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The Saga of RhíannonRhíannon as Mare Goddess

This is the story of Rhíannon from the Celtic tradition as told in the three texts that make up the Welsh Mabinogion.  Pwyll, Prince of Dyvet contains the essense of the myth, Manawyddan, Son of Llyr is a sequel to it and Branwen Daughter of Llyr offers some additional detail

Pwyll Penn Annfwn, King of Dyvet, was on the mound of Arbeth when he saw a young girl wearing “brilliant golden clothing” and riding a pale white horse. He sent one of his knights after her, but she disappeared. The incident recurred the following day. On the third day Pwyll himself ran in pursuit of her, but could not catch her, so he called out, “Young girl, for love of the man you love most, wait for me.”  The Horsewoman stopped and told him her name was Rhíannon, daughter of Hyveiddd Hen, and that she had come out of love for Pwyll, saying,”If you do not reject me I shall never want anyone but you.” The King agreed to marry Rhíannon and the wedding was fixed for a year later at the court of Hyveidd. But during the banquet Rhíannon’s former suitor Gwawl arrived. He wanted Rhíannon himself and took advantage of the custom of having to give a present, but pretended he did not know of the occasion and so claimed Rhíannon for himself. But she managed to obtain a year’s grace before marrying Gwawl and used this time to draw up a cunning scheme whereby Gwawl, defeated and dissatisfied, was finally put out of the running.

Rhiannnon married Pwyll and a while later gave birth to a son. But that night, she and the women watching over her all fell asleep and the child was mysteriously abducted. To escape blame themselves the women claimed that Rhíannon had killed her child. She was tried by Pwyll and the wise men of Dyvet and sentenced to a strange punishment. “For the next seven years she was to stay at the court of Arberh, sitting beside a stone mounting block outside the entrance telling her story to all comers who seemed ignorant of it, and suggesting to guests and strangers alike that they should let her carry them on her back to the court.” Meanwhile the child was just as mysteriously deposited in the stables of Teyrnon, a man of Gwent. Each year, on the night of 1st of May, his mare used to foal a colt which always disappeared without anyone knowing what happened to it. That particular night Teyrnon mounted guard and found not only a new-born colt, but also a baby boy swaddled and wrapped in a richly ornate coat. Teyrnon brought up the child and gave him the name Gwri Gwallt Euryn (Gwri of the golden hair.) By the age of three the child had made friends with the colt tamed it and mounted it. Having heard of Rhíannon’s adventure, Teyrnon decided to take the child to the court of Dyvet, where Rhíannon offered to carry them on her back. The child refused and Teyrnon told the whole story to Pwylll and Rhíannon, who then recognised their child. Rhíannon cried out that she was free of her “Trouble” (Pryderi), so giving her son his final name, Pryderi.

He grew to be a handsome young man and after the death of Pwyll became King of Dyvet and married Kieva. After Bran’s disastrous expedition to Ireland, he was one of the seven survivors, who continued to lead a magical life whilst hearing the song of “ the birds of Rhíannon whose singing awoke the dead and put the living to sleep.” He returned to Arbeth with Manawyddan, son of Llyr, who married Rhíannon.

But a spell fell on Dyvet and the land became barren. Rhíannon, Kieva, Pryderi and Manawyddan were the only living souls left in the land, and when they had exhausted their provisions they set out to chance their luck elsewhere. They returned to Arbeth with fresh supplies. One day, they saw a white boar disappearing into a fortress, which was deserted. In the centre of the courtyard stood a fountain with a gold cup fastened by chains which led into the air so that the ends could not be seen. Pryderi seized the cup and immediately lost his voice . His hands stuck to the cup. Rhíannon grew uneasy when her son did not return and, after reproaching Manawyddan for not going to his aid, herself entered the fortress. She tried to free Pryderi but the same thing happened to her. “ As soon as night fell, there was a crash of thunder, a thick cloud enveloped the fortress and they disappeared into it.”

Fortunately Manawyddan succeeded in breaking the spell on Dyvett: this had been cast by Llywyt, son of Kilcoet, to avenge Gwawl. It turned out that during their absence mother and son had been servants at the court of Llywyt and that Rhíannon had worn around her neck “the kind of halter asses wore to carry in the hay.”

The link between the horse, or mare and the character of the goddess is the undoubtedly the most remarkable thing in this saga. Rhíannon is like the goddess of the otherworld, the fairy in love with a mortal….Like Niamh Chinn Óir from Tir na nÓg wooing Oisin. The Horse is a symbol of the Sun, the horsewoman is an image not only of death but of resurrection….she is the lady of the night. Her son Pryderi is likened to a colt. There is a direct link between Welsh Rhíannon and the Romanised Gallic goddess Epona

Rhíannon was as closely associated with birds as with horses. The “birds of Rhíannon” are celebrated throughout the welsh tradition . In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Yspaddaden Penkawr demands fantastic gifts from Culhwch in return for the hand of his daughter Olwen, and includes among these “the birds of Rhíannon, which bring the dead back to life and put the living to sleep. I want them to recreate that night for me” (J. Loth, Mabinogion, vol 1 p.307) The same marvellous birds also appear in the Roman de Jaufre, an Arthurian romance that contains many points of interest but is little known. In the story only the singing of the birds could relieve the maiden’s deep sorrow and soothe her heart and soul.

Rhíannon was a mother. In psychoanalytical studies the young man, the son, becomes the mythical equivalent of the bridegroom, who is the old father. In addition, the aim of the woman is always, if only by transference, to replace the old man by the young, which explains why Morgan wants to kill Uryen, and why Rhíannon, widow of Pwyll, marries her son Pryderi’s friend, Manawyddan. (King of the fishes)

Since the Celts are, after all, Indo-Europeans, it is worthwhile to consider the concept of femininity among the ancient Indians. All Brahmin mythology appears to be based on the fact that the male divinity can do nothing alone but must be complemented by the female divinity. Shiva the male and his counterpart Shakti the feminine principle. She assumes the face of the ancient pre-Aryan goddess Kali and for that matter the face of every other goddess. She is Shiva’s wife and etymologically “energy in action”, “Dynamism of time”. While Shiva sits in inner contemplation, outside time and space, the passive aspect of eternity, it is Shakti who sets him in motion as the active aspect of eternity. What are regarded as the normal roles of men and women have been reversed. In Germanic, Celtic and Semitic languages the sun is feminine and the moon is masculine. There are many superstitions all over the world about the Moon impregnating women. The opposition of feminine activity and masculine passivity is the basis of the story of Tristan and Iseult, which gave rise to all Western interpretations of love.

The Quest for the Grail is inextricable from the quest for woman. Whoever finds her finds the Grail and she who, while her land was cursed, grieved alone and infertile in the depths of her hiddensculpture by the great Fr. Henry Flanagan castle, can form part of the ideal and perfect couple with the man for whom she was waiting. The languishing and impotent Fisher King will be succeeded by the new, Young King of the Grail, who can restore fertility to the surrounding countryside and symbolically to the woman who holds the cup, the dish or the stone, the priestess of a cult whose true meaning we may never know.

Of one thing we can be certain, however, we have again come face to face with the memory of the worship of some ancient goddess dethroned by the gods. The quest for the Grail was the glorification of the chosen woman, the eternal divinity of many faces who still reigns in the underground caverns of the world. There she waits for her youngest son, in order to rise again into the open air and resume her title of Great Queen (Rhíannon Matrona), restoring harmony to the society of her disunited sons who will be reconciled in their love for their mother. Rhíannon is the goddess, the princess submerged in cultural darkness who lies like a shadowy creature in the realms of our dreams waiting to come to life and vigour and passion again.

When the mare goddess Rhíannon prowled around the mound of Arbeth in the hope of seeing King Pwyll, whom she had loved for a long time, and then ran away from him in order to be caught with even greater desire, she had the same aspirations as any girl, goddess though she was. She dreamed of sublime love and it was realised. But when she abandoned her main function, which was purely erotic, and became a mother, she lost all power and rights. Patriarchal society could not forgive her for bringing happiness to the man in whom she had realised herself, thus isolating him. But the situation sorted itself out: the son formed an alliance with the mother. An alliance of this kind is divine, as we can see in early Christianity: it is probably the most natural and instinctive possible, in spite of what the psychoanalysts say. Rhíannon was as patient as she was beautiful and endured her lot without complaint. She was also extremely courageous.


Research material taken from “The Women of the Celts” by J. Markale.

For a definitive version, see the full text of the Mabinogion, visit this site . . .

THE MABINOGION by Lady Charlotte Guest


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Last Updated 01/10/2005

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