Of The Mari...
dyma ni'n diwad
I ofyn cawn gennad
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.
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
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.
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:
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.’
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?
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
‘…while Punch and Judy would be dressed in tattered clothes and
had blackened faces.’
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
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
Llantrisant's Mari Lwyd custom was revived nearly
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
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
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,
and Pat Smith during a Llantrisant Mari Lwyd Christmas tour.
Read more about the tradition in
and Llantrisant plus some
recent articles from Taplas magazine in our Archive section.
19 December 2014
© 1999 Mari Arts