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!
Thanks so much for covering this one! It was neat to learn more about it.
My middle name is Rhiannon–I was born in 1977 and my parents totally got it from the Stevie Nicks song. I’ve always loved it, and I’ve never got anything but positive (and often envious) reactions to it. And it is cool to turn on the classic rock radio station and occasionally hear the song that inspired my name (and the original Welsh tale is really interesting as well! Rhiannon was a fascinating figure–part goddess, part fairy queen).
Lady Gwyn says
I love Welsh names, and Rhiannon is one of them that I adore. I also like that it is one of the Welsh names that people can pronounce. (The same can’t be said of all the lovely Gaelic names I love, like Siobhan and Saoirse.) I would totally use it. I’ve never heard the song, so I don’t have any real problem with that.
I’m really attracted to words with rh-* (rhapsody, rhyme, rhino, rhizome,) so I should like Rhiannon. It has a fussy 1980’s rocker vibe that I don’t care for, but I do like Rhona, Rhonwen and Rhian, so I think I’m just being fickle.
*I’ve searched all over the place for what this element is called, to no avail.
I love the sound of Rhiannon. But I hear it as being too close to the singer’s name and wouldn’t use it for that reason. (Also not a huge Stevie Nicks fan).
Julie: Scientifically-speaking it’s Rhodium (you did say “element”)… as far as linguistics go I’m not sure.
Linguistically speaking, rh in English is a digraph that is pronounced the same as r and does not represent a separate phoneme; it’s just a relic of a transliteration from a language – in other words, the foreign language has a sound that is not a straight-forward English r, but since English doesn’t have that sound, only the spelling chosen reflects the difference. Rh in English is often reflective of etymology of Greek or Welsh or sometimes nasal sounds, such as in Sanskrit. Apparently, the /rh/ phoneme in Welsh is something of a voiceless alveolar (tip of tongue at the ridge behind your teeth) trill… but I don’t know anything, really, about Welsh pronunciation. I’d guess your love of ‘rh’ stems from either liking the look of it or liking the sound of words that are Greek (or Welsh or Sanskrit) in origin.
My first association with Rh is the blood marker/rhesus monkeys… and of course, rhesus is Greek in origin… but it’s kind of not the most positive of associations.
I knew about the Greek letter Rho and words starting with rh-, but I couldn’t find any info on why so many Welsh names also contained Rh-.
I like Rhiannon. Interestingly, I knew a Rhiannon in the UK who was born pre-1976 by a few years.
I really like Rhiannon.It’s the type of name that could really grow on me. It has these gothic vibes which I find really appealing ( I know, I’m a bit weird). The name is one with presence for me. Overall, I really like it and I think I should give it some more thought. It’s not a favourite of mine, but it is just too cool
Rhiannon is quite sweet! I love the Stevie Nicks song and the history behind this name.