The Mari Lwyd and New Year

Mari  Lwyd , Horse of the Frost, Star-horse and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.


Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

A knock of the sands on the glass of the grave,
A knock on  the sands of the shore,
A knock of the horse’s head of the wave,
A beggar’s knock on the door.
A knock of a moth and the pane of light,
In the beat of the blood a knock.
Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

The sands in the glass, the shrinking sands,
And the picklock, picklock, picklock, hands.

Midnight. Midnight. Midnight. Midnight.
Hark at the hands of the clock.

The above is a short extract from Vernon Watkin’s poem The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd first published in 1941. The whole poem covers more than twenty pages and alternates different voices, together with an ‘announcer’ to convey the New Year custom in Wales of carrying a horse’s head from house to house. The critic David Wright, and editor of Vernon Watkins poetry, calls it a : “dialogue and dialectic of the dead and living, the eternal and ephemeral, the spiritual and corporeal, the transcendental and material, art and philistinism, God and Mammon”. Here is the poet’s own note to the poem following its first publication:

“Mari Lwyd - the Grey Mari, the Grey Mare – was a white or grey horse’s head modelled in wood, painted, and hung with ribbons, carried from house to house on the last night of the year.
  The carriers were usually a party of singers, wits, and impromptu poets, who, on the pretext of blessing, boasting of the sanctity of what they carried, tried to gain entrance to a house for the sake of obtaining food and drink. The method they used was to challenge those within to a rhyming contest. The inmates would keep them out so long as they were not in want of a rhyme, but when they failed to reply to the challenger the right of entry was gained. The singers would then bring their horse’s head in, lay it on the table, and eat and drink with the losers of the contest.
  The singers came every year to my father’s house; and listening to them at midnight, I found myself imagining a skull, a horse’s skull decked with ribbons, followed and surrounded by all kinds of drunken claims and holy deceptions.  I have attempted to bring together those who are separated. The last breath of the year is their threshold, the moment of supreme forgiveness, confusion and understanding, the profane and sacred moment impossible to realize while the clock-hands divide the Living from the Dead.”
*  *
In spite of the well-established tradition of this custom at New Year, I have always felt it fitted more appropriately with Samhain. Not so much because this is supposed to be the Celtic New Year, but because that is when the Outer Dark most threatens the gathered light of the hearth. Was the custom shifted long enough back in the past to have come down to us as a festival of the calendar NewYear (when, after all, the Light is beginning to return) or am I missing something?

See also my discussion of the same poet’s Ballad of the Outer Dark HERE


Adam said...

Your post prompted me to do some digging about. I wonder if it is reasonable to even suggest that "the custom shifted long enough back in the past", given that the earliest record to it I can find reference to is 1798. While it is possible that it is a custom of unbroken tradition, it seems unlikely, and it seems to be a truism in folklore studies that any resurrected custom is never resurrected in its original form. It may even have been resurrected several times over millenia and have no similarity to its earliest forms.

That said, I was taken by this article which seemed to my lay eye to be balanced and even:

Consumption of horse meat has been associated with pre-Christian Celtic and Teutonic religious sacrifice. Not a historian so I don't know how valid this is, but if so, it may tie in with a midwinter festival sacrifice and result in a tradition similar to that referred to at the end of the above article from Northumberland? Or a propitiatory practice as part of such a sacrificial process?

Either way, I don't know that we can draw any conclusions about the appropriate seasonality of the practice from its modern (last 200 years) forms.

Heron said...

I agree that historically it is not possible to identify the seasonality of the practice because, as you say, we only have recent historical records. Attempts have been made to identify the origins of the practice with the worship of a horse goddess but there is no adducible evidence for this.

My comment was based on a strong personal feeling that the practice belongs at Samhain, and that was a conclusion I reached for myself many years ago when I wrote a story identifying the practice with Rhiannon (posted here :

That was an imaginative reconstruction rather than an attempt at historical definition, but the ethos of the custom just feels more like it belongs to the falling darkness of November rather than the new beginning of a calendar New Year.

Heron said...

The last part of that link was cut off. Here it is:


or just go to:

and click the 'Grey Mare' link on the menu bar

Adam said...

But to make any reasonable judgement, even based on the feel of the practice, we are going to have to surmise quite a lot about the changes it may have undergone over the centuries. As an old morris dancer, the practice seems redolent of mumming play traditions such as the 'owd 'oss in Derbyshire (a Christmas tradition, though there does seem to be a significant difference between the idea of a hobby horse and a character like the Mari Lwyd... but they are both accompanied by songs about the poor old horse dying, and the Derbyshire one has a resurrection which may be Christian in origin I guess.

I find myself easily swayed to an association with Samhain, but an inner voice calls caution, if only becuase my feelings about the Mari Lwyd are extensively influenced by my childhood reading of Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" books and the Grey Mare's nightmarish associations in her story (which gave me many a sleepless night :-) )

Given the songs of the dying horse, is there any mileage in pondering the death of the year as we approach the solstice and the idea that the solar disc could have been drawn by a horse drawn chariot? Or are human beings simply given to drunken tomfoolery even in the midst of religious engagement? :-)

Heronmist said...

Thanks for the links (annoying that they can't be made active in these comment boxes).

Yes as practised it certainly does have that 'mumming play' feel about it, and contemporary observations of the custom are, as far as I can make out, performed largely by people who also do things like morris dancing. There has been some discussion of it in relation to hobby horses in folklore journals though I'm only partly convinced by these, and then only in so far as there is likely to have been cross-fertilisation of traditions in the recent part, not least by self-conscious folkorists (Iorwerth Peate actively promoted the Mari Lwyd and other customs in Wales in the early part of the 20th c. and the process of promotion must inevitably have entailed definition).

It's not possible toi discount the horse-drawn solar chariot idea I suppose, though as someone who has some psychic investment over the years in the 'Nightmare' theory that's always going to be the one I'll go for. But your final observation about human disposition to drunken tomfoolery even in the midst of religious observance is clearly the best explanation possible for the recent development of the 'tradition' ;-)

Lorna Smithers said...

White Horse of the Sea. Seems there's a connection to 'The Black One of the Sea.' And possibly to Mabon's horse, 'White Dark Mane' who he rides into the Hafren to wrest the razor from the King of Boars. Do you know of any literature that covers mythical horses with watery associations?

Heron said...

Thanks for yr comment Lorna. On water horses, the most apparent is the Kelpie. Like the Selkies, also of Scottish tradition, Kelpies could take human form, but unlike the selkies who were seals and lived in the sea, Kelpies inhabited fresh water. They were said to carry unsuspecting riders into the water to drown them. In one variant of Kelpie folklore they could be captured with a magic bridle, but usually escaped if it was taken off.

Lorna Smithers said...

Sounds alot like the Lancashire / Cumbria dobbie. Interestingly, in 'Brigantia' Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black One of the Seas with the black horse of the Howgills, and refers to a legend that the Black ferried people from Morecambe Bay to Anglesey.

Adam said...

We have a faery horse associated with the Strid near Bolton Abbey (a highly turbulent stretch of the River Wharf) that is associated with appearances at Beltane and signals the death of someone

Heron said...

Looks like we are beginning to assemble a collection of horse lore with these two - thank you both!

Nice to hear from you after so long Adam. I remember walking through the Strid some years back when staying in Grassington. I can imagine how such a legend could be located in such a place.

Adam said...

Lovely to reconnect, Heron... I always loved your blog and your thoughts... blessings, health and peace to you and yours

Lorna Smithers said...

Adam, thank you for a most interesting link, not only concerning the white fairy water horse but the Jenny Greenteeth / Peg O'Nell legend associated with the Ribble. I live a mile from the Ribble and have done research into how her course has been changed following the building of the Preston Docklands and alteration of her course. Prior to this the tides were extremely dangerous. Beside Walton Bridge, a major North-South crossing point there are still pillars, left over for people to cling if washed from the road! White dragon looks like a great site.

Kris said...

I can't imagine the Mari Lwyd as a Samhuinn tradition, based on my own intuition. The winter solstice is also a time of dark liminality, after all, and if anything, I would imagine that the tradition has been transplanted from there - possibly to disassociate it from Christmas.

The aspect of going from house to house seeking hospitality is also common (though not exclusive) to the season, as in wren boys, wassailing, etc.

I hope it's okay to throw a couple of links of my own into the pot -

This one on the Mari Lwyd tradition

and this on water horses, etc.

I'm so enjoying this blog!

Heron said...

Thanks for commenting Kris.

Of course recent folklore tradition is on your side in regarding the Mari Lwyd as a Solstice - New Year observance. But as I indicated in other responses above my own experience of the grey mare at Samhain and my developed practice over many years leads me to link it to the Winter Calends and the darkening nights.

Thanks too for the links - I've commented on your blog.

This might be an opportunity to correct a now out-of-date link above to an old Grey Mare story of my own as it's now at:

Kris said...

I'm never one to discount personal mystical experiences!

I hope to follow that link up soon. So much to read and write, so little time!