Mari Lwyd

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At the Chepstow Mari Lwyd, 2014

The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare in English), also Y Fari Lwyd,[1] is a Welsh midwinter tradition, possibly to celebrate New Year (see Calennig), although it formerly took place over a period stretching from Christmas to late January.[2] It is a form of visiting wassail, a luck-bringing ritual in which the participants accompany a person disguised as a horse from house to house (including pubs) and sing at each door in the hope of gaining admittance and being rewarded with food and drink.[2]


A contemporary Mari Lwyd

The mari lwyd itself consisted of a horse's skull that was decorated with ribbons and affixed to a pole; to the back of the skull is attached a white sheet, which drapes down to conceal both the pole and the individual carrying this device.[3][2] On occasion, the horse's head was represented not by a skull but was instead made from wood or even paper.[4] In some instances, the horse's jaw was able to open and close as a result of string or lever attached to it, and there are accounts of pieces of glass being affixed into the eye sockets of some examples, representing eyes.[3][2]

The custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night.[2] Now it may start earlier in the day (as at Llangynwyd, where it begins at 2pm on New Year's Day).[5] The Mari party (five or six men or boys) often had coloured ribbons and rosettes attached to their clothes, and sometimes wore a broad sash around the waist.[2] There was usually a "Leader", smartly dressed, who carried a staff or stick, or a whip, and sometimes other stock characters, such as the Merryman, who played music, and Punch and Judy (both played by men) with blackened faces; often brightly dressed, Punch carried a long metal poker and Judy had a besom broom.[6] The mari lwyd party would approach a house and sing a song in which they requested admittance. The inhabitants of the house would then offer excuses for why the team could not enter. The party would sing a second verse, and the debate between the two sides would continue until the house's inhabitants ran out of ideas, at which they were obliged to allow the party entry and provide them with ale and food.[7]

Maris dancing outside Chepstow Museum

During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by the party; they stand in front of every house to sing traditional songs. The singing sometimes consists of a rhyme contest (pwnco or pwngco)[6] between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with improvised verses (traditionally exchanged through the closed door); the contest could last for some time, until one side gave up.[2][5] (At some places, such as Llantrisant, the pwnco was not used, or has been abandoned, and only the introductory verses were sung, followed by carols.[8]) Punch and Judy, if present, were troublesome characters; Punch tapped on the ground in time to the music and rapped on the door with his poker. Judy would brush the ground, the house walls, even the windows, and would chase anyone unwise enough to get too close and brush them too. Traditionally, if the Mari side lost the contest, they would have to leave without being admitted to the house or pub, but this was probably a very rare occurrence, as the party's entry into the building brought good luck, so they would usually win (or be allowed to win).[2] Alternatively, they might sing a verse begging admittance.[6]

Once inside, the entertainment continued with the Mari running around neighing and snapping its jaws, creating havoc, frightening children and (perhaps even adults) while the Leader pretended to try to restrain it. The Merryman played music and entertained the householders.[2] Punch and Judy, if present, also had parts to play: Punch would kiss the girls and be chased by Judy with her broom. At Nantgarw, Punch would use his poker to rake out the grate, putting out the fire, unless a promise to leave it alone had previously been forced out of the Mari party during the pwnco. Judy also used her broom to "brush" the house floors, but sometimes scattered the ashes and made a mess (at Nantgarw this unruliness led to a Mari party being refused admittance to a house the following year, even though they were not the same people).[6] Normally, though, the tomfoolery was lighthearted; the participants would be rewarded with cakes and ale, and sometimes received a gift of money as well. The visit concluded with a traditional farewell song.[9]

Hoodening was part of a wider "hooded animal" tradition that the folklorist E. C. Cawte identified as existing in different forms in various parts of Britain.[10] Features common to these customs were the use of a hobby horse, the performance at Christmas time, a song or spoken statement requesting payment, and the use of a team who included a man dressed in women's clothing.[11]

Etymology and origins[edit]

Perhaps derived from an ancient kingship ritual.[12] The Welsh Methodist revival and the rise of the Temperance movement in Welsh chapels during the Industrial Revolution started the demise of the tradition, as it had started to gain a reputation for drunkenness and the pagan connotations were being objected to by the church.[1][5] The influence of the church helped to change the form of the custom in some places, with Christmas carols being added to the singers' repertoire.[1][8] The tradition started fading through the first half of the twentieth century and had pretty much become extinct during the Second World War. Nowadays, some folk associations in Llantrisant,[1] Llangynwyd, Cowbridge and elsewhere are trying to revive it.

Cawte believed that that "Grey Mare" was the most likely original meaning of the term, noting that the mari lwyd appeared to represent a horse and that similar hobby horse customs in England, such as the hooden horse of East Kent, similarly made reference to horses with their name.[4]

Regional restrictions[edit]

In mapping the distribution of mari lwyd appearances, Cawte noted that it was principally a custom associated with Glamorganshire, with two thirds of instances falling within that county.[13] The custom stretched west into the industrial valleys of Monmouthshire, with the most westerly account coming from Monmouth itself; this account is also one of the earliest.[13] A number of examples were also found in Carmarthenshire,[14] with a single example found in both Brecknockshire and Cardiganshire.[15] There is a single record of the custom being performed in North Wales, in an example from Wrexham, which Cawte believed was the result of a Glamorgan man bringing the custom with him as he moved north.[14]

Cawte opined that there was "no clear reason" for the distribution of the mari lwyd custom, which cut through various local cultural features.[14] Those areas where it was found did not correlate with any distinction between English-speaking and Welsh-speaking areas in South Wales.[16] He acknowledged however that there was a "reasonable correspondence" between the areas in which the mari lwyd was recorded and the areas which were used for mineral production in the fourteenth century.[17] He therefore suggested the possibility that it might have been performed by coal and iron miners in western Glamorganshire, Carmarthenshire, and western Monmouthshire, and that from there it could have spread into those villages where goods were manufactured using those minerals.[17]

Recorded appearances[edit]

Early nineteenth century[edit]

The earliest published account of the mari lwyd appeared in 1800 in J. Evans' A Tour through Part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at Other Times.[18] Although the book itself focused on North Wales, the chapter in which the passage was included discussed the language and customs of Wales more generally.[18] In this section, Evans related that:

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.[19]

Evans returned to the custom in his 1804 work Letters Written During a Tour Through South Wales, in the year 1803, and at Other Times. Here he provided a clearer discussion than before, making it apparent that teams accompanying a man dressed as a horse or bull toured the local area from Christmas until after Twelfth Day, and that they were given food or money to leave the householders alone.[20]

The mari lwyd next appeared in an 1819 account from West Glamorgan, where the mari itself was termed an Aderyn Bee y llwyd ("Grey Magpie") and was accompanied by "three or four partners in the profits of the expedition, who are by turns horse, groom, or attendants".[21]

Bwca Llwyd[edit]

In Ritual Animal Disguise (1978), E.C. Cawte mentions a close relative of the Mari Lwyd, described by W. Roberts in an article in 1897.[22]

In "those parts of Wales" (Roberts was probably referring to Pembrokeshire), on All Hallows' Eve, a horse's head was made of canvas, stuffed with hay and painted. Mounted on a hay fork, the prongs of which were covered in leather to represent the horse's ears, the fork was manipulated by someone under the canvas "who guides the movements of the head as he wishes." Roberts (1897) says the custom is called Bwca Llwyd has been translated as "grey bogy".

Another description published in 1919 by H.W. Evans of a similarly constructed animal, extant at Solva in Pembrokeshire c.1840, is quoted by Cawte with a reproduction of Evans' drawing of the creature. It had gloves for ears and buttons for its eyes. Evans described it as "the Mari Lwyd of our district" but Cawte, who had no other records of the name or custom in Pembrokeshire, felt that he used the term Mari Lwyd "merely to indicate an animal disguise."[6] Since the publication of Cawte's book, however, more records of Mari Lwyd have come to light.[5]

Modern Mari Lwyd celebrations[edit]

A Mari Lwyd, during a celebration

The Mari Lwyd has become associated with a resurgent awareness of Welsh folk culture. For example, the town council of Aberystwyth (in Ceredigion, well outside the Mari Lwyd's traditional area) organised "The World's Largest Mari Lwyd" for the Millennium celebrations in 2000.[citation needed]

A Mari Lwyd performance can be seen every December at the St Fagans National History Museum.

Pwnco on the steps of Chepstow Museum, 2014

A mixture of the Mari Lwyd and Wassail customs occurs in the border town of Chepstow, South Wales, every January. A band of English Wassailers meet with the local Welsh Border Morris Side, The Widders, on the bridge in Chepstow. They greet each other and exchange flags in a gesture of friendship and unity and celebrate the occasion with dance and song before performing the "pwnco" on the steps of Chepstow Museum.[23]

The historian Ronald Hutton believed that the revival of the mari lwyd was in large part due to the "forces of local patriotism", noting that a similar situation had resulted in the resurrection of the hoodening tradition in East Kent.[24]

The Mari Lwyd in culture[edit]

The Mari Lwyd has prompted responses in the arts in Wales, giving the custom a new expressive life. Visual artists who have employed imagery from the Mari Lwyd include William Brown, Iwan Bala and Clive Hicks-Jenkins, whose series of drawings from around 2000 focused on a metamorphosing horse/man as a nightmarish harbinger of his father's death.[25]

The poet Vernon Watkins published his 'Ballad of the Mari Lwyd' in 1941. Rowan Williams has written that this, 'one of the outstanding poems of the century, draws together the folk-ritual of the New Year, the Christian Eucharist, the uneasy frontier between living and dead, so as to present a model of what poetry itself is - frontier work between death and life, old year and new, bread and body.'[26] Catriona Urquhart wrote a sequence of poems titled The Mare's Tale published by the Old Stile Press in 2001 as an artist's book with images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.[27]

The heroes in Susan Cooper's award-winning children's book 'Silver on the Tree' have to get past a nightmarish, supernatural incarnation of the Mari Lwyd (which she spells Mari Llywd).[28]

Other former Welsh horse customs[edit]

E.C. Cawte (1978) mentions three other separate Welsh customs involving horses' skulls or "horseplay", all described by W. Roberts in 1897.[6]

  • Giving a skull
In north Wales on the first of May the skull of a donkey or horse was put over a woman's door instead of a bunch of flowers to show disapproval.[6]
  • Charivari
A traditional punishment for infidelity or marital violence, the charivari involved a noisy parade in which the offending party or parties, or effigies representing them, were carried through the streets of the village or town where they lived. In Wales (and parts of Wessex) the party was accompanied by a horse's head, sometimes with horns on[29] (horns were a traditional sign of the cuckold). This was not a seasonal custom; it would be carried out as required to express the community's disapproval.[29]
  • Mynwenta or pynwenta
A horse's head, prepared as for the Mari Lwyd, was part of a spring festival in Pembrokeshire, known around 1820. Young men and women gathered at a mill for a night's entertainment with "dialogues and every kind of merriment".[6]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d Folkwales website: Mari Lwyd
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hole, Christina (1978). A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, pp185–187, Paladin Granada, ISBN 0-586-08293-X
  3. ^ a b Cawte 1978, p. 96; Hutton 1996, p. 83.
  4. ^ a b Cawte 1978, p. 96.
  5. ^ a b c d Folkwales website: Mari Lwyd: Llangynwyd
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Cawte, E.C. (1978) Ritual Animal Disguise pp94–109, Folklore Society (Mistletoe Series), D.S. Brewer, Ipswich
  7. ^ Cawte 1978, p. 96; Hutton 1996, pp. 83–84.
  8. ^ a b Folkwales website: Mari Lwyd: Llantrisant
  9. ^ National Museum Wales website: Mari Lwyd
  10. ^ Cawte 1978, p. 210.
  11. ^ Cawte 1978, pp. 210, 212.
  12. ^ Tompsen, Lyle (2012). The Mari Lwyd and the Horse Queen: Palimpsests of Ancient ideas'>[,
  13. ^ a b Cawte 1978, p. 104.
  14. ^ a b c Cawte 1978, p. 106.
  15. ^ Cawte 1978, pp. 104, 106.
  16. ^ Cawte 1978, p. 108.
  17. ^ a b Cawte 1978, p. 109.
  18. ^ a b Cawte 1978, p. 94.
  19. ^ Evans 1800, p. 403; Cawte 1978, p. 94.
  20. ^ Evans 1804, p. 441; Cawte 1978, p. 94.
  21. ^ Owen 1959, p. 55; Cawte 1978, p. 94–95.
  22. ^ W. Roberts (Newydd) "Mari Lwyd" and its Origin, Cardiff Naturalists' Society Report and Transactions, vol. XXIX, 1897, pp.83, 87–93, quoted in Cawte, E.C. Ritual Animal Disguise pp94–109, Folklore Society (Mistletoe Series), D.S. Brewer, Ipswich
  23. ^ The Widders Mari&Wassail page
  24. ^ Hutton 1996, p. 83.
  25. ^ Montserrat Prat, 'Metamorphosis of a Folk Tradition' in Simon Callow, Andrew Green, Rex Harley, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Kathe Koja, Anita Mills, Montserrat Prat, Jacqueline Thalmann, Damian Walford Davies and Marly Youmand, Clive Hicks-Jenkins (Lund Humprhies, 2011), pp63-79
  26. ^ Foreword by Rowan Williams in Vernon Watkins, New Selected Poems, edited by Richard Ramsbotham (Carcanet, Manchester, 2006), pp.ix-x
  27. ^ Catriona Urquhart and Clive Hicks-Jenkins, The Mare's Tale (Old Stile Press, Llandogo, 2001)
  28. ^ Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree (London: Chatto and Windus, 1977)
  29. ^ a b Cawte, E.C. (1978) Ritual Animal Disguise p192, Folklore Society (Mistletoe Series), D.S. Brewer, Ipswich, 1978


Cawte, E. C. (1978). Ritual Animal Disguise: A Historical and Geographical Study of Animal Disguise in the British Isles. Cambridge and Totowa: D.S. Brewer Ltd. and Rowman and Littlefield for the Folklore Society. ISBN 978-0859910286. 
Ettlinger, Ellen (1944). "The Occasion and Purpose of the 'Mari Lwyd' Ceremony". Man 44: 89–93. JSTOR 2791738. 
Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198205708. 
Owen, Trefor M. (1959). Welsh Folk Customs. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales. 
Peate, Iorwerth C. (1935). "A Welsh Wassail-Bowl: With a Note on the Mari Lwyd". Man 35: 81–82. JSTOR 2789906. 
Peate, Iorwerth C. (1939). "Mari Lwyd". Man 39: 136. JSTOR 2793408. 
Peate, Iorwerth C. (1939). "A Further Note on the 'Mari Lwyd'". Man 39: 32. JSTOR 2793144. 
Peate, Iorwerth C. (1943). "Mari Lwyd: A Suggested Explanation". Man 43: 53–58. JSTOR 2791759. 
Peate, Iorwerth C. (1963). "Mari Lwyd - Láir Bhán". Folk Life 1 (1): 95–96. doi:10.1179/043087763798255123. 
Saer, D. Roy (1976). "The Supposed Mari Lwyd of Pembrokeshire". Folk Life 14: 89–98. doi:10.1179/043087776798240549. 
Tems, Mick (1991). "The Mari Lwyd". English Dance and Song 53 (4): 12–13. 
Williams, Mary (1939). "Another Note on the 'Mari Lwyd'". Man 39: 96. JSTOR 2792365. 


  • Folktrax Recordings by Peter Kennedy and others during the 1940s and 1950s [1]
  • The Folk Songs of Britain, Vol. 9 Songs of Ceremony TOPIC 12-T-197, Topic Records 1971, includes Peter Kennedy's recording of the Mari Lwyd at Llangynyd, 1956 (with David Thomas, David Jenkins & Thomas Jenkins & group)
  • The Celfyddydau Mari Arts[2] sound archive includes a recording of Cynwyd Evans and Cwmni Caerdydd made at the Old House on New Year's Day, 1996
  • The Mari Lwyd (a traditional version), "Hyn", Carreg Lafar (1998)
  • The Mari Lwyd (a modern song by Hugh Lupton evoking the custom and its links with other traditions), sung by Chris Wood on "Ghosts" by the English Acoustic Collective (2000?), RUF Records RUFCD09; also on "Albion – an anthology" (2009), Navigator Records NAVIGATOR29

External links[edit]