A Welsh Living Tradition of Death
Dark and Cold. The night is still. You hold your breath as the clock ticks closer toward midnight. A knocking is heard.
The heart stops. Death is at your door.
During the darkest part of the year, when spirits of the dead walk across the land of the living. When the living slam shut the doors and bar the window to the biting cold. When it feels like the lords of Winter will never lessen their grip. It is then that Mari Lwyd comes to chase away the darkness.
The snap of her teeth, the ring of her bell, the calls of her retinue herald her coming. She is instantly recognisable — a real horse’s skull, teeth intact, glass bottle eyes, shrouded in white sheets, reined, adorned with ribbons, lace, maybe flowers, and led by the ostler at the head of a party of revellers processing amongst communities in south Wales.
It is almost midnight. The new year tantalisingly close, yet out of grasp. The party rattle windows. A fear grows.
As you crack the door ajar slightly and stare into the beer bottle eyes of the Mari you are transported. Carried from this world to hers. Taken into a place between places.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Hark at the hands of the clock. Now dead men rise in the frost of the stars And fists on the coffins knock. —Vernon Watkins, “Ballad of the Mari Lwyd”
Juxtaposed against the sight of a skeletal horse’s head draped in ghostly sheets are the hauntingly beautiful melodies of her carol. The voices and poetry wrap around you and carry you further into her clutches.
It is a striking experience, and one which is growing in popularity once again. Today the Mari Lwyd is a reconstruction, primarily an entertainment in most places, and it is doubtful that many taking part will be aware of its ancient origins. But this is a ritual of liminality — a conversation between life and death. It is a chasing away of the old and the clearing of the dead ready for the new life of the new year.
One might meet the Mari for the first time in a small Welsh market town. Tucked away in the corner of an old-fashioned pub with roaring fire a commotion starts. Locals and strangers alike run to the windows to watch the Mari proceed down the street toward us. Hardcore old timers are wiser, using this moment of excitement to make it to the bar and order the next round of drinks.
Catching only glimpses of the strange party heading nearer, soon there’s a rattling of the door and breaking somewhat with tradition, the party makes its way into the bar where the Pwnco begins.
The Pwnco is a sort of verbal contest, a poetic back and forth between the Mari Party and those inside. It can be rowdy, somewhat out of tune, but full of merriment. The Mari may be accompanied by a small troop — the leader cracking his stick on the tables, a few singers with flat caps or blackened faces and a gent in a top hat. It is difficult to draw one’s attention away from the skull. Logically one knows it is a person with a skull on a long stick, but in the midst of even the simplest of rituals, it is death herself — a still point in the midst of the merriment. Led from table to table the eyes pull one in — drawn to the mystical world of Welsh magical traditions.
The Cowbridge Mari is just one of many versions of the Mari Lwyd performed south Wales. Each has its own distinctive features, built around a common framework. It is the differences which make this tradition so special — a living tradition which evolves to reflect the community within which she lives. For example, the Cowbridge Mari Lwyd has evolved to replace the traditional Pwnco with English verses interspersed between the usual Welsh Language introductory verses. Cowbridge is the only community where you will experience this – although some other communities now also include English Language Carols after the main ritual – and it reflects the predominantly English speaking community in this part of the country. It demonstrates a very simple but perfect blending of distinct elements of Welsh cultural traditions.
The central figure – Mari herself – is one of the most obvious elements which differ between locations. Each is uniquely decorated and instantly recognisable.
Some Mari are simple, some elaborate. Jaws that move. Eyes that flash.
Most Mari, but not all, are horses skulls. Traditionally they would be buried in lime to remove the flesh, and then affixed to a long pole before being decorated. Not all Mai were prepared in this way, there are accounts of ram’s head being taken out by young lads in the Gower during the early 1900s, wooden carved skulls were used in Tradegar, and more recently I have seen a foxes skull adopting the term ‘cadno hen lwyd’ (old gray fox) accompanying a traditional Mari Lwyd.
Once prepared the Mari is led from house to house, pub to pub, around the town seeking entry by means of a riddle and poetic battle. Almost all versions of the Mari maintain the traditional introductory verses, although the specifics of tune and wording may vary. As with all elements of the ritual, these could be made up on the spot, or are sometimes recorded and passed down through generations.
The verses generally announce the coming of the Mari party, describe their journey and ask for food and refreshment to be prepared. The version below was collected in 1953 at Brynmenyn near Bridgend and preserved by the National Museum of Wales, shared here especially for the Welsh Speakers amongst us!
Wel dyma ni'n dywad, Gyfeillion diniwad, I ofyn (o)s ciwan gannad, I ofyn (o)s ciwan gannad, I ofyn (o)s ciwan gannad I ganu.
Os na chawn ni gannad, R(h)owch glywad ar ganiad Pa fodd ma'r 'madawiad Pa fodd ma'r 'madawiad Pa fodd ma'r 'madawiad Nos (h)eno.
It loses something in translation; the Welsh language is intrinsically embowed with poetry and subtle meaning which cannot quite be captured in English. However, it provides a hint towards what is being shared:
Well, gentle friends Here we come To ask may we have leave To ask may we have leave To ask may we have leave To sing.
If we may not have leave, Then listen to the song That tells of our leaving That tells of our leaving That tells of our leaving Tonight.
We have cut our shins Crossing the stiles To come here To come here To come here Tonight.
If there are people here Who can compose englynion Then let us hear them now Then let us hear them now Then let us hear them now Tonight.
If you've gone to bed too early In a vengeful spirit, Oh, get up again good–naturedly Oh, get up again good–naturedly Oh, get up again good–naturedly Tonight.
The large, sweet cake With all kinds of spices: O cut generous slices O cut generous slices O cut generous slices This Christmas–tide.
O, tap the barrel And let it flow freely; Don't share it meanly Don't share it meanly Don't share it meanly This Christmas–tide.
Once the people in the house have responded, the Pwnco begins. A back and forth, a battle of wits. A few good-humoured insults. If the Mari outsmarts the household then she can enter — so they must put up a good fight. The length of this section can vary enormously depending on the creativity and perseverance of each party. Those seeking the most authentic and traditional of pwnco are well advised to visit the village of Llangynwyd, where the heroic efforts of a Mr Cynwyd Evans kept the traditions alive and known. His image is now memorialised in the local pub signage, standing in his top hat and suit alongside his Mari.
Unfortunately it is this part of the ritual which has fallen away in many places, but occasionally it shows up. In Llantristant it is said that only once in the last 20 years has Mari been challenged with pwnco (when it happened it was a spontaneous challenge by an elderly local, perhaps hoping to revive a tradition he remembered).
Below is one example of pwnco which remains popular across a number of communities. It was collected in a popular book on carolling traditions without its originating location being recorded. It is possible that it might have been introduced to many places in recent years by participants researching this less used element of the ritual rather than indicating a widespread traditional use of this format.
The Mari Lwyd party sing: "Open your doors, Let us come and play, It's cold here in the snow. At Christmastide
The House-holders reply "Go away you old monkeys Your breath stinks And stop blathering. It's Christmastide."
Outsiders: "Our mare is very pretty (The Mari Lwyd), Let her come and play, Her hair is full of ribbons At Christmastide."
House-holders (Giving in) Instead of freezing, We'll lead the Mari, Inside to amuse us Tonight is Christmastide." —Rev. Mark Lawson-Jones, Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols
Of course, eventually the Mari will be victorious, not least because of her hundreds of years of experience! Additionally her presence within the house is a blessing upon it and as such the inhabitants want her to enter. The closing has remained the most constant amongst the various localities, and has been preserved by FolkWales:
Wel dyma'r enw feinwen (Well, this is the name of the maid) Sy'n codi gyda'r seren (who rises with the stars) Wel dyma'r enw feinwen Sy'n codi gyda'r seren A hon yw'r washael fawr ei chlod (and here is the wassail of great praise) Sy'n caru bod yn llawen. (which loves to be merry) A hon yw'r washael fawr ei chlod Sy'n caru bod yn llawen.
Dymunwn i'ch lawenydd (I wish you all joy) I gynal blwyddyn newydd (in having a new year) Tra paro'r gwr i dincian cloch (while the man is ready to ring the bell) Well, well yn boch chwi beunydd. (better and better may you be daily)
Ffarweliwch, foneddigion, (farewell, gentlemen) Ni gawsom croeso digon. (we have had welcome enough) Bendith Duw f'o ar eich tai (god's blessing be on your house) A phob rhyw rhai o'ch dynion. (and on everyone of your men)
After entering the house a party begins! The carols and songs performed by the company are an eclectic mix – once again different in each local area. In Llantrisant we find examples of Carols which have their root in the mid-Wales plygain tradition such as Ar Gyfer Heddiw’r Bore. Again this points to an evolving and not static tradition of the Mari, as well as a mingling of Christian and Pagan beliefs. It is likely these were introduced to the community in the heyday of the mining industry when significant population movements took place into the industrial areas of south Wales.
Ar gyfer heddiw'r bore
'n faban bach, faban bach,
Y ganwyd gwreiddyn Iesse
'n faban bach;
Y Cadarn ddaeth o Bosra,
Y Deddfwr gynt ar Seina,
Yr Iawn gaed ar Galfaria
'n faban bach, faban bach,
Yn sugno bron Maria
'n faban bach.
Am hyn, bechadur, brysia,
fel yr wyt, fel yr wyt,
I 'mofyn am dy Noddfa,
fel yr wyt
I ti'r agorwyd ffynnon
A ylch dy glwyfau duon
Fel eira gwyn yn Salmon,
fel yr wyt, fel yr wyt,
Gan hynny, tyrd yn brydlon,
fel yr wyt.
For the sake of this very morning
As a little baby, a little baby
Was born the root of Jesse
As a little baby;
The Strong one who came from Bosra,
The Lawmaker of old on Sinai,
The Redemption to be had on Calvary
As a little baby, a little Baby,
Suckling the breast of Mary,
As a little Baby.
Therefore, sinner, hurry, As thou art, as thou art,
To ask for his Sanctuary,
As thou art;
For thee the well was opened
Which washes thy black wounds
Like the white snow on Salmon,
As thou art, as thou art,
For that, come promptly,
As thou art.
The eating, drinking and general horseplay (pun intended) are an essential part of the Mari ceremony. It is here that the real work is done — the chasing away of the unwanted spirits. It is a simple matter of raising and focusing energy, both directed and magnified by the bones of the horse. After all, only the dead can chase the dead away.
Meanings and Reasons
Much mystery surrounds the tradition of the Mari Lwyd. When did it start? What is the purpose? Even seemingly basic questions such as ‘what does the name Mari Lwyd mean?’ have no clear answer. For scholars and academics this causes difficulties and much effort is poured into resolving these mysteries.
But to magical folk, this difficulty does not present itself. For some, the meaning of the ritual will be clear immediately. For others, the truth lies in the grey space between possibilities.
The simplest, and most often-used translation of Mari Lwyd is Grey Mare. Other possibilities suggested include ‘Holy Mary’ or ‘Grey Mary’ hinting at Christian overtones to the recreations. One compelling (but etymologically unsound) theory links ‘Mare’ with ‘nightmare’ raising, images of Germanic night demons instilling terror in sleepers. Whilst the roots of the words are entirely different, they bring insight nonetheless. One purpose of the ritual after all is to frighten away unwanted spirits.
A Ritual of Liminality
That the Mari Lwyd is a ritual of liminality is clear. Liminal space is the place between two realms of reality and can be physical, psychological or time-bound. The Mari occurs in all three spaces.
- It is physically in a doorway — between inside and out. Between the revellers and the householders.
- It is psychologically between joy and terror — the merriment of the party and the grotesque form of an undead horse. Indeed it is between life and death.
- It is in the liminal time between years. Whilst there is a broad timeframe for Mari to appear all are linked with the New Year in some way, be it the secular, Celtic, or even Julian calendar New Year. More broadly it can be seen as a time of seasonal transition.
A clear boundary is created in multiple senses that is plain for all to see. An us and a them. Insiders and outsiders. Those with command over death, and those afraid of its earthly symbolism.
The tension is intensified with the challenge and response of the participants. Those familiar with traditional initiatory rites might well consider the Mari Lwyd in light of their own experiences and find some enlightenment as to the ritual purpose of the hooded horse.
In the end it is the horse which straddles both realms, a trait which sits well with its mythical associations. In the first branch of the Mabinogi, Rhiannon is first introduced to us as a being of another realm riding a shining white horse. She later acts as horse herself carrying guests to court and in the third branch is whisked away to the otherworld. Rhiannon herself is caught in a liminal space — between her role as an earthly wife and her origin as an otherworldly being.
Whilst considering the Mabinogi one cannot help but wonder about the severed head associations too, with Bran’s head buried in London as a protection. Interestingly discoveries of foundation burials of horses’ heads are not uncommon in Celtic regions, including examples in Wales. Most often the heads are found buried under thresholds or the hearth - both liminal space — although on occasions they have even been found at each corner of a building. Other mythological associations include Epona, the trojan horse, and the Grim Reaper riding his white horse. Welsh folk tale collections abound with stories of horses and mysterious riders which transcend the boundaries between the ordinary and the supernatural. Sometimes the horse acts to warn the living, sometimes themselves an apparition. Oftentimes the tales combine horses and crossroads layering the symbolism and bringing us back to themes of liminality.
The horse is a symbol of strength — and yet it is domestic. Wild horses are found in prehistoric cave paintings dating to around 30,000BC. By 2000BC they had become a form of transportation, with evidence of the earliest chariot burials dating from this period. The horse’s power is used toward assisting its master to cultivate the land, leading to associations of sovereignty. Its manure, prized amongst gardeners, is just one of the reason for the association of the horse and fertility.
So in the Mari Lwyd ritual we find complex symbolic interplays which come together in an unusual form of first-footing. Even if the precise meaning of the practice are hidden from sight, just a cursory consideration of horse symbolism can provide insights which transform the Mari Lwyd from a slightly odd Welsh custom to a powerful and transforming ritual.
Roots – Ancient, Modern, or Both?
It is beyond the scope of a short article such as this to fully explore the origins of this tradition. Certainly there is no consensus of opinion, with passionate arguments for it being an ancient pagan tradition stamped out by the church, and for it being a modern creation (perhaps recreation) which gained popularity with the rise of Celtic Nationalism in the 18th Century.
What we do know is that the first published account was in 1798 by J Evans (in A tour through parts of North Wales), and prior to this no record is made of the custom.
A man on new year’s day, dressing himself in blankets and other trappings, with a factitious head like a horse, and a party attending him, knocking for admittance, this obtained, he runs about the room with an uncommon frightful noise, which the company quit in real or pretended fright; they soon recover, and by reciting a verse of some cowydd, or, in default, paying a small gratuity, they gain admission.
Even if there is scant recorded evidence of a continual tradition then there are clear echos of a distant past. There are, for example, clear links with ancient Horse Queen Cults, and with traditional horse goddesses such as Epona, Rhiannon or Macha. In this respect it has much in common with other horse rituals found in Celtic regions at this time of year. Láir Bhán, accompanied by the messengers of Muck Olla in Ireland, reinforce the imagery of death and the underworld whilst the custom of Laare Vane in the Isle of Mann has a similar structure as a first footing tradition:
—A.W.Moore, Folklore of the Island of Man
Interestingly the counter point of the year, Beltaine also has strong equine associations. Obby Oss customs form a central part of modern May Day celebrations. Their expressions are much more stylised and evoke joy and laughter — for example the world-famous Padstow Obby Oss.
A second echo of the past is the theme of a hero barred from a feast, leading to an exchange of banter. This is found in Celtic literature, such as the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, and whilst not evidence of a direct unbroken tradition from medieval times, it is hard to believe that there is no link. There are too many similarities in the various threads to discard them entirely. Perhaps the most compelling explanation is one of a relatively modern origin utilising older wisdom skilfully weaved together.
The exact origins will probably always remain unclear. The Mari Lwyd ritual we experience today is most likely a resurgent ritual, but one whose roots reach down into the rich cultural traditions of our Celtic ancestors. Like all strong traditions it continues to grow and develop as each year passes. Whilst some Mari are performances, given almost as museum pieces, the most traditional are living traditions which evolve each year. New verses of the pwnco are created on the spot, some living on to future years, and some just occurring in the moment — themselves an example of a liminal space created within the ritual.
A final thought. Once Mari has chased away unwanted spirts from the darkest recesses of the year, bestowed protection and fertility on the homes of the village, what then? What of an undead horse left to wander freely amongst a community without legitimate employment? No, she too must be frightened away, sent back, and the nails on the coffin once more (metaphorically) secured.
None can look out and bear that sight, None can bear that shock. The Mari’s shadow is too bright, Her brilliance is too black.
None can bear that terror When the pendulum swings back Of the stiff and stuffed and stifled thing Gleaming in the sack.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Hark at the hands of the clock.
Links and Further Reading:
- The Horse in Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives, Sioned Davies and Nerys Ann Jones (Ed.).