Rhiannon’s name is familiar to many, but what is definitively known about the figure herself is obscure. Discussing Rhiannon requires a bit of complexity for a couple reasons: 1) She has been reinvented in modern times by practitioners of Wicca and other Neopagan faiths, and 2) Tangible evidence about her was likely destroyed at various points in Welsh history.
So, let’s start with what we do know. She is associated with horses. She is beautiful, clever, charming, and regal. She possesses magical qualities. Though her name appears to be derived from Rigantona, the ancient Celtic goddess whose name meant Great or Divine Queen, it is unclear whether Rhiannon was worshipped as a goddess in ancient or medieval Wales. As mentioned, some modern faiths do worship her as a goddess. To that end, an argument could be made that she is depicted in three aspects, like the Triple Goddess recognized both in modern and ancient times: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. One thing is clear: the more one reads about Rhiannon, the more fascinating she is.
Her connection to horses is demonstrated in the First Branch of Y Mabinogi. Her first appearance is riding a white horse near a barrow, where she is trying to capture the attention of Pwyll, King of Dyfed (Southern Wales). Later, after she gives birth to Pwyll’s son, the child disappears in mysterious circumstances on May Eve and reappears at the doorstep of a man who has just saved a foal from a monster. Rhiannon’s child grows up to be the hero Pryderi. Meanwhile, no one at Rhiannon’s court has knowledge of what happened to Pryderi, and she is accused of killing and eating him. Part of her punishment is to offer to carry court guests on her back (like a horse). She is so charming that hardly anyone accepts the offer.
Although never explicitly referred to as goddess within The Mabinogion, Rhiannon does possess mysterious magical qualities. Some characters in these stories are clearly mortals who experience supernatural events, and others are very clearly from the Otherworld, but Rhiannon’s origins are unclear. Her appearance near a barrow suggests she could have arrived from the Otherworld, but later in the same tale, she is seen at her home in an earthly court with a mortal father. In that first appearance, she rides her horse at a walking pace, yet no rider can catch up to her, no matter how fast the horse. She also possesses what Dungeons and Dragons players will recognize as a bag of holding—a bag which can hold an infinite amount of material—and she uses the bag to cleverly get out of an undesirable betrothal. There is also the matter of Rhiannon’s long lifespan and the quick rate of her son’s growth into adulthood. Finally, Rhiannon’s birds can sing so sweetly as to wake the dead or put the living to sleep. So while it is unclear whether Rhiannon originated from the Otherworld or is a goddess, she is not a mere mortal.
Finally, there is textual evidence within Branches One through Three of Y Mabinogi that supports a view of Rhiannon as a triple goddess; that is, a goddess presenting as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. In the First Branch, she is a beautiful and cunning maiden who stays true to Pwyll even before they are married. She then weds him and becomes a mother to Pryderi, a connection that continues in the Second Branch and shows her graciousness and protective nature. In the Third Branch, Rhiannon is past child-bearing years. The tale is set in a land that has become desolate from a curse, so parallels can be drawn to death and transition. Whatever Rhiannon’s original purpose, it is clear she held great importance in Welsh culture.
Unbelievable by Kristina May explores the Mother aspect of Rhiannon as presented in the First Branch of Y Mabinogi. Here, Rhiannon is framed for an act she didn’t commit and accepts her punishment graciously. In this reimagining of the tale, lawyer Ericka Burke finds herself in a similar situation. Will anyone believe her side of the story?
RHIANNON by Kristina May Babbit
Directed by Alessandro McLaughlin
Staged Reading on November 13, 2019 at The EXIT Theatre
Kristina May is a second generation filipinx-american writer, editor, and actor. They live in Oakland with their husband, cat, dog, and three redwood trees. Kristina is thrilled that this is their first year writing for the festival. Their first-ever play was written at roughly age 11 and performed in their living room, as well as the living rooms of other neighborhood children. It received several standing ovations and featured such iconic moments as Darth Vader yelling at the Pillsbury Doughboy. They worry that they may have peaked then.
In addition to freelance writing and editing, Kristina is a regular ensemble member of Oakland Classical Theatre Company and has appeared in webseries such as Blatantly Bianka. Kristina also began a YouTube channel, Mucking About the Mabinogion, while researching for this project. Their first experience with the festival was in 2018 as an actor where they performed as various iterations of Cleopatra, the filipino warrior queen Urduja, and the Greek/Roman goddess Psyche, in addition to reading stage directions. Kristina has never listened to the Fleetwood Mac song “Rhiannon.”