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).
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.
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.
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.
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]