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Mari Lwyd: Recent Taplas articles

This feature, about Cardiff author and poet David Greenslade's experiences with the Mari Lwyd culture at the 1998 National Eisteddfod at Pencoed, was written by Mick Tems and appeared in Taplas in December 1998:

Mari Lwyd: White Horses, Dark Forces

IT was just a book of images and poems based on the Mari Lwyd - but for artist William Brown and author David Greenslade, it has unlocked a vision of a Wales still gripped by fierce tribal passions and primeval jealousies... all set in motion by contact with the ancient, mysterious midwinter custom of the dead horse brought back to life.

David came from Cefn Cribwr and has grown up with a lifelong knowledge of the Mari, but no direct contact. William comes from Canada and now works from a studio in Llangynwyd, the shrine of the Mari tradition. When they heard the National Eisteddfod was coming to Pencoed, they decided it was the perfect opportunity to launch a project together.

David said: ”William asked me if I would collaborate on a book. The central theme would be the Mari Lwyd - not so much as a custom of going around the pubs, but as a horse-human combination image. William had taken the features of a horse and the feet of a person and come up with a very powerful image, very striking... a whole new insight into the Mari Lwyd, which was a custom from my village.”

Eighteen months later, March was launched at the Eisteddfod. David and William had rented the smallest space available and, almost as an afterthought, brought in a couple of summer-slumbering Mari Lwyds to attract attention.

”Our first day at the Eisteddfod, we were very pleased,” David said. ”We had the Llantrisant Mari, plus two from the Corneli party - the adults‘ skull and the cardboard one used by the children. Calennig played several times during the week and we had spontaneous songs in the stall. A lot of eisteddfod stalls are just dead pamphlet spaces, but we had dynamic community theatre.”

What they weren‘t prepared for was the vigorous reactions of the Eisteddfodwyr to the sight of this powerful pagan symbol. It was as though the stall had unleashed a flood of primitive, pent-up emotions which suddenly linked these 20th century Welshmen and women to a darker, distant past.

Those who belief they know the full extent of the Mari should think again. Reactions at the stall made it clear that there are many groups turning out in isolation, probably just once a year, and blissfully unaware that they are part of a wider tradition.

David said: ”There were quite a few of these from the Swansea Valley, some from the Afan Valley, some from Llanharan way and even some from above Caerffili. We had at least 20 people saying: ”What is this then, because we do this.

”It wasn‘t always at Christmas or New Year, but it was midwinter. They‘d say: 'We do it it in such and such a pub in Abercraf,' of they did it one night a year for the rugby or for the nutters' club. Some didn‘t even know they were doing the Mari Lwyd.”

David and William were there to sell books, not to work as an anthropology unit. They talked to the visitors with interest, but they weren‘t able to archive all the responses. David said: ”Typically, this response came from people who just couldn‘t make the connection between what they were doing in their pub and our book... they were people who weren‘t interested in books, poems or folk music. More often or not, it was ”me and my mates...” and you suspect it was one of the mates who kept the head and knew the words, in Welsh or in English. That‘s at least 20 parties, all unaware of each other, all unaware of the revival in interest - people at the very tail-end of a folk tradition.

”Then there was the very positive response from the people who said: ‘Yes, we do this - come let me see what you‘re doing.‘ They would look at William‘s work and see the link. This was the response from educated people, often teachers. I hate the word revivalists, it sounds unkind - they were people who could see the great power of the Mari ritual and had reintroduced it to their school or their community. The best example would be Marc Weinzweig and the Corneli party... high-level, competent interest, aware of what different people are doing, able to network and build.”

Then there were the contacts which genuinely shocked and upset David and William. Describing what he calls the Cowbridge response, David said: ”They were middle class, male choir based and typified the following reaction: ‘Well, what is this then? What are you doing here, because we do this.‘ It was challenging, confrontational, hands across their chests, checking out the space and leaving as soon as they felt they had assessed it. We‘d say: ‘It‘s great that you‘re doing it, lots of people are.‘ But it was though they felt they had a scoop and copyright and anybody else was infringing it.

”But a scoop and a copyright on what? How can you possibly reduce any social carnival to an idea of ownership? This business of somebody coming in and challenging our right to do something on the Mari Lwyd was odd, but it didn‘t just happen from male voice or folk parties - it happened with people from Pencoed and other places, people who had a definite recollection.

”It‘s been my experience that if you‘re out doing a schools project in Maesteg and you mention the Mari Lwyd, people venture their information with pride, as though they have some claim on the past or some magic knowledge: ‘Yes, my grandfather was involved and this is what he did.‘

”But what we had a lot of the time in Pencoed was: ‘Oh, we know all about that.‘ They‘d keep repeating it as if it was a stock phrase of defence, trying to bluff their way out. We‘d ask: How do you know about it? ‘Oh, my grandfather did it.‘ Did what? ‘Go round the ‘ouses.‘ What then? And, of course, there was no further information forthcoming. They wouldn‘t take a free postcard or a free bookmark: ‘Don‘t need one, I know all about it.‘ They treated us as a museum. They‘d produce cuttings or artifacts and expect us to display them. They had no contact with the idea of the Mari as something that is happening today.

”We had some visitors from the Cadi Ha end of the country, and their reaction was pleasure and satisfaction at what we were doing. There was one visitor from Kent, who knew of a horse tradition over there, and they were very excited. These people could see that we weren‘t entertainers, we weren‘t a folk party, we weren‘t a museum. They responded to William‘s new images of the Mari for what they were.”

David says they came away from the eisteddfod feeling excited by their experience: ”It was an eight-day bombardment of information. We found out that there are more people doing this on an earthy, pub-based level than has ever been documented. What was depressing was the aggressive, deliberate lack of interest from people who claimed to be closely associated with the Mari. They didn‘t want anything from us.

”But we know for a fact that interest is increasing in all kinds of directions and in all kinds of people. If it remains a folk calan gaeaf singing event, that‘s great. If it turns into some kind of logo-mascot-myth event for Maesteg, that‘s fine too. As long as it‘s done with enough commitment, the symbol of the masquerade itself has got enough to give. You just get under that sheet, parade with the skull and you get enough feedback from the audience to be able to vanish into the ritual. You don‘t need to worry about those who would pull it down.”

March is published by Y Wasg Israddol at £3.95.

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Last updated March 08, 2010.

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