Pagan Paths

Profundity, profanity and frivolity; the business of serious thinking and joyous expression through the wisdom and traditions of the Celts in the company of Kristoffer Hughes, Head of the Anglesey Druid Order.

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On Wings of Song - The Many Faces of Rhiannon

On Wings of Song

The many faces of Rhiannon


A fe fyddwch yn ciniawa yn Harlech am saith mlynedd ac Adar Rhiannon yn canu ichwi…..Ac yna fe gyrchasant hwy I Harlech a dechreuasant eistedd a fe ddechreuwyd eu digoni eu hunain o fwyd a diod. Cyn gynted ag y dechreuasant hwytha I fwyta ac yfed, death tri aderyn a dechreu canu rhyw gerdd iddynt, ac o’r cerddi a glywesant erioed yr oedd pob un yn anhyfryd o’I cymharu a hi. A rhaid oedd iddynt syllu ymhell allan uwch ben y weilgi I’w gweld. Ac yr oedynt mor amlwg iddynt hwy a phe byddent gyda hwy. Ac ar y cinio hwnnw y buont am saith mlynedd. (Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, Williams)

And you will respite in Harlech for 7 years and the Birds of Rhiannon will sing to thee….They went to Harlech, and they sat down and began to regale themselves with meat and drink, and even as they began to eat and drink there came three birds and began to sing to them a certain song, and of all of the songs they had ever heard each one was unlovely compared with that. And far they must look to see them out over the ocean deep, yet it was as clear to them as if they were close by them, and at that feasting they were 7 years.


This blog post will attempt to address the subtle attributes of Rhiannon, those that may initially be overlooked and lost in translation. The Birds of Rhiannon, note the capitalisation, which in itself appears in the Diplomatic Texts, have a quality that belies Rhiannon’s nature, not only as the Queen, the Sovereign representative of the land, but also of her Otherworldly, Annwfn attributes. She is simultaneously an Andedion (A deity not of our world) and a land based deity. She appears as a complex paradox and her nature can easily be discovered by looking at the various jigsaw pieces of myth that make up her tale. However the tethers which hold her fast to Annwfn are continuously reiterated throughout the Branches, if we know where to look.  

It is important to remind you at this point of the non-linear, non-sequential nature of the 4 branches. Before this discourse continues any further it is essential that you consider this – it is not 4 individual branches that we are working with here, but rather one Mabinogi with 4 branches. They are interconnected, they share the same trunk, exist upon the same tree and cannot be entirely separated, and the contradictions and paradoxes demonstrate this.

Consider this, the above segment of the Mabinogi is told in the 2nd Branch, Branwen the Daughter of Llŷr. The 7 survivors of the war in Ireland have returned, but note that 2 of the party are intimately connected to Rhiannon, Pryderi her son and Manawydan her husband. It is easy to become trapped in linear thinking here, and consider that the marriage between Rhiannon and Manawydan has yet to take place, but note also another intentional contradiction in the tale. Pendaran Dyfed, Pryderi’s foster father in the 1st Branch, in the 2nd is described as a young lad, a juvenile. This would seem to defy logic, which indeed the Branches do so well. They are not sequential stories but a rendition of YOUR inner mythological landscape.

Rhiannon in popular neo-pagan thinking is generally associated with sexual independence and power, a quality which is apparent on the surface. But, as with all the archetypes of the Branches, we cannot take them at surface value, for they all emulate the qualities of the dwfn – the deep. To understand them better and their function in our lives we must scratch at their surface.

Now look to the Welsh version above, and you will note the 3rd sentence from the end says – “A rhaid oedd iddynt syllu ymhell allan uwch ben y weilgi I’w gweld.” (And far they must look to see them out over the ocean deep). Now take note of the word weilgi, commonly translated as sea or ocean, the direction from which the bird song is emanating. However, the term weilgi is not the common Welsh designation for sea nor ocean, which would be Môr, it is derived from Gweilgi, which is an old Welsh word pertaining to the deep, the dwfn. With this in mind, the direction of the birdsong, is not coming from above the sea at Harlech, but from above the deep. Rhiannon’s original home is the dwfn, the deep, she originated in Annwfn, making her an Andedion, an otherworldly Goddess/archetype. Her depthness and Annwfn’nes (if there even is such a word) are continuously reiterated throughout the Branches. The subtle use of uncommon words to describe something ordinary is not unusual, and is possibly indicative of the bard’s ability to disguise the mystery, people rarely see what is under the noses unless it is pointed out. However throw in the fickleness of translation and the magic is lost.

Consider Pryderi’s imprisonment in Annwfn, reiterated again in the 3rd Branch when he and his mother Rhiannon both vanish in a fort, by a cauldron, in a puff of mist, heralded by a white animal. Consider also the function of the Birds of Rhiannon as noted in the 9th Century tale Culhwch ac Olwen as being able to wake the dead and soothe the living to a restful sleep. But even here the buggeration of translation comes into play, for the word used to describe their quality as that of causing sleep is huno as opposed to cwsg. Huno is akin to falling into a death like sleep rather than simple slumber. Death, or rather the state of death and its mystery are central to this entire sequence. Look a little further afield to the Irish saga, and one will discover more magical birds that echo the qualities of the Otherworld. In the Mabinogi, they are evidently the necessary function for opening the doors to an otherworldly reality where the 7 survivors are soothed of their pains and scars of war, and whilst the initial period lasts for 7 years (7 years, 7 survivors….go figure), the primary Otherworldly encounter lasts for a whopping 80 years, initiated by the quality of Rhiannon and her Birds. For the Otherworld to be engaged with, it is apparent that animals who are imbued with either physical oddities or supernatural powers are employed to ‘open the doors’ as it were. This is not uncommon in Celtic mythology, for often animals and trees are the initiators of mystery, this wold require further discourse and exploration beyond the scope of this essay.

According to Mabinogi scholar Will Parker, the appearance of the Birds is a manifestation of the passage between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Birds of Rhiannon are equated with the mystery of the dwfn, the deep by proxy of Ocean, sea, a quality that can be seen to be symbolic of high mystery, of singularity and origination. She marries the sea by proxy of Manawydan, and she is intimately associated with Teyrnon, who himself is attributed a tidal, sea-like quality.  The name Terynon Twryf Liant, can be translated as 'Great King/Monarch of the tumultuous current/sea'. A rather fitting counterpart to Rhiannon's name meaning - Great Queen. He is associated with the horse, and a liminal time, Calan Mai (Beltane).Now consider where he lives, Gwent ys Coed, the usk and Severn valley, consider also that thwrf, derived from twryf/twrf, is an old word for a bore or eagre, as in the 'Severn Bore'. The waves of the bore, and of the sea are often referred to as 'horses'.

Academics immediately, without discourse, abandon the meaning of Liant as Lliant meaning current of the sea, simply because it does not seem to fit with the function of the 1st Branch. Ok, so it's not entirely their fault, to a degree they follow their predecessors like little sheep. But, we have another weapon in our arsenal of God bothering.....the visionary. In the 3rd Branch, Rhiannon, after her utter humanisation in the 1st Branch, marries the sea (Manawydan). She returns to that undifferentiated unconsciousness that she originated from - Annwfn. And yet, the 1st Branch links her by name and nature to the ever present magic and mystery of the sea - in this case, when the sea actually mingles and mixes with fresh water - Teyrnon.

Whilst Rhiannon’s physical presence does not appear in the 2nd Branch, her quality as Psychopomp is quite apparent.

With this in mind, we can discern that the entire sequence of events within the final part of the 2nd Branch is indicative of retreat, withdrawal and assimilation, the psychic retreat after the shamanic wound if you like. This process of catharsis is essential for us to attain an understanding of the mystery contained within the 4th Branch, where the entire Branches are magically assimilated into actual experience. To all sense and purposes the 7 survivors are in a liminal state between life and death, one which requires the attributes of Rhiannon to initiate. By the time the process of assimilation is a necessity for further transformation to ensue, the adept has journeyed a perplexing, cathartic and oft traumatic road.

However, I must pause here and return to a word that has been thrown about this discourse and raised little if no alarm in the readers mind. Survivor. In this treatment it is referring to the seven who return from Ireland. The power of words are wont to be elusive, for in the original text we do not see the Welsh word for survivor = goroeswyr. Instead we find the old Welsh world dihengis, rendered in modern Welsh as dihangdod, both of which mean – “Ymgais new duedd I ffoi o ran y meddwl a’r dychymyg oddiwrth ddiflastod ac undonedd bywyd fel y mae” (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru - Dictionay of the Welsh language) which translate as – “The effort or attempt by means of mind and imagination to fly from the tedium and monotony of life as it is”. In fact the seven are retreating to a place between the worlds, they are not simple survivors, but willing participants in an Otherworldly sojourn.  We can glean several insights from the assembly of the Wondrous Head on the isle of Gwales, between the worlds, separated from time and space and all sorrows until the door is opened onto the world we inhabit.

If we consider the above, it becomes apparent that a sequence of retreat, of assimilation, of understanding the mystery of liminality, of death and return is essential to the mysteries contained within the 4 Branches. And one of the first archetypes we meet who assists us in assimilating this quandary is Rhiannon. Arawn, Pwyll and Hafgan introduce us to the reality of the dwfn, the deep, but it is the connection and experience of Rhiannon that brings it to actualisation and to a deeper sense of knowing.

Rhiannon is multi-faceted, and one of the first Psychopomps we encounter, she is so much more than a sexually assertive woman. All religions and spiritual traditions serve to make sense of mankind’s most perplexing paradigm, what happens to us when we die. In my mind it make a whole lot of sense that one of the initial archetypes we encounter serves to provide us with answers to the big questions, thus enabling us to move on, to experience the branches without the crippling fears of existential anxiety. 

In her form as Queen, as Rigatona, she is the potential within us all, and knowable as the sovereignty within the land, she invokes want and lust, she stirs the heart to love. As calumniated wife she is the vulnerability and expression of deep human emotions and the power of loss, surrender and assimilation. As horse she is the symbol of the animistic spirit hid within the land, our bridge to be one with the land. As bird she is the door to the passageway between the worlds, and the return to the deep. We are not limited to working with one aspect or the other, but can connect and call and work with her in technicolour splendour and be moved to understand the mysteries, not as a cerebral exercise but one which moves the heart, mind and spirit.  



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Kristoffer Hughes is Head of the Anglesey Druid Order in North Wales. He is an award winning author and a frequent speaker and workshop leader throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and the USA. He works professionally for Her Majesty's Coroner. He has studied with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and is its 13th Mount Haemus Scholar. He is a native Welsh speaker, born to a Welsh family in the mountains of Snowdonia. He currently writes for Llewellyn Worldwide specializing in Celtic studies and death and bereavement.


  • Byron Ballard
    Byron Ballard Sunday, 27 March 2016

    O this is lovely! When you spoke of Rhiannon in one of your talks, you hinted at so much more. This is richly done--thank you.

  • katherine manaan
    katherine manaan Monday, 28 March 2016

    This was absolutely fascinating and I truly appreciate the scholarship. I'm going to go read the rest of your posts after I digest this one. And it's a lot to digest:) Thank you so much for writing and posting this.

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