Today I would like to look into one of the most important symbols of the goddess Rhiannon, her three birds, known as the Adar Rhiannon. In most cases it is not specified what type of birds they are, and I want to focus on why they may, in fact, be starlings!
In part I feel that the birds are starlings because they are often described as, and depicted as black birds. Starlings appear black from a distance, and are certainly small enough to be considered as a likely candidate for the Adar Rhiannon. The true colors of a starling’s plumage is tinted dark purplish-green and iridescent in summer, and dark brown with white speckling when they have their winter plumage.
Starlings are known to be loud and boisterous, and tend to inhabit areas that are close to humans. They also travel in larger groups, sometimes with other birds. All of these things considered, it seems like starlings could very well have been the breed of Rhiannon’s birds! The importance of the Adar Rhiannon cannot be underestimated within The Mabinogion. Many figures seek the birds and respect the abilities of these birds. The song of these beautiful and magical birds can “lull the living to sleep and raise the dead.”
In the tale of Culhwch and Olwen the giant Ysbaddaden Bencawr coveted the birds of Rhiannon. He tried to set impossible tasks to keep Culhwch from marrying his daughter Olwen, and one of these tasks was to get the Adar Rhiannon, so that they may play at the wedding feast. The Adar Rhiannon also appeared in the second branch of The Mabinogion, as they are referenced as singing at a feast that lasted for seven years after the death of an Irish king. Seven years is likely significant as this was the length of Rhiannon’s own punishment in the first branch, when she was falsely accused of infanticide! For this reason seven is a number that is associated with the goddess Rhiannon.
As we can see the Adar Rhiannon appear in tales even when the goddess herself is not present. This can be seen as a reference to a theme in Celtic tales, of deities being able to change shape, especially into the guise of a bird! Maybe the birds are more than just her messengers, maybe they are a guise she uses when she wants to be discreet.
I would like to state a final reason for my believing that starlings are the breed of bird owned by Rhiannon. Whenever I see starlings I feel like Rhiannon is near. This may be something specific to me, and may be something others will not understand or will disagree with. However, that is the most significant reason for me to feel that the Adar Rhiannon are starlings. There was even an incident of a starling accidentally getting into my apartment some time ago, and I told my husband it was a good omen. I felt it was a good omen because I felt it was a message from Rhiannon!
I hope you have liked this short post on the Adar Rhiannon. Let me know your thoughts, and if you have a theory on the species of bird that are owned by the goddess, in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a starling. I found the image on allaboutbirds.org.
- The Mabinogion translated by Sioned Davies
- Rhiannon: Divine Queen of the Celtic Britons by Jhenah Telyndru