“Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night, and wouldn’t you love to” …know a little more about her name?
The Welsh name Rhiannon comes to us via the Mabinogion, a famous collection of medieval Welsh tales that was written during the 1300s (or possibly earlier).
What’s the etymology? Here are two theories:
Rhiannon’s persona is much older than the medieval text, however. She appears to be derived from the pre-Christian goddess hypothesized as Rigantona and also Epona, the horse goddess. Her pedigree within the Mabinogi also implies supernatural status as she is thought to be the daughter of the king of Annwfn, the otherworld; her name may mean maid of Annwfn.
The reconstructed proto-Celtic name Rigantona means “divine goddess.” The definition “maid of Annwfn,” on the other hand, would come from combining the word rhiain, meaning “maid,” with the place name Annwfn.
Before the 1970s, the name Rhiannon was rarely used as a name for newborns. The few babies that got the name tended to have a direct connection to Wales (i.e., either they were born there or their parents were).
Then two novels featuring the name came out: Song of Rhiannon (1972) by Evangeline Walton and Triad (1973) by Mary Leader. The first was based directly on the Mabinogion; the second was not.
Both books probably played a part in putting Rhiannon on the map in 1974:
- 1975: 15 baby girls named Rhiannon
- 1974: 5 baby girls named Rhiannon [debut]
- 1973: unlisted
- 1972: unlisted
The first book might have been the one with the word “song” in the title, but it was the second book that inspired a young Stevie Nicks to write her hit song “Rhiannon (Will You Ever Win).” Here’s how Stevie tells the story:
I got the name from a novel, I think I bought in an airport just before a long flight; it was called Triad, and it was about a girl named Rhiannon and her sister and mother, or something like that. I just thought the name was so pretty that I wanted to write something about a girl named Rhiannon. I wrote it about three months before I joined Fleetwood Mac, in about 1974.
The song was first released on Fleetwood Mac’s album Fleetwood Mac in mid-1975. It was then re-released a single in February of 1976, and, four months later, peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts.
The single is what made an impact on the baby name charts. Hundreds of baby girls were named Rhiannon in 1976, and the name entered the top 1,000 for the first time at an impressive 593rd. A year later it peaked at 418th.
Here’s how many U.S. baby girls were named Rhiannon (or a variant) from 1973 to 1980, sorted by 1977 levels of usage:
Usage cooled off after that, but rose again in the late ’90s and early 2000s, probably thanks to Fleetwood Mac’s successful 1997 tour The Dance and resulting live album, which features an extended version of “Rhiannon.”
The song was voted one of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone in 2004, but by then the name Rhiannon was falling out of fashion. In 2008, it dropped out of the top 1,000. In 2013, only 106 baby girls got the name.
- Bishop, Stephen. Songs in the Rough. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996.
- MacKillop, James. Myths and Legends of the Celts. London: Penguin UK, 2005.
- Rees, Dafydd and Luke Crampton. Rock Movers & Shakers. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Update, Feb. 2015: Here’s a quote from Stevie about how “Rhiannon” was nearly “Branwen”:
I’d read another novel about two sisters, Branwen and Rhiannon. I wrote the song about Rhiannon, and bought an Afghan hound and named her Branwen. So it could have been the other way around, you know.
Branwen was another central character in The Triad, and the baby name Branwen debuted in the data in 1975.
Source: Brown, Mick. “Stevie Nicks: a survivor’s story.” Telegraph 8 Sep. 2007.