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Opinion

Mari Lwyd and the appropriation of Welsh mythology

03 Dec 2023 6 minute read
Mari Lwyd. Credit: Urdd Derwyddon Môn

Stephen Price

‘Give us rhyme for rhyme through the wood of the door

Then open the door if you fail’

Mari Lwyd, the mysterious and menacing cloaked horse, is perhaps one of our most spectacular winter traditions. Her ghostly skull and white robes, baubles for eyes and a mane of translucent colours prove an unsettling, almost nightmarish sight.

Something stirs inside when you encounter Y Fari. She is other.

Traditionally, groups of men would accompany Mari from door to door around their local towns or villages, singing to request entry, with the inhabitants of the chosen house taking over the next verse. A battle of rhyme between the two parties would ensue until ideas ran dry and admittance was granted

Although considered South Walian in origin, Y Fari was first recorded in a book called A Tour Through North Wales by J Evans in 1800.

It is perhaps surprising that, after a period of relative obscurity from the mid-20th century onwards, our beloved Mari has experienced an unexpected renaissance over the past decade or so

The Mare’s Tale. Artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Sinner and saint, sinner and saint: 

A horse’s head in the frost

Mari’s ascent into the upper echelons of alternative Christmas, or yuletide, celebrations has been a stellar one to say the least – fuelled by the Instagram generation’s thirst for likes and shares, and right on the pulse of a newfound appreciation of all things esoteric, neo-pagan or whatever the correct turn of phrase might be right now.

Similar (but not the same) hooded hobby horse characters appear across Europe and, indeed, in England in the form of the hoodening custom of Kent, Old Tup – a hobby horse with a ram’s head, and in Cornwall, as with Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss – a Mayday festival tradition. But it is Mari that has captured the collective consciousness, and it is Mari who is aped in festivities across the UK at the moment, and often as a ghoulish Halloween or ‘Beltane’ character, a Morris Dancer’s prop, and not the mysterious night-time mare of midwinter. (Side note: where have all the Welsh dancers gone?!).

The decline of Christianity in our daily lives has, quite remarkably and restoratively, been replaced with a desire to connect with the old ways of our lands – folklore, standing stones, witchcraft – the list goes on.

But let’s not forget that many of these old ways were abandoned through colonial force, miseducation and a pervasive belief that our ways were once lesser. Is it, therefore, right that the customs, myths and legends of the colonised are there for the taking for everyone? 

Appreciation is one thing. Appropriation is another.

Just as native Americans feel offence when their ceremonial clothing or images are distastefully used as fancy-dress costumes or posters with over-used quotes about eating money (don’t try it if you’ve not read the quote yet), a number of voices from Wales and beyond are quietly asking if it’s right that figurines, calendars, artwork and the like based on Welsh themes and characters are being used to cash in on this renewed interest in ‘Celtic’ spirituality and mythology.

Maybe, one might argue, not every thing is for every one.

Mari Lwyd. Credit: Urdd Derwyddon Môn

God singe this doorway, hinge and bolt, 

If you keep our evil out

Welsh communities, writers and historians have done the incredible, almost impossible, job of preserving a wealth of stories and histories that put other countries who haven’t had their neighbour try to extinguish them for over a thousand years to shame.

But so often, in the new tellings, our forefathers and mothers’ work is forgotten. The backgrounds are forgotten. The very Welshness is forgotten. We’re quite capable of telling our own stories, thank you very much. 

Blodeuwedd, Melangell, Brân the Blessed – no longer Welsh but ‘ancient British’, fair game for anyone who plays hippy dress-up, ripe for the picking to appear on calendars, tarot cards and the anything else that can be sanitised and monetised.

One need only look at Mabon, now a neo-pagan term for the autumn equinox (as decided by an American Wiccan, Aidan Kelly, in the 1960s) – to see how easy it is to overlook Mabon’s Welshness or the need to have any actual understanding of him as a mythological figure.

The name sounds cute and a bit Lord of the Rings-y, that’ll do.

The Mare’s Tale. Artwork by Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari:

A sacred thing through the night they carry

Just like King Arthur and Boadicea before him, Mari is travelling the world free of any reins (and often any Welshness) and she seems to be having a good time in the process, but there is something that, to quote the youth, ‘gives me the ick’ when she is paraded at events and across social media as a figurehead of alt-Christmas – a kooky trope to latch on to that runs the risk of becoming as tired as Mariah Carey’s uninvited appearance every year if she’s allowed to roam entirely unbridled; all style with no content or context.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a good thing to see one of our most treasured customs do so well outside of the confines of her traditional enclosure. But who is she if she’s animated by just anyone; if she speaks not her native tongue; if she’s made a soulless cash cow and gimmick.

I’m sure that it’s not even a consideration for most of us, there are much more important things to worry about after all. But if Mari continues to lose her very essence – her Welshness – then in the immortal words of Mariah the Queen of Meaningless Christmas Carey, herself, ‘I don’t know her’.

Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead:

All are confused by a horse’s head

(Ballad of the Mari Lwyd, Vernon Watkins)


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Sarah Good
Sarah Good
7 months ago

Unfortunately when an idea is released into the wild and is not protected by patent, people pick it up and run with it and rarely credit the original source. Which sucks, but keeps the Mari alive in changed form. We can walkways keep reminding people but I doubt our nation will get the credit it deserves. Especially with OUR klepto neighbours to the East

End the UK
End the UK
7 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

It’s when they make it into a horror for their tongues to fear. It’s what they do to demonise things

Arthur Owen
Arthur Owen
7 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

I would change one word in your post,I would change unfortunately to fortunately.That is the way culture works.

Richard
Richard
6 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Good

When these stories originated, Wales as a nation was not the same borders there was now. Wales was not a unified country, but like the rest of Britain, a group of tribes. Some of these tribes stretched to North West England.

“The original source” is ultimately impossible to determine, there was no written word back then. We see a lot of shared mythology because of how these tribes stretched, which is why we see the same variation of folk tales and myth from region to region

Riki
Riki
7 months ago

England succeeded at their quest to erase our culture – We are known as Welsh for example! They created and forced a new identity onto the people of Cymru because their language was forced into our daily lives. The irony is we are thee British! Cymro-Britons (Gallic)

Matthew Paul
7 months ago

How do you make a skeletal horse into a cash cow, soulless or otherwise?

The original mark
The original mark
6 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Paul

It’s far easier to milk a cow👍

Keith Murrell
Keith Murrell
7 months ago

“O little town of Bethlehem”. Christmas itself is the epitome of cultural appropriation – and a greater part of the culture and mythology of Wales has origins elsewhere. (This is mainly true of culture in general). The actual origins of Mari Llwyd are unclear and speculative: and as the article says, there are many similar horse skull traditions in various cultures around the world (not just England as in the examples given). Even if it could be traced to a specific place and time, it seems questionable for subsequent generations to try to claim some kind of exclusivity or ownership.… Read more »

CapM
CapM
7 months ago
Reply to  Keith Murrell

You make it sound as though were unique in adopting things Christmassy.

“Cultural appropriation” also brought Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas presents, Christmas lights, Christmas holidays, Christmas dinner to England.

Does England need to pay with a bit of its culture without it’s source being credited or are we to be the only ones required to service the debt.

Keith Murrell
Keith Murrell
6 months ago
Reply to  CapM

You make it sound as though were unique in adopting things Christmassy.”

There is nothing in my post which implies that; quite the opposite, in fact.

I could say that you make it sound as if Welsh culture has no standing outside of Wales.

You also make it sound as if England was the rest of the world.

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Murrell

Maybe re-read the final paragraph of your comment.
It only mentions Wales benefiting from the cultural appropriation of Christmas for the “bargain price” of a horses skull.

Keith Murrell
Keith Murrell
6 months ago
Reply to  CapM

Maybe you re-read the whole of my comment – especially the parts where I say “this is mainly true of culture in general” and “not just England…”) On the contrary, the original article and your own comments make it seem as if Wales has been uniquely and unfairly exploited in this cultural exchange. I focused Wales because the article is about Wales. I used the term ‘cultural appropriation’ because that is implied in the article. It might not have been the writer’s intention but you have managed to make this all about bitterness and begrudging, and certainly far from the… Read more »

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Murrell

It’s my observation that there’s a not uncommon type of response that’s made about comments that ‘stand up’ for Cymru or the Cymry. Not just here but elsewhere and generally. .

The response implies or states that such ‘standing up’ must be due to for example, a lack of a sense of humour or perspective, exceptionalism, being over sensitive, whinging, not being grateful for our lot or just “bitterness and begrudging”

Keith Murrell
Keith Murrell
6 months ago
Reply to  CapM

That may well be your observation; but it doesn’t mean that you’re correct in this instance. I didn’t see the original article as ‘standing up for Cymru’ in any great sense… and I certainly don’t see my response as criticism of Cymru or Mari Lwyd; I simply questioned the tone of some of the article. That said: I do consider your own responses as hyper-defensive, aggressive and humourless (or perhaps you were just having a laugh?) As it happens, I will be involved in presenting Mari Llwyd in various locations around Wales in the coming weeks. I’m wondering what you… Read more »

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Murrell

“That said: I do consider your own responses as hyper-defensive, aggressive and humourless”

I think you’ve just confirmed that my observation does mean that I’m correct in this instance.

All the best with your Mari Llwyd tour.

Martyn Rhys Vaughan
7 months ago

If Mari Llwyd is steeped in Welsh mythology how is it that there is an almost identical tradition in Kent?

Andrew Dixey
Andrew Dixey
7 months ago

One could muse at length on how a common tradition ‘lost in the mists of time’ etc etc, could go back to a time when Britons (Brythons) lived across most of the island now called Great Britain. All of it 99.9999% b******s.
Or one could simply look at the real tradition of hoodening in Kent and realise it’s not at all identical!!

Martin
Martin
5 months ago

Indeed – there are references to a horse skull being used as a mast-style hobby horse in Kent (although the hoodeners now use a wooden horse head), in Cheshire (such as the Antrobus soul-cakers), in Ireland (the Láir Bhán), and the Isle of Mann (the Laare Vane). Whilst each custom is unique, there are enough similarities to see that they are all expressions of the same sort of house-visiting custom.

Keith Davies
Keith Davies
7 months ago

One problem as I see it is the everything these days is Celtic, meaning Irish, with no Welshness attached. Another problem is comparing anything Welsh to an English version eg the English Hobby Horse when the history is completely different and finally saying these traditions (eg the Mari Lwyd) are found all over the world (National Museum of Wales) without providing any evidence. All these are unconscious ways of diminishing Welsh culture and traditions.

Riki
Riki
6 months ago
Reply to  Keith Davies

Yes, The phrase Celtic was specifically designed akin to modern Britishness. All designed to hide one culture in a broader collective as to pass them of as similar or the same. Er go, if The people of Wales are British, they just need focus on England as Afterall, “We are all British”, and the same applies to Ireland where anything unique to do with Wales that can’t be passed of as English is then passed of as belonging to Ireland by being called Celtic. The sad irony is the hardcore Irish things such as Druids weren’t actually Irish, they were… Read more »

Last edited 6 months ago by Riki
Lisa ferch Rhys
Lisa ferch Rhys
6 months ago
Reply to  Riki

It’s “ergo” not “er go”.

You don’t want to be accused of cultural ignorance towards Latin.

Riki
Riki
6 months ago

I don’t care! lol.

Cameron Wixcey
Cameron Wixcey
6 months ago

All cultures copy each other. If they didn’t then advancements wouldn’t spread (written languages for example). Culture is like a sea and it ebbs and flows and leaves culture in rockpools where it can survive. Think Elvis and Porthcawl or bagpipes and Scotland. Just fact and if you want to retain sole control over your culture then you must keep it hidden away from like evil cultists in fear of the witch hunters. As for mari- facebook wise seems the revival is happening in N.Wales where it wasn’t popular historically so should we S.Walians ban them from using our “toy”… Read more »

Richard
Richard
6 months ago
Reply to  Cameron Wixcey

Finally a sensible comment. “Appropriation” is just the new buzzword for gatekeepers who by and large would have zero knowledge or interest in these things if it wasn’t for ” the Instagram generation’s thirst for likes”. Social media has opened a doorway to a lot of places and traditions that would otherwise be seen as irrelevant or ignored. The article also missed the fact that “Wales” is a modern construct, most of these stories and myths date back to our tribal ancestors, when the term “Celt” would have stretched across the whole of Britain including England. The borders of these… Read more »

Jon Price
Jon Price
6 months ago

This is an interesting problem for modern Britons. Wales is a modern construct, and really sits in opposition to the Lloegr, that is thesouth, East, and Central lowlands which by the end of the Roman period spoke latin and eventually the several forms of germanic languages that became the different Englishes. So plenty of the Western fringes of the modern English midlands, and all of the Northern uplands and the Scottish lowlands are clearly of the same Cymric origin. My lineage is chiefly Cymric, and I live in what was Yr Hen Ogledd. Of course I speak English, because apart… Read more »

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Jon Price

“This is an interesting problem for modern Britons.”
Last night’s repeat of QI featured the Mari Lwyd / Y Fari Lwyd custom.
Sandi Toksvig called it the “Farey Lood”.
That in part may indicate why its adoption by some “modern Britons”.
presents an “interesting problem” for some other “modern Britons”.

Richard
Richard
6 months ago

The issue is that most of the stories we class as “Welsh” would have been shared by the North West of England too. Going back to our tribal routes, many tribes in the Welsh region stretched across England to the Yorkshire border. So it’s only understandable that the more people rediscover these stories and traditions, that they realise they are shared stories and traditions.

Appropriation is a term that is almost becoming meaningless with how easily it is thrown out by what is essentially gatekeepers.

CapM
CapM
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard

“Appropriation is a term that is almost becoming meaningless with how easily it is thrown out by what is essentially gatekeepers.” We have a very comprehensive legal system backed up with provisions for fines and prison sentences for miscreants which covers copyright, trademarks, patents, intellectual property rights etc. There’s an industry, government support and co-operation between national governments and agencies addressing the issue on behalf of the individual and business owners. Basically armies of those “gatekeepers” you appear to disparage. Stuff like Mari Llwyd and Native American headdresses for example, whose existence isn’t similarly owned aren’t protected from potential misuse… Read more »

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 months ago

Lawdy mercy folks will whine and bellyache about anything these days. I myself had never heard of the mare until a few years ago, saw a reel on Instagram and then did a little googling and reading. But please continue on with your woe is me mantra and whatknol, it’s entertaining if nothing else.

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