Rhiannon, Horse Goddess of Wales

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Rhiannon was the Welsh goddess of the horse. Image by Rosemarie Gearhart/E+/Getty Images

In Welsh mythology, Rhiannon is a horse goddess depicted in the Mabinogion. She is similar in many aspects to the Gaulish Epona, and later evolved into a goddess of sovereignty who protected the king from treachery.

Rhiannon in the Mabinogion

Rhiannon was married to Pwyll, the Lord of Dyfed. When Pwyll first saw her, she appeared as a golden goddess upon a magnificent white horse. Rhiannon managed to outrun Pwyll for three days, and then allowed him to catch up, at which point she told him she'd be happy to marry him, because it would keep her from marrying Gwawl, who had tricked her into an engagement.

Rhiannon and Pwyll conspired together to fool Gwawl in return, and thus Pwyll won her as his bride. Most of the conspiring was likely Rhiannon's, as Pwyll didn't appear to be the cleverest of men. In the Mabinogion, Rhiannon says of her husband, "Never was there a man who made feebler use of his wits."

A few years after marrying Pwyll, Rhiannon gave birth to their son, but the infant disappeared one night while under the care of his nursemaids. Frightened that they would be charged for a crime, the nursemaids killed a puppy and smeared its blood on the face of their sleeping queen. When she awoke, Rhiannon was accused of killing and eating her son. As penance, Rhiannon was made to sit outside the castle walls, and tell passersby what she had done. Pwyll, however, stood by her, and many years later the infant was returned to his parents by a lord who had rescued him from a monster and raised him as his own son.

Author Miranda Jane Green draws comparisons to this story and that of the archetypical "wronged wife," accused of a horrible crime. 

Rhiannon and the Horse

The goddess' name, Rhiannon, derives from a Proto-Celtic root which means "great queen," and by taking a man as her spouse, she grants him sovereignty as king of the land.

In addition, Rhiannon possesses a set of magical birds, who can soothe the living into a deep slumber, or wake the dead from their eternal sleep.

Her story features prominently in the Fleetwood Mac hit song, although songwriter Stevie Nicks says she didn't know it at the time. Later, Nicks said she "was struck by the story's emotional resonance with that of her song: the goddess, or possibly witch, given her ability with spells, was impossible to catch by horse and was also closely identified with birds -- especially significant since the song claims she "takes to the sky like a bird in flight," "rules her life like a fine skylark," and is ultimately "taken by the wind."

Primarily, though, Rhiannon is associated with the horse, which appears prominently in much of Welsh and Irish mythology. Many parts of the Celtic world -- Gaul in particular -- used horses in warfare, and so it is no surprise that these animals turn up in the myths and legends or Ireland and Wales. Scholars have learned that horse racing was a popular sport, especially at fairs and gatherings, and for centuries Ireland has been known as the center of horse breeding and training.

Judith Shaw, at Feminism and Religion, says, "Rhiannon, reminding us of our own divinity, helps us to identify with our sovereign wholeness.

She enables us to cast out the role of victim from our lives forever. Her presence calls us to practice patience and forgiveness. She lights our way to the ability to transcend injustice and maintain compassion for our accusers."

Symbols and items that are sacred to Rhiannon in modern Pagan practice include horses and horseshoes, the moon, birds, and the wind itself.

An Iowa Pagan named Callista says, "I raise horses, and have worked with them since I was a child. I first encountered Rhiannon when I was a teenager, and I keep an altar to her near my stables. It's got horsey things on it, like a horseshoe, a horse figurine, and even braids from the manes of horses I've lost over the years. I make an offering to her before horse shows, and I invoke her when one of my mares is about to give birth.

She seems to like offerings of sweetgrass and hay, milk, and even music - I sometimes sit by my altar and play my guitar, just singing a prayer to her, and the results are always good. I know she's watching over me and my horses."