Mythic characters are often made use of for a variety of purposes. It is in their nature. For modern Brythonic pagans Rhiannon is Rigantona, the ‘Great Queen’, a Goddess. Academic discussion of her nature as illustrated by extant stories has suggested that she was linked with sovereignty. More popularly she is linked with erotic power, a woman who knows what she wants and makes sure she gets it. Stevie Nick’s 1970’s song (which must have given the name to many women outside Wales) with its climactic ‘Dreams unwind/love’s a state of mind’ refrain , is another example of her diverse appearances. Within Wales, the nature of her story and knowledge of its precise details might be thought to limit the outer reaches of interpretation. But reading the poem ‘Rhiannon’ by the Welsh-language poet Gwenallt I was struck by the way in which he re-constructs the story in the First branch of Y Mabinogi to turn the sovereignty goddess into an image of modern industrial Wales suffering humiliation, and uses the return of Pryderi as a symbol of returning pride and self-respect. The narrative of the poem seems to depart from the emphasis of the medieval story, particularly the statement that “it was chance that anyone should allow themselves to be carried” when she was made to offer herself as a horse to visitors to the court. Her ‘penance’, which the medieval story makes clear she accepts is, in the poem, imposed upon her. The story she relates to visitors is not, as suggested in the tale, the ‘official’ version, but her true story which only those who love her continue to believe.
Here is the Welsh text of the poem followed by my translation:
Fe sefi di, Riannon, o hyd wrth dy esgynfaen,
Â gwaed yr ellast a’i chenawon ar dy wyneb a’th wallt,
Ac yno yn Arberth drwy’r oesoedd ymhob rhyw dywydd
Y buost yn adrodd dy gyfranc ac yn goddef dy benyd hallt.
Fe gariest ar dy gefn y gwestai a’r pellennig,
Gweision gwladwriaeth estron a gwŷr dy lys dy hun,
Sachiedau o lo a gefeiliau o ddur ac alcam,
Pynnau o flawd a gwenith. Ni wrthododd yr un.
Y mae’r gwŷr a’th gâr yn magu dy blentyn eurwallt,
Yn gwybod mai gwir dy gyfranc ac annheg dy sarhad,
A phan olchir gwaed yr ellast a’i chenawon o’th wyneb,
Cei dy blentyn, Pryderi, i’th gôl ac i orsedd dy wlad.
Still you stand, Rhiannon, beside your horse-block
With blood of the bitch and her pups on your face and your hair,
In Arberth, through the ages, and in all weathers
You told your tale and bore your penance there.
You carried on your back the guests and strangers
From foreign lands, men of your own court too,
Sacks of coal and pincers of steel and tin,
Packs of flour and wheat. No-one said no.
Those who love you are rearing your golden-haired child
Knowing your tale is true and unfair your shame,
And when you wash the blood of the bitch and her pups from your face
Your child Pryderi will come to your bosom, your land and its throne.