Rhiannon (Rigantona) is a Cymric and Brythonic goddess known from the Mabinogi of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed where she is Pwyll’s wife, who is mistakenly punished for infanticide and the Mabinogi of Manawyddan fab Llŷr. She is associated with horses and has otherworldly birds in her posession. She may represent the psychopomp aspect of the goddess Epona.
Rhiannon features in both the first and third branches of the Mabinogi, the tales of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed and Manawyddan fab Llŷr. These tales may be summarized as follows.
After a feast at his chief llys in Arberth, Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed decides to go to the Gorsedd or Arberth where a man cannot sit without ‘either receiving wounds of blows or seeing a wonder’. So they made their way to the Gorsedd mound and Pwyll sat upon it and as he sat he saw a lady clothed in a robe of shining gold and mounted on a pure-white steed of great size coming alog the roadway that wound its way past the mound. Pwyll asks one of his men to go and meet her. This man walked towards her but she passed him by and he ran to catch-up but though the horse seemed to move at a steady pace, the faster he ran the further away the horse seemed to be. Pwyll commands another of his men to go to the palace and return with the fleetest horse in the stables. Soon enough the rider had passed the Gorsedd and reached a level plain. There he put spurs to his steed, but the faster he rode the further away the lady and her horse seemed to be. Eventually his steed tired and he had to return to Pwyll. Some illusion is suspected and Pwyll retires to his Llys. The following day he returns to the Gorsedd but this time with a fleet horse at the ready. Again he sends a youth after the lady, but he can not catch her. The following day, Pwyll returns to the mound but this time takes his own steed. As aoon as the maiden appears he gives chase, but cannot catch her any more than his men. Eventually he calls out to her, imploring her to stay. This she does and eventully tells Pwyll that her true errand was to seek him. She then informs him that she is Rhiannon daughter of Hefydd Hen and that she is to be given to another, but is a ctually in love with Pwyll. As a result Pwyll promises to meet her a year hence in the palace of Hefydd.
Pwyll, chieftain of Dyfed, meets Rhiannon, his intended, at the llys of Hefydd Hen, her father, for a feast. Here Pwyll is seated at the place of honour between Hefydd and Rhiannon. When the feast has concluded and the entertainments have begun a finely-attired stranger enters the hall. Pwyll, as the guest of honour greets him and asks him to sit, but he declines saying that he has come on an errand to ask of Pwyll a boon.
Pwyll responds with: ‘Whatever boon thou may ask of me, if it is in my power to give, then it is yours.’ Shocked, Rhiannon enquires of him: ‘why did you give that answer?’
‘Has he not given in the presence of all these assembled nobles?’ the stranger enquired of them.
Finally Pwyll enquires as to what precisely the stranger required as a boon.
‘The lady whom best I love is to be thy bride this night,’ responded the stranger, ‘I came to ask her of thee.’ Whereupon Pwyll fell silent as the full realization of what he had done struck him.
‘Be silent as long as you wish,’ Rhiannon admonished him, ‘never has a man made worse use of his wits than you.’
‘Lady,’ responded Pwyll, ‘I knew not who he was…’
‘Behold,’ replied Rhiannon, ‘this is the man to whom they wold have given me against my will. Hw is Gwawl mab Clud, a man of great power and wealth and because of thy words thou must bestow me upon him lest shame befall thee.’
‘Lady,’ replied Pwyll, ‘never can I do as thou suggest.’
‘Bestow me upon him,’ Rhiannon insists, ‘and I will ensure that I shall never be his.’
Pwyll enquires as to how this can be and Rhiannon tells him that she will give him a small bag which Pwyll must keep safe. Rhiannon will prepare the wedding feast and she will agree to become Gwawl’s bride one full year from the current day. On that day Pwyll must return to Hefydd’s llys with a hundred of his best men. But Pwyll himself must appear in the guise of a vagabond and at the feast he should ask for no more than a bagful of food. Rhiannon is to enchant the bag so that, no matter how much food is placed in it, it will never become full. Eventually Gwawl is sure to ask as to whether the bag will ever become full. Whereupon Pwyll is to respond that it never shall until a man of noble birth and great wealth presses the food into the bag with both his feet. At this point Pwyll is to entirely cover Gwawl in the bag and drawing out his hunting horn he is to summon his men to him.
At this point Gwawl enquires as to Pwyll’s response to his request. ‘As much as that thou has asked is in my power to give.’ replies Pwyll, ‘then thou shalt have it.’
Rhiannon then tells Gwawl that the feast prepared this night is for the men of Dyfed alone, but a year hence a new feast would be prepared and on that night she would become Gwawl’s bride. She gives Pwyll the promised bag and all parties depart, to return a year hence.
A year hence Gwawl returns to claim his bride. Pwyll also returns with a hundred of his best men who are concealed in the orchard without the llys. Then, when the feast is done and the sound of carousing can be heard Pwyll makes his way towards the llys. Pwyll asks for his boon of food and a great number of attendants attempt to fill his bag. But the bag never seems to fill and Gwawl asks Pwyll how it may be filled.
‘It may not,’ responds Pwyll, ‘until one posessed of lands, domains and treasure shall rise and tread down with both his feet the food that is in the bag.’ Rhiannon urges Gwawl to do what Pwyll has requested and as Gwawl puts his feet in the bag Pwyll lifts the bag’s sides until it reaches over Gwawl’s head. He shut the mouth of the bag, securing it with a knot before blowing his horn to call down his men. Immediately Gwawl’s host are imprisoned and as Pwyll’s men pass the bag they each strike it a blow and ask: ‘What is in there?’ To which the response was: ‘A badger.’ This way each knight struck the bag with his foot or a staff and by this means was the game of ‘badger in the bag’ first played.
Gwawl implores Pwyll that he should not suffer the indignity of being slain in a bag. Hefydd Hen takes Gwawl’s side in this and asks that Pwyll should listen to Gwawl. Rhiannon counsels Pwyll that as he is now in a position where it behoves him to satisfy suitors and minstresls (ie he is to wed Rhiannon) he should use Gwawl’s gifts to do this and then he should take pledge from Gwawl that he will not seek revenge for that which has been done to him. This would be punishment enought. Gwawl readily agrees and is released upon certain sureties. These were demanded and Gwawl acquiesced, though he pleade his injuries, saying that they needed anointing. Pwyll allows him to leave, as long as his liege-men stand surety for him.
The next day Pwyll and Rhiannon return to Dyfed where gifts are bestowed on the nobles and the couple rule harmoniously for two years. Upon the third year the nobles of the realm grow sad that Pwyll has no heir so they attempt to persuade him to take another wife. Pwyll urges them to grant him a year and if he is still childless he will take another wife. However, within the space of that year Rhiannon gives birth to a boy. Upon the night of his birth, women were brought in to look after mother and son, but they fall asleep and when they awoke the boy was gone. Fearing for their lives they fetch some cubs from a stag-hound bitch kill them and smear the blood on the bedclothes and on Rhiannon’s face and hands. When Rhiannon awakes they accuse her of killing and devouring her own sons and though she protests her innocence. The tale spread through the land and the nobles besought Pwyll to put her wife away. But he would not do this and instead says that if his wife had done wrong then she should do penance for her wrong. In the end Rhiannon preferred to do pennance rather than contend with the women. And her pennance was that for seven years she would remain in the llys of Arberth and each day she would sit near the horse-block at the llys’ gate and she would have to relate her tale to each passer by and offer to carry them upon her back into the llys.
Rhiannon’s child was captured by a creature who on the night of the first of May stole a foal from the stables of Teyrnon Twrf Gwliant. This year Teyrnon save his foal and at the same time he sees an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. This child he takes as his own and has him baptized as Gwri Wallt Eurun. At this time Teyrnon heard tidings of what had befallen Rhiannon and feeling sorry for her he inquired more deeply into her story. Which is when Teyrnon looked closely at Gwri and for thie first time saw the semblance between the child and Pwyll Pen Annwfn. Determined to right the wrong he had done Teyrnon takes the boy and journeys to Pwyll’s Llys. They both refuse Rhiannon’s offer of carrying them into the Llys and at the feast that night Teyrnon relates his tale and presents Rhiannon with her son. Pwyll enquires of the boy’s name and Rhiannon re-names him Pryderi for all the worry that he had caused her. And thus the child was returned to Pwyll Pen Annwfn.
The tale of Rhiannon continues in the Mabinogi of Manawyddan fab Llŷr: After the events of the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr Manawyddan is the only man left without a realm and Pryderi (who also survived the war in Ireland) offers his own realm to Manawyddan and gifts him his mother, Rhiannon to be Manawyddan’s wife. Whereupon Pryderi and Manawyddan come to the seven cantrefs of Dyfed where Rhiannon and Cigfa (Pryderi’s wife) prepare a feast for them. After the feast is done, Pryderi and Manawyddan depart for Oxford to pay homage to Caswallon fab Beli who, after Brân’s death is now king of Britain. They return to Narberth and a feast is prepared for them and when they had feasted they made their way to the Gorsedd of Narberth and as they sat there they heard a peal of thunder and a thick fog sprang up about them and after the mist came a bright light and when they looked all the animals and all the people about them were gone, so that only Manawyddan, Pryderi, Rhiannon and Cigfa were left.
They hunt and feast, but after two years they grow weary and go to Lloegr (England) to ply a craft whereby they can sustain themselves. They go to Hereford and make saddles until all the local saddlers turn against them and plot to kill them then they make shields and then shoes, but in each cases they make better goods than the locals and are driven away. Eventually they return home to Dyfed where they set about hunting until two of Pryderi’s hounds are lost and he goes to seek them. He finds a deserted castle and though Manawyddan counsels him against entering he does so anyway and sees a spring with a golden bowl on a marble slab. Moving to the bowl he takes hold of it and as soon as he touches it he becomes frozen. Manawyddan waits for him until the close of day and he returns to Rhiannon and tells her what had happened. She berates him for not following Pryderi and makes to find her son. She also enters the castle and takes hold of the golden bowl and is frozen in her turn. When night came there was a peal of thunder and a mist rose and the castle and all its contents vanished.
Much of the remainder of the tale follow’s Manawydddan and Cigfa’s exploits as they initially seek refuge in Lloegr before returning to Dyfed before planting wheat to sustain themselves. Howevere, as the wheat ripens it is stolen by a thief. Manawyddan eventually catches one of these ‘thieves’, a mouse and prepares to hang it upon a gibbet.
Manawyddan was preparing to hang the mouse upon the Gorsedd of Narberth when a poor clerk wandered along (the first other human he had seen in Dyfed in seven years) who failed to persuade or bribe him to let it go, followed by a priest and finally a bishop. This latter finally admitted to being Llwyd ap Cil Coed and friend of Gwawl ap Clud (humiliated by Pryderi’s father Pwyll in the Mabinogi of Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed), who had enchanted Dyfed to avenge his friend, captured Pryderi (Pwyll’s son) and Rhiannon (who had spurned Gwawl) and transformed his warband and court into mice, including his own pregnant wife whom Manawydan had captured. In return for his wife’s safe return Llwyd promises to reverse the enchantment upon Dyfed and thus all returns to what it was before.
Rhiannon is also associated with otherworldly brids, the adar Rhiannon (birds of Rhiannon) which are explicitly named in the Mabinogion of Branwen ferch Llŷr. Mortally wounded after the battle in Ireland, Brân tells his companions to cut off his head and take it with them on their return journey …you will be on the road a long time. In Harlech you will be seven years in feasting, the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. The head will be as good company to you as it was at its best when it was ever on me. And you will be at Gwales in Penfro for eighty years. Until you open the door facing Aber Henfelen on the side facing Cornwall, you will be able to abide there, along with the head with you uncorrupted. But when you open that door, you will not be able to remain there…. They reach Harlech and as soon as they began their feast …there came three birds, which began to sing a kind of song to them; and when they heard that song, every other [tune] seemed unlovely beside it…. The brids of Rhiannon are next mentioned in the Mabinogion of Culhwch ac Olwen where Culhwch is set forty impossible tasks by Ysbaddaden Pencawr in the wooing of his daughter Olwen. The thirteenth task is the gaining of Rhiannon’s birds that they may sing at the wedding feast. These birds have a woderous song and are …to wake the dead, and send the living to sleep…. There may also be a hint of Rhiannon’s magical birds in the Mabinogion of Iarlles y Ffynawn. The Arthurian champion Cynon relates one of his adventures to Oweni and Cei: He comes to amagical glade where a spring emerges. Water from the spring must be poured on the slab and there will be a mighty peal of thunder and hailstones will fall from the sky. Then the weather becomes fair, but the tree is denuded of its leaves. At this point a flock of birds fly in and they will alight within the bare branches of the tree and sing. Their melody will be the sweetest sound ever heard by any mortal ear. Some time within the course of the song the black knight — guardian of the fountain — will appear to challenge the usurper. For the shower of hailstones will have stripped the black knight’s lands bare, denuding it of all life. Only by defeating the challenger can the balance be restored. Cynon is defeated by the knight but Owein then re-traces Cynon’s tracks and experiences the same things but he defeats the black knight. From their description it seems highly likely that the birds described here are the adar Rhiannon (the birds of Rhiannon).
Riannon’s association with horses is also unquestionable. We are told of the way Rhiannon rides past the gorsedd of Arberth on a great steed that no-one can catch. After the loss of her son, Rhiannon’s punishment is to be effectively turned into a horse. She has to stand by a horse-block and offer to carry any traveller upon her back and into Pwyll’s llys. Here she is beng symbolically transformed into that which she symbolizes. The link between Rhiannon and horses is further exemplified by her son Pwyll and the fact that he was born on the same night as a foal and that he and the foal grew up together and effectively ‘became one’. Symbolically therefore the ‘horse’ Rhiannon gives birth to a foal ‘Pryderi’. All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that Rhiannon is strongly hippomorphic in aspect and probably represents at the very least an aspect (and may well represent a continuation of) the mythos of that great pan-Celtic hippomorphic goddess, Epona. A further indication of the link between Rhiannon and Epona may be the episode of the killing of a puppy to frame Rhiannon for her son’s disappearance for a dog is often seen as Epona’s companion.
Rhiannon’s name is derived from the Brythonic Rīgantona (Great Queen). Continuaton of the name would indicate the existence of a Brythnoic goddes known as *Rīgantona, though no trace of her (save for the name of Rhiannon) has been left to us. Whether this *Rīgantona was an independent deity or represented an aspect of Epona (who is ocasionally referred to in the plural and may be a triple-goddes) may not be known for certain though the surviving tales of Rhiannon would suggest the later interpretation. Thus there may once have been an insular Brythonic deity known as *Rīgantona Epona. If this is the case, and the Epona aspect of the goddess is fairly clear, what does the Rīgantona aspect represent. In the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is plainly ‘otherworldly’ in nature though this aspect of her nature is not explicityl drawn out. However, from how she and Pwyll met is is fairly obvious that Rhiannon does not originate in the World of Men. Moreover, she appears immediately after the episode of Pwyll and Arawn and originally Rhiannon may well have originated in one of the ‘Happy Otherworlds’ that are beloved of the Celtic storytellers. Epona herself was probably a psychopomp and the association of Rhiannon with horses and with her magical birds (both of which could transport/accompany the deay on their journey to the next world) would indicate that Rhiannon may once have performed a similar function. In the Mabinogi of Branwen ferch Llŷr Rhiannon’s birds are described as singing ‘across the waters’ which is the only direct evidence we have for Rhiannon’s otherworldly home; the ‘Happy Isles of the Blessed’. Thus Rhiannon may origainlly have been the ‘Great Queen’ of such a realm; a realm to which her steeds transported the spirits of the dead who were entertained on the way by the singing of the ‘Great Queen’s’ magical birds. The association between horses and birds also seems to be a recurring theme in Celtic mythos and the image above comes from a coin of the Unelli tribe of modern-day Normandy.
Rhiannon’s name is directly cognate with the Irish goddess Mórrígan (which also menans ‘Great Queen’). In terms of attributes, however, Rhiannon is most closely similar to an sapect of the triple-goddes, Mórrígan known as Macha; a goddess of war, horses and kingship.