Mari Lwyd: the winter horse
The Mari Lwyd is uniquely Welsh, yet part of a tradition stretching across Europe and beyond, and back in time to the earliest cave-painted shaman figures in their animal masks. Seasonal customs with songs and the sharing of food and drink occur throughout the year but a midwinter ritual with the horse at its centre taps into a particular vein of folk custom.
The horse – and especially the White Horse – has always had an iconic place in the mythology and consciousness of the Islands of Britain. Think of the chalk-cut horses on the Downs; or Rhiannon in the Mabinogi, identified by scholars with the horse goddess Epona; or the traditional taboo in Britain against eating horse-meat, let alone the many folk customs such as the Padstow Obby Oss or the Kentish Hooden Horse.
The strongest and most unbroken Mari Lwyd is at Llangynwyd in South Wales, but elsewhere the re-established traditions go back several decades. Tradition is a living thing, constantly renewed, or else it becomes simply historical re-enactment. There are many variants of the Mari Lwyd tradition across Wales. In the north-east of Wales the Mari is part of the Cadi Ha celebrations for May Day. Anglesey has (or had) its own specific local Mari customs, likewise the Gower. Mari Parties are active throughout Wales, with new ones are coming into existence every year. Local distinctiveness is a fine thing – find your local tradition, buried or living, and work with it to breathe new life into it.
Of course, of all the horse customs found in the British Isles, only the Mari Lwyd has a poetry competition at its heart. The Pwnco might be a challenge for some parts of 21st century Wales now that village bards are scarcer, but learned or improvised, the lyrics and the contest give scope for local and topical references, and showcase the traditional Welsh love of language and poetry.
Traditionally, we know the Mari Lwyd as a horse’s skull on a pole, decorated with ribbons and bells, and the bottom of glass bottles for eyes. Increasingly these days, new Maris reflect the imaginations of their parties. ‘Mari Troellog’, the Carmarthen Mari, is decorated with spirals and has LED lights for eyes. Others have been spray-painted in gold or decorated with flowers and in communities and schools across the country, the specially designed flat-pack Mari Lwyd has been spotted causing havoc!
trac staff travelled around the country delivering workshops to schools and community groups on the Mari Lwyd, working with local enthusiasts to bring communities together to learn about this unique Welsh tradition. People learned about the background, the songs associated with the tradition and about the ‘pwnco’ verse contest, with some writing their own new verses. Where there wasn’t a local real Mari Lwyd to hand, the flat-pack Mari designed by David Pitt has been incredibly useful. Many schools and local groups will be using the pack as a resource for the future.
trac worked with over 400 children on this project, in schools in Mold, Dolgellau, Tywyn, Llanelli, Swansea, Corris and Nefyn, made possible through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of Wales. You can watch a short video about the project below.
A beautifully illustrated booklet was published as part of the project. In it, historian Rhiannon Ifans explains the history of the custom and gives versions of a number of Mari songs together with translations of the verses. Many Mari Lwyds appear in the booklet, and we’d like to thank everyone who sent us pictures of their Mari. Scroll down to buy your copy!
Trac Cymru’s ‘fflat-pac’ Mari kit is not currently on sale by post but should be available in time for the 2021/2022 Mari season.
Below you’ll find a film about Trac Cymru’s Mari Lwyd community project, as well as a look at the sources for the custom and a playlist of examples from around Wales, and a playlist of three videos to show how to make the fflat-pac Mari.
Buy the Mari Lwyd book here: 72 pages with illustrations, songs and background. Fully bilingual
Buyers abroad: please scroll down for your postage and packing rate.