land and its people, I doubt Rhiannon would have given him a second look. Through his lifelong friendship with the Psychopomp Arawn and his marriage to the Sovereign Mare, Pwyll becomes a sacred King accepted by both tribe and land. This also hints at a belief that the Deities interacted with humans and the gifts that Pwyll and Arawn exchange show the reciprocal nature of offerings.

Manawydan has no Otherworldly powers, although his name connects him to the Irish god of the Sea, Manannan mac Lir. Both are related to Manaw, the name of the Isle of Man, and Manaw Gododdin, the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. Manawydan may have a link to the British chieftain Mandubracious. Some see the marriage of Rhiannon to Manawydan as the mating of the mare Goddess with the sea God. As one who had rightful claim of Britain, Manawydan was worthy of mating with Rhiannon. This marriage proved to be a better match. Where Pwyll was foolish, Manawydan was wise and during the third branch of the Mabinogi cleans up the aftermath of Pwyll’s mistake with Gwawl in the first branch.