The Mari Lwyd is a traditional folk custom that managed to survive in South Wales, particularly around the area of Glamorgan. It involves a hobby horse, which is a horse’s skull mounted on a pole with glass eyes, being carried by a person hidden under a large sheet of decorated white cloth, and it can freak the shit out of you the first time you see it.
The origins of the tradition, which is roughly pronounced ‘Mary Lloyd’, is a source of hot anthropological and folklorist debate. There is even schism on what Mari Lwyd actually means. I’m personally in the camp that thinks Mari Lwyd sould translate into Grey Mare, since llwyd the common Welsh word for “grey”. The Mari would have been a linguistic borrowing of the English word “mare”. Lending credence to this is the fact that “a similar hooded horse tradition found in Ireland and the Isle of Man, which is known in Irish as the Láir Bhán and in Manx as the Laare Vane, in both cases meaning “White Mare”. In English, white horses are usually referred to as greys.
By the time folklorists and anthropologists started paying attention to the Mari Lwyd in Wales, it had become part of the wassailing tradition around Christmas and New Years.
The earliest published account of the Mari Lwyd is found in J. Evans’ book A Tour through Part of North Wales, in the year 1798, and at Other Times … 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 would further describe the cutom in his 1804 work Letters Written During a Tour Through South Wales, in the year 1803, and at Other Times, where he explains 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.”
Around this same time, a famous Welsh harpist, Edward Jones of Merionethshire, published a book bemoaning the fact that the preachers and adherents of the Welsh Methodist revival were eroding old Welsh folk tradtions like the Mari Lwyd, because the customs were being decried as sinful. The Mari Lwyd continued on, however, because in 1819 there was an account from West Glamorgan of a Aderyn Bee y llwyd (roughly “Grey Magpie”) where the hooded animal was accompanied by “three or four partners in the profits of the expedition, who are by turns horse, groom, or attendants.” Prudish Victorians like the Reverend William Roberts, a Baptist minister at Blaenau Gwent, were still railing against the Mari Lwyd in 1852 as “a mixture of old Pagan and Popish ceremonies” and it was alive and well “in the Cardiff district, Bridgend, Llangynwyd, Neath and other Glamorgan districts” in 1935.
The Mari Lwyd dropped off sharply after WWII, but it came roaring back in the late 1960s with a resurage of Welsh nationalism. Nowadays, the Mari Lwyd continue sin several South Wales communities, where the hobby horse goes around to various homes and it’s attendants sing at the doors. People inside the houses sing back, and eventually the Grey Mare is welcomed inside for a bit of food and drink. Preferably the alcoholic kind of drink whose very fumes could strip paint.
Usually the modern Mari Lwyd has a dapper “Leader” to control and guide the hobby horse, as well as other stock characters, such as “the Sergeant”and “the Merryman”, as well as musicians and Punch and Judy (who are both played by men). The hobby horse, which is creepy enough on it’s own, also rushes around trying to scare the bejabbers out of any children (or adults) it can during it’s trip through a village. The Mari Lwyd particularly likely to single out young, pretty, unmarried women to chase.
I was fortunate enough to see a Mari Lwyd when I and my husband took our offspring to the St Fagans National Museum of History’s Christmas Nights. It was awesome. The only down side was that my 7 year old daughter started to cry after the Mari Lwyd chased her elder sisters for a bit. The hobby horse was, apparently, a little too freaky for her liking.
Many people have various theories as to the most ancient origins of this weird rite, but I think it is a holdover of pre-Christian horse worship. One of the few Celtic/Norse deities adopted by the Roman Empire was Epona, the goddess-horse. Just as the West Country traditional hobby-horse riders parading on May Day in places like Padstow, Cornwall and Minehead, Somerset – just across the Bristol Channel from Glamorgan — have survived to the mid-twentieth century “may have deep roots in the veneration of Epona”, the Mari Lywd might as well.
Epona, who could be represented as a white mare, was not only associated with horses, she was also associated with fertility and death, possibly guiding souls into the after-life. She was equivalent to Demeter Erinys (Vengeful Demeter) as the Great Mare, a kind of earth goddess in equine form, and as a diety with both birth and death in her job description, she would have been important at the midwinter solstice, when one solar year dies and new one is born.
What would be more fitting that the skull of a horse, the representation of the death aspect of Epona, visit your home to chase away any bad luck or lose spirits that might try manifest at the end of the year? Why not decorate the Death Epona with the life-affirming colors of Life Epona in the form of ribbons? Did the ribbons used to be bits of ivy or other colorful greenery? What would be more fitting than that Epona should chase pretty young women and children, whom she would bless and guard in her aspect of fertility come the new year?
Something like Epona would have had great cultural staying power, even if it was renamed. The pre-Christians of the British Isles almost certainly viewed horses as a sacred animal, and the hobby horse as a symbol of divinity would have been nearly bred into the Celtic bones. The giant chalk equine figure in Oxfordshire called the Uffington White Horse predates the Roman identification of Epona by more than a thousand years, but the idea of a divine horse was clearly in place even before the Celts set foot in Briton.
The horse, especially a white horse, was also a symbol of the sun in many Northern European cultures. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, and your average Neolithic person would undoubtedly want the ‘dead’ sun of the old year to be reborn. A horse skull on a stick chasing you around and getting a drink or two so it will return in it’s fleshy, fertile form the next day is definitely more appealing than a human or animal sacrifice to bring the sun back. Even after you’d converted to a new religion, you might want to keep Mari Lwyd around … just in case. To hedge your cosmic bets, so to speak.
In fact, the white horse has been an important symbol across the world and in myriad religions for eons:
Herodotus reported that white horses were held as sacred animals in the Achaemenid court of Xerxes the Great (ruled 486–465 BC) …. ancient Magyars sacrificed white stallions to [Hadúr] before battle … the white winged horse Pegasus was the son of Poseidon [who] was also the creator of horses, creating them out of the breaking waves … Odin‘s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, “the best horse among gods and men”, is described as grey … the war and fertility deity Svantovit owned an oracular white horse … In Zoroastrianism, the hypostasis of the star Sirius, is that of a white stallion … Kalki, the tenth incarnation of Vishnu and final world saviour, is predicted to appear riding a white horse, or in the form of a white horse … in the Book of Revelation, Christ rides a white horse out of heaven at the head of the armies of heaven … Saint James rides a white horse … [as does] Saint George … Twelver Shī’a Islamic traditions envisage that the Mahdi will appear riding a white horse … The city of Hanoi honours a white horse as its patron saint with a temple dedicated to this revered spirit, the White Horse or Bach Ma Temple.
The white horse would have been important to the societies who needed horses for survival, be it agriculture of warfare. She would have stuck around in the cultural folkways until she was absolutely drummed out by colonizing forces or new authorities. She could have remained in places where ‘civilization’ found it difficult to penetrate deeply enough to strong-arm the populace into accepting the new ways and rejecting all vestiges of the old. The white horse would have lived on in places like the Welsh Marches, the Isle of Mann, and the far reaches of Ireland. The white horse remains alive in the tales of Brittany and embedded the Mormond Hill of Scotland.
The white horse would have remained as the Mari Lwyd.