John Koch, in The Historical Encyclopaedia of Celtic Culture, says that the name Rhiannon “indisputably derives from Old Celtic Rigantona (divine queen)… an exact counterpart of Teyrnon <Tegernonos, ‘divine king”. Koch also refers to the name ‘Modron’ deriving from Matrona (‘Divine Mother’) and suggests links with the Gaulish horse goddess Epona and another Gaulish goddess Rosmerta. He speculates whether such correspondences suggest various goddesses with overlapping attributes or one goddess with several names or epithets which become names.
W.J. Gruffydd in his study of the First and Third branches of Y Mabinogi : Rhiannon (Cardiff,1953) discusses the development of the Rhiannon story from earlier myths.
Using linguistic evidence to trace the name Rhiannon back to its Brythonic form *Rigantona, he equates this goddess with Matrona mother of the god Maponos. Brythonic Matrona and Maponos would develop into Modron and Mabon in Welsh and these are the names found in the medieval Welsh tales.
Gruffydd attempts to disentangle the core “myth of Rhiannon” from what he calls the “great accumulation of extraneous additions” from folklore, local legend and some other parallel mythological themes. Her story is the universal myth of the Great Mother whose child is snatched away into the Otherworld and eventually returned. Gruffydd sees that myth woven into a story that also draws upon a local expression of the international folk tale motif of the Otherworld woman who comes to woo a mortal husband. This fusion of universal mythic narratives is given specific cultural form by identifying both the Great Mother as Matrona and the Otherworld woman as Rigantona, the Horse Goddess of Brythonic and Gaulish religion.
In this view Rhiannon is an Otherworld woman who comes to offer herself as a wife to the the Lord of Dyfed. Her coming on horseback, and her subsequent equine associations, identify her with the Horse Mother of the Brythonic tribes. This, says Gruffydd, is an expression of Matrona on horseback whose child is taken from her by the Lord of the Otherworld, who is also the child’s father by a trick of substitution with Rhiannon’s husband, which has parallels in other stories cited by Gruffydd. In re-formulating the Mabinogi tale in this way he presents its underlying story of that of the myth of Matrona and her son Maponos.
In order to maintain this view Gruffydd claims to have undone some of the changes that would have occurred in the development of the story in the oral tradition before it was shaped into a literary text. In particular he maintains that the exchange of roles between Arawn as an Otherworld king and Pwyll as Lord of Dyfed needs to be reversed so that Arawn is the Lord of Dyfed and Pwyll is the Lord of the Otherworld. The ‘chastity’ theme is also reversed to make the whole exchange a ruse so that the Lord of the Otherworld can father a child on Rhiannon who is already married to the Lord of Dyfed.
Later scholars have felt that Gruffydd went too far in making such conjectural changes to the text we have, but it does allow him to make sense of the way in which, by common consent among scholars, Brythonic gods have found their way into a medieval story. In particular it allowed him to universalise the story to one in which, to quote him directly, :
“Modron, the Great Mother of the British branch of the Celts, has a history similar to that of Demeter and Cybele, the usual name of the Great Mother of Asia Minor. She has a son, Mabon, who is abducted by the powers of the Other-world and is restored after a long search, just as Cybele has her son Attis and Demeter her daughter Persephone, who when gathering flowers was captured by the Lord of the Other-world. While the captured child is held in durance, a pall of darkness falls on the world and a great desolation on the land, all the crops fail and the fruits of the earth wither. When the child is restored to the upper world — whether it is Persephone or Attis — fertility and light return. An essential feature of the myth is the wandering of Demeter over the earth to seek her daughter, just as Rhiannon wanders in search of her son.”
In ‘restoring’ this myth Gruffydd supplies a detailed sequence of the changes he thinks occurred. Here is an abbreviated outline of his sequence leaving out the interpolation of other folktale elements and local legends. There are two parallel forms of the universal myth as set out here:
|The myth of the Great Queen Rigantona whose cult is associated with that of Epona the Horse Goddess. She was portrayed sometimes in the form of a horse, sometimes surrounded by foals, and at other times with the trappings of a horse, such as a horse collar. In less barbaric portrayals she was represented as a woman riding a walking or trotting horse. Her consort was the ‘Great King’, *Tigernonos.||The myth of the Great Mother, Matrona, whose son Maponos was stolen from her by the King of the Other-World. While Maponos was in the Other-World, a great darkness and desolation fell upon the land, and his mother wandered over the earth seeking him. When she found him, light and life were restored to the world.|
The legends of Rigantona and Matrona were fused together, so that in Wales Rhiannon and Modron had, at least in one respect, an identical history. It thus came about that Rhiannon’s son, like Mabon, was snatched away into the Other-World and a great desolation fell upon the land until he was rescued by Rhiannon’s consort Teyrnon (<*Tigernonos).
Rhiannon retains her association with horses and asses. It is probable that her offspring had been represented as a foal, or the foal associated with her in statuary was understood to be her son. This foal is lost, and rescued by Teyrnon. At the same time, in the Modron form of the legend, the son is a human child
The Rhiannon story is specifically located in Dyfed (S.W. Wales) and becomes part of the legendary history of Pryderi, a hero associated with this area.
The Mabon-Modron story (not yet localised in Dyfed) adopts Rhiannon’s son as the lost child.
The story is re-told in a parallel form but with different narrative content in the third Mabinogi where Manawydan becomes Rhiannon’s consort and is responsible for bringing back the lost child (by comparison with Manannán who similarly fathers a child in an Irish story). Manawydan – like Manannán – might himself be the Lord of the Otherworld, in which case a further transpositioning of identities has taken place.
These elements come together and are inherited by the author of the Mabinogi who made his own attempts to iron out inconsistencies and explain contradictions caused by interpolations from folktale and legend in the oral re-telling of the story.
Later scholars have been reticent to completely endorse Gruffydd’s re-construction but some have taken the broad implications of his attempts to do so seriously and have attempted to show that a more restricted analysis can retain the mythological origins of the story in a medieval context. Some of these are discussed elsewhere on this site on the MABINOGI page.