In the First of the Four ‘branches’ of Y Mabinogi Rhiannon comes from the Otherworld to claim a husband she wants for herself rather than the one her father had arranged for her. In doing so she appears to break the conventions which the tale implies should be followed by a woman of stature. In wooing Pwyll Rhiannon refuses the role assigned to women in her society. Following her magical appearance on a horse that cannot be caught by any of the men that attempt to follow her she eventually allows Pwyll to catch up with her. The story-teller makes a point of telling us that she “drew back the part of her head-dress that should cover her face and fixed her gaze upon him”. That is, she should keep her face covered by a veil but ignores this convention to speak directly to Pwyll and make a proposal of marriage to him. In societies where women are expected to maintain a standard of modesty this would be considered wanton behaviour. Rhiannon’s subsequent arranging of events during the wedding feast and the defeat of her unwanted spouse Gwawl similarly sees her taking charge of proceedings. In spite of choosing Pwyll as her husband she is quite able to tell him “never has man been more stupid than you” after Gwawl has tricked him.
Later in the tale, after the birth of her son who is spirited away in the night, she is apparently less able to direct affairs. But rather than challenge the lies of the attendants who accuse her of killing the child, she chooses to accept the penance of offering to carry visitors from the horse block. She retains here, in spite of being ‘punished’ a stubborn independence until her son is restored to her by Teyrnon. There is a parallel to this in the third of the four Mabinogi tales where she re-appears as an older woman and this time it is her son Pryderi who suggests to Manawydan, following their return from Ireland and from the enchanted island of Gwales, that he should marry Rhiannon. This time she agrees to her son’s proposal. But things soon go wrong. The consequences of her earlier manipulation of events now bring about the revenge of a spell cast over the land of Dyfed. The bare outline of this narrative line is as follows :
Pwyll, then unmarried, was lord of Dyfed. He meets Arawn while out hunting and swops places with him as Lord of Annwn for a year. Following his return to Dyfed Rhiannon comes for him and they are eventually married.
After Pwyll’s death , Rhiannon marries Manawydan but as a result of the spell cast over Dyfed both she and Pryderi are taken back into Annwn and must remain there until Manawydan takes control of events and gets them released and the spell over Dyfed lifted.
The question here is why does Rhiannon, who proved herself so assertive and resourceful in the first tale, allow herself to be married to Manawydan and then captured by going into the enchanted fort in spite of Manawydan’s advice that she should not go into it? There seems to be a set of contraries here. Pwyll has established himself as Lord of Annwn when he sits on the hill of Gorsedd Arberth. The gates of the Otherworld are open to him and Rhiannon rides through them on her pale white steed. She brings the Otherworld into Thisworld. In the later tale, although there is a spell on the land, it can be regarded as being disenchanted. The land has become as it was before it was settled. A blanket of mist falls and when it clears “where they had once seen flocks and herds and dwelling places, they could now see nothing at all.” The land has become “desolate, uninhabited, without people … only the four of them remained.” Once Rhiannon and Pryderi have also been spirited away Only Manawydan and Pryderi’s wife Cigfa remain. Rhiannon came out of the Otherworld and has now returned to it. In the first tale she was temporarily removed from events by the penance of the horse block. In the later tale she is removed from Dyfed into captivity and must wear an ass’s collar.
If she is to return it is up to Manawydan to bring her back just as Teyrnon brought her back from the horse block penance. Manawydan does this by capturing a creature from Annwn (a pregnant woman who has shape-shifted into a mouse) and skilfully negotiating with disguised emissaries. So Rhiannon returns and the land is restored to its former state, re-shaped as a settled land which people can inhabit again. In both cases her return restores things to how they should be. When she is absent there is disruption, discord, vacancy. If in that first lifting of her veil she broke a taboo; once she was in the world it was not complete without her.