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. This winter however, Wales has seen rather different looking Mari Lwyds going out. Some, such as the Carmarthen Mari, or rather ‘Mari Troellog’, has LEDs and flashing lights, others have been spray-painted in gold, and in communities and schools across the country, the specially designed flat-pack Mari Lwyd has been spotted causing havoc!
trac’s project officer Angharad Jenkins travelled around the country delivering workshops to schools and community groups on the Mari Lwyd, working with local enthusiasts Mair Tomos Ifans, Huw Roberts, Pat Smith, and Viv Morgan and Phil Larcher to bring communities together to learn about this unique Welsh tradition. Not only have people had the chance to learn about the background, but they’ve learnt the songs associated with the tradition, and about the ‘pwnco’ verse contest, with some writing their own new verses.
Where there hasn’t been a local real Mari Lwyd to hand, the flat-pack Mari, designed by David Pitt, has been incredibly useful. They have been warmly received, especially by school groups who will be using the pack as a resource for the future.
trac has worked with over 400 children on this project – in schools in Mold, Dolgellau, Tywyn, Llanelli, Swansea, Corris and Nefyn – all been made possible through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council of Wales. We have also been fortunate to work with partner organisations such as Urdd Gobaith Cymru, Menter Iaith Sir y Fflint and the Glyn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.
A beautifully illustrated booklet has now been 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. We have also worked with the film maker Craig Chapman to produce a short video to evaluate the project.
We hope that the flat-packs will be a resource for future learning, and to raise awareness about this unique Welsh tradition. They’re available through trac at a cost of £40 plus £8 p&p which includes the self-assembly cardboard horse skull, a DVD to guide you through the process of creating your Mari, and the booklet which will give you all the background you need to join in with the custom. You can order your fflat-pac Mari kit online at the bottom of this page. For destinations other than Britain or the US, please email us at email@example.com. Delivery is by courier ideally within 3 days.
If you are interested in holding a workshop for your local school or community in the future, please contact us.