Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia


With a name deriving from Rig Antona or ‘Great High Queen’, Rhiannon is the goddess of horses, who is known as Epona in Gaul and as Édáin Echraidhe and Macha in Ireland. Her totem animals were the bull and three cranes, animals that have associations with death and rebirth.

She was the daughter of Hefeydd Hên.

The tradition says she was promised in marriage to Gwawl fab Clud, a man older than her whom she disliked. She did not want to marry one of her “own kind”, thus going against her family’s wishes. She wanted to marry Prince Pwyll, a mortal man.

Around the countryside there were mounds called tors and thought to be magical places as they covered the entrance to the Otherworld beneath the earth, and those standing on them would become enchanted. People usually avoided the tors but one day Pwyll and his companions stood on one of the tors in the deep forest surrounding his castle. Suddenly Pwyll came into trance as he saw a vision of a young beautiful maiden passing by on a powerful white horse. Rhiannon who galloped by did not spare him a glance and Pwyll was intrigued – his companions were concerned and they protested as Pwyll charged his servant to ride after her on his best and swiftest horse. He wanted her to return and meet the prince. Soon the servant returned with the news that she disappeared and he didn’t know where to. Her horse seemed not to even touch the ground because of the speed.

He could not get her out of his thoughts and the next day, yet again ignoring his friends’ advice, he returned alone to the tor, sat on his horse and waited. The goddess did appear once again and Pwyll charged after her but could not catch her. His horse seemed to be faster than Rhiannon’s but yet the distance between them remained the same. When his horse started to show signs of fatigue he stopped and called out for her to wait. Rhiannon heard his cry and stopped her horse.

When he came closer she told him teasingly it would have been kinder to his horse had he asked her to stop from the beginning instead of chasing her. Pwyll felt love in his heart when his eyes fell upon the beautiful goddess. She told him she was looking for him and wanted his love. Pwyll reached out to take the reins of her horse to guide her to his kingdom. Rhiannon shook her head with a smile and told him they must wait a full year and then she would marry him. Suddenly Rhiannon disappeared into the deep forest.

One year later Rhiannon appeared on the tor to greet Pwyll. The prince came with a troop of his men, as it was his wedding day. Rhiannon didn’t utter a word but gestured for the men to follow her as she turned her horse and they rode into the tangled woods. The men were fearful but compiled to her wishes. As they came closer the trees parted, clearing a path, and closed behind them when they passed. After a while they came to a clearing and a flock of small songbirds swooped playfully around Rhiannon’s head. Their singing soothed the men and all the fear and worry left them. Soon they arrived at her father’s palace surrounded by a lake. The castle was built not of stone or wood, but of silvery crystal and the spires soared into the heavens.

The wedding ceremony went well but at the great feast there were a quarrel. Rhiannon’s family and people were merry and welcoming, but the man she once had been promised to was making a scene. He argued that she should marry someone of the “right kind” and not outside her people. Rhiannon left her husband’s side for a moment to discreetly deal with the situation. She used magic to turn the man into a badger, caught him in a bag which she tied really tight and threw it in the lake. Somehow he managed to escape and later returned to cause destruction in Rhiannon’s life. (Another version is: She suggested that the proposed date for the fulfilment of the boon be put off for one year and then concocted a plan with Pwyll. The plan led to Gwawl fab Clud being captured in a sack and kicked viciously by Pwyll’s men until he begged for mercy. Pwyll and Rhiannon released Gwawl fab Clud only after he had renounced his claim to Rhiannon and had promised never to seek revenge.)

The next morning the newlyweds left to go to Wales as his bride and princess. As they emerged from the forest and the trees behind them closed, she took a glance behind her. The entrance to the fairy kingdom – and her childhood home – was now forever closed. But she seemed not to regret her fate. The Welsh people welcomed their new princess and admired her beauty and lovely singing. When two years had passed without signs of her being pregnant, her fitness to be queen was raised. Happily she delivered a healthy and fine son in the next year. Unfortunately the baby boy was to become the source of great sorrow for his parents.

Six woman servants were assigned to stay with Rhiannon in her quarters to help her care for the infant, tending to the child in shifts during the night so that the goddess could regain her strength after the childbirth. One evening they all fell asleep on the watch.

When they woke the cradle was empty and they were afraid to be punished severely. They came up with a plan to cast the blame on Rhiannon – she was, after all, not one of their own people, an outsider. They killed a puppy, smeared the blood on the still sleeping Rhiannon, and placed the bones of the puppy around the bed. They sounded the alarm and accused the goddess of eating her own baby boy.

Rhiannon swore her innocence, of course, but Pwyll who suffered from his own grief and shock, listened to his advisers and people, did not defend her. He didn’t want to divorce her but only asked for her life to be spared. Rhiannon’s punishment was announced: The goddess Rhiannon was to sit for seven years by the castle gate with the heavy weight of a horse collar on her shoulders, greeting guests, telling them her crime and offering to carry them on her back into the castle.

She never complained, bearing her humiliating punishment through the dusty heat of summers and the bitter cold of four winters with quiet acceptance. Few accepted her offer to carry them into the castle and throughout the country as travelers talked the respect for her began to spread. They talked about the punishment and the dignity she bore her suffering.

Three strangers appeared at the gate in the fall of the fourth year – a well-dressed nobleman, his wife and a young boy. The goddess rose to greet them with the words:

Lord, I am here to carry each of you into the Prince’s court, for I have killed my only child and this is my punishment.

The visitors dismounted and the man lifted Rhiannon, to her surprise, onto his horse and the boy gave her a piece of an infant’s gown, which she recognized had been woven by her own hands. She looked at the boy who smiled at her and she saw he had the eyes of his father, Pwyll.

The man presented himself as Teyrnon Twryf Liant, soon told the story of how he, four years earlier during a great storm, had been called to a field to help a mare in labor. There he heard the cries of an infant and found him abandoned. He and his wife took care of the baby, calling him Gwri and raising him as if he were their own. When he heard the rumors of the goddess and saw the resemblance to Pwyll, he realized what had happened and rode out at once to return the child to his biological parents. (Some legends suggest that this man was the suitor Rhiannon had rejected, and in his revenge had kidnapped Rhiannon’s infant son.)

Everybody quickly recognized the boy to be Rhiannon and Pwyll’s lost son. And although she had suffered immensely the goddess saw they were ashamed and showed them understanding and forgiveness. Their son was called Pryderi, a hero who inherits the lordship of Dyfed. Pryderi grew into a handsome and brave warrior under the guidance of his foster father Pendaran Dyfed. He succeeded his father and was much loved by his people, eventually marrying Cigfa, the daughter of Gwynn Gohoyw.

Pryderi accompanied Bendigeid Vran on his expedition to Ireland against King Matholwch, and was one of the seven survivors who returned to Britain carrying the severed head of Bendigeid Vran. In his absence, however, his cousin Manawydan fab Llyr, the rightful heir to Bendigeid Vran, had been dispossessed by Caswallawn, the son of Beli. Pryderi therefore gave Manawydan fab Llyr his mother Rhiannon as his wife along with the kingdom of Dyfed.

Rhiannon, together with her son and their hunting dogs, was later trapped in a caer under an enchantment cast by Llwyd fab Cil Coed to avenge Pwyll’s ill treatment of his friend Gwawl fab Clud, a spell that was later broken after Manawydan fab Llyr and Cigfa had endured much hardship and had finally captured the wife of Llwyd fab Cil Coed in the guise of a mouse. As the spell was broken, Rhiannon, Pryderi and their dogs were restored to their former state, as were the lands of Dyfed.

Arthurian literature

As one of his tasks, Culhwch had to capture the two Birds of Rhiannon (Adar Rhiannon). It was said that they could

wake the dead and lull the living.

In some versions she was the Celtic goddess, later becoming Vivienne (Viviane) – the Lady of the Lake, who gave Arthur the sword Excalibur.

Celtic goddess

As a Celtic goddess she has the abilities of healing power of humor, tears and forgiveness. She is a goddess of change and movement who remains steadfast. She comforts in times of crisis and loss. She is the goddess of earth, fertility, horses and birds, and she has links to the Otherworld and is much featured in the Mabinogion.

Goddess symbols

Moon, horse shoe, the wind, the number 7.

Horse, badger, frog, dogs (especially puppies), canaries and other songbirds, hummingbirds, dragons.

Narcissus and daffodils, leeks, pansies, forsythia, cedar, pine trees, bayberry, sage, rosemary.

Sandalwood, neroli, bergamot, lavender, narcissus, geranium.

Gems and metals
Gold, silver, cat’s eye, moonstone, crystal quartz, ruby, red garnet, bloodstone, turquoise, amethyst.

Dark green, maroon, gold, silver, rich brown, white, black, charcoal grey, ruby red.

Culhwch and Olwen | Late 11th century