"Mari Lwyd" meaning "Gray Mare" is an ancient Welsh tradition celebrating the end of the Christmas season (taking place from Christmas into January). A group of singers would go from house to house (including pubs) with the Mari Lywd and try to gain entry by a verbal contest with the inhabitants. The Mari Lwyd consists of a horse's skull with false eyes and and ears and a white sheet which was attached to the skull to make the body. Sometimes the horse head was actually made from wood. The jaws were wired so they could be snapped. Bells were attached to the reins and horse adorned with colorful ribbons. Either a person dressed up as the Mari Lwyd or it was carried on a pole.
The custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night. The Mari Lwyd party consisted of four to seven men, who often had coloured ribbons and rosettes attached to their clothes and sometimes wore a broad sash around the waist. There was usually a smartly dressed "Leader" who carried a staff, stick, or whip, and sometimes other stock characters, such as the "Merryman" who played music, and Punch and Judy (both played by men) with blackened faces; often brightly dressed, Punch carried a long metal fire iron and Judy had a besom.
The Mari Lwyd party would approach a house and sing a song in which they requested admittance. The inhabitants of the house would then offer excuses for why the team could not enter. The party would sing a second verse, and the debate between the two sides – known as the pwnco – would continue until the house's inhabitants ran out of ideas, at which time they were obliged to allow the party entry and to provide them with ale and food. An account from Nantgarw described such a performance, in which the Punch and Judy characters would cause a noise, with Punch tapping the ground to the rhythm of the music and rapping on the door with a poker, while Judy brushed the ground, house walls, and windows with a broom. The householders had to make Punch promise that he would not touch their fireplace before he entered the building, otherwise it was the local custom that before he left he would rake out the fire with his poker.
Once inside, the entertainment continued with the Mari Lwyd running around neighing and snapping its jaws, creating havoc, frightening children (and perhaps even adults) while the Leader pretended to try to restrain it. The Merryman played music and entertained the householders.
You can see how this ceremony was performed in this black and white film of men in the village of Llangynwyd carrying out the tradition of the Mari Lwyd, BBC Wales program, Lolfa, 1966.
And this black and white film recorded in Tregaron(?) performing the Lari Lwyd ritual on Christmas Eve 1964, currently kept in National Library Of Wales.
The origin of the tradition is uncertain but it is believed that it is pre-Christian and possibly associated with Welsh mythological character Rhiannon from the Welsh folk epic Mabinogion. Rhiannon, who came from the otherworld, rode a shining white horse.
But is it possible that this skeletal grey mare has a solar symbolism?
In Slavic mythology, sun god Svetovid had a white stallion as his sacred animal. You can read more about the solar horse in my post about the Slavic sun god Svetovid.
Now it is very likely that this is the same white solar stallion we see depicted on many Celtic coins, like this one:
This white stallion was the symbol of the bright, warm, summer sun, which shines around the time of the summer solstice. The stallion is in this way linked with the Sky father who dominates this part of the year.
The dead skeletal grey mare would then be a good symbol for dim, cold, winter sun, which shines around the time of the winter solstice? The mare is in this way linked with the Earth mother who dominates this part of the year.
That the whole ritual could have a solar symbolism can also be seen from the part which concerns the fire. The fact that Judy carries the fireplace poker and is made to promise not to touch the fire could be a remnant of the old winter solstice fire magic ritual which is still preserved in Serbia. In Serbia, every Christmas eve, a yule log was ceremonially placed in the fire place, and was supposed to burn through Christmas night and Christmas day. This symbolically insured that the fire of the sun would burn through the winter and that the summer would arrive again. On Christmas day, a special fire poking ritual was performed by the first man that crosses the house doorstep. As he poked the fire he tried to make as many sparks as possible, all the while reciting this spell: "As many sparks, as much luck, as many sparks as much happiness, as many sparks as much health, as many sparks as many cattle, as many sparks as much grain..." This Serbian ritual was intended to bring good bountiful year to the family in whose house it was performed. Maybe similar fire poking was once part of Mari Lwyd ritual???
What do you think?
PS: When I originally wrote this article, I didn't know about animal calendar markers...Basically using animals, whose mating or birthing season always happens at the same time during the solar year, as symbol for that part of the solar year...Now I know...
What does this have to do with solar horses? Well, wild horse mating season starts in April and ends in September, peaking on summer solstice, because mare fertility is directly driven by the day length...