With the news that Stevie Nicks has inked a deal with a studio to make a TV miniseries based on her song “Rhiannon,” the only question left is whether or not the show will explore the Kabbalistic depths of the 1976 hit that propelled Fleetwood Mac into the mainstream.
A rolling stone gathers no moss and neither does a Fleetwood Mac, especially when she’s Stevie Nicks. The 72-year-old pop singer has been one of those productive types who have taken advantage of the pandemic shutdown to dig deep into a slew of creative projects that will keep her in the forefront of our attention for the foreseeable future.
In coming weeks, “24 Karat Gold: The Concert,” recorded during Nicks’ 2017 tour, will screen at select cinemas, drive-ins and exhibition spaces around the world. Nicks is also releasing “Show Them the Way,” a politically-minded new single that will be accompanied by a Cameron Crowe-directed music video. Nicks is also planning to make another solo album, drawing on poetry from her journals for her lyrics.
The most intriguing news, however, is the long-promised cinematic realization of “Rhiannon.” Ever since the song from the group’s 1975 eponymous album peaked at number 11 in June 1976, garnering the band fame that would only grow with its subsequent hit-strewn album, “Rumours,” Nicks has wanted to expand the song into some kind of dramatic form. In the world of Stevie Nicks, “Rhiannon” looms large as the number that singlehandedly created Nicks’s woo-woo witchy persona. For many years, Nicks would introduce “Rhiannon” in concert saying, “This is a song about an old Welsh witch.”
The original inspiration for “Rhiannon” was “a stupid little paperback,” as Nicks described it, called “Triad,” by Mary Leader. “It was all about this girl who becomes possessed by a spirit named Rhiannon,” she once told an interviewer. “I read the book, but I was so taken with that name that I thought: ‘I’ve got to write something about this.’” Hence, the pseudo-mystical “Rhiannon” that we all know and (most of us) love.
It wasn’t until five years later, however, that Nicks learned about the Celtic myth of Rhiannon. After reading author Evangeline Walton’s four-volume adaptation of the ancient Welsh “Mabinogion,” a collection of pre-Christian Celtic mythology, Nicks purchased the film rights to Walton’s work. Nicks learned that rather than being a witch, the original Rhiannon was a goddess, the goddess of fertility and the moon who shuns a god and marries a man.
If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s because it is. The story of Rhiannon, both the Welsh goddess and the woman in Nicks’s song, has numerous affinities with the Kabbalistic entity called the Shekhinah. Rhiannon means “Great Queen,” and the Shekhinah is the closest thing Judaism has to a queen: If G-d is the King, then the Shekhinah is Queen. Like Rhiannon, the Shekhinah is the vessel of divine love between G-d and humankind.
Welsh witch or Celtic goddess aside, the lyrics of “Rhiannon” are replete with references to the Shekhinah. In the song, Rhiannon “takes to the sky like a bird in flight.” The Shekhinah is sometimes portrayed as a divine, winged being. The memorial prayer Kel Male Raḥamim contains the phrase, “al kanfei ha-Shekhinah,” which translates as “on the wings of the Shekhinah.”
In the next line, the singer asks, “And who will be her lover?” The relationship between G-d and the Shekhinah is often described in erotic terms. The Zohar — the foundational work of Jewish mysticism — describes it thusly: “The Temple served as the sacred bedchamber of God the King and his Bride, the Shekhinah…. The King would come to the Queen and lie in her arms…. He took his delight between her breasts…. They lay in a tight embrace, her image impressed on His body like a seal imprinted on a page.” This is enticing fodder for the miniseries. Nicks has said that she wants Harry Styles to join the cast of the TV show; it’s easy to see without looking too far that not much will be really sacred.
The song continues: “All your life you’ve never seen a woman taken by the wind.” In Biblical Hebrew, the word for wind is “ruach,” which is also the word for breath and spirit, often understood to be G-d’s breath or the Holy Spirit. The next line, “Would you stay if she promised you heaven?” could also refer to the Shekhinah: some Kabbalistic stories portray a rupture between G-d and the Shekhinah brought about by the destruction of the Temple. In this interpretation, the Shekhinah chooses to dwell with Her people in exile, refusing to return to heaven until the exiles are ingathered and the Temple is rebuilt.
Stevie Nicks didn’t join Fleetwood Mac until 1975. The group was founded back in 1967 by electric blues guitarist Peter Green, born Peter Allen Greenbaum, a native of the heavily Jewish East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green. Troubled by drugs and mental illness, Peter Green quit the band in 1970. By the time Nicks, along with her then-partner, Lindsey Buckingham, joined the group, it had pivoted from electric blues to a pop-rock approach. Nicks and Green rarely if ever crossed paths. Nevertheless, perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s breakthrough hit, “Rhiannon,” in some small but meaningful way paid tribute to the group’s founder.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He often mines popular culture for its hidden Jewish stories.