Concerning the Names Rhiannon, Rhian, and the Like

by Josh Mittleman and Heather Rose Jones
known in the SCA as Arval Benicoeur and Tangwystyl ferch Morgant Glasfryn

Last updated 23 Jul 1999

The family of Welsh names based on the element Rhian- is widely used in modern fiction and re-creation under the belief that the names were widespread in medieval Wales. Although some of these names are in common use in modern Wales, no clear evidence exists for historical use of any of these names, though one of them might be given the benefit of the doubt. The names are also occasionally used in an Irish context; this is incorrect, as the root is unique to Welsh.

The names of this family derive from two similar-sounding but unrelated root elements. The first, Rhian-, derives from British rix "king"; the second, Rhiein-, derives from a word meaning "maiden, virgin" [4]. We have pre-modern evidence of only three names with these roots, for only one of which we find any basis for believing that it might have been used as a personal name.

In pre-17th century history, Rhiannon itself appears to be unique to the legendary/divine character who appears in two of the branches of the Mabinogi. The name probably derives from British Rig-ant-ona, where Rig is a root meaning "king/queen", -ant is an augmentative suffix, and -on(a) is a suffix frequently found in divine names. So one can hypothesize that the name's original intent was "great divine queen" [3]. We know no evidence that it was used by any historical person.

Rhieingar appears in one sub-family of manuscripts containing lists of the children of the 5th century Brychan Brycheiniog. The actual manuscript forms are Reingar, Rieingar, and Rheyngaer [2]. Bartrum notes that this spelling is clearly a scribal error for the Keingar who appears in the vast majority of versions of this list. (The name Ceingar/Keingar appears for at least one other woman in a different genealogy, lending support to this interpretation.)

Rhieinwylydd (actual manuscript form Rieingulid) appears in a 12th century Life of Saint Iltud (she was his mother) with the following interesting context: "Rieingulid ... quando Latinetur, sonat hoc 'regina pudica'" which, translated loosely, means "Rieingulid ... which means, in Latin, 'modest queen'", taking the second element as equivalent to modern Welsh gwylaidd (modest, bashful) [2]. While we cannot rule out the possibility that a simple descriptive phrase has been misinterpreted as a personal name, this citation provides the best evidence that any of these names might have been used historically. This name is pronounced \HREE-ine-WULL-idh\, where \HR\ represents an aspirated 'r', \ine\ is pronounced as in <dine>, and \dh\ is the "th" sound of them.

Other names in modern use include the following, listed with the glosses provided by Heini Gruffudd.

Rhiain     maiden
Rhian ref. Rhiain
Rhianedd ref. Rhiain, plural
Rhiangar rhian "maiden" + car "love"
Rhianwen rhian "maid" + gwen "white"
Rhianydd ref. Rhian

Two of these names, Rhian and Rhiain, are variants of the common word for "maiden"; two more, Rhianedd and Rhianydd, are variants of the plural of the same word [4]. No evidence is available that any of these words was used as a personal name before modern times. We can add Rhianna or Rhiana, most likely either a Latinization of Rhian or a shortening of Rhiannon. Both appear to be modern inventions, found primarily in modern fantasy fiction.

We know no other reference to Rhianwen; it is apparently a modern invention using the very common element -wen. Rhiangar appears to be an attempt to justify the scribal error that produced Rhieingar, discussed earlier.

To summarize: In modern usage, a variety of names based on Rhian- have become popular in literature and in common usage. None of these modern names has been found in use before 1600, though one name, Rhieinwylydd, may have been used in 12th century Wales. In particular, Rhiannon is found outside literature only in modern times.


[1] Gruffudd, Heini. Enwau i'r Cymry/Welsh Personal Names (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1984).
[2] Bartrum, P.C., Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1966).
[3] Thomson, R.L., Pwyll Pendeuic Dyuet (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1986), p.33.
[4] Evans, H. Meurig & W.O. Thomas, Y Geiriadur Mawr (The Big [Welsh] Dictionary) (Llandysul: Gomer Press, 1987).