Stevie Nicks wrote this on a piano with help from her boyfriend, Lindsey Buckingham. At the time, they were recording as Buckingham-Nicks and about to release this on their second album, but they joined Fleetwood Mac instead and recorded it with them.
Rhiannon is the name of a Welsh goddess. According to myth, Rhiannon, the goddess of fertility and the moon, shuns a god and marries a mortal man. That god then frames her for the murder of her own son, and she is forced to stand at the entrance to a city and tell everyone entering that she killed her child.
Nicks started writing this song after reading the book Triad
by Mary Leader. It is about a woman who believes she is being possessed by the spirit of a woman named Rhiannon. There are themes of mythology and the occult that Nicks used in her song along with the name.
Nicks did not know the story of Rhiannon the goddess until after she wrote the song, but she felt the lyrics fit that story as well. She told Mojo magazine December 2013: "It wasn't until 1978 that I found out about (Welsh medieval prose tales) Mabinogion and that Branwen and Rhiannon are in there too, and that Rhiannon wasn't a witch at all; she was a mythological queen. But my story was definitely written about a celestial being, I didn't know who Rhiannon was, exactly, but I knew she was not of this world."
The goddess Rhiannon rode a white horse and traveled with three birds that had healing powers. The birds appear in various Celtic symbols.
Nicks introduced this in concerts as being about a Welsh witch. In interviews, she said Rhiannon was a good witch.
This song was a huge influence on the image of Stevie Nicks, inspiring her flowing shawls and black outfits she began wearing on stage. It gave her a mystical look that caught on with her fans, who often dress like her.
Nicks wrote various songs related to Rhiannon before joining Fleetwood Mac. At one point, she considered making it a project of some kind, perhaps a movie.
After this song was released, some parents named their daughters Rhiannon, introducing it into the lexicon of girls' names. 1977 was the most popular year for the name, when it ranked #418 of among girls' names (the singer Rhiannon Giddens was born that year). In 1999, coinciding with a re-formed Fleetwood Mac, there was another surge in Rhiannons: the name ranked #423 that year.
The name itself means either "night queen" or "great queen."
When Nicks sang this in concert, she did so with a lot of passion. At times, she strained her voice singing it to the point that Fleetwood Mac had to cancel shows so she could recover. It was always a crowd favorite.
The lyrics contain both a simile ("She is like a cat in the dark") and a metaphor ("And then she is the darkness").
Stevie performed this song with Taylor Swift at the 2010 Grammy Awards. Taylor was off key, and critics were especially harsh; Bob Lefsetz wrote, "Taylor Swift shortened her career last night. And since she says she calls all her own shots, she has to shoulder the blame." Swift was deeply affected by the criticism, and wrote her hit song Mean
Nicks recalled her songwriting partnership with Buckingham to Mojo magazine January 2013: "I presented my songs to Lindsey on a cassette," she said, "which I would leave by the coffee pot, with a note saying, 'Here is a new song, You can produce it but don't change it.'"
On the 2013 TV series American Horror Story: Coven
, Lily Rabe plays a witch named Misty Day who is obsessed with Stevie Nicks and specifically this song. The character believes that Nicks is a "White Witch" and that she is singing about witchcraft. A producer on the show, Ryan Murphy, is friends with Nicks and asked her permission to use the songs. Rabe, whose character also dresses like Stevie and does her signature twirl, says that she is a big fan of Nicks in real life.
On the January 8, 2014 episode titled "The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks," Stevie appeared on the show and performed this song along with Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You?