September Harvest Moon: The Horse, Rhiannon and Blackbirds

The month of September is named simply from the Latin for seven, as in the seventh month, but what it lacks in name it makes up for in the bounty and splendour of the harvest produce, of the often serene last days of summer, and the emerging spectacle of leaves beginning to turn shades of crimson and amber. As the vibrant summer wild-flowers fade, crysanthamuns of every hue step in to fill the colour void and boughs of apple, pear and quince bend under the weight of their ripening load. In the woodland, mushrooms push their way through the fecund soil and brightly coloured berries abound – sparkling orange rowan, rich indigo elder and of course plump inky blackberries. Their briars and brambles are the stuff of fairy tales, said to grow prolifically around lands lost in the mists of time, and permission should always be sought before picking the berries, which can then be turned into wine and a source of inspiration and intoxication.

At this full moon close to the Equinox and time of balance in the seasonal cycle, it is pertinent to consider Rhiannon, one of the most liminal of goddesses in the Welsh tradition. A leading mythological figure in the Mabinogion, she features in two out of the four Branches. Her memorable appearance in the first Branch leaves us in no doubt that we are dealing with an otherworldly being. Her husband-to-be, Pwyll king of Dyfed, is sitting on a fairy mound when he sees  ‘a woman mounted on a great, majestic pale-white horse, dressed in brilliant gold silk brocade, coming along the main road that ran past the mound. To anyone who saw it the horse appeared to have a slow, steady gait as it came even with the mound.’[1]

Entranced by this the most beautiful maiden in the world, he sends his men in pursuit. However, though the horse appeared to be moving slowly, neither Pwyll’s men nor he himself, mounted on the swiftest horse in the realm, can catch her up. Only when he bids her wait for the sake of the man she loves does she stop. She then reveals that she is trying to flee an undesirable suitor, who she is being forced to marry against her will, and that it is in actual fact Pwyll whom she desires to marry. After outwitting her suitor in a rather unworthy manner through a game called Badger in the Bag, Pwyll and Rhiannon do indeed marry and reign happily over Dyfed, until, a year later, Rhiannon gives birth to a son.

Tragically, on the night of his birth he is kidnapped and the women who were supposed to have kept vigil over him devise a macabre plan to save themselves. They kill a pup, and smear the blood over Rhiannon’s face, incriminating her in the death of her son. She was thus condemned for his murder and her punishment was to sit beside the mounting block at the court in Arberth for seven years, and to carry travellers on her back to court like a horse as a penance.

Rhiannon accepts her punishment gracefully, and meanwhile, her son is brought up by the lord of Brent who found the baby deposited on his doorstep as he tried to save a newly birthed colt. Eventually the lord of Brent realises who the foundling is and Rhiannon’s son is returned to her, and to his birthright, as he inherits the seven cantrefs of Dyfed upon the death of his father.

So Rhiannon, established as a sacred otherworldly being, descends to the mortal realm where she is badly treated, even abused. She appears in connection with a fairy mound, the movement of her horse beyond time and space, passing over the landscape steadily yet always out of reach, like the Moon traversing the night sky. She refuses to be given in marriage against her will, and insists on choosing her own love-mate, though this does not go particularly smoothly.

Above all, she, and indeed her son, are deeply connected with the horse, and for the people of Ancient Britain this was an aspect of Sovereignty, the sacred power of the land itself, intricately linked to power and fertility, and the life-death cycles inherent in this.  The relationship between people and horses is one of the oldest and most primal of all, stretching back deep into the Ice Age, and horse sacrifice played a central role in the proto-Indo-European religion that branched out from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, spreading over western Europe and eventually reaching the British and Irish Isles in the form of the Anglo-Saxons and Celts. These people owed their lives and their livelihoods to the horse, and above all able to journey, to move through the countryside exploring new territories and lands. Both the archaeological record and Vedic mythology attests to the paramount nature of horse sacredness, and horse remains have been found in ritual pits and chariot burials over long distances and time.

This memory was retained later in the form of the Celtic horse goddess, Epona, who was worshipped from Britain to Bulgaria, and even the Romans set up shrines dedicated solely to her. Though the archaeological evidence for the worship of Epona in Britain is scanty and therefore her worship sometimes disputed, some remains from the Dubonni tribe in South Wales have been found consisting of coins with horses,  moons and heads on them, an area very much linked to the myths and legends of Rhiannon.[2] Further evidence for the central role of the horse in proto-Celtic times is the White Horse of Uffington located on the fabulous landscape of the Ridgeway in Berkshire, now dated in its original form to sometime between 1380 and 550 BC.[3]

Rhiannon is also famed for her magical birds, the Ader Rhiannon, which are also mentioned in the Mabinogion in two different Branches. These three birds are said to sing a song that can wake the dead and put the living to sleep. When they sing they sound as though they are very close but when you look for them they appear to be across an ocean. Like Rhiannon’s horse, they are otherworldly creatures holding the keys to life and death, possibly acting as psychopomps, or carriers of the soul to another realm.

Though not explicitly stated, it is possible that these were blackbirds, considered one of the oldest of animals in the Welsh tradition. Blackbirds sing harmoniously at twilight, the magical transition time between day and night, when the veil between the worlds is at its thinnest. They are known as the blacksmith’s bird, and in Gaelic the word for both is ghobadhu. [4] As the blacksmith uses an anvil to forge his metalwork, the blackbird uses rocks to crack open snail’s shells. His jet-black feathers are reminiscent of the blackness of the smith and his metals, forged into beautiful and useful objects by the elements of air, water and fire. As the blacksmith works magic in a practical and elemental way, so the blackbird is the otherworldly smith inviting us onto a journey to the depths of our souls with his melodious song.

Rhiannon has thus mastery over both the horse, the ultimate symbol of super-nature and an aspect of Sovereignty, the power vested in the land itself, and the three blackbirds, who also have powers over life and death through their song. Though she is an otherwordly being herself, Rhiannon shares in the experience of mortal women, at times subject to the powers of men and not exempt from tragedy, betrayal and humiliation. We can therefore identity with her suffering, and feel that she can identify with ours. But her story also stirs up something deeper in us, for she makes us question our relationship with the sacred. In Rhiannon’s story we see an example of the debasing of the sacred feminine, at the hands of mortals. And as Rhiannon is an embodiment of Sovereignty, of the land, what does this say about our relationship with the Earth on which we rely and of which we are also a part?


[1] The Maboniogion and Other Medieval Welsh Tales’ Edited and Translated by Patrick K. Ford, University of California Press, 2019

[2] Gwilym Morus-Baird, ‘Is Rhiannon a Goddess?’ Online.

[3] Powell, Eric A (September – October 2017) ‘White Horse of the sun,’ Archaeology, 70 (5): 9-10. Retrieved 31.8.2020

[4] The Druid Animal Oracle’ by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm

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