When dead horses come calling to wish you good luck*.
*Pan ddaw ceffylau marw yn galw i ddymuno lwc dda i chi
Enchanted England crossed the borders into Enchanted Wales on the old 12th night of 2019. That is to say 19th January, last weekend. For 364 days of the year, Chepstow, sits in a quietly, sensible and discreet manner. Its steep and high High Street contains boutiques, inns and coffee shops that sedately serve tourists, bird watchers and ramblers a good slice of Oldie Worldie cake cut straight from the pages of gentle country life.
But on this last old day and night, Time’s great gates fly open and the dead horses of the Y Fari Lwyd gallop out of their mysterious past and into the present streets of Chepstow where they collide with a glorious medley of Morris Men and Wassailers.
‘Can you please tell me,’ an English woman me asked in plaintive tones as I tried to work out what exactly the car parking machine required for it to give me a ticket, ‘What exactly is going on?.’ I looked up across the parking space which seethed with highly decorated horses’ skulls mounted on sticks. I opened my mouth, closed my mouth and finally said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t ‘ and referred her to the tourist office. ‘I’m only here for the walking,’ she said before she disappeared into a throng made up of frantic figures. There was Herne the hunter, an ‘obby ‘oss and the fantastical chattering jaws of an Y Fari Lwyd. It’s all very odd.
The Y Fari Lwyd (Welsh) or Mari Lwyd is a creature of nightmare. The name translates to Grey Mare in modern day English, although there have been attempts to link this name with Blessed Mary, as we shall see later. The original Mari Lwyds were made from a horse’s head that had been buried in quick lime. After a suitable time the heads were dug up, cleaned and the jaws jointed with wire. The life like movement of the jaw adds to the credibility of these incredible beings. The skulls are richly decorated. Although it is possible to get plastic skull kits nowadays, the bone Mari Lwyds have a haunting connection with the underworld that is impossible to shake off once seen.
A traditional Mari Lwyd would be made from a horse’ skull and decorated with pagan symbols such as the celtic spiral. The Mari Lwyd Larcher has mistletoe and holly in its mouth and a carved bird sits in the nasal cavity. Generally the eye sockets are set with rich green bottle glass and often rimmed with metals or painted decoration. The heads are mounted on a stick that is covered by a white shroud. A man creeps in under the stick and takes on the role of Mari Lwyd. The shrouds too are richly decorated. Each Mari Lwyd should be attended by an Hostler or - I would suggest - Ostler. The Ostler leads the Mari Lwyd on a rein around pubs and houses where they sing demanding entrance. The people within the buildings would sing back to keep them out. The song battle is traditionally known as pwnco . Finally the horse and its master outsings the household and they are let in to receive drink and cakes. In return the Mari Lwyd brings blessings and luck to the people for the following year. The Mari Lwyds are always boisterous, mischievous and demanding - the ‘ostler has his work cut out to keep them under control at times.
The Mari Lwyd Larcher skull was found in a wood - where it had been on a stick for five years . From whence this horse came nobody can tell. Its skull was covered in mould and moss. It was as green as a leaf. The Mari Lwyd Larcher never comes out after January. She is tied to Winter and the fore coming spring wassail celebrations.
A second Mari Lwyd was found on the Brecon Beacons.’ I saw the ribs glistening,’ said its current ‘Ostler, ‘and found the head. I left an offering and took it with me.’ The Brecon Beacon Mari Lwyd also follows the traditional decorations and white coverings. There is more than a suggestion from the ‘Ostlers that these horse skulls are choosing to be found. This is why personally I think the modern paper or plastic Mari Lwyds never have same impact for all their theatrical vim. In the traditional versions there is a complex relation going on between the past living horse, its skull and the people who animate it.
Looking at these creatures rising straight out of legend, it is impossible to ignore the connections with the horses and the ancient Celtic horse worship that was once was widespread throughout the British Isles. Our countryside is dotted with horses carved into chalk highlands. In the Welsh folk cycle, Mabinogion, the mysterious Rhiannon appears on a White Horse before the hero Pwyll and the whole tale is shot through with riddling battles where the winner will gain mysterious treasures, food and drink.
In England and Scotland there is a tradition of the Toadmen. Some ploughmen and wagoners were said to be part of a secret society that had a peculiar affinity with horses. They could calm a wild one or cause a tame one to rage so that no one would harness them. In Scotland this became known as the Horseman’s Word. Either way they had to find a particular bone in a toad’s body that would grant them this power. The bone would also be bleached and picked dry over time.
The pagan Mari Lwyds appear at the time when Winter is dying and spring is coming. Their link to Wassail suggests the horses were associated with fertility and good luck. They are both otherworldly and yet helpful to this one.
The idea that the Mari Lwyds are the Blessed Mary - celebrating an early Christian feast on February 1st (The Feast of the Virgin Mary) seems a little more problematic.
In 1830s a splenetic Rev. William Roberts was made a Baptist Minister in Blaenau Gwent where he found the tradition of the Mari Lwyd alive and kicking. It filled him with rage and sent the young people to chapel and Eisteddfods rather than let them take part. His ire seemed to be from a realisation that this was not just a pagan fete but worse an old Roman Catholic ceremony that had been practised for centuries. It seems likely that the early church seized on the name Mari to make a fraudulent claim to the Virgin Mary. The Christian version of the tale holds that a horse was turned out of the nativity stable to make way for the virgin and family. Thus this horse was condemned to wander through the world looking for a place to rest its head for ever. This is a charming tale - but from my point of view, once you have a seen a full on Mari Lwyd, this Christian spin is the last thing that rings true.
The Y Fari Lwyds, the Mari Lwyds, the Grey Mares are weird to their bony little souls and I just adore them for it. Find one if you can.
songs & music ( a modern spin on the tale)
Mabon and the Guardians of Celtic Britain - Hero Myths in the Mabinogion - Caitlin Matthews ISBN: 089281920-0
Poetry & Song
Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.
The Dead return.
Those Exiles carry her, they who seem holy and have put on corruption, they who seem corrupt and have put on holiness.
They strain against the door.
They strain towards the fire which fosters and warms the Living.
Gloucester Wassail song - used in Chepstow January 2019
Wassail, Wassail all over the town!
Our bread it is white and our ale is brown:
Our bowl is made of a sycamore tree,
So be my good fellows all -- I'll drink to thee.