Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Mari Lwyd

This weekend I went along to the truly fantastic Wassail Mari Lwyd event in Chepstow which provides an excellent showcase for one of Wales' oldest folk customs, 'The Mari Lwyd'.

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
The tradition of the Mari Lwyd is pre-Christian. It has been linked with the horse goddess Epona (her name meaning'Great Mare'), who features in Gaulish,Celtic and Roman inscriptions and also with the Celtic goddess Rhiannon, who has a strong association with horses. An interesting aside to this, is that the famous Fleetwood Mac song 'Rhiannon' is based on the Mabinogion legend of Rhiannon who, in the story of her pursuit by Prince Pwyll before she marries him, is featured riding a pure white horse with magical qualities. Another story is that the Mari Lwyd represents the horse turned out of the stable in Bethlehem to allow the Virgin Mary a place to give birth to Jesus. The horse has since roamed the countryside looking for alternative shelter. This story is perhaps reflected in the alternative translation of the Mari Lwyd as 'Grey Mary', rather than 'Grey Mare'. Abergavenny writer, Chris Barber, refers to this story and feels that what started as a pagan custom, may have been taken over by the early Christian church to form a 'cult' linked to the Virgin Mary which died out during the Reformation.

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.
A Mari Lwyd group at Llangynwyd, Maesteg in 1919

The Mari Lwyd was most common in the South Eastern parts of Wales, in Gwent and Glamorgan. A letter printed in the "Monmouthshire Merlin" newspaper, gives the following account in a letter printed on Saturday, December 29th, 1838:
"With regard to the pastime of the horse's head mentioned in your last paper, I am happy to say it continues to delight young and old every winter, in the parts of Gwent about Pontypool, Govilon, Abergavenny and the mountainous district generally. The parties going about with the horse's head are denominated Merry Lhwyd, who sing Welsh songs and dance, the great amusement consisting in the spectre horse's antics, he being well skilled in frightening the maidens, who, peeping through the half opened door are put to flight by his gambols these most interesting relics of past ages, are so little prized that they are scarcely known to exist by the higher classes of Wales."

The custom lost favour somewhat, due to the growth of the Welsh Methodist Churches and Temperance movement during the Industrial Revolution, when customs associated with revelry and drunkeness were frowned upon. Christmas Carolling became far more common and Mari Lwyd practices faded away to all but a few villages during the early part of the 20th century.Writing in 1951, Fred Hando in 'Journeys in Gwent', discusses the Mari Lwyd in Caerleon with some old residents of the village, who refer fondly to the tradition that had not taken place for 20 years.

Watch a BBC video of The Mari Lwyd in Llangynwyd 1966

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 

An incredible eight Mari Lwyd's in one place!

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

Gloucestershire version
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'  

The '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

A new annual Mid-Winter 'custom' linked to the Wassail Mari Lwyd festival has begun in Chepstow. A large crowd gather to follow the Mari's across the River Wye for a meeting between the Welsh and English, at the centre of the old Wye Bridge,  - the two sides challenge each other - there is much 'roaring' and noise, it could be war but thankfully peace reigns - the toast of  'WASSAIL!' is shouted on both sides and everyone shakes hands, kisses and makes friends!!

Dancing on the centre of the Wye Bridge

Then it's back across the bridge to Chepstow with our new friends from England!

The Mari's group for the 'Pwnc' at the entrance to Chepstow Museum - songs are sung, verses are chanted on both sides of the door and eventually the Mari's are granted entry - plenty of mulled cider awaits them!

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!

Reference Sources

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

Folk Wales

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!


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