Welcome Christmas, welcome the Grey Mare!

Given the long association between equids and humans, it’s not surprising that festivals and rituals involving horses can be found right across the world. One of the most interesting, and possibly of great antiquity, is the Welsh tradition of the Mari Lwyd, or grey mare. It’s also known as Y Fari Lwyd. Although this tradition, like many British and indeed European customs, fell into disuse in the 20th century, it has been revived and is now firmly re-established in parts of Wales.

The modern Mari Lwyd, complete with baubles for eyes. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd

The Mari is particularly associated with midwinter. The specially prepared and dressed skull of a horse is carried around from door to door (or pub to pub) and at each house the person who carries the Mari, disguised under a sheet, has to sing rhymes to obtain access. In Wales, with its strong Bardic tradition, there’s great skill and wit in constructing complex and entertaining rhymes. The inhabitants of the building must sing back to the Mari, using their own wit and skill to construct replies; and so the ritual becomes a contest of knowledge and ability.

Almost invariably the Mari Lwyd wins. After all, this tradition is very much like that of first-footing in Scotland and the north east of England: the Mari Lwyd and her followers are honoured guests who bring good luck with them.

Share the cake, tap the barrel!

There are various songs that are particularly associated with the Mari Lwyd and as with many ancient, probably pre-Christian, ceremonies, it wasn’t long before the Church decided to stamp it with its own brand by adding a Mari Lwyd carol to the proceedings. You can find the words and a recording of it here: http://www.omniglot.com/songs/bcc/marilwyd.php and there’s another associated song here, at the Museum of Wales: http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/1555/?id=2 mari lwyd folk song national museum of wales

If you’ve gone to bed too early
In a vengeful spirit,
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly
Oh, get up again good–naturedly

The large, sweet cake
With all kinds of spices:
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
O cut generous slices
This Christmas–tide.

O, tap the barrel
And let it flow freely;
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
Don’t share it meanly
This Christmas–tide.

There are several Youtube videos of the Mari Lwyd ceremonies. Here’s one, that gives a flavour: 2008 Mari lwyd celebration http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZu8lcuEUMY

“Old Ball” and his master, the Lord of Misrule

In Robert Neill’s famous novel about witchcraft in 17th century Lancashire, Mist over Pendle, Margery, a young woman from London, goes to stay with a relative in “the north country”. At Christmas, they travel to another relative’s house to celebrate the 12 days. The celebrations are led by the “Lord of Misrule” and Margery is told that when his horse “Old Ball” comes in, then she must hold on tight to the old horse’s tail:

 “Then, cavorting through the doorway, neighing, kicking, and jumping clear from the floor, came the monstrous image of a horse. The stamping and cheering rose to madness, with shrieks and whistles and bangings of mugs. Margery took one look at Old Ball and then swayed helplessly against her neighbour, hurting her ribs with laughter. Old Ball was a huge horse’s head, crazily done in wood and canvas; the round bottoms of wine-bottles formed his eyes, and his teeth were painted wooden pegs; below, two stout sticks took the weight and pretended to be his front legs; a great sheet of canvas made his body, and concealed the man who was his hind legs and who worked his tail and jaws; for both moved. There was a great tail of red-bound rope, which flapped wildly; and there was a lower jaw which moved creakingly up and down; and from out of this mouth there stuck a great iron ladle, gaily hung with ribbons.”

The crazy creature walks around the room, his jaws opening and closing as he demands money from each member of the party. The money is put into the ladle to begin with and it disappears with a clang. Then people begin to throw coins and the merriment increases as the Lord of Misrule scampers about gathering up the money.

A wild and whirling romp

“Then the climax came. The musicians who had played for the dancing suddenly struck up again, and Old Ball went stamping around the room to the thump of a marching tune. The staid and portly moved hurriedly aside, and the rest rushed wildly at the tail of red-wrapped rope; as many as could get a grip hung fiercely to it and the rest hung as fiercely to them; and soon three-quarters of the company were solemnly tramping a circle in tow of that crazy horse…The solemn tramp became a jogging trot; the trot became an unsteady run; and soon there was a wild and whirling romp, till the man in the canvas horse stumbled and fell headlong. His followers sprawled on top of him, and their followers fell across them in a wild hooting chaos while the music ended abruptly in a screech of discord.” – Robert Neill, Mist over Pendle

Was Old Ball a version of “Old Baal”, as some have suggested, giving not only pre-Christian but possibly middle eastern origins?

The Mari Lwyd is sometimes viewed as part of a wider tradition of hobby horses, not only in Britain but across Europe and beyond, but they all vary greatly suggesting multiple origins for the traditions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobby_horse There’s also a page about the Mari Lwyd specifically: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari_Lwyd

A bit more about the Mari can be found at http://www.llgc.org.uk/blog/?p=313  National Library of Wales and there’s a Flickr group for sharing images: http://www.flickr.com/groups/944820@N20/

Nommo and the ancestors

Whilst I was preparing this page, I received a link from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, relating to the Dogon people  of Mari, in Africa, who have their own special midwinter festival relating to a  horse who is the primordial being Nommo in equine form. This tradition, whilst very different from that of the Mari, is very appropriate for this blog as it is linked so closely to the Winter Solstice. This is from the Met site:

“Holding the eight original human ancestors and everything they needed for life on earth, the ark was guided by Nommo, the primordial being who created order within the universe. When the ark settled on the ground, Nommo transformed himself into a horse and transported the eight ancestors across the earth to water, where the ark floated like a boat.In this example, the horse’s head is fitted with a bridle, representing Nommo’s transformation into equine form, while the eight original ancestors are portrayed in two groups of four on the sides of the vessel.”

Read more about it and see the ritual vessel here:  http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/50004812

Let’s give the Old Grey Mare the last word: there is a saying, now disused, “The grey mare is the better horse.” In other words, the female in the partnership always outdoes the male. But is it true? Well, only the grey mare knows – and she’s not saying.


The other “Warhorse”: Captain’s Story

The recent US launch of the Spielberg film “Warhorse”, based on the hugely successful musical, based in turn on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, reminded me of the first warhorse whose story moved me to tears. It was in that most famous of equine stories, Black Beauty, and when I re-read it recently I found it had lost none of its impact. Anna Sewell wrote her story with intent: she wanted to bring the plight of working horses into public awareness and reduce the mindless cruelty she witnessed all about her, from the fastening up of carriage horses’ heads with the “bearing rein” to the endless beatings and maltreatment of worn out cab horses in London.

The warhorse in question is Captain was once a “dark, dappled iron grey, and considered very handsome” but at the time of the story, like all ageing grey horses, his coat had turned to white. He tells his story to Black Beauty, his harness mate with whom he now draws a cab through the London streets.

“Lifted off our legs”

Captain, known then as Bayard, was a cavalry horse shipped out, with hundreds of others, to serve in the Crimean War; if the term “served” can be justifiably used, because of course in Captain’s case, there was no choice. In order to get the horses onto the ship, canvas slings were placed round their bellies and they were swung into the hold. The practice of transporting horses by sea or water was a very ancient one; the Egyptians of the New Kingdom had successfully transported horses up and down the Nile.  There is a fascinating image from the tomb of one of the relatives of Ramesses II showing two horses being carried in a kind of stable on board the deck of a barge under tow. The impression given is that the horses are looking around in surprise as the river flows slowly past.

Journal of the Crimean

However, for Captain and the other horses that were to serve in the Crimea, crowded conditions and rough seas awaited them on their journey and many died en route.The fact that the horses permitted themselves to be lifted by sling is a measure of the bond they had developed with humans, through the close relationship between cavalryman and horse. A horse that cannot steady itself and stand on its feet is a horse that is vulnerable in the extreme.

Although the horses could not record the horrors of the journey – and how they can have coped with seasickness and the instability of standing on decking, both traumatic circumstances for horses – we do get some idea from the Journal of the Crimean War written by Lord George Paget. This details the truly horrific conditions and refers to at least two horses becoming crazed with “a sort of mad staggers”. The only treatment they received for this was to have water flung over their heads. Those horses that died in transit were simply dumped overboard.

“But what of the fighting?”

Sewell’s book is significant because throughout it we have the horse’s eye view of human activity, whether from the perspective of a relatively well-kept riding horse belonging to the aristocracy, a pony thrashed by an apprentice, a maltreated mare who fights back against human injustice or an old warhorse veteran now ending his days pulling a cab on the streets of London. Captain gives us the truth of what happened, rather than the official view. And it moves us to tears more than any human description.

“But what of the fighting?” asks Beauty, “was that not worse than anything else?”

Captain replies: “I, with my noble master, went into many actions together without a wound; and though I saw horses shot down with bullets, pierced through with lances, and gashed with fearful sabre cuts; though we left them dead on the field, or dying in the agony of their wounds, I don’t think I feared for myself. My master’s cheery voice, as he encouraged his men, made me feel as if he and I could not be killed.”

He continues, “I had cantered over ground slippery with blood, and frequently had to turn aside to avoid trampling on wounded man or horse, but, until one dreadful day, I never felt terror…”

“C’est de la folie!”

The terrible day is, of course, the fateful day of the Charge of the Light Brigade, in which the British light cavalry, consisting of units of Dragoons, Lancers, Hussars and the famous Scots Greys, rode into a charge that ended in them being massacred under gun and cannon fire from three sides. “Someone,” said Tennyson in his famous poem, “had blundered.” This tense understatement has become a byword for incompetence and miscommunication at the highest level. An estimated 500 horses were killed or subsequently destroyed, usually by army farriers who provided the veterinary services to the cavalry at that time.

“C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre,” General Bosquet is reported to have said, but the truth was clear in his other comment – “It’s madness.”

Captain’s story

Let Captain speak for the horses. After talking of the intimate kindness shared with his master just before the charge, he says, “I cannot tell all that happened on that day, but I will tell of the last charge that we made together: it was across a valley right in front of the enemy’s cannon…From the right, from the left, from the front, the shot and shell poured in upon us. Many a brave man went down, many a horse fell, flinging his rider to the earth; many a horse without a rider ran wildly out of the ranks: then, terrified at being alone with no hand to guide him, came pressing in amongst his old companions, to gallop with them to the charge…

“My master, my dear master, was cheering on his comrades with his right arm raised on high, when one of the balls whizzing close to my head, struck him. I felt him stagger with the shock, though he uttered no cry; I tried to check my speed, but the sword dropped from his right hand, the rein fell loose from the left, and sinking backwards from the saddle he fell to the earth; the other riders swept past us, and by the force of their charge I was driven from the spot where he fell…

“I wanted to keep my place by his side, and not leave him…but it was in vain…

“Some of the horses had been so badly wounded that they could scarcely move from the loss of blood; other noble creatures were trying on three legs to rise on their forefeet, when their hind legs had been shattered by shot. Their groans were piteous to hear, and the beseeching look in their eyes as those who escaped passed by, and left them to their fate, I shall never forget…”

Captain was one of the fortunate horses who survived the charge and was returned to England, “but the greater part of the noble, willing creatures that went out that morning, never came back!”

“Do you know what they fought about?”

Captain and Beauty discuss the reasons for the war. Beauty has heard – although one senses that he is just using this to draw out Captain’s views – people talking about war “as if it was a very fine thing.”

Captain considers that “I should think they never saw it. No doubt it is very fine…when it is just exercise, parade and sham-fight…but when thousands of good brave men and horses are killed, or crippled for life, it has a very different look.”

Beauty wants to know whether Captain knew what the fighting was all about.

Captain’s reply is a brilliant example of Sewell’s capacity to put an innocent and trusting statement into the mouth of a horse, and at the same time produce a biting and satirical comment on the folly of humans: ‘No,’ he said, ‘that is more than a horse can understand, but the enemy must have been awfully wicked people, if it was right to go all that way over the sea on purpose to kill them.’

A current exhibition related to the “Warhorse” book and movie is being held at the National Army Museum: http://www.nam.ac.uk/microsites/war-horse/; there’s also some excellent information available at the site of Will Hutchison, author of a novel about the Crimean War:  http://willhutchison.com/blog/2010/01/10/horses-in-the-crimean-war/; there’s  information about the very limited veterinary treatment horses received in this campaign at http://www.ams-museum.org.uk/museum/ravc-history/; the famous charge itself is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade;