Nothing is quite so mysterious (and spooky) in Welsh tradition as that of the Mari Lwyd; a horse’s skull, dressed in ribbons and bells, with glass eyes, and carried on a pole draped in a sheet so as to conceal the carrier. But where did this midwinter ritual originate from, and what does it mean?
The Mari Lwyd is a pre-Christian, most likely Pagan tradition, which celebrates the passing of winter’s darkest days. In Celtic Britain, the horse was seen as a symbol of power, fertility and prowess on the battlefield. In Celtic mythology, animals who had the ability to cross between this world and the underworld (the Celtic Annwn) are traditionally white or grey coloured. It is no coincidence that it is held around Christmas and New Year, with the Winter solstice occurring at the same time. The long, cold nights were also a time of fire festivals in Wales as well as other Celtic communities. These festivities were absorbed by Christianity in later years, and so it was that Christmas is also now celebrated with lights, decorations and candles. It is also not entirely out of the ordinary to use an animal skull in such a way as this. Similar traditions exist in Nordic countries in the form of the Yule Goat, in Cheshire with the Wild Oss, and even a dragon in Norwich.
The Mari Lwyd is tall, with the horse skull mounted on a long pole so that it towers over the spectators. A long white sheet hangs down from the bottom of the skull, and the operator of the Mari is hidden beneath. The jaws are wired so that it can snap, and it usually has glass eyes and wooden ears fixed onto it.
A group of men accompany the Mari Lwyd from house to house, or pub to pub, and begin a battle of song and poetry, or ‘pwnco’, to gain entrance. The party consists of a leader, a fiddler, and stock characters such as Punch and Judy who would cause havoc if entry was gained onto the premises. They would begin the battle of poetry between a member of the group and an opponent in the house or pub. This usually amounted to the contestants mocking each other’s singing or drunkenness. If the Mari Lwyd party were successful in their debate, they would gain entry into the house, and partake in eating cake and drinking free ale. On departing, the party would sing a farewell song.
Rhiannon, a horse goddess and Queen of the Underworld, is first seen riding a large white horse in the Mabinogion. Outsmarting an opponent to get a desired treasure or outcome are found extensively throughout the Mabinogion in tales such as Math, Son of Mathonwy, where Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into getting himself ‘killed’. Being crafty and witty can therefore be seen as a way of outsmarting an opponent, no matter how imposing they are. This may have been the inspiration or belief behind the tradition of the pwnco of Mari Lwyd.
An example of the Mari Lwyd was filmed in the village of Llangynwyd in 1966, and can be seen here:
The Mari Lwyd tradition suffered heavily in the late nineteenth century, and died out widely due to its reputation for drunkenness and vandalism. Sermons in chapels were preached against the pagan practice, and the book The Religion Of The Dark Ages written by the Rev. William Roberts (1813-1872), urged communities to encourage the youth to do something more useful and constructive with their time:
“We must try and get the young people of our time more to interest themselves more in intellectual and substantial things such as reading and composing poetry, essays, singing etc, as is encouraged and practised in our Eisteddfodau… I wish of this folly, and of all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and the antiquary.”
By the 1960s, only a few Maris survived in places like Pentyrch and Pencoed, but some parts of Wales still act it out. Every December you can see it at the St Fagans: National History Museum, and each January several Maris from different regions gathers in Chepstow for the Chepstow Wassail Lwyd.
To see a host of Mari Lwyd images, explore the Mari Lwyd Flickr Group.
Merry Midwinter to you all!