A Mari Lwyd – ‘Grey Mare’ – of Welsh tradition
Welcome to my first blog post! I’ve been thinking about trying my hand at blogging for several years now, but it took my friend Jane just half an hour to set up this WordPress account for me. I think cutting my excuses off at the knees took a little longer. My main reason for not starting sooner is that I’m worried I don’t have anything to say. Well, let’s see. This first one shouldn’t involve much head scratching, I’ll just be talking about myself.
I am a traditional witch living in the English Midlands, a teacher and a writer.
I love history, archaeology, folklore, folk music, books, old horror films, flea markets, Somerset, books, cake, staring at the moon, listening to the rain in bed, beachcombing, Ella Fitzgerald, kissing for hours, books, travelling, London (Highgate Cemetery, Camden Lock, Holland Park – the actual park bit, the British Museum and its neighbour the Atlantis Bookshop highly recommended). Did I mention books? I am NOT to be trusted in a second hand bookshop when I’ve just been paid. And once I’m in one, you’ll have to flush me out with a water cannon.
I dance, draw, paint, sing, cook, go for long walks (preferably in the woods or on a beach), ride and regularly screw up in eye wateringly spectacular fashion. I do all my own stunts.
When I win the lottery, I’m going to treat myself to a 1963 Harley Davidson FL Duo-Glide. It looks like it runs on virgin’s blood. If you’d like to ride pillion on this beast, there’s a waiting list. I’d also love to own a bright red 1964 Mustang convertible. There’s room for one more in it on a trip down to Brighton, want to come?
I used to be a researcher, a secretary, a museum guide, a story teller, a fencer, and a member of several amateur drama groups. I once played Sir Hugh Evans in a production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, because I was the only one who could do a Welsh accent. And because I used to fence, I had to arrange the duel between Sir Hugh and Dr Caius. It was set in the Edwardian era, so I carried a silver topped cane and wore a top hat and tails. Learning to stand, walk and hold myself like a man was hard. But as any public transport user will tell you, sitting like a man is easy. Just spread those knees! What are you trying to make out you’ve got there, a fire hose? Sorry, rant over. As Jo Brand said, men are great. As a concept.
My favourite period of English history is the 17th Century, mostly because of the Civil War, the first and only time we committed regicide. Through a backstairs dalliance, I have Stuart blood in my veins, so I’m a Cavalier by birth but a Roundhead by nature. I’m also very interested in the history of British witchcraft, from prehistory to modern movements such as Gardnerian and Alexandrian Witchcraft.
I have a Joint Honours degree in Ancient History, Archaeology and English from Birmingham University. I studied Egyptology, specialising in art and religion. I also spent a year studying Forensic Archaeology, which is the application of archaeological techniques to murder investigations involving burial.
The English half involved lots of compulsory Shakespeare, as you’d rightly expect. But I opted to study Medieval poetry and prose. The bulk of this was Chaucer, but included other treasures such as Gower’s ‘Confessio Amantis’ (Confessions of a Lover) and ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’. Where we might say ‘deal with it’, the Gawain poet has his titular hero utter the immortal words ‘Of destinés derf and dere, What may mon do bot fond?’ This means ‘What can one do but make trial of that which Destiny offers, whether painful or pleasant?’ That’s seen me through a lot of dere, I can tell you.
I can only imagine that I just didn’t feel like I was under enough pressure in my final year, because I opted for a course in learning Middle Welsh. This involved translating the first two branches of a collection of Welsh legends known as The Mabinogion, ‘Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed’ and ‘Branwen, Daughter of Lyr’. The language is beautiful. For instance the Medieval Welshman didn’t say ‘morning’, he said ‘in the youth of the day’. How wonderful is that? It was an uphill struggle though, there are crumpled, tear stained pages in the grammar testifying to the long nights spent face-palming and swearing.
When I tell people that I’m a witch they either laugh, back away ashen-faced or are intrigued and want to know more. You can laugh, that’s OK. The Old Gods don’t need your belief or validation. As for backing away ashen-faced, I don’t worship the Devil and I’ve never turned anybody into a toad. Well, not yet. But somebody’s going to be the lucky thousandth a-hole and win a dream lily pad! I’m a ‘good’ witch, the inverted commas are there because the concept is open to interpretation, but I’m not pink and fluffy. Witchcraft is very old, powerful archetypes and elemental forces are involved. There’s nothing wrong with being pink and fluffy if that’s what appeals to and works for you, but I worship the Goat Footed God (no, not him, I already told you!) as well as the Goddess, and he’s a wild one. Don’t spill his pint.
If you are intrigued and want to know more, ‘A Witches’ Bible’ by Janet and Stewart Farrar is a wonderful book and my copy is much loved. If you are a brother or sister witch, may the Old Ones always know and call your name.
The Mari Lwyd (‘Mar-ee Loo-id’), or Grey Mare, was the Welsh-born lovechild of the Padstow ‘Oss and wassailing. A beribboned and otherwise decorated horse’s skull set on a pole, sometimes with the jawbone rigged to make it snap and ‘bite’ (see picture above). A man hidden under a white sheet held up the pole. He and his similarly beribboned and decorated mates, who blackened their faces to confuse evil spirits about their identity, went around the village knocking on doors and offering to sing in return for food and ale. There was usually a battle of wits between the Mari Lwyd and its companions and the householders, which decided whether or not they could cross the threshold and get their feet under the table. The procession traditionally set out after dark around Christmas and the New Year, and as well as the singing, the Mari Lwyd generally arsed about to much hilarity. Unless you were of a nervous disposition, in which case you’d run away screaming. Like most pagan survivals, the Mari Lwyd has something of the shadows about it. Not everybody can cope with being chased by a ghostly, false eyed, dead horse that’s snapping its jaws in their face and trying to trap them under its sheet shroud. Eerily, in one village, the skull was always buried after the festivities and dug up the next midwinter. The carousing, which sounds like it would have made your average rugby club outing look like a tea dance, marked the loosening of winter’s cruel grip and anticipated the return of the sun. After the Winter Solstice on the 21st of December, when the sun reaches its lowest point at noon, the darkness starts to retreat. The days begin to lengthen again and thoughts turn towards the coming spring. In some parts of Wales, the Mari Lwyd tradition has been revived.
Vernon Watkins, a contemporary of Dylan Thomas, sums up the mystery of the Mari Lwyd, at least for me, in his poem ‘The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’. These are just fragments.
The whole remarkable work can be found here –
Click to access Watkins5_Mari_Lwyd_f.pdf
‘Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari/A sacred thing through the night they carry./Betrayed are the living/betrayed the dead./All are confused by a horse’s head
Sinner and saint, sinner and saint/A horse’s head in the frost
And our Mari is white in her starry reins/Starved through flesh and skin./It is a skull we carry/In the ribbons of a bride/Bones of the Nightfrost parry/Bones of the Fire inside.’
If you made it this far, well done you! Comments or questions welcome, but if you don’t understand the offside rule, don’t ask me. I can’t help you.
Until next time, be happy!