(Hat tip to my sisters Sarah and Amanda, who both shared posts about this on Facebook and thus inspired this post)
So, this week, I’m going to do something a little bit different: rather than talking about a mythological creature, figure, or story, I’m going to instead talk about a tradition. And, since Christmas is almost upon us, I am going to talk about the Welsh tradition of Mari Lwyd.
So, what is Mari Lwyd, you may ask? Well, it’s a Welsh wassailing tradition. And what is involved in this tradition? You know those toys that are basically a plush horse head on a stick that kids ride around on? It’s kind of like that, except it’s a literal horse skull. Which is also called Mari Lwyd.
Yeah, people take a horse skull, decorate it, drape a white cloth over the stick to hide it and the person carrying it, then parade it around town.
They then go up to people’s houses where, instead of the owners running and screaming like I probably would, engage it in a contest called pwnco. This involves responding to the Mari Lwyd’s statements with increasingly witty rhymes. This, theoretically, can go on for hours, but when the contest is over, the Mari Lwyd and its retinue are allowed inside, where they are given food and drink.
The tradition is currently associated with Christmad, but, like a number of these traditions, it’s believed to actually predate Christianity. Some believe that it may have actually been associated with Samhain, a pre-Christian harvest festival currently conflated with Halloween. Others believe that it may have been a fertility right. Unfortunately, we can’t really say for certain, since the origins of the tradition have been lost in the mists of time.
As for what the words “mari lwyd” mean, well, there are some conflicting translations for that as well. Some give the words the meaning of “gray mare” or “white mare,” which makes sense, because horse. Some translate it as “Holy Mary,” which helps cement its connection to Christmas. Though what the Virgin Mary has to do with horse skulls is beyond me.
This is another one of those things I’m kinda conflicted about. On the one hand, a lot of the Mari Lwyds I saw are ridiculously creepy. On the other hand, getting shitfaced with your friends and challenging random strangers to rap battles sounds like a lot of fun.
Either way, it’s really interesting to me how Christian traditions ended up mingling with local pagan traditions as the religion spread.
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