Our yule logs have been burned, the Winter Solstice is passed, and we find ourselves, as Dr. Who once said, “Halfway out of the darkness.” And while January is “The Gate of the New Year,” and a time for setting fresh resolutions, this, winter’s second month, is literally and figuratively us … coming of the dark.
As a physical manifestation of this dark, snow-drenched month yet full of burgeoning hopes, it’s said in the depths of January is when one of Wales’ most terrifying midwinter traditions appears: a mysterious and menacing white horse: The Mari Lwyd.
You'll never forget the moment you first see a Mari Lwyd. She has lights or baubles for eyes. Her mane is made of colourful streamers, or holly and ivy. A white cloak falls from her skull, which is attached to a pole, which is held by a person inside it: they control the character's mischievous nature, often snapping their bony jaw at you.
Like the horse herself, the origins are shrouded in mystery. One Welsh translation of the name Mari Lwyd, is said to mean: Grey Mare, and is associated with those who, in Celtic and British mythology, “cross over” while riding a pale horse.
One observer, David Jones, noted in the Archaeologia Cambrensis, a journal from 1888 that: “The word ‘Lwyd’ means ‘Blessed.’ How the name ‘Blessed Mary’ has come to be applied to the skeleton of a horse’s head, decked with ribbons and other finery, as will be presently described, is a question easier put than answered.”
But, perhaps we can find that answer in another origin story. One that connects this mysterious Grey Mare/Blessed Mary to the nativity story. It’s said that Mari Lwyd began as a pregnant horse sent out of the stables when Mary arrived. She then spent days roaming the land, searching for a place to give life to her foal.
Some believe this story represents Christianity replacing the pagan practices of the era, although this has not been proven.
Traditionally, Mari is taken around the local village, often between Christmas Day and Twelfth Night, dressed in festive lights and decorations. When the group escorting her gets to a house, they sing wassails, or the more traditional ritual called pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes with the residents of the house.
And … the only way to defend oneself against this skeletal equine is with verse:
For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses, roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs, yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter frost heaved your bones in the ground – old toilers, soil makers . . . —from "Names of Horses" by Donald Hall
Or perhaps one may prefer a ditty of rhyming insults …
One common opening went thusly:
Wel dyma ni’n dwad (Well here we come) Gy-feillion di-niwad (Innocent friends) I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave) I ofyn am gennad (To ask leave) I ofyn am gennad i ganu (To ask leave to sing)
If Mari and her gang gain entry into the home, it’s said the household are to have luck for the year.
But beware if you should meet Mari Lwyd on the street, as she is well known for mischief — trying to steal things and chase the people she likes (although, she sounds terrifying!)
In 1941, Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, wrote a long poem about the Mari Lwyd. In The Ballad of The Mari Lwyd, his words so well capture the terrifying essence of this creature:
"The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out ... . Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight."
Far from being forgotten, new Maris are being brought ’round to to midwinter events, lantern festivals and wassails; and with baubles glowing in their eyes, the tradition shines with new life.
Now tuck in for a long winter nap, and let yourselves be taken into the darkness. But fear not … for the Mari Lwyd leads the way toward the light.