The Story of Mari Lwyd
Mari Lwyd is a tradition that appears around December to mid January - Welsh old new year - surrounding an ancient horse ritual. As this tradition evolves into the 21st century, the importance of keeping the original message of old true has become an important part of Welsh education. With generational storytelling and many potential origins, the story continues to be a mystery but brings joy and optimism for the future every year.
What is Mari Lwyd?
Mari Lwyd is a tradition in which a horse skull is draped in bells, ruins and coloured ribbons. Each year the Mari Lwyd would be taken from house to house asking for entry via song. The Mari Lwyd would be accompanied by it's merrymen who would join in song and play fiddles, this was normally accompanied by a Punch and Judy show.
Similarities can be drawn between the styling of the travelling Mari Lwyd and a hobby horse. The old tradition uses real horse skulls which communities find from their local farmers. More modern approaches with the inclusion of children have now resulted in depictions of the Mari Lwyd made from cardboard and paper. A simple white sheet is used for the body, whilst the decorations vary from community to village to individual approaches. No two Mari Lwyd’s are the same and they’re added to each year with more decorative embellishments.
What does Mari Lwyd do?
The Mari Lwyd would try and gain entry to houses via song. The merrymen would explain why they needed to enter and the occupant of the house would sing why they can't be let in. This would go back and forth until the occupant didn't have any more reasons to not let them in. When inside, Mari Lwyd and the Merrymen would eat food and drink ale. When leaving the Mari Lwyd would wish everyone a happy new year.
To see the Mari Lwyd approaching a home, Inn or pub is to be seen already as good luck. Many owners still welcome the tradition, even though they initially have to deny her entry. It’s seen as a blessing to witness the movement and to be a part of the songs. She brings an air of optimism for a positive and fortuitous new year.
What does Mari Lwyd mean and where did it originate from?
The name Mari Lwyd translates to Grey Mare, Grey Mane or Grey Mary. Thought to have originated from Celtic Mythology, the pale horse is thought to be able to pass to the underworld.
The underlying thoughts for if Mari Lwyd was Grey Mary, is pre-Christian or Pagan. Supposedly, the horse was in foal and moved out of the stables to allow Mary and Joseph to have shelter. This horse then spent days trying to find somewhere safe to give birth. Potentially this is where the looming fear emanates from, a mother trying to protect her foal.
It’s more literal interpretation of Grey Mare or Grey Mane both are directly associated to it’s colouring. Often horses of pale, white coats are referred to as ‘greys’. Most commonly born with brown or black coats, some horses colouring changes over time and gradually turns white. Not only a colour that appears ethereal in a ghostly shape, but also one that shows a sign of age. Seen as a sign of hope through the darkest Welsh months, the colouring is also a visual portrayal of Mari Lwyd’s wisdom.
What is the symbolism of Mari Lwyd?
The symbolism of Mari Lwyd remains of great importance. When reinventing the tradition, intriguing variations occur, but the symbolism remains the same. Horse’s skulls are painted with ancient runic symbols from Celtic past. Sometimes the horse's eyes are filled with baubles and the mane is plaited with ribbons or made from evergreen plants. A white cloth covers the actor who animates the elaborate and often mischievous character.
The first known written documentation of Mari Lwyd was in 1800 by J’ Evans, in his book ‘A Tour Through Part of North Wales’. The origin of the tradition remains a mystery. Links have been made to other British customs in which the poor were using hooded animal characters to make entertainment to try and raise money. Between the 1930’s and 1960’s the tradition started to disappear, however it was revived by Llantrisant Folk Club later in the century and a family in Llangwynyd have reached their third generation of hosting the Mari Lwyd at their Inn.
Why is it important for the story to remain in the 21st Century and how is it depicted in the modern day?
The historic tale with its various potential origins remains a mystery, but nevertheless, the intriguing nature brings a sense of joy. The concept of having such rich heritage makes these types of stories even more essential that they stay current and relevant. Mari Lwyd still appears visiting homes and pubs to bring luck to its occupants into the new year. Although perceived initially as a troubling tale, the metaphors of love, protection and optimism remain stronger.
As the tradition passes through into the 21st century, to keep the story alive it’s still commonly depicted by a horse's skull on a stick followed by a group of people playing music. Many groups and communities exist amongst different villages continuing the story and the Mari Lwyd is met with delight, raising spirits on it’s way.
The organisation of these communities is still diminishing, however the troops who continue to keep the story alive do so in a positive community building way. In more recent years Trac,
Wales’ Folk Development Organisation, worked to gain funding to continue educating younger generations in schools. With funding gained from the Heritage National Lottery and Arts Council Wales, David Pitt was commissioned to create a flat pack horse’s skull that could be taken around the county to teach and develop activities. Historian Rhiannon Ifans was also commissioned to write the accompanying booklet to educate the children on the story. With music being an important part of the tradition, children are also encouraged to follow their creation whilst playing musical instruments, just as they would see in their local villages.
As the tradition continues to stay alive, children begin seeing Mari Lwyd as part of their history that they don’t need to be afraid of. More events have started to include this character, like midwinter events, lantern festivals and wassails. The Mari Lwyd continues to bring joy and luck to villages all across the county. The story is brought to life by actors and musicians. The more education brought to younger generations, the longer the tradition will remain as part of Wales’ heritage.
‘The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out," his poem goes. "Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight."’
Vernon Watkins, The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd