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The Magic Of The Mari

'Wel dyma ni'n diwad
Gyfeillion diniwad
I ofyn cawn gennad
I ganu'


THE MARI LWYD (in Welsh, Y Fari Lwyd) is one of the strangest and most ancient of a number of customs with which people in Glamorgan and Gwent used to mark the passing of the darkest days of midwinter.

It's no accident that Christmas, with its emphasis on fire, lights and decorations, is celebrated at this time of year. Before the arrival of Christianity, the Romans used to hold similar festivities at the same time. And before the Romans, these long, cold nights were the time of fire festivals in Wales and across the Celtic World.

From this time on, the days get longer as spring approaches. All these festivals and customs reflect man's awe at nature's annual miracle of death and rebirth. That's why evergreens like the holly and the ivy are such a feature of the season... and why a dead horse mysteriously comes back to life.

Customs involving animal skulls are widely known across the world. The Native Americans of Alaska use them, as do the Indonesian people of Java... and variations crop up at most points of the globe in between. 

Traditionally a New Year’s Eve celebration, there has been a growing interest in Y Fari Lwyd in recent years which has seen a resurgence in groups performing this tradition across Wales. Y Fari Lwyd (translated as the Grey Mare, or The Grey Mary) and her group go from house to house and pub to pub and try to gain access by performing a series of verses, or ‘pwnco’. The inhabitants would reply with their own verses in a battle to outwit Mari and her gang and prevent her from entering. Eventually she will be let in, as this confers luck on the household for the coming year and scares out anything unwanted from the previous year. Once inside, more songs are sung and the group is given drinks and food. Mari often becomes quite mischievous and takes particular fancy to any young women there, chasing them and generally causing trouble.

The tradition of Y Fari Lwyd has certain pre-Christian origins. In Celtic Britain, the horse was seen as a symbol of power and fertility and prowess on the battlefield. In Celtic mythology, animals who had the ability to cross between this world and the underworld (the Celtic Annwn) are traditionally white or grey coloured. Arawn, King of Annwn’s dogs, are white with red ears and he rides on a large grey horse:

‘..the colour that was on them was a shinning white and their ears red... a horseman coming after the pack on a big dapple-grey steed.’

Rhiannon, who was once venerated as a horse goddess and Queen of the Underworld, is first seen riding a large white horse in the first branch of the Mabinogion. Battles of wits and outsmarting an opponent to get a desired treasure or outcome are also found extensively throughout the Mabinogion in tales such as Math Son of Mathonwy where Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into getting himself ‘killed’, how Rhiannon deals with Gwawl in Pwyll Prince of Dyfed and how Cei and Bedwyr complete the seemingly impossible tasks in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Being crafty and witty can therefore be seen as a way of outsmarting an opponent, no matter how imposing or otherworldly they are and this may have come down to the present day through the pwnco of Y Fari Lwyd.  Also the darkest time of the year was traditionally believed as a time that the veil between this world and the ‘otherworld’ was thinner and so beings from that world would more readily pass through to this one. Could Y Fari Lwyd be a symbolic way of honouring this ‘otherworld’, proving our intelligence and wittiness and of conferring on the New Year the attributes of the power and fertility of the horse?

No-one knows what characters made up the original group of Y Fari Lwyd revellers, but pictures from the early 1900s show a group in their smart Sunday best with one person acting as the Leader who would be in charge of Y Fari. Other characters recorded include a Seargent, a Merryman and Punch and Siwan (Punch and Judy, characters originating from the commedia dell’arte theatre movement which came from Europe to Britain in the eighteenth century).  Today’s groups also include people in the ‘traditional’ Welsh costume that was developed and romanticised by the Victorians. What is not seen so often in modern groups is the far older tradition of characters wearing rags and with blackened faces: 

‘…while Punch and Judy would be dressed in tattered clothes and had blackened faces.’

The practice of disguising yourself was to preserve anonymity and to distance yourself from your everyday life. This tradition of blackening or colouring the face to take on another ‘character’ can be found in most indigenous cultures and in Britain in the older Morris sides.

The Mari Lwyd is unique to this part of Wales. In its purest form (still to be seen at Llangynwyd, near Maesteg, every New Year's Day) the tradition involves the arrival of the horse and its party at the door of the house or pub, where they sing several introductory verses. Then comes a battle of wits (pwnco) in which the people inside the door and the Mari party outside exchange challenges and insults in rhyme. At the end of the battle, which can be as long as the creativity of the two parties holds out, the Mari party enters with another song.

The industrial revolution and the rise of fire-and-brimstone chapel preaching had a serious effect on the Mari Lwyd. The parties had gained a bad reputation for drunkenness and vandalism as they roamed the villages. Many a sermon was preached against the continuance of such a pagan and barbaric practice, and the participants were urged to do something useful instead - such as taking part in eisteddfodau. Y Fari had croaked its last – enter Nefydd, the Rev. William Roberts (1813-1872), a Denbighshire man who became a Blaenau Gwent Baptist minister. He hated the Mari Lwyd. He wrote a book entitled The Religion Of The Dark Ages, gave a detailed account of the Mari and transcribed 20 verses, so his congregation could recognise it. He campaigned with great fervour: “We must try and get the young people of our time more to interest themselves more in intellectual and substantial things such as reading and composing poetry, essays, singing etc, as is encouraged and practised in our Eisteddfodau… I wish of this folly, and of all similar follies, that they find no place anywhere apart from the museum of the historian and the antiquary.”

It had the opposite effect. From his grave, Nefydd must be regretting the folly of the 20 verses, published for all to see. The Welsh population hungrily seized on the fragments of the Mari’s tradition, and - thanks to Nefydd - we can now study the Mari verses in all their true splendour.

In some places, like Llantrisant, the pwnco disappeared and the Mari party sang only their arrival verses, adding Christmas carols to the repertoire. In other areas, such as Llanharry, Cowbridge and the Vale of Glamorgan, the parties interspersed English-language verses with Welsh-language rhymes.

The Mari could still be seen in many villages in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1960s, only a few survived in places like Pentyrch and Pencoed.

Llantrisant's Mari Lwyd custom was revived nearly 30 years ago by members of the Llantrisant Folk Club, very much in the style in which it was being performed when it originally died out, probably at the start of the Second World War.

Mr Vernon Rees, a freeman of Llantrisant, remembers that his father, Tom John Rees, was in charge of the Llantrisant Mari. The Llantrisant head was not a real skull but was made of wood, bandaged right down to the snout to make it look like a genuine horse's head. Mr Rees remembers the Mari being kept in the cupboard under the stairs and knows it was still around in 1937, when the family moved house. Tom John Rees was a miner at Ynysmaerdy Colliery, just north of Llantrisant, and died of pneumoconiosis in 1945, when he was only 45 years old. Mr Rees does not know whether his mother gave the Mari Lwyd away or what became of it.

In fact, four Mari Lwyds called at the pubs and houses in the Llantrisant area until recently - Tom John Rees's Mari; the Pontyclun Mari (which Cyril Harvey, the father of Mrs Pat Smith, used to be a regular attender. Pat is the current keeper of the Llantrisant Folk Club Mari); the Castellau Mari Lwyd, which Castellau chapelgoers sang the traditional Can Y Fari and Y Washael songs; and the Llantrisant Folk Club Mari Lwyd. The "new" Mari is a genuine skull, which was prepared and mounted in the traditional fashion by Ian Jones of Pencoed, the last thatcher working in South Wales. Ian kindly donated the Mari to Llantrisant Folk Club - and today it is a regular and much-loved feature of Llantrisant and Pontyclun's Christmas and New Year festivities.

Smile, please - from left, Anne Abel, Paul Holdsworth, Mick Tems,

Andy Jackson and Pat Smith during a Llantrisant Mari Lwyd Christmas tour.

 

Read more about the tradition in Llangynwyd and Llantrisant plus some recent articles from Taplas magazine in our Archive section. 

 

 

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Page last updated 10 February 2013

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