It’s not a scene from The Wicker Man: this is Cardigan in January 2024… but the appearance of ancient Welsh folkloric icon the Mari Lwyd and her retinue in the town’s pubs instils a mixture of fear and excitement, as ancient design intended. Julia Deli rode along with the beribboned horse’s skull…
Pagan sensibilities come to life on a suitably snowy and glittering night in the company of the Grey Mare, whose band prestigiously includes Snowdonian violinist Gwilym Bowen Rhys – returning for the second year of the event in Ceredigion, part of a growing revival for this mysterious rite.
From the pre-historic creation of the White Horse at Uffington – said to be sacred to equine goddess Epona – to the yearly stampede of the ‘Obby ‘Oss at Padstow, the horse has always been a totemic animal for the semi-nomadic Celtic cultures. The Llandudoch Y Aberteifi Mari was made by Ceredigion artist Meinir Mathias, who’s inspired by folklore, landscape and history – and is built on the traditional horse’s skull, decorated, beribboned and symbolically lit from within.
Christian iconography disguised the Mare as the one who had been ejected from a stable in Bethlehem to make way for a momentous birth, but Caitlin Matthews writes of the ritual: “Like Rhiannon as Queen Of The Dead, they are outcasts and burden bearers.” Vernon Watkins’ poem Ballad Of The Mari Lwyd echoes this: “It is a skull we carry/ In the ribbons of a bride.”
Representing the turning of the year, a New Year’s celebration with similar motives to Mumming or First Footing, the Mari’s party ask admission of householders in return for favours, a rhyming contest having to be won before the mare can enter to bestow her blessings and ‘eat the sins’ of the community.
Starting out at The White Hart in St. Dogmaels, just outside Cardigan, the party made their way to the Albion and Grosvenor, before knocking heavily on the door of the Cellar bar – where our strong-voiced company was waiting! Led by Cor Meibion Clwb Rygbi Aberteifi, the serious business of the Pwnco – the battle of poetic insult – began in earnest, the Cellar crew rubbishing the clothes, characters and singing voices of the Mari’s rabble, with jokes between the parties traded through the panes of glass. Eventually, the impressive Mari and her well-decked-out cohorts were allowed in to share some ale: both ‘sides’ finishing the song together, ‘old scores’ settled.
Accompanying the Mari this year was the Mari Tan (Fire Mare) crafted locally, with several musical celebrants fresh from the Mari Lwyd at Dinas Mawddwy continuing the revel along with townsfolk and dedicated followers from north and south Wales and Ireland. Machynlleth’s bilingual alt-folk outfit Lo-Fi Jones, featuring the close harmonies of brothers Liam and Sion Rickard, got the crowd dancing to the knowing jollity of their 2020 release Mari Lwyd, much-requested antidote to modern life Technology Has Let Me Down Again, and plenty of feelgood crowdpleasers before the choir led us in rousing songs sacred to the season.
At last, the combined talents of Bowen Rhys (still in trad regalia and clogs), the Lo-Fi boys, members of Fox And The Fire and kin musicians began another impromptu circle of song, wassailing until we knew we had to go.
The mystique of the Mari still draws us in, treasured by the folk for the subtle, subliminal things she brings – the cleansing, the misrule, the community gathering, the possibility of new life or rebirth – primal links with our ancestors and nature. We face her otherworldly immortality, her jauntily horrified grin, and realise, in Vernon Watkins’ words, “She knows all from the birth of the Flood / To this moment where we stand.” A toast to the Truth-telling Mari, memento mori and receptacle of our hopes and fears, the ‘living’ connection to the Old Ones; Blessed Be, and until Hen Galon next, Fare Well…
words JULIA DELI