The Mari Lwyd
The Mari Lwyd is a horse skull with glass eyes and an articulated jaw, mounted on a pole and carried by a person hidden beneath the long white cloth draped over the skull and around the pole. On New Year’s Day the Mari Lwyd and attendants go from house to house in the community, singing at the door, asking to come in. The occupants reply with their own verses to prevent the Mari Lwyd from entering. Eventually, she is invited in and offered drinks and food, bringing good luck for the coming year.
The Mari Lwyd seems to be unique to South Wales though the Hoodening in Kent and the Old Horse in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire are similar hooded animals associated with mid winter. The Padstow Obby Oss parades on May Day but again, there are obvious connections with the Mari Lwyd.
Mari Lloyd possibly means grey mare but grey horses are white so Mari Lloyd may be a white horse. Epona, the Celtic goddess associated with fertility and death, was a white horse. The Uffington White Horse, dating from the late Bronze Age, is aligned to the midwinter sun and may represent the solar horse that pulled the chariot of the sun across the sky. Pegasus was a winged white horse. Odin’s eight legged horse Sleipner was white, and of course, the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse rode a white horse.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death. Revelations 6:8
Vernon Watkins wrote about the Mari Lwyd in The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd, published in 1941. In it he imagined those inside the house, waiting for Mari Lwyd’s visit.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.
Out in the night the nightmares ride;
And the nightmare’s hooves draw near.
Dead men pummel the panes outside.
And the living quake with fear.
In The Ballard of the Outer Dark, published after his death, Watkins sends the inhabitants of the house out into the darkness, carrying the horse’s head, to confront the dark.
Welsh customs like the Mari Lwyd were revived in the late 1960’s with the resurgence of Welsh Nationalism.
A nation is held together not so much by borders as by the stories, the founding myths the nation tells itself. Historical accuracy is of less significance than shared ceremony. The land itself is part of that ceremony. The Uffington White Horse is physically cut into the hill, and deeply, too. The lines are up to a metre deep, no light scratches. We may not remember exactly why these ceremonies were important but the barely healed scars that hide these old memories still niggle and ache a little.