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.


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