In the darkest months of the Welsh year, a white horse appears at your front door. It is mysterious and menacing Mari Lwyd.
The Mari Lwyd has a horse skull for a head and lights or baubles for eyes. Her mane is made of colourful streamers, sometimes made of holly and ivy. She is covered in a white cloak from her skull attached to a pole. The person inside the Mari Lwyd controls the mischievous nature and often snaps the bony jaw at you.
The origins of Mari Lwyd’s name are, like the horse herself, deeply mysterious. One Welsh translation of it, Grey Mare which connects it to the heritage of pale horses in Celtic and British mythology – many of whom can cross over to the underworld (Rhiannon in the Mabinogion rode a white horse as do many characters).
The other translation for Mari Lwyd is Grey Mary. Some scholars link this to a legend of to the nativity story. A pregnant horse sent out of from the stables when Mary arrived to have Jesus. Alone, she spent dark days roaming the land trying to find somewhere new to have a foal.
Whether the Mari Lwyd is pre-Christian or pagan origins, it is an uncanny and timeless figure in Welsh folklore.
Between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, Mari Lwyd is taken around the village. She is dressed with festive lights and decorations, and is usually accompanied by an ostler, and in some regions like Ystradgynlais in the Swansea Valleys, she is accompanied by other folk characters like a jester and a Lady. This brings the tradition closer together with Mummers’ Plays – a tradition of performances by the working classes in the 18th century.
When the group arrives at a house, they sing Welsh songs or wassails. They also indulge in a ritual called pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes with the person who lives there. If the Mari Lwyd and her company beat the owner in the exchange of riddles, they gain entry to the household. The Mari Lwyd is well-known to be mischievous – trying to steal things and chase people she likes as she goes about her bidding.
The first written record of the Mari Lwyd is in J. Evans’ book from 1800, A Tour through Part of North Wales, although the tradition is best known for its practice in Glamorgan and Gwent. There are similarities to other hooded animal customs in Britain like the Hoodening in Kent or the Broad in the Cotswolds and The Old Tup in Derbyshire. In these times, groups of poor people tried to find food and money in the harsh depths of the winter. Entertainment was often their method – with a side portion of menace like dead horse’s skull appearing like a shadow at your door.
Welsh poet Vernon Watkins wrote a long poem about the Mari Lwyd in 1941 “The Ballad of The Mari Lwyd”. His words beautifully capture the Mari Lwyd’s frightening aspect. “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.”
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