Rhiannon, the Welsh Horse Goddess
The Horse Goddess
In this tale Rhiannon appears as the Welsh Horse Goddess. She is first seen riding by on a beautiful white horse; later in the tale she takes on the duties of a horse in offering to carry people on her back. In the myth of the Greek Horse Goddess, Epona, there is a story of how she, in the form of a horse, gives birth to a foal that keeps disappearing. That legend has it’s echo here as though it were woven into the myth. There also seems to be an echo of the opening story from that great epic from India, the Mabharata. In that story the Goddess of the river Ganges, Ganga, marries a mortal Prince only to have their child killed every year for eight years. Only with the ninth do we find out what really is going on and we learn that things are seldom what they seem. We have to dig a little deeper into the tale of Rhiannon to find out what is going on but the lessons are there for us nonetheless.
The tale takes place in the area roughly corresponding to the ancient lands of the Celtic tribe the Romans called the Siluri. The leading man is none other than Pwyll. He is the Chieftain of the people of Dyfed comprising of two tribes the aforementioned Siluri and the Ordovici. The Ordovici tribal land comprised what are now the areas known as Pembroke, Cardigan and into Carmarthen, while the Siluri extended across South Wales into Bristol and Bath. Pwyll is also a prince of Annwn. Annwn is the Welsh otherworld, where we all go after death. Pwyll had gained the friendship of Arawn, lord of Annwn and had destroyed Hagfan, the enemy of Arawn. Because of this Pwyll is known as Pwyll pen Dyfed (Pwyll chief of Dyfed) and also Pwyll pen Annwn (Pwyll chief of Annwn) this all took place before the meeting of Pwyll and Rhiannon and it sets the scene for the meeting between the Goddess and the mortal Lord of the living and the dead.
One other thing that should be mentioned is the slapstick comedy involved in the “Badger in the bag” game. It may seem cruel to us but this was the comedy of the time. A similar occurrence appears in Homer’s Illiad where a hunchback is beaten to the amusement of Odysseus and his companions. We are tempted to judge harshly but were we living in those times and were hearing the tale recited by a Bard we too may be laughing at the joke.
Rhiannon rides her horse, but It's just a tale of course, just an old story from days gone by.
Damh the Bard and Pagan Ways
Pwyll and the mound of Arberth
The chief court of Pwyll was in Arberth. One evening, after a feast, he had it in his mind to walk to the top of the mound that rose above his court, known as the Mound of Arberth. One of his men said “Lord, it is said that if a man of noble birth were to spend the night on top of Arberth he will either suffer injury or see a great wonder.”
“I fear no injury” said Pwyll “But I would see a great wonder” so with his men he sat at the top of the mound. As the morning sun rose he observed a woman on a great, majestic White horse. She was dressed in golden silk and rode at a steady gait along the path below the mound.
“Do any of you know the horse woman?” asked Pwyll.
“No Lord” Each man replied.
“One of you go meet her” he said. “I would speak with her.”
One of the men got up and ran down to the path but when he got there she had already passed by. He ran to catch her but though the horse never altered its steady gait, the more he ran the further from him she became. Returning to his chief he related what had happened. Pwyll saw a mysterious meaning in this but no more could be done that day. That night they again retired to the mound and at the first light they again saw the same woman on her horse riding by as steadily as before. This time one of his men was ready upon his horse and he set off in pursuit. Again when he reached the path the woman had gone on. He rode after her but though he pushed his steed as hard as he dared and the woman never hurried her pace, the faster he went the further from him she appeared.
He returned to Pwyll and said “Lord, I know of no horse in the land faster than the one I ride, yet I could not catch her.”
They returned to court and that night Pwyll sat on the fastest horse he could find, when the morning light rose and the woman rode by he immediately set off in pursuit. He fared no better than his fellows and could get no nearer to her than any other man.
“Maiden!” he cried. “Will you not wait for me?”
“Of course I will” she replied “It would have been better for your horse and your men if you had asked it long ago.”
She waited for him and when he had reached her she looked him in the eye so he had her permission to speak without seeming an oaf. Yet he found her to be the fairest maid he had ever set eyes upon.
“Lady, where are you from? And what is your business here?”
“I am Rhiannon, daughter of Hyfaidd Hen.” She replied “I am being given to a man against my will. I have always loved you and because of that I can find affection for no other and I never shall unless you reject me. My business here is to know your answer.”
“Here is my answer” replied Pwyll “If I could have my pick of all the maidens in the world, it would be you I would choose and the sooner the better, set a date for wherever you like.”
“Very well Lord” she replied “A year and a day I will have a feast prepared for you in the hall of my father.”
“I will be there” Promised Pwyll.
“Then stay well” she said “remember to keep your promise.”
With that they parted and Pwyll returned to his companions. Whenever they asked him questions he would turn to other matters and told none of what transpired.
Pwyll Pen Annwn
Pwyll and Rhiannon
At the appointed time Pwyll gathered a hundred horsemen and set out for the halls of Hyfaidd Hen. When he arrived, there was a multitude to greet him. The hall was well arranged and they all went in to feast. Pwyll sat between Hyfaidd Hen and Rhiannon, then each according to his rank.
As the evenings entertainment was about to begin a large noble looking man came into the hall. He greeted Hyfaidd Hen courteously and Hyfaidd, in his turn, invited him to sit and feast with them.
“No” he replied “for I come asking favor and I will do my business first.”
“Then do your business” replied Hyfaidd Hen.
Turning to Pwyll he said “My business is with you and it is of you I must make my request.”
“Friend,” said Pwyll “Whatever you request, if it is in my power you shall have it.”
“No” said Rhiannon “Why did you answer that way.”
“But he did my Lady” said the other “And in the presence of noble companions.”
“What is your request?” asked Pwyll.
“This feast and these preparations are here for you to sleep tonight in the bed of the woman I love.” He replied. “It is for her and this feast that I ask”
Pwyll fell silent. There was no answer he could give.
“Stay quiet as long as you wish” said Rhiannon “There never was such a dull witted man as you tonight.”
“I had no idea” said Pwyll
“That is Gwawl ap Clud the man to whom I was to be given against my will” she replied. “Now give me to him lest you be dishonored and I will see to it that he never has me”
Then Pwyll and Rhiannon whispered together at length while she explained her plan.
“My Lord” said Gwawl “It is time I had my answer.”
“You shall have what is in my power to give.” Replied Pwyll.
“Friend” said Rhiannon “The feast and provisions here are promised to the men of Dyfed. They cannot be given to another. If you will return in a year and a day, then a feast and entertainment will be made ready for you that you may lay with me that night.”
Gwawl returned to his realm and Pwyll returned to Dyfed. When a year and a day had passed, Pwyll made ready his men and they went to the court of Hyfaidd Hen. A hundred of the men of Dyfed hid in the orchard while Pwyll, in the rags of a beggar. In his hand he held a small bag. The enchanted bag that Rhiannon had given him. Entering the court he saluted Gwawl ap Clud and his company.
“My Lord” he said “I have a request of you”
“You are welcome” said Gwawl “State your business”
“I ask out of want” he replied “Would you, in your generosity, fill this small bag with food.”
“That is a modest request” said Gwawl. “Bring him food” he ordered.
A great number of servants arose and began to put all manner of food into the bag but no matter what they placed inside the bag never filled.
“Will this bag never be full?” declared Gwawl.
“It will not be filled” said Pwyll “Until a noble Lord tramples the food within”
“Happily will I do that” said Gwawl. And he jumped up and placed his feet within the bag. As soon as he did so Pwyll twisted the bag so Gwawl went head over heels inside. Tying the top he then shook off his beggar robes and blew his hunting horn. Then his men came in from the orchard and bound the retinue of Gwawl ap Clud. As each man came in he would ask of the bag “What have we here?” “A Badger in the bag” replied Pwyll. Then each man would strike the bag a blow. This was the first time the game of Badger-in-the-bag was played.
“My Lord” cried Gwawl “Killing me in a bag is no death for me”
“He speaks truly” said Hyfaidd.
“Then this is my condition” said Pwyll “That there will be no redress or vengeance for this day and that you and your nobles leave in peace.”
“You have it Lord. On my honor”
Then Pwyll released Gwawl and he departed for his own land as pledged.
That night Pwyll and Rhiannon were in each others arms in pleasure and contentment. The next day with the blessings of Hyfaidd Hen the two were joined in the ancient harmonies of the land. Bound and blessed they departed for the realm of Dyfed.
In the court at Arberth they were greeted by the Lords and ladies of the land and not one of them departed from the presence of Rhiannon without receiving a precious gift
The birth of the Child and the trials of Rhiannon
They ruled happily and well and in the third year Rhiannon was with child and in Arberth their son was born. On the night of the birth, six noble women were brought in to be with her and watch the mother and babe. However the women slept and in the morning when they awoke the baby was gone. The women were afraid. They feared they would be put to death for their negligence and wondered what they were to do. One of the women had a plan. One of the hounds had given birth, she suggested they kill the puppies and smear the blood and bones over Rhiannon while she slept. This they did and as the sun rose high Rhiannon awoke and asked for her child.
“My Lady” they said “Do not ask for your son. We have nothing but bruises from you. You have killed your son so do not ask us for him.”
“Don’t lie to me” cried Rhiannon “Tell the truth. If you are afraid I will protect you but tell what happened.”
In spite of all her pleading they stuck to their story. When Pwyll Pen Annwn arose he heard the tale and though he could not believe it himself it was impossible to conceal what had happened. Rhiannon counseled with the wise women of the land and it became better to accept penance than to struggle further. This was her punishment. During the day she was to sit beside the horse mounting block outside the castle and to every visitor that came by she was to tell them of the crime she had committed and offer to carry them on her back into the castle.
At that time Teyrnon Twrf Liant was Lord in Is Gwent. In his stable was a mare that was the finest horse in all the land. On the eve of Beltain every year she would foal but no one knew what became of the foal. One night Teyrnon counseled with his wife. He said he as remiss in allowing this to happen every year. This Beltain he vowed to stay with the mare and watch her foal. That night, in the stable, the mare gave birth to a handsome colt. As the colt rose to his feet there was a great commotion and an arm and a great claw reached through the door and seized the colt. Teyrnon drew his sword and cut the arm at the elbow so the colt and the arm were left inside. There was a great roar and a scream. Teyrnon rushed outside but there was nothing to be seen. He was about to go back inside when he heard a small cry. There at his feet was a small boy wrapped in a silk shawl. Fastening the door of the stable leaving the mare to minister to her colt he carried the child into his house.
“Wife” he said “Wake, for I have the son for you that you have never had.”
Then he told his wife the story of what happened.
“A silk coverlet” she said “He is the son of gentlefolk. My husband shall we say that I have been pregnant and that this is my son.”
“Gladly” said Teyrnon
So they presented the boy to the Druids and before them he was named Gwri Gwallt Aur. (Gwri of the Golden hair) The boy was strong and grew fast for his age. In his third year he appeared as though he was six. The wife of Teyrnon determined to give the boy the horse that was rescued the night he was found for she felt he would have need of it. So Teyrnon had the stable boys break in the horse and it was given to Gwri.
In the meantime they had heard of what had befallen Rhiannon and the wretchedness of her state. Teyrnon thought long about this and he looked at the boy closely. He saw that never had a son so resembled his father as did this child to Pwyll Pen Annwn. Then he worried at how wrong it was for him to keep another man’s son while that man believed his son lost. He spoke to his wife and she saddened at the loss of her child but could not bear to think of the wrongful punishment being meted out to a woman as good as Rhiannon.
“Three good things will come of this” she said to her husband. “Thanks and gratitude for releasing Rhiannon from her unjust punishment. The gratitude of Pwyll for returning his son and the boy will always be our fosterling and do good for us.”
The very next day Teyrnon and Gwri rode for Arberth. As they approached the castle Rhiannon rose from the mounting block and said,
“Go no further. I will carry you on my back into the court. This is my punishment for killing my own sun.”
“I will not ride your back” Cried the boy.
“Neither will I” said Teyrnon.
They entered the hall and Pwyll received them joyfully for he and Teyrnon were companions of many years.Teyrnon and Gwri sat between Rhiannon and Pwyll at the feast table. When the eating was finished they conversed then Teyrnon told them the whole story.
“You see here” he concluded, “Your son. And whoever accused you was false. Look at this boy and there is none here that can say this is not the son of Pwyll Pen Annwn”
Men and women rose to their feet for none could doubt the truth of it.
“Before the Lord and Lady, this day I have been delivered of my cares. (Pryder)”
Then stood the Druid Pendaran Dyfed who said “You have named him well Lady. Pryderi shall be his name.”
“Teyrnon” said Pwyll “May the Gods reward you for raising my son till now and bringing him back to me. I swear that as long as I live I will uphold your land and after I am dead it will be even more fitting that my son upholds you.”
“My Lord” said Teyrnon “There is no one in this world who grieves more for the loss of a son than does the woman who raised this boy.”
“This then shall be my counsel” said Pwyll. “He will be given to Pendaran Dyfed for his education and you and your good wife may always be his foster parents, free to visit and show your affection. You are welcome to my home at any hour.”
“This” agreed all “Is good counsel”
Then Teyrnon was not allowed to leave until he had been offered the fairest gems and the finest horses in the kingdom.
So the years passed in happiness. Pwyll was good to his word and the boy grew strong in wisdom and love for his parents and foster parents. In due course Pwyll Pen Annwn died and Pryderi ruled the seven cantrefs of Dyfed beloved by all the people. Later he gained the three cantrefs of Ystrad Tywi and the four cantrefs of Ceredigion. These are called the seven cantrefs of Seisyllwch. In due time he married Cigfa daughter of Gwyn Gohyw son of Gloyw Gwallt Lydan of the nobility of the island.
So ends the tale of the birth and the youth of Pryderi and the trials of Rhiannon.