4. Rhiannon: Goddess or Mortal?

Questions to consider . . .

  • In what different ways is Rhiannon transformed?
  • What does the horse symbolise?
  • What does this tell us about the ancient Celtic concept of deity?

Rhiannon contains two aspects: the goddess and the mortal.

This could reflect how noble women in the past were seen as real-life embodiments of the Sovereignty Goddess.

If this is the case, the distinction between human and divine, between mortal and immortal, isn’t that clear.

We usually think of a deity as different to or even above humanity. Not entangled in the messy lives of everyday people, but perfect beings who live in perfect realms.

Yet figures such as Rhiannon suggest this sin’t always the case. Perhaps we should ask ourselves again, what is a Celtic deity?

Are we trying to make Rhiannon fit into modern categories that obscure more than they reveal? Do our categories agree with how the ancient Celts thought about deity? If not, what assumptions should we change?

Further Reading

You can find both of the papers quoted linked below. The first by Proinsias Mac Cana is an important paper in Celtic Mythology, but it is a little dry, the second is an easier read.

Aspects of the Theme of King and Goddess in Irish Literature

Exploring the Limitations of the Sovereignty Goddess through the Role of Rhiannon

Notes and References

Circe, Williams


Rhiannon the Goddess:

  • Closely connected to horses.
  • Can exist in a different temporal realm.
  • Possesses a magical purse.
  • Responsible for the abundance of the land.
  • A king of Dyfed must be wed to her.


  • Echtra Mac nEchach (‘The Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Mugmedón’) c. 1000, in John Kock (ed.), The Celtic Heroic Age, trans. John Carey.

This is how the hag was: every joint and limb of her from top to toe as black as coal. The gray bristly hair growing through the top of her head was like the tail of a wild horse. She could cut off the green branch of an acorn-bearing oak with the sickle of green teeth that was in her head, reaching to her ear. Her eyes were black and smoky; her nose crooked and wide-nostrilled; her belly sinewy, speckled, fluxy, diseased; her shins crooked, twisted, knotty, broad as shovels; and she had big knees and gray nails. Fearsome was the appearance of the hag.


  • Davies, The Mabinogion (2007):

‘There is a stag-hound bitch here,’ she said, ‘and she has pups. Let us kill some of the pups, and smear Rhiannon’s face and hands with the blood, and throw the bones beside her, and swear that she herself destroyed her son. And the word of the six of us will prove stronger than hers.’


  • Proinsias Mac Cana, ‘Aspects of the Theme of King and Goddess in Irish Literature’, Etudes Celtique VII, (1955-6), 84-5:

The idea of the goddess changing her form and her raiment when she is without her proper spouse and king, is very common in the whole of our literature — its best known forms is that of the ugly old hag who, on union with the rightful aspirant to the kingship of Ireland, immediately becomes a beautiful woman. 


  • Erica J. Sessle, ‘Exploring the Limitations of the Sovereignty Goddess through the Role of Rhiannon’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium , 1994, Vol. 14 (1994). 

. . . there are problems inherent in an undisputed application of this methodology. Rhiannon must also be regarded as a literary character and not simply the remnant of a degenerated goddess. . . . For example, in Proinsias Mac Cana’s reading of Rhiannon, he questions her behavior in the Third Branch of thee Mabinogi as incompatible with her goddess feature. Pryderi is stuck to a golden bowl and is about to be abducted by an unseen enemy. Although Manawydan, Pryderi’s friend and Rhiannon’s husband, makes no effort to rescue him, Rhiannon makes an attempt but is stolen herself.

. . . According to Mac Cana, this impetuous behavior reveals a character flaw in Rhiannon, contradicting her supposed divine nature. The flaw in her character resides in her loss of wisdom and judgment and Manawydan is commended for his caution and prudence.
     However, the behavioral inconsistency described by Mac Cana exists only if Rhiannon is defined through the realm of a goddess; it is perfectly explainable through mortal behavior. As a mother, there is neither anything odd nor impulsive about her reaction to save her son. By explaining her role as Mac Cana has done only through her divinity, we neglect a depth of character that prohibits Rhiannon’s interpretation as a multifaceted character.


Rhiannon the mortal woman:

  • Seeks escape from two ‘arranged’ marriages.
  • Must resort to political cunning to get her way.
  • Punished according to mortal law.
  • Suffers anxiety over her son.


Can she be both?

  • Sacral kingship was a feature of many aristocratic societies.
  • The myth of the king marrying the land.
  • Is this a sociological explanation for the myth?