It seems as inevitable as bell bottoms and shoulder-wide collars that Stevie Nicks would transform into the New Age priestess who greeted the 70s with a wave of a billowy, shawl-draped arm. “It makes sense,” Bill DeMain writes at Classic Rock, that her “signature song was inspired by a kind of ancient magic” of the kind that everybody was getting into. That song, “Rhiannon,” takes its name from “an old Welsh witch,” as Nicks would often announce onstage. During Fleetwood Mac’s Nicks/Buckingham heyday, Nicks embodied the character as though possessed, her performances of the song “like an exorcism,” Mick Fleetwood recalled.
The story of how “Rhiannon” came to be, however, is not as straightforward as Nicks’ reaching into the pages of the Mabinogion, the Welsh prose cycle in which Rhiannon first appears. The name came to her several steps removed from its mythical origins, from a novel by Mary Leader called Triad.
“It was just a stupid little paperback that I found somewhere at somebody’s house,” she recalls of the uncanny 1974 composition. “And it was all about this girl who becomes possessed by a spirit named Rhiannon. I read the book, but I was so taken with that name that I thought: ‘I’ve got to write something about this.’ So I sat down at the piano and started this song about a woman that was all involved with these birds and magic.”
“I come to find out,” she says, “after I’ve written the song, that in fact Rhiannon was the goddess of steeds, maker of birds.” The perfect anthem for a singer on the threshold of turning the already famous Fleetwood Mac into one of the biggest rock bands in the world. They were in a kind of wilderness period, having fired longtime guitarist and musical linchpin Danny Kirwan and lost guitarist Bob Welch. When Lindsay Buckingham, his replacement, insisted that Nicks join with him, she brought the song “about an old Welsh witch” along with the pair’s collection of shawls, capes, and kimonos.
You can learn more about the myths of the Mabinogion, the oldest known prose stories in Britain, in the Polyphonic video above. The collection inspired the epic fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien, and by proxy the epic fantasies of Led Zeppelin and every heavy metal band thereafter. It also features in Lloyd Alexander’s 1960’s fantasy series Chronicles of Prydain (later poorly adapted in Disney’s The Black Cauldron). The pop culture of the 70s had been infused with ancient Welsh before Rhiannon came along, but the goddess herself seemed to belong exclusively to Stevie Nicks, who intuited a deep magic in the music of her ancient name.