Previously: Père Fouettard.
Type: PE (Preternatural Entity).
Period/location of origin: An unknown era during the pre-Christian period; alternatively, late 18th/early 19th century (see: Additional notes). Regardless as to which timeframe is specified, however, subject’s location of origin is certain: Wales, in what is currently the United Kingdom.
Appearance: Subject, known as the Mari Lwyd, appears to be a sort of “puppet” formed from the mounting of a horse skull upon a wooden stick or pole, the draping of a sheet or sackcloth over the stick or pole to form the body, and the addition of ribbons and bells for color and sound. Bits of glass or old bottles may also sometimes form the eyes of the creature. This “puppet” may be operated by a human holding the pole while hidden from casual view by the sheet. Occasionally, the jaw of the horse’s skull may be rigged such that the “puppeteer” may operate it, opening and closing it on command.
Note that subject itself is not the only thing bearing the name “Mari Lwyd.” It has also lent its moniker to a folk tradition in which subject features prominently (see: Modus operandi).
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It is also possible that subject is more than the sum of its parts: That is, that, upon its construction, it becomes a creature in its own right — a skeletal horse with a peculiar mission to carry out during the winter holiday season.
Modus operandi: Traditionally, subject travels from door to door on the back of a human operator within a targeted village during the winter holiday season or at the start of the new year. Should the occupants of a given home open their door to subject, a battle of verse and song sometimes referred to as a pwnco will ensue, with subject and the targeted home’s occupants trading rhymes and music until one of two outcomes is achieved: Either subject wins, at which point it is granted entry to the home, along with gifts of food and drink; or the home wins, resulting in the denial of entry to subject and subject’s continued journey along to other homes in the targeted village.
According to some accounts, a subject which has successfully gained entry to a home will also bless the home in exchange for the food, drink, and merriment. This, however, may not always be the case.
Additionally, more modern versions of subject’s activities see the pwnco as less a battle of wits and more a call-and-response play. When encountered in this form, the pwnco is a scripted performance, not a piece of improvisation, and uses specific, predetermined and pre-learned songs and verses.
Subject’s arrival is usually seen as a joyous event, despite subject’s admittedly unsettling appearance.
It is worth remembering that not all “monsters” are actually monsters.
Sometimes, they just look a little eerie.
Sometimes, they just want to have a good time.
Containment: Brush up on those rap battle skills and you should be fine. It’s all fun and games, right?
Additional notes: Much about subject’s history and meaning remains unknown — or, at the very least, obscured.
To start with the most notable unknown: Both subject and the tradition bearing its name are often stated to be “ancient,” or relics of the pagan or pre-Christian period of Welsh history. However, it is also possible that this statement is erroneous, as there is little to no documentation of subject’s existence prior to the late 18th/early 19th century.
For the curious, one of the oldest extant descriptions of subject in writing may be found in the volume A Tour Through Part Of North Wales In The Year 1798, written by John Evans and published in 1800 (that is, two years after the titular tour). In this volume, Evans observes a “very singular custom” in which “a man on new years day, dressing himself in blankets and other trappings, with a factitious head like a horse, and a party attending him, [knocks] for admittance” (presumably into a home or public house); then, which the admittance has been “obtained,” the man “runs about the room with an uncommon frightful noise,” to which those in observance respond by leaving the room in either feigned or real fright. Once they have recovered, they return to the room “by reciting a verse of some ancient cowydd, or, in default paying a small gratuity.” Although subject is not mentioned by name in this account, its details match up near precisely with what is known of subject’s modus operandi.
Again, though, this description is many centuries off from “ancient.” Indeed, although numerous folklorists and researchers writing in the mid-20th century — Iorwerth C. Peate, for instance, who published extensively on the Mari Lwyd in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’s journal Man — noted at the time that subject and its associated tradition were generally accepted as “pre-Christian,” today’s researchers are less certain of this assessment. As David R. Howell pointed out in 2018 in the International Journal of Intangible Heritage, there is actually no evidence to support the idea of subject or its wassailing custom as an “ancient tradition.”
Which stance is the true and correct one — insofar as there is a “true and correct one” — remains to be seen.
Then there is the matter of subject’s name. The phrase “Mari Lwyd” has been translated in numerous ways over the centuries, with proposed meanings for the term as varied as “Grey Mare,” from the Welsh “llwyd” (meaning “grey”), and the English “mare” (as in, the type of horse); “Blessed Mary” or “Holy Mary,” from the era in which Christianity attempted to subsume or co-opt pagan traditions and beliefs it could not stamp out of existence (see also: Samhain); and “Merry Game,” as derived from the obsolete English phrase “merry lude.”
The most commonly encountered translation is Grey Mare, but again, it is unknown which option is the true and correct one — or even if there is a true and correct one.
Subject is sometimes termed a hobby horse, specifically of the mast horse variety — that is, a representation or facsimile of a beast constructed around a central mast (in this case, the pole upon which the horse’s skull is mounted).
Even so, precisely what subject truly is— beyond a puppet or hobby horse — is widely debated. At least one folklorist has suggested that subject is a “death horse” and a resident of the “other-world”: Writing in Man in 1944, Ellen Ettlinger cited as evidence for this idea the white sheet used in subject’s construction, which in similar traditions centered around Halloween and Samhain “symbolizes beings from the other world”; the possible translation of subject’s moniker as “the Grey Death”; and the association of horses with “the dead or the dying year” made by other folklorists of the day.
This argument is a convincing one to this researcher.
And, again, it is worth noting: Not all “monsters” are monsters — and, to take it a step further, death is not necessarily something to be feared.
Death is part of the cycle of life.
With the death of one year comes the birth of another.
That’s not so bad, right?
Recommendation: Sing your songs.
Rhyme your rhymes.
Out with the old, and in with the new.
“A Welsh Wassail-Bowl: With a Note on the Mari Lwyd” by Iorwerth C. Peate.
“Mari Lwyd: A Suggested Explanation” by Iorworth C. Peate.
“The Occasion and Purpose of the ‘Mari Lwyd’ Ceremony” by Ellen Ettlinger.
“Contemporising Custom: The Re-Imagining of the Mari Lwyd” by David R. Howell.
“Christmas Traditions: The Mari Lwyd” at the National Museum Wales.
“It’s Mari Lwyd Season – But Who Owns the Tradition?” at Nation Cymru.
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[Photo via R. fiend/Wikimedia Commons, available under a CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons license.]