The Mari Lwyd is a wassailing folk custom found in South Wales. The tradition entails the use of an eponymous hobby horse which is made from a horse's skull mounted on a pole and carried by an individual hidden under a sackcloth. It represents a regional variation of a "hooded animal" tradition that appears in various forms throughout Britain.
As recorded from the early nineteenth through to the early twentieth centuries, the Mari Lwyd was a tradition performed at Christmas time by groups of men. They would form into teams to accompany the horse on its travels around the local area, and although the makeup of such groups varied, they typically included an individual to carry the horse, a leader, and individuals dressed as stock characters such as Punch and Judy. The team would then carry the Mari Lwyd to local houses, where they would request entry through the medium of song. The householders would be expected to deny them entry, again through song, and the two sides would continue their responses to one another in this means. If the householders eventually relented, then the team would be permitted entry to the house and given food and drink.
Although the custom was given various names, it was best known as the Mari Lwyd; the etymology of this term remains the subject of academic debate. The folklorist Iorwerth C. Peate believed that the term meant "Holy Mary" and thus was a reference to the Virgin Mary, while fellow folklorist E. C. Cawte thought it more likely that the term had originally meant "Grey Mare", thus referring to the heads' equine appearance.
The Mari Lwyd itself consists of a horse's skull that is 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. On occasion, the horse's head was represented not by a skull but was instead made from wood or even paper. 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. The Mari Lwyd custom was performed during festivities around Christmas time and New Year, although the precise date on which this was done varied. There is a unique example provided by an account from Gower in which the head was kept buried throughout the year, only being dug up for use during the Christmas period.
The custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night. Now it may start earlier in the day (as at Llangynwyd, where it begins at 2pm on New Year's Day). The Mari party consisted of four to seven men, who often had coloured ribbons and rosettes attached to their clothes and sometimes wore a broad sash around the waist. 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.
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 – known as the pwngco – 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. An account from Nantgarw described such a performance, in which the Punch and Judy characters would cause a noise, with Punch tapping the ground to the rhythm of the music and rapping on the door with a poker, while Judy brushed the ground, house walls, and windows, with a broom. The householders had to make Punch promise that he would not touch their fireplace before he entered the building, otherwise it was the local custom that before he left he would rake out the fire with his poker.
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. Peate believed that in recorded examples from Glamorganshire it was apparent that the Mari Lwyd custom had become "indistinguishable" from the practice of wassailing, although added that there were still some examples of wassailing that did not involve the Mari Lwyd. He added that links between Mari Lwyd and wassailing were also apparent from recorded examples in other part of Wales, thus opining that Mari Lwyd represented a variant of the wider wassailing custom that was found throughout Britain.
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. 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.
Etymology and origins
Most recorded sources term this particular custom Mari Lwyd. Peate originally believed that the term Mari Lwyd translated as "Holy Mary", a reference to the Virgin Mary, a key religious figure in Roman Catholicism. Although some of his acquaintances later suggested that the use of Mari for Mary was unknown in Wales prior to the Protestant Reformation, he countered these criticisms with the observation that the term Mari was being used in reference to the Virgin in the mid-fourteenth century Black Book of Carmarthen, thus attesting to its early usage within Welsh. He nevertheless accepted that during the Medieval, the term might have been restricted largely to poets, given that there is no evidence of its usage among the common dialect in this period.
Given that lwyd is a common term for "grey" in the Welsh language and that Welsh speakers would have been exposed to the English word "mare", an alternative suggestion considered by Peate was that the term Mari Lwyd had originally meant "Grey Mare". This etymological explanation would have parallels with the name of a similar hooded horse tradition found in Ireland and the Isle of Man, which is known in the former as the Láir Bhán and the latter as the Laare Vane, in both cases meaning "White Mare". Initially believing that "there is much to be said for this suggestion", he later embraced it fully. Cawte similarly 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 neighbouring England, such as the hooden horse of East Kent, also made reference to horses with their name. Peate suggested that even if the term Mari Lwyd had originally referred to a "Grey Mare", it could still have come to be associated with the Virgin Mary in popular folk culture following the Reformation, thus explaining why the Virgin Mary is referred to in the lyrics of some surviving Welsh wassailing songs.
A further suggestion is that Mari Lwyd derives from the English term Merry Lude, referring to a merry game, however Peate expressed opposition this idea, arguing that if the latter was converted into Welsh then the result would be merri-liwt or merri-liwd. Peate also dismissed the idea that had been suggested to him that the term Mari in this context had derived from Morris, a reference to Morris dancing. Further casting doubt on this idea is the fact that there is no known historical link between the Mari Lwyd and the Morris dance, while the latter was found largely in North Wales and the former largely in the South.
In other recorded instances, the Mary Lwyd custom is given different names, with it being recorded as Y Wasail ("The Wassail") in parts of Carmarthenshire. In the first half of the nineteenth-century it was recorded in Pembrokeshire under the name of Y March ("The Horse") and Y Gynfas-farch ("The Canvas Horse"). One account from West Glamorgan has the head termed the aderyn bee y ilwyd, meaning the "Grey Magpie", although this may be due to an error on the part of the recorder, who could have confused the horse's head for the aderyn pica llwyd, an artificial bird in a tree that was carried by wassailers in the same area.
Putative pre-Christian origins
Peate was of the opinion that the Mari Lwyd was "no doubt a survival of a pre-Christian tradition" that had once been spread across Britain and other parts of Europe, and which – having survived the Christianisation of Britain – had been renamed mari lwyd in reference to the Virgin Mary during the Middle Ages. He expressed the view that the original custom had been "horrific in origin and intention" and that from an early date it had been connected to wassailing. Cawte concurred that it was "reasonable to accept" that the Mari Lwyd head had become attached to an independent wassailing tradition, although expressed the view that the connection to the Virgin Mary was unnecessary. Pearce also suggested the possibility that in parts of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire the mari lwyd tradition came under the influence of Miracle plays, thus explaining why later recorded examples from those counties contained characters known as "the Sergeant" and the "Merryman". Embracing Peate's suggestion of ancient origins, Ellen Ettlinger believed that the Mari Lwyd represented a "death horse", as symbolised by the white cloth worn by its carrier, suggesting that it was originally employed in a pre-Christian ritual to mark the festival of Samhain. Lyle Tompsen examined possible roots in Indo-European traditions.
Although there are exceptions , after 1970 the folkloric trend for interpreting such hobby horse traditions as pre-Christian survivals had ended, as scholars came to express greater caution about proposing origins for such customs. Owen argued that given that there was no obvious religious component to the Mari Lwyd custom there was no reason to view it as a survival of pre-Christian cultic behaviour.
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. 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. A number of examples were also found in Carmarthenshire, with a single example found in both Brecknockshire and Cardiganshire. 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. Previously, the Welsh folklorist Iorwerth C. Peate had however cautioned that the comparative absence of recorded examples from Mid and North Wales was not proof that the Mari Lwyd custom had never been present in these areas.
Cawte opined that there was "no clear reason" for the distribution of the Mari Lwyd custom, which cut through various local cultural features. Those areas where it was found did not correlate with any distinction between English-speaking and Welsh-speaking areas in South Wales. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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".
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. 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.
Twentieth century revival
In a 1935 article on the subject of the Mari Lwyd, Peate stated that the tradition "is still met with; it is practised in the Cardiff district, Bridgend, Llangynwyd, Neath and other Glamorgan districts." He highlighted an example from Christmas Eve 1934, in which a Mari Lwyd was observed performing alongside at least twelve singers in a chemist's shop in the Mumbles, Swansea. Ellen Ettlinger subsequently noted that "Dr. Peate deserves the sincerest gratitude of all folk-lore students for having so valiantly penetrated the mysteries surrounding the Mari Lwyd."
The historian Ronald Hutton stated that the Mari Lwyd tradition appeared to have become defunct in the early twentieth century. In the middle of that century it was revived in Llangynwyd. During the 1980s, further revived forms of the Mari Lwyd tradition emerged in Caerphilly, Llantrisant, and St Fagans, all of which were in the same borderland between Vale and mountains. Hutton believed that it has re-emerged in this region in part because people in Glamorgan sought to reaffirm their sense of cultural identity during the termination of their traditional industries, and partly because the Welsh Folk Museum was located in the area. More widely, he 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.A Mari Lwyd performance can be seen every December at the St Fagans National History Museum.
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. 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.
The Mari Lwyd in culture
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.
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.' 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.
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).
Related Welsh customs
In 1919, H. W. Evans recorded the existence of a similar custom which had existed in Solva, Pembrokeshire circa 1840, during his mother's childhood. He described it as a "Mari Lwyd" and provided a drawing of it using his mother's recollections as a basis, although was unaware of how it had been used. According to this description, it consisted of a sheet that had been sewn together along two adjacent sides to make a cone, which was then stuffed with hay and decorated with buttons for eyes and harvest gloves for ears, thus resembling an animal's snout. An individual could conceal themselves under the sheet and use a hayfork inserted into the hay to hold it up. A similar custom appears in an account from 1897, in which an entity known as the Bwca Llwyd ("Grey Bogy") was described; it involved an imitation horse's head being made from canvas and stuffed with hay, being carried about using a hay fork on All Hallow's Eve.
Cawte also noted the example of other Welsh folk customs featuring the head of a horse, however he opined that these "so not seem to be closely related to the mari lwyd". A horse's head was prepared in a manner akin to the Mari Lwyd for a spring festival known as the mynwenta or pynwenta, which took place in Pembrokeshire circa 1820. As part of this festival, young men and women gathered at a mill for a night's entertainment. In the late nineteenth century, a tradition was recorded in North Wales that was known as "giving a skull", in which the skull of a horse or donkey was placed over a the front door of a woman's house on May Day as a sign of contempt. In parts of Wales a horse's head – sometimes with horns attached – was featured as part of the charivari processions designed to shame those who were deemed to have behaved in an immoral manner.
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- Tompsen 2011.
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- Folkwales website: Mari Lwyd
- Folkwales website: Mari Lwyd: Llantrisant
- Ettlinger 1944, p. 89.
- "The Mari Lwyd". National Museum Wales website.
- The Widders Mari&Wassail page
- 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
- Foreword by Rowan Williams in Vernon Watkins, New Selected Poems, edited by Richard Ramsbotham (Carcanet, Manchester, 2006), pp.ix-x
- Catriona Urquhart and Clive Hicks-Jenkins, The Mare's Tale (Old Stile Press, Llandogo, 2001)
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- Blake, L. (1967). "The Mari Lwyd". English Dance and Song 29 (2): 45.
- Blake, L. (1968). "Origins of the Mari Lwyd". Country Life. CXLIII (3710): 901.
- 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.
- David, F. U. (1968). "Childhood Horrors of the Mari Lwyd". Country Life. CXLIII (3707): 677.
- Ettlinger, Ellen (1944). "The Occasion and Purpose of the 'Mari Lwyd' Ceremony". Man 44: 89–93. JSTOR 2791738.
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- Hutton, Ronald (1996). The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198205708.
- Jones, D. (1888). "The Mari Lwyd: A Twelfth Night Custom". Archaeologia Cambrensis 5: 389–393.
- 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. (1963). "Mari Lwyd - Láir Bhán". Folk Life 1 (1): 95–96. doi:10.1179/043087763798255123.
- Roberts, W. (1897). "Mari Lwyd and its Origin". Cardiff Naturalists' Society Report and Transactions 29. pp. 83, 87–93.
- 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.
- Tompsen, Lyle (2011). Horse Queens, Modern Palimpsest of Ancient Ideas. Lampeter: University of Wales.
- Folktrax Recordings by Peter Kennedy and others during the 1940s and 1950s 
- 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 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
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