Rhiannon is a key figure in the Mabinogi, a collection of medieval stories from Wales. While the stories have been Christianized over the centuries, many of these figures still retain attributes that we associate with deities.
This suggests that these figures either were deities whose roles and importance were deliberately toned down, or that they were syncretized with older gods and goddesses.
Her story is a tragic one, though she triumphs in the end. She has also been adopted by various modern Pagan traditions as a full-fledged goddess in her own right, allowing her to further triumph over the medieval scribes’ attempts to reduce her deific status.
Rhiannon first appears in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. She’s spotted at Gorsedd Arberth by Pwyll, prince of Dyfed.
Arrayed in gold and riding a shining horse, Pwyll is immediately captivated. He sends his fastest riders after her to no avail — no matter how swiftly they ride, she easily outpaces him.
Pwyll’s luck isn’t any better. It’s only when he stops and beseeches her to stop that he’s finally able to reach her. She teases him in return, pointing out that she would’ve stopped had he but asked her — after all, she was seeking him out in order to marry him, since she no longer wanted to be with her husband Gwawl ap Clud.
Unfortunately, Pwyll’s rash nature continues to cause problems for the couple. At their wedding feast, a beggar approaches and asks Pwyll for a favor. Pwyll promises him anything he can give. The beggar, however, is Gwawl, and he demands Rhiannon back.
Through clever trickery, Pwyll and Rhiannon get Gwawl to give up his claim to her. She’s finally able to marry Pwyll, but it isn’t long before the kingdom begins clamoring for an heir to the throne. A year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a fine son.
Misfortune strikes the couple again, as Pwyll and Rhiannon’s son vanishes one night. Terrified of being punished for misplacing the baby, one of Rhiannon’s maids kills a puppy and smears Rhiannon’s face and hands with its blood. When Rhiannon awakens, the maids claim that she’d eaten the baby in a fugue state.
Heartbroken, Pwyll still refuses to set Rhiannon aside and take a new wife. Instead, he sets her punishment: She must wait at the gate to the palace, and offer to carry any and all visitors on her back while telling her story.
Unbeknownst to Pwyll and Rhiannon, however, a nearby horse lord has discovered the baby. As the child grows, he comes to resemble his father more and more.
The horse lord, being an honorable man, realizes who he is and returns him to the palace. He was named Pryderi, and became king upon his father’s death.
Rhiannon reappears in the Third Branch. Here, Pryderi betroths his widowed mother to Manawydan. Unfortunately, disaster strikes the land and all of the people and domesticated animals vanish. All that’s left are the four protagonists: Pwyll, Manawydan, Rhiannon, and Pwyll’s wife Cigfa.
The four move from city to city, making a living by selling leather crafts skillfully made by Manawydan. After following a magical white boar to a tower, Pryderi and Rhiannon are trapped by a golden bowl and vanish.
Manawydan then relies on trickery and a series of negotiations with a wizard named Llwyd ap Cilcoed to release Rhiannon, Pryderi, and all of the people and animals who he caused to vanish as long-delayed vengeance for Gwawl ap Clud. The protagonists are reunited, and the land is restored.
Symbols & Associations
Rhiannon is strongly associated with horses and gates, due to her punishment by Pwyll.
She is also connected to birds, particularly three magical birds that appear in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. These birds are said to have the power to both wake the dead and lull the living to sleep with their song.
Her connection to gates is particularly interesting. Not only do literal gates appear in her story in the form of the gates at which she must wait to carry visitors, they also appear as figurative gates to the Otherworld.
She first shows up as a kind of mystical vision, unreachable by normal means. Later, she vanishes in much the same way, trapped by a mage’s golden bowl.
Rhiannon’s most remarkable power is her considerable physical strength. She’s capable of carrying fully grown people on her back, multiple times a day, day in and day out.
Though it isn’t described as such in the Mabinogi, this is the kind of power usually attributed to a deity, magician, or giantess.
She also has incredible endurance. This is not only physical, but emotional. Despite losing her newborn son and being accused of the most heinous of crimes, she endured her punishment without complaint.
Rhiannon is also very clever. When Pwyll rashly promised her away to Gwawl, she’s the one who comes up with a plan to send Gwawl packing.
Suitable offerings to Rhiannon can include:
- Flowers, particularly roses.
- Oatmeal or cakes.
- Images of her animals, like songbirds or horses.
Signs Rhiannon is Calling You
Rhiannon may be calling you if you dream of her. She may appear as a beautiful adult woman, riding on a white horse. She may also appear with her song birds.
If you’ve been particularly drawn to horses, dogs, or songbirds, that may be another gentle sign of Rhiannon’s call. You may develop a strong urge to take up riding, volunteer at an animal shelter, or work with conservation efforts.
Feeling drawn to parenthood, specifically motherhood, can also be a sign from her.
Crystals Associated with Rhiannon
Modern Paganism often connects crystals to specific deities, even if this wasn’t necessarily traditionally done. Rhiannon is associated with:
Herbs Associated with Rhiannon
Rhiannon is connected to a variety of herbs and flowers, particularly those that have white or yellow blooms.
Not all of these are traditional, and some aren’t even native to the area where Rhiannon’s story takes place. Nevertheless, time has associated her with these plants:
Working with Rhiannon
Rhiannon is a very hardworking goddess, but don’t worry — getting to know her doesn’t have to involve giving a lot of piggyback rides. If you’d like to start to work with her, you may wish to begin by reading the Mabinogi to get to know her story.
It might also be a good idea to dedicate a small space to her. Decorate it with a white candle, some fresh roses, and perhaps images of horses or songbirds.
You may want to get a small sculpture or image of Rhiannon herself, too. There are many artists who create beautiful Pagan prayer cards that are suitable for decorating a small altar and come with poems and songs dedicated to each deity.
You can also work with Rhiannon by offering your time or money to volunteer efforts associated with her. Work to protect disadvantaged children, dogs, horses, or songbirds threatened by habitat destruction.
If you like, you can also set aside a small part of your yard or garden for songbirds. Research what species live in your area, and provide them with suitable houses, feeders, nesting material, and wild food plants.
Since Rhiannon is also a Goddess of gateways, you may want to look into meditative journeying practices. Traveling to the Otherworld can be a way to work with her and her energy, as well as expand your spiritual practice.
Rhiannon’s story is a tale of beauty, tragedy, strength, and endurance. As a horse goddess and a queen, she may also have once been a deity of sovereignty.
When she approached Pwyll, she honored him by becoming his wife and bearing him an heir. If she calls out to you, be ready to receive her gifts and wisdom.