She conjures up images of medieval princesses, but today’s choice is really a child of the 70s.
Thanks to Maja for suggesting Rhiannon as Baby Name of the Day.
Make no mistake: there was a mythological Rhiannon, a horse-riding princess married to Pwyll in the Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh myths. Their son, Pryderi, is the only figure to appear in all four books of the Mabinogion. On the night of the Pryderi’s birth, Pwyll’s enemies kidnapped the babe and framed Rhiannon for his murder. All ended well, but Rhiannon suffered mightily. You can read a nineteenth century version of their story here.
It’s less clear how Rhiannon became considered a goddess, and the longer I look, the more responsibilities she has: fertility, horses, war, the moon, birds, creativity. Let’s say that she’s a Welsh mythological name, but more regal than otherworldly.
Her name may’ve started out more like Rigantona. The rig refers to royalty. Others link her name to a word for maiden. You wouldn’t find a Rigantona or Rhiannon in Medieval Wales, despite widespread belief to the contrary. The Society for Creative Anachronism’s Problem Names Project has declared Rhiannon a modern invention, though they did find a fifth century reference to a Rhieingar.
I couldn’t find a Rhiannon before the twentieth century, and there are almost none before the 1976 Fleetwood Mac song. Stevie Nicks wrote the lyrics, but she got the name from Mary Leader’s 1973 book Triad: A Novel of the Supernatural. I can’t find much about Leader, but she must’ve known something about Welsh mythology – the main character was called Branwen.
Nicks’ spooky lyrics suggested that she might’ve been up on her myth, and once fans pointed it out, the singer read up on the subject. On a later album, the song “Angel” is, indeed, about the royal Rhiannon.
“Rhiannon” launched the name into US Top 1000. She debuted in 1976 at #593, and reached #418 the year after. But it wasn’t enough. Rhiannon lingered until 2007, but has been unranked since.
Rhianna – almost certainly a variation on Rhiannon – charted a few times between 1998 and 2008, but has since lost out to the similar Rihanna. Fueled by the Barbados-born singer, Rihanna debuted at #529 in 2006, peaked at #312 in 2008 and retreated slightly to #388 in 2009.
It’s possible you’ll spot variants like Rheanna and Rianna, too, but the farther we venture from the original, the less likely it is a spin on Rhiannon, and the more it could link to names like Rhea or even Ryan.
While Rhiannon may not be the most satisfying Welsh heritage choice, plenty of mythological names were rarely worn by mere mortals until recently. If Juno and Orion can be fashionable picks for our children, Rhiannon is a perfectly reasonable option. She’s feminine and elaborate without being frilly – like Allison or Madison, but less expected.
There’s much to love about Rhiannon, but be sure you’re okay with the Fleetwood Mac song before you write this one on the birth certificate!