The Mari Lwyd

The 'Mari Lwyd' welsh new year tradition
January 12 2013 People in Llandre village outside Aberystwyth Wales UK celebrate one of the strangest and oldest of Welsh customs as they take ‘The Mari Lwyd’ to visit homes in the community. The ‘Mari Lwyd’ (‘Grey Mare’ or ‘Gray Mary’ in English) is a Welsh midwinter tradition, possibly to celebrate New Year, although it formerly took place over a period stretching from Christmas to late January. It is a form of visiting wassail, a luck-bringing ritual in which a the participants accompany a person disguised as a horse from house to house including Public house pubs and sing at each door in the hope of gaining admittance and being rewarded with food and drink.


Photo and Caption:© Keith Morris 2013 / http://www.artswebwales.com (used with permission)

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The custom of carrying a horse’s head around at New Year is a well established folk tradition in Wales. But how old is it? The example in the picture above from the village where I live is certainly a recent revival, seeking to maintain old customs and cultural survivals, and none the worse for that. Elsewhere in Wales, particularly in Glamorgan, the custom has a longer continuity. The name Mari Lwyd (Grey Mary) has been linked to ceremonies connected with the Virgin Mary, though the folklorist Iorwerth Peate, writing in the 1930s, thought that it should be construed as ‘Grey Mare’ and that it had its origins in pre-christian practices, possibly transferred to Mary in the Middle Ages. More recent folklorists have been reticent to make this connection and its continuity is doubted by Ronald Hutton. Nevertheless the custom has a deep resonance about it that connects with ancestral memories in a way that does not require proof of unbroken continuity.

The poet Vernon Watkins wrote of the custom in his  ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ in 1941. The whole poem covers more than twenty pages and alternates different voices, together with an ‘announcer’ to convey the New Year custom in Wales of carrying a horse’s head from house to house.

Here is an extract:

Mari  Lwyd , Horse of the Frost, Star-horse and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.

[…..]

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.
A knock of the sands on the glass of the grave,
A knock on  the sands of the shore,
A knock of the horse’s head of the wave,
A beggar’s knock on the door.
A knock of a moth and the pane of light,
In the beat of the blood a knock.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

The sands in the glass, the shrinking sands,
And the picklock, picklock, picklock, hands.

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

In the poet’s own note to the poem following its first publication he asserts that it was a well-established custom remembered from his childhood:

“Mari Lwyd – the Grey Mari, the Grey Mare – was a white or grey horse’s head modelled in wood, painted, and hung with ribbons, carried from house to house on the last night of the year.
The carriers were usually a party of singers, wits, and impromptu poets, who, on the pretext of blessing, boasting of the sanctity of what they carried, tried to gain entrance to a house for the sake of obtaining food and drink. The method they used was to challenge those within to a rhyming contest. The inmates would keep them out so long as they were not in want of a rhyme, but when they failed to reply to the challenger the right of entry was gained. The singers would then bring their horse’s head in, lay it on the table, and eat and drink with the losers of the contest.
The singers came every year to my father’s house; and listening to them at midnight, I found myself imagining a skull, a horse’s skull decked with ribbons, followed and surrounded by all kinds of drunken claims and holy deceptions.  I have attempted to bring together those who are separated. The last breath of the year is their threshold, the moment of supreme forgiveness, confusion and understanding, the profane and sacred moment impossible to realize while the clock-hands divide the Living from the Dead.”

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Details of more recent practice of the custom can be found Here and there is You Tube footage with commentary Here.  All of these recent enactments take place around New Year, but is this the right time for the practice? Iorwerth Peate thought that is properly belonged to Samhain and I have always thought of it in this way and many years ago  wrote my own fictional setting for it in this context : Grey Mare of the Night. Its transference to New Year, however, may be significant of the movement from darkness to returning light. Vernon Watkins’ poem is seen from the perspective of those within the houses which are visited by the Mari. Many years later in the 1960s he wrote a sequel to the earlier ballad entitled Ballad of the Outer Dark.   The later ballad in one sense picks up where the earlier one left off, the inmates of the house going out into the night bearing the horse’s head, taking the interpretation of the custom a stage further as if the Dark itself needed to be embraced as the voices move beyond the circle of Light.

Here the experience is not of being within the house but outside as one voice says:

The fire we loved, the hours we lived
Are snatched away by thieves.

and another voice responds:

We are ourselves the shafts of white
Those men of firelight mock.
And we must drift like flakes of snow
That know not where to rest,
So soft upon the night they go
Whom none will take for guest.

But the horse’s head is, in fact, brought in. The ancestors are met with on their own terms and go back to the land of the dead and the light returns for the living. So the later ballad in some ways completes the earlier one in transcending the rejection of the ‘Outer Dark’. This seems a plausible explanation of the custom of carrying the head of the Mari Lwyd  from house to house at New Year though the custom itself seems to be resonant of the whole period from the coming of Winter at Samhain through to New Year Calends and the prospect of returning light at Imbolc.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Mari Lwyd

  1. There is a Mari Llwyd ‘procession’ visiting pubs (of course) organised by the London Welsh centre on the 15th – I am going along with a couple of ex-pats 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s lovely to see the picture of the Grey Mare from Llandre 🙂

    I also like the alternation of the ticking clock with the knocking in the Vernon Watkins poem with the emphasis on midnight being the threshold.

    Was there a Mari Lwyd procession in Llandre this year?

    Like

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