Today I want to discuss the theory that the Welsh Celtic goddess Rhiannon later became seen as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legends. This is something that is discussed briefly in some sources, and there are some parallels that make it seem likely that Rhiannon went from being a goddess to the original Lady of the Lake figure! This is an interesting variation on the tale.
The making of a goddess and faerie queen into a key figure in Arthurian legends is not surprising. We see this kind of evolution regularly, how one deity is reimagined as a figure of a different kind. This is usually in the form of demotion of a deity to a figure who is still magical, but not as powerful as they once were. Certainly if we view Rhiannon as beginning as a goddess, becoming a mere faerie queen in The Mabinogion, and then finally becoming a faerie woman in the Arthurian legends we can see how view of her power waned. This is not because Rhiannon was no longer a powerful deity, but instead because the church would have felt threatened by her worship!
Rhiannon’s name means “great queen” and she is often conflated with other goddesses, particularly Rigatona (whose name both sounds similar and has a similar meaning), and Epona. Epona was a Gaulish horse goddess, and the horse symbology is where the commonality lies here! Some scholars and pagans see Rhiannon, Rigatona, and Epona as all names for the same goddess. The most information we have about Rhiannon is from The Mabinogion. In this work we get a lot of her story, and we also get clues to her former divinity. The association with horses makes a lot of sense for a sovereignty goddess, as horses are symbols of freedom and (in medieval times, of the power of warfare)! Her possession of three birds, the Adar Rhiannon, who were said to be able to raise the dead and lull the living to sleep, show a great amount of power. Her obvious origins in the Faery realm make her marriage to Pwyll an example of the marriage of a king to the land. The marriage is a way of empowering a king by having him marry a sovereignty goddess (or her representative)! Her second marriage was to Manawydan, who himself can be seen as a later medieval Welsh version of the Irish Sea god Manannan Mac Lir. These are just a few of the more powerful hints at Rhiannon’s original divinity contained in her tales from The Mabinogion!
Some of the reasoning for Rhiannon possibly becoming the Lady of the Lake in the Arthurian tradition comes from her name. The name Rhiannon can be seen as the origin of the names Nivienne, or Vivienne, which are often cited as versions of the name of the Lady of the Lake! A goddess who had already been written about as a faerie queen in medieval Welsh literature certainly seems to be a good inspiration for a famous faerie woman of the Arthurian world. Other than being remembered as an enchantress of Merlin, the original Lady of the Lake is remembered as being a foster mother (usually of Lancelot, giving him the moniker of du Lac), and as the one that gifted Excalibur to Arthur! This powerful sword was another element to symbolize Arthur’s sovereignty over Britain, and had to be returned to the water when he was dying (obviously a clue to the giver of the sword once being a sovereignty goddess herself)! Her fosterage of the great knight can be seen as an updated version of her being the mother of a great warrior in The Mabinogion! As I have mentioned in previous posts the Lady of the Lake is likely a member of the Gwragedd Annwn, a species of Welsh water faeries. The name Gwragedd Annwn literally translates to “wives of the Underworld.” This links to Rhiannon’s Otherworldly origins, as a faerie queen. Her first husband was even given the title of “Prince of Annwn” after he helped an Underworld god! Gwragedd Annwn are also known simply as Lake Maidens, and this may be the origin of the title Lady of the Lake in the first place. One final connection between Rhiannon and the Gwragedd Annwn (and by extension the Lady of the Lake) is that the Gwragedd Annwn were known to take human spouses in many of the legends about them, and bare half human offspring! This once again finds a parallel in Rhiannon’s first marriage, to a human prince (already connected to the Underworld after helping a god), who becomes a king! Rhiannon bore a son to this king who was named Pryderi.
I hope you have enjoyed my analysis over how the great goddess Rhiannon could have been reinterpreted as the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend and literature! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a picture symbolizing Rhiannon. I found the image on britishbabynames.com.
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- The Fairy Bible by Teresa Moorey