Rhiannon, Celtic Goddess of the Sun

The Goddess Rhiannon

The arrival of the royal couple was cause for great celebration throughout the land. How enthusiastically she was welcomed by her husband's people! She was much admired for her great beauty and her lovely singing (and, of course, for her great wealth as she gave rich gifts to all).

But this honeymoon with the people was not to last.

When two full years had passed without Rhiannon becoming pregnant with an heir to the throne, the question of her bloodline —and her fitness to be queen—began to be raised. Pwyll's trusted advisors began to pressure him to take another wife, one that would prove more fertile.

Pwyll persuaded them to give the couple more time. He couldn't begin to imagine how lonely it would feel without her at his side advising him, sharing fully in his dreams and visions for the kingdom.

Fortunately, in the next year at May Eve, Rhiannon delivered a fine and healthy son.

They were jubilant, but the baby was soon to become the source of great pryder (anxiety/distress) for Rhiannon and Pwyll.

Murder Most Foul

As was the custom then, six noble maidens had been assigned as ladies-in-waiting. They were to stay with Rhiannon in her quarters to look after her and to help her care for the baby during her lying-in.

Although the young women were supposed to sit vigil throughout the night, at midnight they curiously all fell asleep on the job. They awakened to discover that the newborn child was gone.

Terrified they would be punished severely for their carelessness, and their families ruined by the scandal, they devised a plan to cast the blame on Rhiannon. After all, she was a Fairy, an outsider, not one of their own people.

So they killed a hunting hound's puppy, smearing its blood on Rhiannon's face as she slept, and scattering its bones in her bed. When Rhiannon awoke, they brazenly accused the queen of eating her own child.

Rhiannon knew that they lied and she did all she could to persuade them to speak the truth. But they felt she had never been friendly, always proud and aloof, so they felt absolutely no loyalty to her.

There was nothing to be done for it. Rhiannon swore her innocence, but her denials could not stand against that of six noble witnesses under oath.

Even though he was suffering from his own shock and grief, and against the pleas of his advisors, Pwyll stood by her and refused to divorce her. Instead, he ordered a penance (a self-punishment intended to express repentance for one's wrong-doing).

Rhiannon designed a clever penance for herself (most likely they planned it together, given the strength of their marriage), knowing it would spread her story far and wide. Eventually someone might recognise her lost child. So Rhiannon bore that humiliating punishment without complaint.

Rhiannon's penance was that, for seven years she must sit at the horse mounting-block by the castle gate, telling all guests the story of her hideous crime. And then she would have to offer to carry them on her back, like a horse, all the way to the castle.

The Beast of Burden

Through the bitter cold of winters and the dusty heat of four summers, Rhiannon endured with great courage and dignity. Her calm, quiet acceptance of her fate was so touching that few accepted her offer to transport them into the castle.

And the great honour which Pwyll continued to show her also had an effect. Every night he welcomed her to the high table to sit beside him as his queen. Often he openly sought her considered opinion on matters of state. Theirs was a strong marriage indeed and the people, who had learned to trust their king and his judgment, began to soften their opinion about his wife.

Respect for Rhiannon began to spread throughout the country as travellers talked of the wretched punishment and the dignity with which she bore her suffering.

So it was that, in the fourth year of her penance, seven strangers appeared at the gate: a well-dressed nobleman, a young boy, and their retainers. Rhiannon rose to greet them saying, "I am she who killed my only child and this is my punishment, to sit here and tell my tale to all comers. I must also offer to carry each of you into the court."

Aghast, the boy adamantly refused to allow such a thing.

Of Heroes and Homecomings.

Is there any way this boy could be their lost son?

Who is he that the adults took his opinions and directions so seriously?

You certainly have a right to ask. The newborn babe disappeared only four years ago, but this young boy clearly seems to be on the cusp of manhood, seemingly about 12 years of age or so.

How could he possibly be their lost son? What you need to understand is this: ?

This child grew as a hero-child, triple the speed of an ordinary child. There were others who, like him, were semi-divine and had done the same.

Here's how this was described in one translation of the Mabinogi, the oldest stories on record in Britain, tales that are full of myths and legends.

The child was brought up in the court until he was one year old. And before [the end of] his [first] year he was walking steadily, and was stronger than a three-year old boy of the greatest growth and size. And [after] he had been raised for another year, he was as sturdy as a six-year old boy. Before the end of the fourth year, he was striking deals with the stable lads to be allowed to lead [the horses] down to water.)

Having politely declined Rhiannon's invitation to have her carry them, the visitors walked to the castle instead. As noble guests they were seated at the high table for dinner.

Their hosts were certainly welcoming and polite, but it seemed that the table itself was enshrouded with gloom—all there were sad and quiet, still mourning the lost baby prince and Rhiannon's public shaming.

But all that would change when the visitor, Lord Tyrnon, told their tale. Upon hearing their story, Rhiannon instantly knew that this boy was her son, especially when she saw that he carried a small scrap of golden silk, a remnant of the gown her babe had worn, embroidered by her own hand.

The story the visitors told was a strange one, but all who heard knew it to be the truth.

This story went like this:

The Badger and the Monstrous Claw

"My favourite mare had given birth on the eve of May every year. Each time the foal would mysteriously disappear before I woke and had a chance to see it. So, on May Eve four years ago", he said, "I brought the mare into my hall to care for her when she started into labor."

It was a good thing, too. Lord Tyrnon was forced to fight a fearsome monster when at midnight a monstrous claw came through the window, grasped the newborn foal and began to ferociously pull it through the window.

Later, when Tyrnon returned from chasing the monster away from the house, he heard cries and found an infant lying abandoned by the door, wrapped in gold silk. (Sometimes when this tale is retold a curious possibility is raised—that the monster he fought was actually the insulted badger lord who had interrupted Rhiannon's wedding feast and now was taking his revenge by kidnapping her son.)

Since Lord Tyrnon's wife had been unable to bear a child and welcomed the foundling, the couple had decided to keep the baby as their own and she mothered him lovingly.

A few years later the rumours of Rhiannon's fate reached the lord's ears and he suddenly recalled how very much the boy looked like the famous king Pwyll. In that moment, he knew what had happened and what he should do about it. Lord Tyrnon was known as a good man.

But first he needed to confer with his wife. Like Pwyll and Rhiannon's, their marriage was a true partnership based on shared values and mutual respect.

He dreaded this discussion nonetheless, knowing full well that it would break her heart. He trusted his wife enough to know she'd also understand that there was only one right thing to do, painful as it would be.

So, with his wife's blessing, he'd set out to return the child to his birth-parents.

The pall is broken and the kingdom once more can thrive.

Soon the story and the news that the King and Queen's son was alive and had returned spread throughout the countryside. Now everyone saw the striking resemblance and recognised the boy was truly Pwyll's son.

Rhiannon was restored to happiness and Pwyll's steadfast faith in her had been vindicated.

This was great cause for celebration. The pall that had hung over the kingdom had finally lifted . . . the healing had begun.

A brief glimpse into the future.

And what was to become of the son, Pryderi?

He was reared as the heir to the throne and grew up to be a famous hero as well.

Following the death of Pwyll, Rhiannon often participated in the adventures of her famous son and eventually remarried.

Lessons of the Goddess Rhiannon

The story of Rhiannon reminds us of the great power of female will and determination. It speaks of loving loyalty, clever planning, and dignity in adverse circumstances.

It also gives us a glimpse of how women took command in history. In spite of men 'being in charge', it was possible for women to get their way and to manage money and resources in their own right.

Rhiannon is, above all else, a goddess of sovereignty. She has a voice and is unafraid to speak her truth.

Hers is a teaching tale for women who have yet to grow into their full potential because they have not found and developed a healthy self-respect and assertiveness. We know (or are) women who find it hard to express our own needs for fear we might be seen as 'uncaring' or 'too demanding'.

Take, for example, the people-pleaser who is worn out by always meeting the needs of others but never meeting her own. The goddess Rhiannon encourages her to say, "Sorry, but I just can't take on another project right now" without feeling the least bit guilty about it.

And perhaps the myths of Rhiannon are also, in part, a cautionary tale for those of us who find it natural or easy to walk comfortably in the corridors of 'male power' . . . a message of the value of sisterhood and the need for a sustaining connection to any underdeveloped or rejected parts of our selves, no matter how 'feminine' they might seem.

Above all else, Rhiannon stands for loving loyalty. She is a goddess who remains steadfast, comforting us in times of crisis and of loss.

Author's Note:

I am greatly indebted to Dr. Shan Morgain, Professor of Welsh at Swansea University in Wales, for her guidance in the writing of this article. Troubled by egregious errors in the initial version of my telling of the myths of the goddess Rhiannon, she reached out to offer her assistance.

And, for our edification, she graciously shared her vast knowledge of the 'official and first' telling of the myths in the Mabinogi as well as giving us a better picture of the life and times of the inhabitants of the region in which the myths first appeared.

When I have deviated from the straight and narrow, she's been there to call me back on track reminding me with sage wisdom of how it was originally told and the customs of the times.

Many times I've heeded her call. And the story's better for that.

And sometimes, in the interest of building the storyline, I've been a bit inventive in showing you a character's motives or perceptions and perhaps have wandered a bit far afield from the original. Artistic license . . .my retelling of the story in the terms of how it resonates with me.

Take note. Any errors, in fact or spirit, in my meanderings away from the magnificent Mabinogi are my doing and mine alone. I hope they've made the story more reachable for you, more relevant to your modern life.

I heartily encourage you to take advantage of Shan's scholarship at www.mabinogistudy.com. While there, be sure to explore this listing of resources that make the Mabinogi wonderfully accessible to modern readers/listeners.

Learn more about the goddesses and their myths
Take the Goddess Quiz and discover the Goddess That Lives in You! Read the inspiring myths of the other goddesses. Symbols of the goddess Rhiannon are found here.