By guest writer, Chase Day.
I’m not sure where I first saw a Mari Lwyd, but I can remember registering pictures of skeletal horses appearing in my Facebook news feed. I am a long time horse lover with a fascination for the unusual (and taxidermy) and something about this compelling character reached out to me and fascinated me. I did a google search and came across pictures of these equine characters from the past. Maybe it was memories of reading Susan Cooper as a kid, maybe it was my natural attraction to the bizarre and macabre… whatever it was, I was hooked.
I decided then and there that I wished to make one…
As a reenactor, I am not unfamiliar to making things with my hands, but this was easier said than done. My own horses were all (thankfully) very much alive and cautious enquiries about sourcing equine skulls were met with raised eyebrows and worried looks. Thankfully, I finally chased down two leads and one fine February day found me driving across to the other side of Melbourne to collect my first part of my Mari Lwyd journey from an abattoir. It was rather fresh and a bit confronting, but I steeled myself to enjoy all parts of the creative process. I was ably assisted by Craig Sitch of Manning Imperial. This is not his normal line of work, but he rose to the challenge and his experience preparing bone for his armoury work was invaluable.
The cleaning of the skull was an interesting experience that is still ongoing. “Ketchup”, as the skull was named, is still drying out 12 months later. The hardest part was not the cleaning work, it was seeing the hardships and evidence of poor care that the animal had endured in its life. When dealing with death, there is some contemplation of the life that was lived. This connection to death and its transformation into another form was the first part of the empowering process of my Mari Lwyd. In a world where most of humanity (me included) are distanced from death, seeing it so closely and personally was humbling.
My second lead was my equine dental vet who sourced me a dissection specimen that had been ‘field cured’ for several years. A late night handover, under a street lamp, in a small country town and she was mine (we hadn’t intended it to appear so furtive and suspicious, but it was the only time and place we could agree on in our busy schedules). Although somewhat dirty, this skull had dried out and was much easier to clean up and prepare. The animal also appeared to have been strong and in good health. Drying her in front of the fire in my living room fascinated the dog though, who felt we had bought him a bone of epic proportions.
Dressing my Mari Lwyd was when the fun began. I pored over pictures on the internet, both recent ones and old black and white photos. I decided to go quite traditional with a white shroud draping, a flowered crown across the back of the head trailing ribbons and bells, bright blue eyes (made from silk covered coffee jar lids) and perky leather ears. The hardest part was designing the method of attaching the head to a carrying pole, and also the mechanism to make the jaw articulate. Again, Craig was called upon to help solve the conundrum. With no existing local Mari Lwyds to examine and with photos being unclear, Craig developed his own solution, which works rather well. I myself designed a harness to help making the carrying of the Mari Lwyd a little easier.
Then to decide on a name…. as a medieval reenactor I had come across the Roman De Fauvel by Gervais du Bus. This 14th Century French satirical allegorical poem which tells the story of Fauvel, a horse that becomes prominent in the court of France. The name Fauvel can be broken down to mean false veil or forms an acronym FAVVEL (Flattery, Avarice, Vileness, Variability, Envy and Laxity). He lives in a grand house by the Grace of Dame Fortune. Leaders make pilgrimages to see him. These supplicants condescend to brush and clean Fauvel. The tale gave rise to the term “to curry fauvel”, which later evolved to the modern expression “to curry favour”.
The Mari Lwyd is commonly considered to be a type of wassailing. The term wassail literally means wæs heil (to be whole) and is concerned with inducing prosperity and good health through ceremonial drinking (Peate 1935). In the folk tradition of parts of Wales there is a ceremonial canu yn drws (singing at doors) where the Mari Lwyd processes from house to house, where the residents are challenged to a battle of rhyming insults (pwnco) by the Mari Lwyd. If they lose, the householder invites the Mari Lwyd into their house to be plied with refreshments in exchange for blessings of health and prosperity for the coming year (Owen 1973). Given this supplication of the Mari Lwyd to bring good fortune, a name that relates a horse that was known for being beseeched for favours was an excellent fit. The plan is to incorporate a curry comb into Fauvel’s routine so well wishers will be able to brush Fauvel.
With the flipped antipodean seasons, Christmas and Winter Solstice do not fall at the same time in the year. Consequently, Fauvel made her debut at a winter solstice bonfire in June 2018. Craig Sitch stepped up as ostler in a full Victorian costume and a great deal of fun was had. It was amazing to see how much Fauvel looked like the Mari Lwyds I had admired from afar. Most surprising, though, was the transformative experience of becoming the Mari Lwyd. The identity of the handler falls away, and you become the Mari Lwyd.
Fauvel has not been let out to frolic again since her initial outing. Mari Lwyds are not well known in my area and are not part of the Christmas tradition. This intervening time has been spent voraciously studying the tradition of the Mari Lwyd. TRAC were invaluable with their information booklet. In addition, David Waldron – a lecturer in History and Anthropology at Federation University, Ballarat and Admin of the Facebook page Folklore from the Archives – was invaluable using his research connections and experience to provide me with a supply of articles dating back to the 1940s and also advising of different avenues for exploration on social media. It was David who set me on the trail to find the Mari Lwyd website.
We are hoping to take Fauvel to The English Ale in South Australia in May and also possibly to take part in Ballarat Heritage Weekend later that same month. There will also be Winter Solstice festivities in June 2019.
For more information on the adventure of Fauvel, you can follow her at https://www.facebook.com/Fauvel-The-Australian-Mari-Lwyd-398246100947485/
Note – I have not touched on the religious aspect of the Mari Lwyd tradition, I believe that religion is a personal expression and we are all on an individual journey. I have only discussed what my Mari Lwyd means to me. I hope my approach and somewhat isolated inexperience does not offend anyone. If it does it was not intentional.
Owen, T. M. (1973) “The Celebration of Candlemas in Wales”, Folklore, Vol 84, No. 3, pp. 238 – 251
Peate, I. C. (1935) “A Welsh Wassail Bowl: With a Note on the Mari Lwyd”, Man, Vol 35, pp. 81-82