In 1975, the band Fleetwood Mac released a song called “Rhiannon,” which quickly became a sensation. Stevie Nicks, the band’s lead singer, rose to fame as one of the rock goddesses of the 1970’s. Was it her voice, or did the goddess Rhiannon look down on the sung tribute with favor?
European mythology offers a trio of horse goddesses, known as Epona to the Gauls (the forerunners of the modern-day French), and as Macha to the Hibernians (the ancestors of the Irish). In Wales, one of the Celtic strongholds of what would eventually become Great Britain, She was known as Rhiannon. While much of our knowledge of this goddess has been lost over the centuries, we do have the stories from the Mabinogion, a group of Welsh legends collected during the high Middle Ages. Rhiannon is a central figure in these tales, because of her role as the mother of a king but also for her own exploits.
One of Rhiannon's tales relates that, as the daughter of a king, she was betrothed to a man by the name of Gwawl. Not willing to live a life chosen for her by others, she finds herself attracted to the king of Dyfed, a man known as “Pwyll pen Annwn”, or “Pwyll, the chief of the Otherworld.” Seeking his attention, she runs ahead of his horse until he calls for her to stop and speak. Rhiannon reveals her desire for Pwyll, suggesting that he come to her kingdom in a year’s time and marry her. This Pwyll agrees to do, and the two part.
When Pwyll arrives to claim Rhiannon on the appointed date, he chats with one of the wedding guests, agreeing to grant the man a gift. The guest then reveals his identity: he is in fact Gwawl, Rhiannon’s original fiancé. He requests that Pwyll give him Rhiannon!
When Rhiannon hears of this, she is of course distraught, but rather than assent to fate, she concocts a plan to regain her independence. She sets up a wedding feast for Gwawl and asks Pwyll to appear in disguise (just as Gwawl did earlier). She has given Pwyll a bag which cannot be filled. Dressed as a beggar, Pwyll beseeches Gwawl for alms, but Gwawl cannot comply. Following Rhiannon’s script, Pwyll then asks Gwawl to step into the bag, and this Gwawl can do. However, once inside, he is controlled by the bag’s magic, and Pwyll refuses to let him out until he renounces his claim to Rhiannon. Thus the lovers are reunited through a cunning plot, and go on to rule over the kingdom of Dyfed.
One notable aspect of this myth is certainly the strength and efficacy shown by Rhiannon, who stands out as a woman committed to self-determination. She rebuts the advances of Gwawl and chooses instead Pwyll as her consort, and then, after ‘fate’ sets her plans aside, concocts a plan to re-organize what has been re-organized. Unwavering in her desires, she demonstrates that she is cleverer than either Gwawl or Pwyll. She thus stands out as a medieval woman for refusing the status quo, but also actively influencing the men around her. It’s no wonder that a female frontwoman wrote a song celebrating the goddess’ strength and courage – Rhiannon can be seen as an icon who understood her society and used her brains to achieve her goals within it.