As the feasting of Solstice and Christmas move into full swing, the Mari Lwyd appears in darkened streets.
Her troupe, who themselves represent the dead, guide her to the enticing lights of celebration.
They lead a stark white skull of a horse, adorned in ribbons, a flowing white gown about her form, with jaws that snap at those whose poetic prowess fail to gain her admiration.
She comes from the land of the dead, from the Otherworld, a reminder of the function of winter and the mysteries of life, death and rebirth
- Kristoffe Hughes - The Winter Mare - Mysteries of the Mari Lwyd
- December, the days are short, the weather cold. Loved ones are on our thoughts and Christmas is around the corner. It's the perfect time to grab your bros, dig up a horse skull tie some ribbons to it and challenge your neighbors to rap battles for booze and food
Mari Lwyd is an adaption of the folk custom of Wassailing (old school Christmas tradition, like caroling except you also bring a big bowl of mulled cider with you to share, a show of generosity to encourage a good cider apple harvest in the following year)
Typically the custom is performed around Christmas and New Years in South Wales. On Mari Lwyd nights, festivities usually begin at dusk and last long into the night.
People form teams of 4-7 all to spread holiday cheer. These parties usually consist of a leader (Osler) who carries a staff or whip, while other members of the party may dress as 'merryman' who play music.
But one lucky person would get to be the Mari Lwyd.
And what does that mean?
It means you get to spend the night under the dress of a decorated horse skull mounted on a pole. But really, this is a good thing!
These teams roll up to houses where they request entry through the magic of song. An example of such is as follows:
Wel dyma ni'n dwad (Well here we come)
Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave)
I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)
(A common opening to the pwngco)
The inhabitants are expected
to deny them entry (also in song)
This exchange is called 'pwngco (poin-co)' and goes back and forth until the house's inhabitants run out of ideas and excuses, at which point they invite the team in where they are plied with ale and food
But the fun isn't over yet, the Mari Lwyd would run around the house neighing and snapping its jaws, creating havoc, frightening women and children, while the leader of the team pretends to try to restrain it and the merrymen play music
with no specific dates. Celebrations varied between villages where in some cases the festivities went on for several consecutive nights.
In some places the Mari Lwyd is locked down for only the winter season, but is brought out for other holidays, like Halloween and May Day
Having a hard time picturing this? Let the BBC explain it in this short clip from 1970
The Mari Lwyd
The figure of the Mari Lwyd herself has a transcendental quality. Her operators (sometimes known as riders) talk of 'becoming' the Mari Lwyd. You set aside your own personality as you take up her mantle, her personality takes over and she enters this plane. As Ned Clamp states
"Anyone who has had the privilege to don this remarkable guise would certainly agree that you become the Mari. When she's sitting, apparently lifeless, on the settee or the back of the car, she's still referred to as 'her'. She is an independent being, someone who is there with you" (Cater 2013:46)
The Mari Lwyd itself is made up of a couple simple elements: a pole, a horse skull, ribbons to decorate it and a white sheet to attach to the back of its head and cover the pole bearer
While traditionally a real horse skull is used, it's common to see replacements made from wood or paper. Sometimes glass or baubles are placed in the sockets to represent eyes and a string is attached to the jaw so that that the Mari Lwyd can snap her teeth
Traditionally construction of the Mari Lwyd is usually a community event where locals all get together to decorate their own Mari Lwyd. Towns and villages usually only have one that represents their town
Most use the same Mari Lwyd every year, locking her up in a trunk outside of the season, while in some places the mare is buried only be unearthed again next winter
Once upon a time traditions similar to this were popular all over Great Britain with each region having its own twist
Features common to these customs were the use of a hobby horse, a team, the performance at Christmas time and a song or spoken statement requesting payment
From Middle English wæs hæil ("be in health"), wassail was originally a sugared-and-spiced drink of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, and eggs.
Those who partook in sharing a huge bowl of this boozy mixture were "wassailing."
The term evolved to describe the custom of begging for booze around Christmas, a time when poor merrymakers expected generosities that would usually be denied.
They'd arrive at the doorsteps of wealthier neighbors and ask to drink from the wassailing bowl or have their own bowl filled
Modern Welsh wassailing isn't class-based, but the end goal remains the same.
Wassailers earn an invitation to come in by proving themselves through a back-and-forth rhyming battle with the residents.
Once inside, it's traditional cakes and ale all around. Wæs hæil!
The first record of this holiday by name, appeared in 1800. Throughout the years the practice has had many names, but is best known as Mari Lwyd. Now what that exactly means is a hotly debated topic
One side insists it means 'Holy Mary' and believes that the origins are Christian and had once been part of the festivities of the Feast of the Ass. A medieval Christian feast held on Jan 14 celebrating the flight into Egypt, where Joseph, Mary and Jesus had a dream and got the hell out of dodge
While other side says it simply means "Gray Mare". Similar hooded horse traditions in Ireland and Isle of Man known as Lair Bhan and Laaere Vane mean "white mare" which further supports this theory
And then there's the third camp that think they're both right. That the practice pre-dates Christianity only to be renamed in recent centuries in honor of the Virgin May and to appease the church, but they have little evidence to back up this theory
1800s: the earliest published account comes from J Evans's book "A tour through part of north Wales, in the 1798 and other times"
"A man on new year's day, dressing himself in blankets and other trappings, with a factitious head like a horse, and a party attending him, knocking for admittance, this obtained, he runs about the room with an uncommon frightful noise, which the company quit in real or pretended fright; they soon recover, and by reciting a verse of some cowydd, or, in default, paying a small gratuity, they gain admission"
1802: In 1802 harpist Edward Jones of Merionethshire published a book where he lamented the impact Christian preachers were having on Welsh customs, declaring them as sinful. Many suspect the revival of the Welsh Methodist was responsible for the decline of Mari Lwyd and other Welsh customs.
"the consequence is, Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and happiest countries in the World, is now becoming one of the dullest"
- 1804: In 1804 J Evans elaborated saying that Mari Lwyd toured from Christmas until after 12th day and that they were given food or money to leave the householders alone
- 1852: Reverend William Roberts condemned the Mari Lwyd and other related customs as
"a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies... I wish of this folly, and all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and antiquary."
1897: A similar custom appears in an account from 1897, in which an entity known as the Bwca Llwyd ("Grey Bogy") was described; it involved an imitation horse's head being made from canvas and stuffed with hay, being carried about using a hay fork on All Hallow's Eve
1935: article on the subject of the Mari Lwyd, Peate stated that the tradition still lives in Cardiff and Glamorgan districts
1941: The poet Vernon Watkins published his "Ballad of the Mari Lwyd" in 1941. Here is the introduction
Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.
The Dead return.
Those Exiles carry her, they who seem holy and have put on corruption, they who seem corrupt and have put on holiness.
They strain against the door.
They strain towards the fire which fosters and warms the Living.
The Living, who have cast them out, from their own fear, from their own fear of themselves, into the outer loneliness of death, rejected them, and cast them out for ever:
The Living cringe and warm themselves at the fire, shrinking from that loneliness, that singleness of heart.
The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out.
Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight, and the condition of scorn.
It is New Year's Night.
Midnight is burning like a taper. In an hour, in less than an hour, it will be blown out.
It is the moment of conscience.
The living moment.
The dead moment.
- 1967: Lois Blake published a letter in the journal English Dance and Song in which she noted that the Mari Lwyd appeared each Christmas Eve at the Barley Mow Inn at Graig Penllyn, near Cowbridge, where a man named John Williams had kept the custom alive for the past sixty years. Blake also explained that she believed that the custom was still performed at several villages in the Maesteg area of Glamorgan
1980: Mick Tems noted that the custom had "re-established herself so strongly that there are complaints if she misses any of her regular calls"
1991: Hutton believed that the custom re-emerged in the borderlands between Vale and the mountains in part because people in Glamorgan sought to reaffirm their sense of cultural identity during the termination of their traditional industries
2000: The town council of Aberystwyth organised "The World's Largest Mari Lwyd" for the Millennium celebrations in 2000
The original intentions and meaning of the practice are debated.
One researcher believes that the it was spawned from a pagan ritual and that Mari Lwyd is a "Death horse". She believes it was to mark the festival of Samhain.
Another says that Mari Lwyd is an ancient character that was once a bringer of fertility
But all of this could be hogwash, in the 1970s folklorists were cautioned against the continuing assumption that all hobby horse traditions were pagan.
The horse - and especially the White Horse - has always had an iconic place in the mythology and consciousness of the Islands of Britain.
Think of the chalk-cut horses on the Downs; or Rhiannon in the Mabinogi, identified by scholars with the horse goddess Epona; or the traditional taboo in Britain against eating horse-meat, let alone the many folk customs
The practice of animal masks and costumes, sometimes known as guising or mumming has records in Europe all they way back to the 6th century.
- St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) spoke out against the practice of men dressing as women and there is an unconfirmed claim that he felt the same way about people dressing like a horse or stag
In 1263, mumming was banned in Troyes (Hutton 1996).
Wooden horses (such as Hooden Horses) were popular revels at Christmastime from the 16th Century and a pole and head horse construction was described by David Lindsay at Linlithgow in 1540 in his book 'Satyre of the Thrie Estates'. A depiction of morris dancers and hobby horses and be seen in a detail of 'The Thames at Richmond with the Old Royal Palace' from 1620
One piece of archaeological evidence seems to clearly illustrate the importance of the horse to people throughout history- that of sacrificial horse burials in Indo-European and Eurasian cultures.
- We see a much higher frequency of horse burials than any other livestock, indicating a higher status in society. One possible explanation is the perception that horses represent the line between wild and settled worlds.
- In Ireland horse skulls have been found under houses dating from the 15th and 16th Century. But it's not just in Ireland this has been seen. We have: England: 54 / Wales 27
In 1965 a Mrs M S Brown, found a skull under the floorboards of her 17th century house in Wales. She wrote a letter to the 'Folklore' journal saying she had no idea that it was there or why it was.
There have been recent suggestions that skulls were buried under houses for luck
Eamonn P. Kelly, retired keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, writes in Archaeology Ireland that horses
"have been credited with the ability to see ghosts and other evil spirits, and this may account for the practice of placing a horse skull or skulls beneath a flagstone next to the hearth."
This would align with global foundation rituals and concealments, a practice that dates back to ancient times. Sometimes this meant hiding shoes in chimneys to attract and trap witches, or, as most often seen in the U.K. and Australia, positioning mummified cats in the walls, sometimes posed with dead prey to make them extra powerful against spirits
Those skulls in Ireland? Maybe there was a much more practical use: acoustics
"The large volume of the skull made it an ideal sound-box that added resonance to the sound of dancing feet"
- Barry O'Reilly in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature.
And it wasn't just the skulls by themselves, sometimes the cavities would be found packed with coins.
Seán Mac Mathghamhna of County Clare stated:
"I used [to] hear the old people say that it was put there for the purpose of giving a fine hearty echo (macalla) to the house when people would be talking or walking inside the house. But, particularly, they put the head (with the coppers) in the floor so that their dancing would sound better, for the old people were all for sport."
From County Kerry came a tale of a horse skull installed under a bridge "to give it a clear echo"; in County Wexford skulls were reportedly placed below church altars to "help the preacher to be heard all over the church. In some churches up to twenty of these heads were buried together."
There is evidence of acoustical horse skull use beyond Ireland, including around the U.K. and in Scandinavia. And when people from these places immigrated to the United States, they brought these traditions with them. Historian M. Chris Manning relates in Historical Archaeology the case of a skull found in a house in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. In its eye socket was a bit of paper with the names of the family of Colonel David Mason Bryant, who moved into the home in 1848
Remember Lair Bhan, the Irish custom similar to Mari Lwyd?
"It is not many years since, on Samhain's eve, 31st October, a rustic procession perambulated the district between Ballycotton and Trabolgan, along the coast. At the head of the procession was a figure enveloped in a white robe or sheet, having, as it were, the head of a mare, this personage was called the Lair Bhan, " the white mare," he was a sort of president or master of the ceremonies. A long string of verses was recited at each house." - William Hackett, 1853
In the 19th Century a Baptist minister called William Roberts attempted to bring an end to what he perceived as a pagan practice. He authored a book called 'Crefydd yr Oes Dywyll' (Religion of the Dark Age), and in it gave a detailed account of the Mari and over 20 verses of the songs (Pwnco) associated with her. He hoped that this would enable his congregation to identify the Mari tradition and put a stop to it. It had the opposite effect. The Welsh seized the material and devoured it hungrily, the Mari was revived rather than suppressed. The poor man must be spinning in his grave!
We cannot prove if the Mari is a direct link to the ancient Celtic past, or that she is a remnant of an actual pre-Christian tradition. But this does not matter, what matters is the manner in which we make her relevant to today. She brings another level of magic and wonder, awe and joy to the glorious celebrations at the heart of winter. - Kristoffer Hughes
The strongest and most unbroken Mari Lwyd is at Llangynwyd in South Wales, but elsewhere the re-established traditions go back several decades. But it's coming back
Trac's (folk development for Wales) project officer Angharad Jenkins travelled around the country delivering workshops to schools and community groups on the Mari Lwyd
They've worked with artists to create flat pack Mari Lwyd's that come with a booklet on the history and allows you to make your own paper skull
Trac has worked with over 400 children on this project
Mari Lwyd today is usually both Re-enactment and revival and the parti mari is no longer made exclusively of men. We also have occasions where more than one Mari, maybe lots more than one are present - 34 at the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd in 2019
While the tradition was fading even in the 19th century, there were calls for its revival being made in the 1930's. But Social media and information technology has changed everything, getting people more interested in the custom than ever and not just in Wales, but across the globe
Mari Parties are active throughout Wales, with new ones are coming into existence every year
This winter however, Wales has seen rather different looking Mari Lwyds going out. Some, such as the Carmarthen Mari, or rather 'Mari Troellog', has LEDs and flashing lights, others have been spray-painted in gold, and in communities and schools across the country, the specially designed flat-pack Mari Lwyd has been spotted causing havoc! - From the trac article on the tradition
The community that has risen up around this celebration is inspiring, building a tight knit group of individuals who see this as a labor of love. They spread the tradition, producing and incorporating new Maris every year, they're notoriety growing with demands across Wales to help bring this celebration back.
Even in 2020, with Covid doing its thing, this amazing community go together virtually to entertain and perform, relentless in their dedication, they are truly something to be admired. Below are some quotes and takes from some of the members of this community
So people are becoming more interested because they are becoming more aware. Actually this time of year people sometimes aren't very happy because they are worrying about Christmas, they are worrying about what they are going to spend. We don't do any of that; we're busy with the Mari.
We've become more and more aware. We see people coming here stressed out on their phones and when they start to get a bit dirty, or do the fire, or get some mud on them, we see a difference.
we have young people - it's all just mixed - all altogether.
She is bridled with shadows and saddled with song, and now she has come knocking at your door. Will you heed that knocking?
Will you help to bring back the Mare Queen of winter, to sing her songs of Bardic wit, to oblate her with offerings, to invite mystery into the warmth of good company?
One of the most powerful reasons for reviving these old traditions is because they work.
They do something to the internal constitution of a community, they allow expressions of music, song and poetry, they bring people together in a manner that may be too subtle to adequately articulate.
They cause us to remember something of our deep past
We are not Pagans. We touch all religions and see our beliefs as a fusion of religions.
Some see the Mari as a puppet and a performance work of art.
We try to get into the mindset of the horse and let it speak to us...and move accordingly. When you dress and put on the skull and garments you assume the spirit of the horse.
Traditionally the Maris are locked away in chests and suitcases after the festivities have ended in January. In the Gower peninsula the skull was buried in January and exhumed the following December, emphasizing a rebirth or resurrection.
Celeste and Seren are a part of the household and they remain on their stands throughout all the seasons. We talk to them, stroke them and they are bone sisters to my two daughters!
Whilst we may have lost the actual meaning of the Mari Lwyd tradition, to be near her is to sense the mystery that she expresses. There is an undeniable magic to her presence that seems to tease at long lost memories hid in the depths of our cultural memory. The folk traditions of Wales have embraced the Mari, for to be in her presence is to be lost in the magic of song and poetry. Battles of bardic wit take place between the Mari party and those who occupy the homes and taverns that she visits. Lose the battle and she gains entry into the warmth of company where chaos ensues. She reminds us of misrule that social norms are suspended and that within the joyousness of celebration there lurks a human desire to suppress the anxiety that winter instills.
A special thank you to all the amazing Maris out there keeping this wonderful tradition alive and for still believing in magic. The find out more about this tradition and these wonderful Maris visit https://marilwyd.co.uk/database/
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