The Mari Lwyd or Y Fari Lwyd - meaning 'Grey Mare' or 'Grey Mary' is a midwinter / New Year tradition in Wales, linked to the house to house wassailing 'good health /luck bringing' custom.
The Mari Lwyd is essentially a large puppet head, made from a mare's skull mounted on a pole, over which a white sheet is draped. Cloth ears may be sewn on to the sheet and ribbons and bells are attached as decoration to the protuding skull. Coloured glass or other shiny material is fitted into the eye sockets. The jaw is usually wired so that it can be operated to make it 'snap' at people. The skull on the pole is carried and 'operated' by a man hidden under the sheet.
The Mari Lwyd is then 'lead' by its reins or a chain in a procession from house to house. Parties accompanying the Mari Lywd, often dressed in costume or disguise with masks or blackened faces, chanting, singing or shouting insults or exchanges at each door visited, in the hope of being invited in and given food and drink. Entry is not guaranteed as the occupants of the house throw songs or insults back in a 'contest' or 'pwnc'. The insult/song contest sometimes goes on for a very long time until the Mari gets invited in. On entering the house the Mari often proceeds to wildly chase any girls present snapping at them with its jaws until a gift of food and drink (and/or money) is offered.
|The old Post Office at Llanover has an unusal painting |
over the door of the Mari Lwyd commissioned
by Lady Llanover in 1860
|Fred Hando's 1951 drawing of the painting on|
Llanover Post Office, depicting a visit by the Mari Llwyd
|Celtic Goddess Rhiannon|
In folklore the horse features as a symbol of strength and fertilty. White or grey horses, real and mythylogical (such as pegasus and unicorns), and other animals such as white hart (deer) or white hares, were seen as having 'special', 'sacred' powers and the ability to cross to, or communicate with the 'underworld'. Such animals have been revered in folk stories, songs and art for thousands of years.The most striking examples of white horse symbolism, can be seen as giant figures carved into chalk hillsides around the UK. The oldest of these 'chalk horses' is the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which is 3,000 years old. However, most of the other chalk horses that are still visible have been created in the last 300 years. The use of an animated, dead horse's skull in the Mari Lwyd ritual, is symbolic with death and rebirth - and its use in a mid-winter wassailing custom, synonymous with the 're-awakening' of the countryside's fertility after winter.
Customs involving horse skulls, horse worship or horse sacrifices have featured in many cultures around the world. In the UK our aversion to eating horse meat may well be linked to old customs like the Mari Lwyd which feature the horse as a 'special, 'sacred' animal. Other areas of the UK have traditions at different times of the year using symbolic horses heads which include 'The Hooden Horse of Kent', 'The Padstow Obby Oss','The Poor Owd Oss of Nottinghamshire' and 'Soul Caking' in North Wales and Cheshire.
Another short BBC Wales video about the history of the Mari Lwyd custom can be viewed here
In more recent times a re-surgent interest in folk traditions has seen the revival of the Mari Lwyd in some parts of Wales. An initiative by Trac - Folk Development Wales has provided funding to educate children and communities about the Mari Lywd to preserve the tradition. Watch a video about this initiative (worth watching to see some really great moves by the 'mare' in this). Examples of Mari Lwyd groups operating in South East Wales include Cowbridge, Llantrisant (near Maesteg), Llanvihangel Tor Y Mynydd and also at St Fagans (National Museum of Wales). Chepstow's Wassail Mari Lwyd event has for the last few years, combined several midwinter customs such as Wassailing, Mumming and The Mari Lwyd, into a January festival day featuring these old traditions albeit in a rather less 'traditional' but high profile way, this is helping to preserve the tradition of the Mari Lwyd.
Watch a video of the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd 2013 (my photos from the 2014 event below).
Video by Stewart Charters
The Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd January 2014
|The Chepstow Mari|
|Cardiff Mari beautifully decorated|
|Swansea Mari - a smaller Mari made from |
a Gower Pony skull
|Mari from Carmarthen getting a cheeky |
drink off Louise from Chepstow - this Mari is
from the Trac project - see above
|This big, handsome Mari had travelled all the way from |
Lands End in Cornwall - it proved to be a very talented
mover and dancer
|Mari from Pembrokeshire|
|Another Monmouthshire Mari from Llanfihangel Tor y Mynydd|
|The 'Poor Owd Oss' from Nottinghamshire|
The Gloucestershire 'Broad' or Bull traditionally accompanies the Gloucestershire Waysailers (the local word for wassailing)!
Wassailing the apple tree in the garden at the Chepstow Castle Inn
|The Wassail Master directs proceedings|
|Putting the wassail toast in the tree|
|'The Gloucestershire Waysailers' (the local word for wassailers) with their 'Broad' |
'Green Man' played by Rob Hickman gets a tune from a 'Pig Horn'
|Some of the 'Widders' dancers with the Green Man|
Some very colourful and energetic dancing in the streets of Chepstow - The Widders Border Morris
The Mari's gather near the Wye Bridge - some of them dance to entertain the crowd
|Dancing on the centre of the Wye Bridge|
Then it's back across the bridge to Chepstow with our new friends from England!
Mari Lywd Verses (dated 1893 by Fred Hando)
|Music making in The Chepstow Castle Inn|
From inside the house
What, ho! Morganwg's happy land
Is full of corn and barley
What, ho! is your request - demand?
Answer! We grant short parley
From the Mari Lwyd party outside
Honest men are we, who sue
Favours many, money due
To the Mari Llwyd from you!
From inside the house to end the contest
Come in, come in, and sit at ease
Ye merry sons of Cymru
Here's sweet metheglin, here's cream cheese
With milk, cream cakes and flummery!
The Customs and Traditions of Wales - Trefor M. Owen 1991
Journeys in Gwent - Fred J. Hando 1951
Llanover Country - Chris Barber 2004
The Mabinogion - Lady Charlotte Guest 1877
The Widders Border Morris
The National Museum of Wales
The National Library of Wales - Welsh Journals online
The Mari Lwyd on Flickr
The Mares Tale - Art
|Mark Tyler with his banjo on the Wye Bridge|
|'The Widders' have fantastic costumes|
|Kelly and Laura from 'The Widders' enjoy a chat|
|Mick 'Widder' (Lewis) - founder of The Widders Border Morris group|
and main organiser of the wonderful Chepstow Wassail Mari Lwyd event
Well done Mick!