The Islands that now form Britain have long had mythologies and folk customs that feature horses; part of a tradition that stretches across Europe back to the cave paintings such as those of the Cave of Lascaux in France featuring ‘shaman figures’ in animal masks. The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is an ancient Welsh tradition in which a group of singers go from house to house, or pub to pub, trying to gain entry by a verbal ‘sparring contest’. The Mari Lwyd herself consists of a horse’s skull with false eyes and ears, a white sheet and frequently some form of basic mechanics so that, for example, the jaws can be ‘snapped’.
On 8th December 2017, June (editor) and Rochelle (photographer) from Indie Shaman were fortunate to meet Phil and Vivien Morgan Larcher in their woodland near Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire and talk to them about their work with the Mari Lwyd. Phil greeted us at the bottom of the hilly woodland and we walked up to a levelled area about half way up the hill where Vivien was waiting for us near a home-made ‘tepee style’ tent, which contained many fascinating objects as well as a most welcome fire!
June How did you first get involved with the Mari Lwyd?
Phil Well, I always knew about the Mari Lwyd; it was a lesson they taught us in primary school. Coming from Glamorganshire – that’s where the stronghold was. Then we were working in a woodland just outside Cardiff, as artists creating sculptures in the woods and one day we turned up and a horses skull was left – basically in the middle of the woods. So we built a shrine around it and started to decorate it and we kept it there as part of the sculpture trail. Then Viv started painted the spirals on and tying ribbons on to it.
Vivien My grandpa was involved with the Mari Lwyd as part of a troop and he’d go out with the troop; he was quite shy really so he wasn’t leading or anything. But he would go for the singing and the beer. And my grandmother she used to go to chapel so she didn’t like that idea, so when he tried to tell us as children she’d say “Paid now” (don’t now – don’t do it). She didn’t want us to know – but we knew. And when we started the woodland thing it all came back.
Phil So we talked to some of the old people in the village who knew and who could sing the tunes. And we went to Bryn and they were singing the tune there. Then we went to St Fagans in Cardiff where there’s a troop there who keep the tradition going. But it all took many years – the horse skull was in the woodland for about 6 or 7 years.
Vivien We went and watched others. And when we did take the Mari out, we didn’t take it out of the van even when there was another troop performing because it was like stepping on their patch. We didn’t know then but it’s part of the old tradition that you stay in your Parish and if somebody else comes on your patch they would fight. Because they’re stealing your food aren’t they; teisen, cwrw and arian (cake, beer and silver). So if they get into your farm before you do – you’re not going to get anything! *laughter*
Vivien We all make mistakes – they asked us to do the Eisteddfod one year when they had a Greenfield site. We had Mari Lwyd workshops and musical instruments. They said bring the Mari out into the big field on a certain day and we realised why you don’t go out in the summer- because the head is over 2 stone! *laughter*
June It does look like quite a hefty costume!
Phil Yes, it’s a fair weight.
Vivien So all those things helped us – steered us – to where we are now. (Addressed to Phil) And you’ve noticed that you feel differently going under there don’t you.
June I was going to ask about that because the Mari Lwyd reminds me of some shamanic aspects such as shape-shifting … how Mari Lwyd has her own character. Do you feel that when you ‘are’ the Mari Lwyd?
Phil Yes because … I can’t really see under there so I’m relying on my instincts and the Ostler completes me (Vivien is the Ostler). We can connect. I’ve also realised – a lot of my friends are drummers and musicians – and listening to that I go into a light trance. So I don’t really know what I’m doing. I suppose I change character in a way.
Vivien I have Aderyn Pica Lwyd (A bird on a stick – The Grey Magpie). I use this if I need to head Mari off with it or if something is in the way, like a light or a chair. People do sometimes like to have a bit of fun and put things in your way!
Phil I think we have now settled in the village. We opened the pub 3 years ago so that’s our main event. We try and get as close to the Solstice as possible and we’ve written our own pwnco (a battle of wits/debate in song) specifically for that venue. When the pub was renovated they did things like build a bar out of the church pews and they found a secret door so we sing things in Welsh like “let us in the secret door, we’re going to drink from your church pew bar”.
Vivien It’s the most traditional thing we do in the year because from the start we’ve directed our own song. It’s growing stronger here. This is our parish now. And we can be more traditional every time.
Phil We talked to the local historians …
Vivien … and they said they hadn’t had a Mari in living memory. They don’t think they’ve ever had a Mari Lwyd here. Because Glamorgan is the stronghold, where they’re from – although they are dotted around now really.
June There seems to be a revival of the old traditions, which I think is wonderful.
Phil Yeah, I’ve gone for traditional Welsh colours; green and red and also symbolic holly, ivy and mistletoe. I also put spirals on the skull. All Maris look different – unique. One of the traditional ways was to cover the skull completely in cloth so you could only see the teeth and the front and the eyeholes.
Vivien They do take a battering you know as a lot of horse play goes on. *laughter*
There was one time Mari was fooling around and running about – with some children they were. They were insulting you as is traditional … and Mari went to run and I couldn’t keep up … and he ran straight into a lamp post and broke Mari’s eye. About a week later we were up in Llantrisant, we were coming out of someone’s house and the device swung back – it was a metal piece and it cut you in the eye. And I thought “There we are” … *laughter*
June Revenge of the Mari! *laughter*
Vivien I did think that when we got home. So there we are. Be more careful … *laughter*
June Can you give me a brief bit of info about why the time of year is important?
Phil Well Epona Day is round the 18th, then there is the Winter Solstice which is the shortest day and the message the Mari brings is “o’r twyllwch i’r goluni” (From darkness comes light). There’s also St Stephen’s Day which is 26th, which is also called ‘Wren Day’. Then we go through to New Year and Hen Galan, the old Welsh New Year. After Hen Galan you can visibly notice the days getting longer – by then we’ve feasted, we’ve celebrated, we’ve done all our blessings – so the Mari has fulfilled her promise and Spring is on the horizon.
Vivien It’s part of the cycle – the death and rebirth thing. We went out with the band in Carmarthen the first time and that was late January and because down here is predominantly Welsh language speaking and even though the tradition isn’t strong in Carmarthen, some man in the street said, “You’re at the wrong time”. It was only the end of January and he wasn’t happy at all. And that made us think “Oh, we really need to know what we are doing”; because we didn’t and I can understand why other people are going out all crazy times of year because we did – but not in the summer.
Phil We work with the Celtic year and even with the clients we have here in the woodland we like to do seasonal things.
Vivien When you finish your temple to Mari I guess we’ll be doing more educational things with local people. At the moment we do art and eco therapy. We’ve started a network; people have known us through that and know we do the Mari Lwyd. So people are becoming more interested because they are becoming more aware. Actually this time of year people sometimes aren’t very happy because they are worrying about Christmas, they are worrying about what they are going to spend. We don’t do any of that; we’re busy with the Mari.
Phil We see this season totally different now don’t we, since we’ve been doing the Mari. Vivien It’s mixed in with everything we do. Phil It’s become our lifestyle hasn’t it.
Vivien We’ve become more and more aware. We see people coming here stressed out on their phones and when they start to get a bit dirty, or do the fire, or get some mud on them, we see a difference. A lady I talked to yesterday, she’s in her 80s, she was coming here every Friday when we had the funding. I saw her yesterday and I said, “are you missing the woods”? She said, “Yes” – it’s only been 2 weeks mind! There’s other people thinking well if she can get there, we can get there. And we have young people – it’s all just mixed – all altogether.
June Proper community – mixed ages.
Vivien The benefit of it for them – again going back to the old traditions, when that’s all you’ve got because you haven’t got telly – then you begin to realise why they did it, why they did that on that day. And observing how sad people can be at that time of year and how many quarrels – it’s a stressful time of year and people can’t escape and go out because its dark, wet, cold. But this either takes you out or brings something to you. I think all traditions have their reasons but finding out what they are when you’ve lost touch for years is hard but Mari has continued in places in Wales – Llantrisant and Llandyrnog.
There was a man in a pub in Llandeilo with his Scottish son-in-law, they were just about to leave and when we got round to them the son-in-law said, “Oh he won’t leave because you’ve turned up”. And it turned out he’d heard of Mari Lwyd …
Phil His father used to threaten him with it when he was a child; ‘if he didn’t behave then Mari Lwyd would come and get you’ and he’d never seen one. Then he saw it coming through the door and he was so delighted because he remembered his father and this memory – he was just transfixed. He’d been from that area and he’d known about it but never seen one.
Vivien So its things like that we get – people who have never seen it – we still get that – quite old people who have never seen it but knew. He was delighted that he had the chance to see it because I don’t think he thought he ever would.
June How did you first get involved in working in these woodlands?
Phil The first woodland we were linked to was just outside Cardiff where we lived at the time, then we worked another woodland. After that we bought this woodland to do eco therapy and art therapy and we started to build a Mari Lwyd temple just up there. You see the horse skull came from a woodland and we took it off on a journey. It even influenced us moving to Carmarthenshire really. So we moved with it and now we’ve settled here so now I’m just starting the temple.
Vivien We were going to go to New Zealand …
Phil It was either New Zealand or Carmarthen (*laughter*) …
Vivien Because there’s lots of jobs there … but it was the Welsh culture, the language and the Mari …
Phil … and we got to know some folk musicians in the area …. So it all seemed to bringing us this way.
Vivien Everything changed didn’t it – we had a Celtic wedding and we jumped the Aderyn Pica Lwyd. With this we brush the hearth with the fire ashes still in it and this disturbs the bad energy from the year before and chases it away – causes a bit of chaos. And Aderyn Pica Lwyd (points to the bird at the top of the staff) … you saw it didn’t you in a cave in France – the bird. It influenced our art work then; we went very cave painting style as you can see by that drum behind you. We went right back …
Phil … limited palate painting.
Vivien So from that time … once we’ve gone and done the Mari – once you’ve been under there – once we’ve got robed up ready – we just go. Whether it’s the dancing, jumping, sweating – I don’t know – but you definitely go more into … well you don’t speak do you?
Phil No, I don’t I don’t speak at all.
Vivien I think that has got stronger as Maris gone on. And every time we do it we never know who’s going to turn up … as a troupe … Phil … The musicians.
Vivien When we do the folklore I’m outside and it’s good to have one of our musicians inside who knows the other verse. It’s not a song – people think it’s a song – it’s more like it’s done in ‘songish’. I do a bit outside, then the person inside does their response. We tend to stick to 3 verses each. And then we get let in. But traditionally it could be as many verses … until somebody let you in. Hopefully you’d have someone quite witty with you and inside they’d look to the best witted person to make a rhyme up. It was often things like ‘oh let us in we’re thirsty and we’re hungry and we walked a long way and galloped in the fields’. And the inside ones would do something like ‘well last year you were awful you came in and made a mess, you bit somebody so we’re not letting you in’.
Phil We’ll promise to behave but once we’re let in we can break those promises.
Time for a coffee break and then the Mari emerges from the tepee. It’s the first time the Mari has been in the woodland and she definitely looks the part; in the right place, in her home. The eyes on the Mari light up and the ears move (Viv says that they do it themselves somehow by magic!) Mari has a look round her new house – ‘the Temple’. A robin appears nearby and watches us.
Vivien The embroidery on the side – the ivy and holly – Phil did that.
June Even though I can see Phil’s feet I still find myself talking to the Mari.
Vivien One little boy said I can see a man’s feet and I said to him “Oh! The Mari ate that man!”
Our lives have completely changed for the better since 2002 when we got involved with the Mari. We don’t have any of the angst of Christmas time we just look forward to this and do it. And at the end of it were like ‘ok we can start planning for spring’ because we have a thing called Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Digathon (St David’s Day Digathon) so on March 1st we start planting food. So by the time we’ve finished in January, February we are re-grouping and we haven’t got time to be fretting over stuff. We’ve got people coming back in March, workshops …
We worked it out if we left (their house and previous jobs) and went down this route fully we could survive until March when we got things booked so it was a no brainer and actually its brilliant – it’s the best thing we ever done.
Mariantics with the Llansteffan Mari Lywd at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire, December 2017.
Phil Larcher is a tradition bearer for the Mari Lwyd. He is a qualified artist, inspired by the Welsh language and culture and is employed as a natural materials tutor for a mental health charity. He lives with his wife Vivien in Carmarthenshire, West Wales, where they work as woodland craftspeople and run Eco/art therapy sessions in Morydau Magic, their therapeutic woodland on the coast.
Facebook: MORYDAU Magic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article featured in Issue 35 of Indie Shaman magazine