Shall We Let Her In? Musings on the Mari Lwyd as a Liminal Guide.

The Mari Lwyd is a form of hobby horse known as a mast horse. She consists of a hinged head of a horse skull mounted on a pole. Her head is usually covered with garlands and ribbons and she wears a long cloth shroud.

The actual origins of the Mari Lwyd are cloaked in speculation. While she is often considered to be some sort of pre-Christian horse ceremony, there is no written history and no documented connection between ancient rituals and the more modern practices. This can make it hard to determine what she represents and her exact purpose…

Horse Divinities, such as the Gallic Epona, the Irish Macha, and the Welsh Rhiannon are prominent in Celtic Culture. These goddesses were concerned with fertility, healing and death. However, the Iron Age Celts were -effectively – non literate so all historical evidence from this era is in the form of items – such as depictions of the horses themselves in art and iconography. It can be difficult to extract the relevant belief system from these historical pieces, however, so any interpretation is somewhat speculative (Daves and Jones 1997).


Representation of Epona from 2 or 3 AD from Contern, Luxembourg (Musee National d’art l’histoire, Luxembourg City)

One piece of archaeological evidence seems to clearly illustrate the importance of the horse to people throughout history- that of sacrificial horse burials in Indo-European and Eurasian cultures. They seem to be much more common then other livestock burials, perhaps indicating a higher status of the horse in society.  There is plenty of evidence for the practice in the British Isles… In Ireland horse skulls have been found under houses dating from the 15th and 16th Century. In England there have been 54 examples in England and 27 in Wales (Hoggard 2019). In 1965, Mrs M S Brown found a horse skull located under the floorboards of her 17th century house in Flintshire, Wales (Brown 1966), when her letter was published in the journal ‘Folklore’ she seemed to have no real idea why the skull was there. More recently authors have stated that horse skulls were buried under houses for luck (Colm 2015) or maybe to improve under-floor acoustics (Meier 2018).

One purported explanation for the horse burials is that the horse possesses a liminal quality – an ability to straddle the divide between the worlds of the sacred and the profane. In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle of a rite of passage. Possibly the horse is considered to possess this ability because it is both a wild animal and a tame one. Whilst horses are considered domesticated, their management as animals that can be rounded up and broken in at need may support the notion that horses were regarded as belonging to both the wild and settled worlds. Horses are romanticized in literature and could be considered to call to those parts of ourselves who long for an uncomplicated relationship with the wild. As they exist on the threshold of the wild and the tame and can be seen as otherworldly, partnering a horse could be perceived as partnering the wild (Woodward 2013).

Westerdahl (2009) discusses the liminal quality of horses in Scandinavian culture, particularly around the naming of important places and maritime objects. Maurstad and Davis (2016) also discuss how the horse holds a special status in Scandinavia, compared to other domestic animals, and appears in a wide range of archaeological contexts – from sacrifices to depiction on objects. They claim that the horse held an ontological status in iron age times as a role of transporter from one realm to the other – land of humans to land of the gods, realm of the living to realm of the dead. This role has been deduced from the positioning of the equine bodies in graves and from the depiction of horses in artifacts. The Prose Edda claims that horses are the only way to cross the ‘wilderness’, with the horse as the only safe way to cross borders. In Norse culture horses were also perceived as being able to guide people home.  This guiding ability of horses means that they can be considered psychopomps, helping souls to enter the realm of the dead. For instance ‘Horse Face’ is one of the two deities that guard Diyu (the Chinese Underworld) and welcome the newly deceased. White horses are particularly associated with death – in the Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse it is the ‘pale horse’ that carries the figure of Death and in Hinduism, Kalki (the last avatar of Vishnu, one of their principal deities) will ride a white horse and usher in the end of the world.

Even today the horse has a spiritual connection to humanity. Young girls dream of taming and riding a wild horse. There has been a rise in the understanding of the advantages of Equine Facilitated Learning and the use of horses to treat Post Traumatic Stress. Horses are believed to be capable of helping people tap into their psyche or reach meditative states. As Linda Kohanov discusses in her book Riding Between Worlds (2003) horses encourage people to be more Zen and be mindful. They have an ability to live in the moment and recover quickly from traumatic events, and can graze peacefully and calmly, despite the awareness of the possibility of predators. People who have experienced trauma in their life can find healing through working with horses.

When people feel an affinity of an animal, they sometimes wish to portray the animal themselves. The practice of animal impersonation or disguise is very old and appears in many traditional cultures, usually in the from of Animal Dances, such as the Buffalo Dancers of Native America.

Tesque Buffalo Dancers, 1925, Photo by Edward S Curtis, J. Paul Getty Museum

The practice of animal or masked disguise (sometimes known as guising or mumming) is recorded in Europe back to the 6th Century. Frampton (2018) mentions how St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) spoke out against the practice of men dressing as women at the Feast of Janus and there is an unconfirmed claim that he condemned the practice of dressing up like a horse or stag.  In 1263, mumming was banned in Troyes (Hutton 1996). Images of mummers wearing animals heads appear in an illustrated manuscript by Jehan De Grise from the 14th Century (such as Bodleina MS 264, Folio 21):

Wooden horses (such as Hooden Horses) were popular revels at Christmastime from the 16th Century and a pole and head horse construction was described by David Lindsay at Linlithgow in 1540 in his book ‘Satyre of the Thrie Estates’. A depiction of morris dancers and hobby horses and be seen in a detail of ‘The Thames at Richmond with the Old Royal Palace’ from 1620:

The Welsh Mari Lwyd tradition was first documented in 1798 when Evans described the tradition of of a party going door to door carrying a “factitious head like a horse” (Cawte 1978:94). As opposed to just being an unorganized revel, the Mari Lwyd became associated with the tradition of pwnco – a procession that moves from house to house and engages the occupants in a rhyming competition. The aim of the competition is to gain entry across the threshold. Upon entrance the Mari Lwyd and her retinue are rewarded with drinks (usually wassail) and sometimes food. This practice was believed to bring good luck to the household.

This procession occurred during the midwinter period, usually between Christmas and Twelfth Night, but could be seen as late as Candlemass (1st February). This is the time of New Year, when the Longest Night occurs and the Wheel of the Year begins to turn again. This time is considered by many cultures to mark the death and rebirth of the sun. Concepts of the birth or rebirth of the sun god are common. The time of year is also characterised by a spirit of generosity, with several begging customs occurring during this period (e.g. wassailing, mumming, clementing and thomasing). Certainly, during the 18th and 19th Century there were early and mid-Winter begging customs documented throughout Britain (Hutton 1996). In addition, the period was also characterised by a theme of festival disguise and misrule.

The midwinter period also has an interstitial quality as one year is transitioning to another. “The Celebration of Midwinter, of the demise of the old year and the birth of the new, has always held a deep fascination for humanity. Long before the coming of Christianity, with which this time of year has been inextricably linked, people all over the world celebrated the rising of the Midwinter sun and the birth of gods who held out to them the promise of a New Year with new hopes” (Matthews 1998:12). The Yule season is characterized by rituals intended to safeguard people and possessions against any hostile powers loose in the winter darkness and also during the coming year.

The Mari Lwyd certainly contains elements of a passage rite, which are ceremonies that mark a transitional period. It usually involves people moving from one group to another. The threshold of the door marks the boundary between the group of people inside the house and the other people outside. The exchange of rhymes creates a verbal boundary, which is dissolved at the resolution of the competition. The outsiders are initially caught in a liminal state, when they are able to cross the boundary this transition is marked by a celebration. Is the horse the agent for the crossing of the interstices?

The figure of the Mari Lwyd herself has a transcendental quality. Her operators (sometimes known as riders) talk of ‘becoming’ the Mari Lwyd. You set aside your own personality as you take up her mantle, her personality takes over and she enters this plane. As Ned Clamp states “Anyone who has had the privilege to don this remarkable guise would certainly agree that you becomee the Mari. When she’s sitting, apparently lifeless, on the settee or the back of the car, she’s still referred to as ‘her’. She is an independent being, someone who is there with you” (Cater 2013:46)

In May 2019 the members of Ballarat Living History explored the liminal quality of the Mari Lwyd when Fauvel the Australian Mari Lwyd performed as the introductory guide to the ‘Ghost Hoaxing and Guising Tour’ as part of Ballarat Heritage Weekend. Fauvel invited people to enter the transitional space and be prepared to see and hear extraordinary things. As often happens when the Mari Lwyd goes abroad, adults smiled and children wanted to dance with her. They continued on their tour ready to explore magical things.

Fauvel at Ballarat Heritage Weekend

But who is she? Is she a horse goddess from the past, carried by those who wish to invoke her powers?

Certainly, folklorists have long felt that early pagan traditions had been carried into the modern era. Peate (1944:53) stated “no one, as far as I am aware doubts the fact that the Mari Lwyd is a pre-Christian horse ceremony, which may be associated with similar customs spread over many parts of the world”. Violet Alford felt confident that evidence from the earlier periods could be used to explain traditions from much later, despite the lack of an intervening evidence. She is convinced that the use of animal masks was to bring fertilising powers in order to ensure that life would continue, even when it seemed to be at its darkest time. Colin Cater agrees saying “Establishment of direct linkage between folk songs and ceremonies and the distant past (before 1500, say) is almost impossible, but vestiges of the distant past are everywhere (Cater 2013)”. But he also feels that the label is not important, it is more about the spirit of the ceremony. But earlier records show some lack of clarity on the origin of the tradition – an article by a special correspondent in the Western Mail in December 1927 states “There is still some doubt as to the etymology of the name Mari Lwyd (although the meaning of the two words is obvious to any Welshman), as well as the genesis of this quaint performance”.

So is there an older significance to the custom of the Mari Lwyd, or did it arise in the Victorian era as a form of legitimate perambulatory Christmas begging? Without a time machine, we will never know. It is best to enjoy the Mari Lwyd in all her glory and cherish what she means to you and yours.

References

Frampton , G (2018) “Discordant Comicals: The Wooden Horses of East Kent” Ozaru Books Brighton

Brown, M S (1966) “Buried Horse Skulls in a Welsh House” in Folklore Vol 77, No . 1

Cater, C (2013) “Wassailing – Reawakening an Ancient Folk Custom” Hedingham Fair

Cawte, E C (1978) “Ritual Animal Disguise” D.S. Brewer Ltd, Cambridge

Colm (2015) “Buried Horse Skulls: Folklore and Superstition in Early Modern Ireland” , http://irisharchaeology.ie/2015/02/buried-horse-skulls-folklore-and-superstition-in-early-modern-ireland/

Davies, S and Jones, N A (1997) “The Horse in Celtic Culture – Medieval Welsh Perspectives” University of Wales Press, Cardiff

Davis, D and Maurstad, A “The Meaning of Horses: Biological Encounters” Routledge

Frampton , G (2018) “Discordant Comicals: The Wooden Horses of East Kent” Ozaru Books Brighton

Hoggar, B (2019) “Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft”, Berhahn Books

Hutton, R (1996) “Stations of the Sun” Oxford University Press, Oxford

Kohanov, L (2003) “Riding Between Worlds – Expanding our Potential through the Way of the Horse” New World Library, Novato

Matthews, J (1998) “The Winter Solstice – The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” Thorsons, London

Meier, A (2018) “The Horse Skulls Under the Dance Floors of Ireland” J Stor Daily, https://daily.jstor.org/the-horse-skulls-hidden-in-the-dance-floors-of-Ireland

Peate, I C (1944) “Mari Lywd: A Suggested Explanation” Man, Vol 43, pp 53-58

Woodward, W (2013) “Amphibious Horses: Beings in the Littoral and Liminal Contact Zones” Alteration Special Edition 6

Westerdahl, C (2009) “The Horse as a Liminal Agent” Archaeologica Baltica 11

What about framing this via guising? [DW3]

I think it might be worth bringing up the issue that there was not a clear division between Chfristian and Pagan folklore as we tend to think of it today.  Rather there was an eclectic synergy of pagan folklore integrated within a Christian mythological structure.   [DW4]

Gennad i Ganu – Pondering the Pwnco

Post by Caroline Yeates

These are some thoughts on the use of Pwnco by Mari Lwyd parties today, inspired by a thread in the Mari Lwyd and Friends Facebook group.

Mike Lewis mentioned that there is more to the Mari than just her appearance and stressed the importance of what the Mari does, including the Pwnco. I responded to a question about this and was asked to contribute some thoughts. And these are thoughts, not an expert or scholarly view, but they may be of use or interest.

Who am I to undertake this? I am a fiddler, Welsh Dance musician and Border Morris Dancer and I play and sing for three Maris in three counties ( I’m not sure this is actually legal) and make up pwnco verses for two of them. I was born and grew up in an English speaking household in Swansea in the 60’s and 70’s with family roots in Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Glamorganshire with two Welsh speaking and two non-Welsh speaking grandparents. I learnt basic Welsh in school and later living and working in Carmarthenshire for 30 years, spoke and speak Welsh in work and socially, non-grammatically, colloquially with a mish-mash rather than any particular dialect. I learnt nothing about the Mari Lwyd in school but vaguely remember seeing photographs in I think my late teens.

My first real contact with the Mari was volunteering as a musician for Mari Troellog, the Carmarthenshire based Mari of Phil and Viv Morgan Larcher in 2013, at the time when TRAC was undertaking outreach into schools and communities about the Mari in conjunction with David Pitt’s Flat Pack Maris. Angharad Jenkins from TRAC came down to Carmarthen to do a workshop with Pat Smith from Llantrisant and we looked at songs etc associated with the Mari. Phil and Viv’s Mari, as many will know is a real penglog or skull, decorated with spirals, plaited mane, embroidered sheet and having a fondness for uchelwydd or mistletoe. Mari Troellog embodies the “frisky and frolicsome” nature of the Mari, dancing and chasing and flirting with inhabitants and pub customers once she gets in. And here we have the bones(yes) of the matter. The Mari Lwyd custom relates to “Y Gwyliau”, the period around Christmas, New Year and Epiphany and to getting admitted to houses for fun, food, drink and even money. Very like and often incorporating Wassailing. In return Mari bestows fun, luck for the coming year and may in the song of farewell and thanks invoke a blessing   ( bendith Duw) on the house.

What is unique to the Mari is the custom of “Pwnco”or “Canu Cwnsela”, the rhyming contest to gain admittance to the house. This does not appear to have been universal though, in some cases the Mari party just sang at the door. The Pwnco being an exchange of verses between the Mari party and the inhabitants, with admittance depending on either superior verses made up on the spot or being able to remember more of already established verses, then maybe improvising when you ran out of these.

Heb Enw Mari Lwyd at The Lamb

If you look at some recorded exchanges, the “inside” and” outside ” verses don’t always follow or relate to each other so I wonder whether the versifiers sometimes had a stock of insulting rhymes prepared which they could then fire off at each other.

So, what can we do today? Are we re-enacting or are we developing a tradition as it revives? I think the answer is both. We have the Mari, we have the Parti Mari. No longer exclusively made up of male members. We also have occasions where more than one Mari, maybe lots more than one are present – 34 at the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd in 2019, very far removed from the very local Mari visiting their own milltir sgwar with their own local customs, twists and dialect. It is worth remembering that the tradition was fading even in the 19th century and that calls for its revival were being made in the 1930’s. Social media and information technology have boosted the 21st century revival/regeneration beyond imagining.

The thing which seems to be common ( with variations in tune and words) is “Can y Fari”, the Song of the Mari which announces the arrival of the Mari with traditional verses and then can be used as the format for the pwnco contest. Here is the first verse of what appears to be the most common version:

“Wel, dyma ni’n dwad, cyfeillion diniwad,
I ofyn cawn gennad, i ofyn cawn gennad, i ofyn cawn gennad i ganu.”


Roughly translated to give a similar rhythm and syllable count we have:

“Well here we come calling in innocent friendship,to ask your permission,to ask your permission,to ask your permission to si-ing.”

Once you have this form and the tune in your head it is easy to make up words to fit and because of the repetition you don’t need to do too much.
It is also fine just to sing some verses of Can y Fari to gain admittance or indeed once you get in. Or indeed just to arrive with the Mari and not sing, just use music or make a bit of noise.

The Heb Enw Mari Lwyd from Pembrokeshire owned by John Tose and Sheila Furniss enters the pub accompanied by musicians and then we sing four verses of Can y Fari, no pwnco. Mari does her stuff and then there is more music and singing and everybody enjoys it.


Going back to the re-enactment mentioned earlier, this is valid I think and a way of displaying a flavour of the tradition though sometimes by bending the rules and having both sides of the pwnco done by the Parti Mari. For instance with Mari Troellog, Viv ( who has a family history with Mari and Pwnco) and I do the outside and inside respectively. I write verses appropriate to the place, about 3 inside and outside and after Mari arrives with musicians and singers there is banging on the door and the exchange of verses. We haven’t yet managed to get anyone from a venue to be a genuine “insider”. It works as a spectacle and achieves the objective of getting in but you sometimes need to get round it. At our recent outing in Ammanford where we approached an Art Gallery full of people waiting for us who could see us coming, I went in after we’d sung Can y Fari, shut the door, said “Have you seen what’s outside, shall we let it in?” and then we went on with a bit of Pwnco. All a bit of nonsense really, but it gives the feel of it.

To give an idea of the sort of silly and insulting verses you can do, for the Ty Cornel Gallery which had at one time been a betting shop, we had the Mari asking for admittance as per usual and then the inside response:

” Nid bwcis yw lle’ma,mae’n oriel o safon,
‘Sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl,’sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl,’sdim lle ‘ma am geffyl cwrs rasus”.


Basically

“,This isn’t a Bookie’s ,it’s a quality gallery,there’s no room here for a horse from the races”.


The Mari replied:-

” Y Fari Lwyd’dyw i,nid caseg sy’n rasio,
Brenhines ceffylau,brenhines ceffylau,brenhines ceffylau ers oesoedd”.

Translated to:

” I am the Mari Lwyd, not a racing mare, Queen of horses down the ages.”


Mari Lwyd Larcher enters the Cornerhouse Gallery Ammanford


Again, quite nonsensical, very colloquial with contractions to fit the rhythm – it’s not going to win any poetry awards or grammar prizes. It’s a bit of fun but with a bit of a nod to the age and lineage of the Mari. There must be people out there producing much better. Standard themes would be used- asking who the party were, how far they had come etc. so this gives plenty of scope.

Here’s another example which Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl is working on for a forthcoming visit to an award winning Cider Micro Pub. I’ll quote it in full.

MARI.:- Mae Mari Lwyd yma,tu fas Drws y Seler, i ofyn am seidr,i ofyn am seidr,i ofyn am seidr a chwrw.

INSIDE :- Cer o ‘ma ‘r hen geffyl,lle tawel yw ty’ma.’Sdim eisie hen gaseg,’sdim eisie hen gaseg, ‘sdim eisie hen gaseg mor swnllyd.

MARI:- Ni’n hoff iawn o ganu,mae’n lleisiau’n mor swynol. Agorwch y drysiau,agorwch y drysiau,agorwch y drysiau i wrando.

INSIDE:- Ni’n hoff iawn o ganu,ond chi dim ond sgrechian.Gadewch ni mewn llonydd,gadewch ni mewn llonydd,gadewch ni mewn llonydd nos heno.

MARI:- Mae Mari ‘di dod ‘ma i blasu eich seidr, Y gorau yng Nghymru,y gorau yng Nghymru, y gorau yng Nghymru mae’n tebyg.

INSIDE :- Wel dewch chi gyd mewn ‘te i blasu y seidr. Mae croeso i pawb ‘ma,mae croeso i pawb ‘ma,mae croeso i pawb ‘ma nos heno.

So we have Mari announcing her arrival and asking for cider and beer and being told to get lost as this is a quiet house with no need of a noisy old mare. The party respond that they are very fond of singing and ask the insiders to open the door and listen to their enchanting voices. The insiders say that they are fond of singing too but the Mari party are just screeching so should go away and leave everyone in peace. And then Mari says she has come to taste what is apparently the best cider in Wales and thus finally gets invited in.

Heb Enw Mari Lwyd at The Plash Inn in 2018


Now would be a good time to suggest a visit to https://trac.wales, go to resources and click on Mari Lwyd where you will find a written history and encouragement, a video done by the project in 2013 and also a video done in 1966 of the Llangynwyd Mari – they sing some verses of Can y Fari and then start the pwnco to the same tune, saying how far the “Bechgyn a’r Fari” have come and, among other things that they would be better entertainment than whatever American programme is on the TV. Please watch it if you haven’t already.

So this is a framework of what you can do, bearing the tradition in mind and hopefully keeping the spirit. You don’t have to do the pwnco but it can be fun. Somebody in the Facebook group asked about language. Well, I think keeping as much Welsh as possible is the ideal but introducing some English where people really aren’t going to understand otherwise is valid. The family who took out Sharper, the famous Mumbles horse, did not speak Welsh so wrote their own song in English. It will vary from place to place. You can provide a translation or maybe do alternate verses in different languages for example. Back to the more modern developments where a pwnco occurs much more as a re-enactment. The two largest ones of which I am aware are the Chepstow Wassail and Mari Lwyd in mid January and the Dark Gathering in Boscastle, Cornwall at Calan Gaeaf or All Hallows. See The Dark Gathering on Google or Facebook for video of the pwnco at Boscastle. Both of these attract large crowds.

This year at Chepstow Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl and their Mari Afon Lwyd performed the pwnco at the GreenMan Backpackers, and a different Mari will be asked to do it each year. This took the form of two of us musicians waiting inside while Mari and the Dancers approached singing Can y Fari. We then used the Chepstow Verses which are spoken and alternate in English and Welsh ( I don’t know who wrote them). We actually broke some of the verses down and alternated two lines in each language as this made better sense.


Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl on the way to pwnco at Chepstow 2019

At Boscastle a few Maris (Celeste and Seren from John and Sue Exton, Mari Trecopr with David Pitt, Mari Arianrhod with Eleanor Greenwood and Mari Afon Lwyd with Cwmni Gwerin Pontypwl this year) gained entry to the Museum of Withcraft and Magic. We approached singing three verses of Can y Fari and then exchanged pwnco with the Cornish “inside” including their ‘oss Penkevyll. I wrote some Welsh verses a few years ago, and Laetitia and Cassandra Latham Jones organised Cornish language responses. Cake, beer and pasties feature. This is very much a “new old tradititon” and it is great to have that bit of Cornish in this special and particular situation.


For Mari visits in whatever context there are other traditional songs. There was also a “Can cloi’r pwnco”- the Pwnco closing song which marked the end of the pwnco and moving on to the rest of the festivities:

” Ond yn awr ‘rwy’n darfod canu
Rhowch i mi i ymborthi”


and then the Mari Ffarwel, sung before leaving,wishing well for the coming year and thanking for the welcome.

“Ffarwel ich’, boneddigion
Ni cawsom croeso digon”


And what you do in between well, Mari can be snapping and chasing the girls and the children, the rest of the party can be doing bits of business, for instance if you have a “Judi” figure who sweeps the floor in front of the Mari everyone can sing, dance, drink and generally have fun and that is very much open to what you want to do, where you are and who your audience is and what they can do; be it joining in with singing or doing their own party pieces. It’s the holidays and Mari is dressed in her ribbons and ready to party. It should be fun and alive but aware of its roots.


I hope this may have been of use or interest to some, this is just what I have picked up as I continue to learn and explore from and with the three Maris I am lucky enough to be closely involved with and from others more learned than me.

Diolch.

FAUVEL – The Australian Mari Lwyd

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.

Fauvel before transformation

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.

Fauvel among the gum trees

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 and Craig at the Winter Solstice

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.

References:

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

Fauvel and “friend” at the Winter Solstice

MARI LWYD – Video by Hex House

A look into an ancient folklore tradition, and the people who help keep it alive.

Directed, Produced and Edited: Jordan M Paterson & Matt Adams
Cinematography: Donny Johnson
Co-producer: Kate Flemming
Composition: Rhys Timson
Sound Design: Dan Weller

A Special thanks to Sue & John Exton for welcoming us to step into their world of tradition, community and magic..

Thanks to Chepstow Village, Mick Lewis and the wassailing community.