I have written about Guinevere’s connection to goddesses and historical figures before. Today I want to focus on the connection between Guinevere and one of my favorite goddesses, Rhiannon! Rhiannon is the Welsh Celtic goddess of sovereignty, horses, and a faerie queen. Guinevere is the wife of Arthur and queen of Camelot in the Arthurian legends.
The commonality of origins in the realm of Faery seem a likely fact for both Rhiannon and Guinevere. Rhiannon was first written about in the Mabinogion, which is a collection of Welsh tales originally written in the twelfth century. It is likely to have been based on much older oral traditions. Being that the Mabinogion was written after the dawn of Christianity, it is unsurprising that they would have demoted the goddess Rhiannon to a faerie queen! There are clues in the text to lead one to believe that Rhiannon was never merely a faerie woman, who became a queen, but in actuality was a great goddess of sovereignty! Guinevere, in her oldest forms, is said to have been connected to Avalon, and was likely to have had faerie origins there.
The marriage of Guinevere and Arthur in many ways can be said to mirror that of Rhiannon and Pwyll of Dyfed. Both of these marriages are a type of marriage common in ancient Welsh Celtic tales. It is a marriage of a sovereignty goddess, or her representative, to a king. This sacred marriage of king to the land (in this case in the form of a beautiful goddess or faerie woman) allowed him to gain his kingdom! It is through this marriage that the power of the monarch is insured, and it is also through this marriage that the power can be taken away. If the king proved himself to be unable to rule in any way, or disrespected his wife, his kingdom could be taken from him! This is one way to interpret the love triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. A neglected faerie queen, a representative of the goddess of sovereignty (or possibly even the goddess herself), chooses a new champion because the king does not show proper interest in her! It was Arthur’s emotional neglect of his wife, not her adultery, that led to the end of Camelot in this old version of the tale! For Rhiannon her marriage to Pwyll ended when he died, and at that point their son took over.
In older versions of the Arthurian legends the possibility of Guinevere having been a mother is utilized. This is because in early versions Arthur is said to have had legitimate children, and that would mean that Guinevere was their mother! Rhiannon famously was the mother of Pryderi, and the tale of his birth is a legendary one, and very important to her story. As an infant the prince was taken, and the nurses charged with taking care of the baby (in fear for their lives) decided to lie and make it look like Rhiannon had killed her son! They put puppy blood on the lips of the sleeping queen to make it look like she had eaten the baby! This revolting accusation was one that Rhiannon denied, but as she had no proof, she decided to keep her head held high as she accepted the bizarre punishment her husband meted out. For seven years she had to wait at the palace gate, and offer visitors rides on her back (like a horse), and recount the tale that she was being punished for. Eventually her son is returned to her by the man that found the baby on the night he had been stolen and left in his barn. Guinevere connects in here because in versions of the legends when she had a son, he often was said to have died tragically! Another connection to be made here is that in some versions of the legends Guinevere is nearly burned at the stake for her adultery! Both queens were punished by their kings in one way or another, when we look at this version of events. Thankfully Guinevere does not get burned, as she is rescued by Lancelot in this telling! These two comparisons make for more compelling parallels between the two queens.
Finally while Guinevere had a famous affair with a knight, most commonly in later legends Lancelot, Rhiannon was remarried to Manawydan, after having been set up by her son Pryderi. Even though Pryderi blessed the union Rhiannon, as a sovereignty figure, was required to accept the marriage. She gladly accepted the marriage, bringing with it the power of the lands of Dyfed. Guinevere never did marry Lancelot, likely because he never wanted the kingship of Camelot after Arthur’s demise! However, the view of a second important relationship within the tales for both queens links them a final time!
Both Rhiannon and Guinevere were beautiful and powerful woman in their own right. We can learn much from their tales, and feel empowered by the sacrifices made by them. Whether we see them as goddesses, faerie queens, or simply archetypes, we can make close connections to both of these figures! I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about the connection between Rhiannon and Guinevere. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Rhiannon. I found the image on thatbohemiangirl.com.
- The Once and Future Queen by Nicole Evelina
- Arthurian Magic by John & Caitlin Matthews with Virginia Chandler
- Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons by Jhenah Telyndru
- The Mythic Moons of Avalon by Jhenah Telyndru