Moon Goddesses: Rhiannon

The Goddess Rhiannon

The Celtic Goddess, Rhiannon, is called “The Queen of the Night“. She is the goddess of inspiration, fertility, the moon, night, and death.

According to Welsh legend, she was promised in marriage to an older man, but Rhiannon refused to wed him and instead chose a mortal man, Prince Pwyll,  to be her husband.

She appeared to him one afternoon in a deep forest near his castle. He stood on a great mound of earth known as a Tor. Such mounds were thought to be magical places which hid an entrance to the “otherworld” beneath the earth. People avoided the Tors because it was feared that anyone who stood upon a Tor would become enchanted.

Prince Pwyll was, indeed, enchanted by the vision of the beautiful, golden-haired Rhiannon as she galloped past on her pure white horse. Dressed all in gold, she quickly caught his eye, but she rode by without giving him so much as a glance. The prince was enthralled by the vision.

His friends were concerned for him and urged him to forget the golden-haired woman. Pwyll refused to listen. He quickly sent a servant off to catch her and ask her to return to meet the prince.  The servant, however, returned alone, reporting that the woman rode so swiftly that her horse’s feet hardly touched the ground. The servant could not keep up and soon lost sight of the woman.

Refusing to give up, Pwyll returned the following day to the Tor. Again, Rhiannon appeared to him. The prince rode after her, but like his servant the day before, Pwyll could not catch up with the golden-haired woman on her white horse. No matter how fast his steed ran, Pwyll remained far behind.

Soon, his exhausted horse began to tremble and stumble. The prince stopped and called out to the woman, asking that she wait for him. She stopped and allowed Pwyll to slowly ride toward her.

As he drew near, she teased him and told him that it would have been much kinder to his horse had he simply called out instead of chasing her.  The goddess Rhiannon then let him know that she had come to find him, seeking his love.

He reached for the reins to guide her to his kingdom, but she shook her head. They must wait one year, she explained. At the end of the year, she would become his bride. After speaking these words, Rhiannon disappeared into the forest.

One year later, she returned to the Tor, dressed again in glittering gold. Prince Pwyll met her, accompanied by a troop of men to celebrate his wedding day. Without a word, Rhiannon turned her horse and indicated that the men should follow her into the woods. Although fearful, they complied.  As they rode, the trees suddenly parted before them, clearing a path, then closing in behind them when they passed.

Soon they entered a clearing and were joined by a flock of small songbirds that swooped playfully in the air around Rhiannon’s head.  At the sound of their beautiful songs, all fear and worry suddenly left the men.  Before long they arrived at her father’s palace, a stunning site that was surrounded by a lake.  The castle, unlike any they had ever seen, was built not of wood or stone, but of silvery crystal with towering spires that rose to heaven.

Rhiannon and Pwyll were married and a great wedding feast was held. Her family welcomed the prince, but a quarrel soon broke out when the man she’d been promised to arrived and made an ugly scene. He claimed that Rhiannon had no right to marry a mortal.

Rhiannon slipped away from her husband’s side to deal with the situation as discreetly as she could. Using magic, she turned her unwanted suitor into a badger, then caught him in a bag and tied it shut. She threw the bag — and the badger — into the lake. Unfortunately, he managed to escape.

The next day Rhiannon left with Pwyll and his men to go to Wales as his princess. When they emerged from the forest and the trees closed behind them, Rhiannon took a moment to glance lovingly behind her.  She knew that the entrance to the fairy kingdom was now closed and that she could never return to her childhood home.  But she didn’t pause for long and seemed to have no regret.

Rhiannon was welcomed by her husband’s people and admired for her great beauty and her lovely singing.   However, when two full years had passed without her becoming pregnant with an heir to the throne, the question of her bloodline, her “fitness” to be queen began to be raised.

Fortunately, in the next year she delivered a fine and healthy son.  This baby, however, was to become the source of great sorrow for Rhiannon and Pwyll.

As was the custom then, six women servants had been assigned to stay with Rhiannon in her lying-in quarters to help her care for the infant.  Although the servants were supposed to work in shifts tending to the baby throughout the night so that the goddess could sleep and regain her strength after having given birth, one evening they all fell asleep.

When they woke to find the cradle empty, they were fearful they would be punished severely for their carelessness. They devised a plan to cast the blame on the goddess Rhiannon, who was, after all, an outsider, not really one of their own people.  They killed a dog, then smeared its blood on the sleeping Rhiannon and scattered its bones around her bed.   Sounding the alarm, they accused the goddess of eating her own child.

Although Rhiannon swore her innocence, Pwyll, suffering from his own shock and grief and faced with the anger of his advisers and the people, did not come strongly to her defense, saying only that he would not divorce her and asking only that her life be spared. Rhiannon’s punishment was announced.

For the next seven years the goddess Rhiannon was to sit by the castle gate, bent under the heavy weight of a horse collar, greeting guests with the story of her crime and offering to carry them on her back into the castle.

Rhiannon bore her punishment without complaint. Through the bitter cold of winters and the dusty heat of four summers, she endured with quiet acceptance.  Her courage was such that few accepted her offer to transport them into the castle. Respect for her began to spread throughout the country as travelers talked of the wretched punishment and the dignity with which the goddess Rhiannon bore her suffering.

In the fall of the fourth year three strangers appeared at the gate—a well-dressed nobleman, his wife, and a young boy.  Rhiannon rose to greet them saying, “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 man, his wife, and the child dismounted.

While the man lifted the surprised Rhiannon onto his horse, the boy handed her a piece of an infant’s gown.  Rhiannon saw that it was cloth that had been woven by her own hands.  The boy then smiled at her, and she recognized that he had the eyes of his father, Pwyll.

Soon the story was told.  Four years earlier, during a great storm, the nobleman had been called to the field to help a mare in labor, when he heard the infant’s cries and found him lying abandoned. He and his wife took the baby in, raising him as if he were their own.

When the rumors of the goddess Rhiannon’s fate had reached his ears, the farmer realized what had happened and set out at once to return the child to his parents. Most legends suggest that it was the enraged suitor who had escaped from the river who had taken revenge upon Rhiannon by kidnapping her newborn son.

The prince and his people immediately recognized the boy as his son. Rhiannon was restored to her place of honor in the court. Despite all she had suffered, she offered forgiveness to the people who had falsely accused and humiliated her.

In other versions of the Rhiannon legend, she is believed to be the Celtic goddess who later became know as “The Lady of the Lake”. She is also said to be the goddess who gave Arthur his powerful sword, Excalibur.

Many times we look at legends as nothing more than entertaining stories, bedtime fairy tales we tell to children. Yet the story of the goddess Rhiannon has important lessons for all of us — adults as well as children. Her story teaches us the importance of forgiveness. She encourages us to remain steadfast to our faith, even in times of crisis and loss. Through the tears, Rhiannon smiles and patiently endures all things. In the end, she is restored to her rightful place.

Images of Rhiannon’s birds are often seen in Celtic art.

It is said that Rhiannon still travels on her pure white horse, bringing inspiration to artists, poets, and singers. She is followed by mysterious birds whose sweet voices possess healing powers.  Rhiannon’s birds are often depicted in Celtic art.

More information on Rhiannon’s story can be found here: The Saga of Rhiannon.

Those who enjoy classical music will also be interested in James MacMillan’s composition, “The Birds of Rhiannon”, available on CD from Chandos.

Patience, endurance, strength, and forgiveness. These are the virtues Rhiannon brings into our lives.

James McMillan: The Birds of Rhiannon

The Birds of Rhiannon – Scottish Composer James MacMillan

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