I have only ever been to Wales once. It was well over fifteen years ago, but I can still remember being silenced by the tameless landscapes, the true dark of the sky, the uncanny feeling of it being a place of otherness. I’ve been meaning to go back for ages, and now, after reading into the wonderfully strange tradition of the Mari Lwyd, I feel it won’t be long before I’m back.
Every wintertime, during the season’s festivities, a decorated horse skull would be mounted on a pole and covered in a white sheet (or a woman’s shawl). Someone would then crawl underneath the sheet and take on the responsibility of animating the Mari Lwyd. Accompanying the Mari Lwyd would be a troupe of men, and, when dusk arrived, they would start their journey through the village, stopping at houses on the way.
They would knock on the door and, though the medium of song, request entry. The people inside the house were expected to deny them and would be challenged to sing a verse for every verse the troupe sang. This could go on for hours. Eventually, the occupants would relent and the troupe would be allowed in. The Mari Lwyd itself would chase the women and children around the house, clacking its humongous jaws and generally causing havoc. The troupe would be offered food and beer before going on their way.
Author and Druid Kristoffer Huges said of the Mari Lwyd’s origins and function ‘She comes from the land of the dead, from the Otherworld, a reminder of the function of winter and the mysteries of life, dead and rebirth.’
A lot of speculation surrounds the tradition of the Mari Lwyd. Even the origins of her name are shrouded in mystery. One Welsh translation of the name is Grey Mare which connects the Mari Lwyd to the pale hoses of Celtic and British mythology.
With regards to the significance of the practice, Kristoffer Huges observes ‘Whilst we may have lost the actual meaning of the Mari Lwyd tradition, to be near her is to sense the mystery that she expresses. There is an undeniable magic to her presence that seems to tease at long lost memories hid in the depths of our cultural memory.’