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.
She appears in both the first and third branches of the Mabinogi and is further mentioned in the early Arthurian prose tale Culhwch and Olwen.
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.
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.”
Some scholars specifically identify her as a horse goddess cognate to Gaulish Epona, because of Rhiannon’s close association with horses in the first part of the story.