Mari Lwyd: intangible heritage and the performing arts

Once a year, the border town of Chepstow plays host to one of the more unusual scenes in the Welsh cultural calendar. Congregations of Border Morris dancers are certainly not unfamiliar to these parts of Wales, where the contested nature of regional identity is played out through what appears to be a far more aggressive, almost hostile variety of the folk dance, but the gathering of a herd of Mari Lwyds is perhaps somewhat more unusual. Yet, the so called ‘ancient’ tradition of the Mari Lwyd has found a unique gathering point in the south east, where the revival of this intangible form of heritage is at its most visible.

While the idea of intangible cultural heritage is not formally recognised in the British Isles, there is no shortage of examples to be found in varying states of health. The Mari Lwyd is just one of a variety of such heritage types, defined by the fact that these are living, changing and participatory traditions. In terms of the performing arts, any of those to be displayed on the stage at a local or national Eisteddfod would fall into the criteria of intangible heritage. While the likes of clog dancing, cerdd dant and even the male voice choral tradition might all be considered ageing stereotypes, they nonetheless remain an important element of a particular aesthetic vision of Wales. Sadly though, there are few such heritage types which are not in some form of deterioration. Even male voice choirs, seen as being such a robust, near permanent element of the exported vision of Wales, are in a gradual state of submission, as ageing participants struggle to find the next generation to fill diminishing ranks. It is in this climate of decline that the ongoing resurgence of the Mari Lwyd is so significant.

Mari Lwyd

For the uninitiated, the Mari Lwyd is a tradition frequently described in terms of ancient origins, yet the ‘rules’ of the Mari, such as they are, were laid out in the nineteenth century. The oft cited writings of the Reverend William Roberts provide one of the most detailed accounts of the practice, composition and verses of the Mari, which continue to be referred to in the discussion of how the ‘original’ Mari Lwyd performances were enacted. In a wonderful twist of irony, Rev. Roberts wrote on the Mari, not out of adoration, but out of revulsion, wishing for the death of the Mari tradition, rather than wanting to play any part in its survival. How far back the Mari Lwyd can be traced into earlier periods is highly debatable. Many are quite happy to consider a pre-Christian tradition which revered the horse as a starting point for the Mari, but evidence remains wanting for any such notion. The Mari Lwyd that can be seen wandering around communities either side of Christmas today is also, in most instances, quite removed from that described in the nineteenth century. This has led to the conclusion among some scholars of intangible heritage, that the Mari Lwyd is actually a dead tradition, appropriate perhaps for an event which places a horse’s skull as its centre piece.

The manifestation of a contemporary Mari Lwyd today appears to be dependent on the presence of a decorated horse’s skull alone. Whereas the Mari Lwyd of the nineteenth century was predominantly a ‘male only’ affair, with set roles for each participant and a specific set of recitations to be performed, today, the presence of a horse skull, real or replica, decorated in white linen or cloth, ribbons and bells, is seemingly enough to be classified as an outing of the Mari Lwyd. While purists might be dismissive of the value of the nouveaux Maris, the growth of such examples reveals that a version of the tradition at least, is thriving.

For Chepstow, the Mari Lwyd has become the centre piece of an ever-growing celebration of intangible culture, and in doing so, one cultural event has provided a promotional platform for a raft of cultural forms and traditions which otherwise might only be seen in a state of decline, or behind the case glass. Whereas the Mari Lwyd might once have been an exercise in door-to-door singing, the Chepstow Mari, pioneered by the ‘Widders’ Border Morris group, has overseen the evolution of the Mari into a cross border cultural celebration, drawing on both Mari Lwyd (here presented as a Welsh tradition) and wassailing traditions (conceived as an English folk form for the purposes of this occasion). In conflating these forms, not forgetting of course the visually striking contributions of the Morris dancing community, ‘border’ form or otherwise, Chepstow now sustains what can only be described as a unique and very new, or young, cultural form of its own.

While giving birth to new traditions is something to be celebrated, what is arguably more significant is the number of those who attend the Chepstow Mari. This border assembly now attracts crowds into the hundreds, regardless of predicted inclement weather conditions. With an audience, comes a platform. Be it the Mari, the wassail or the Morris, these cultural forms can all be enacted in front of an enthralled audience, frequently composed of those who wish to see something distinctive and new. In so doing, new participants may be found, as a spectator of one year becomes actively engaged the next. As word spreads, so too does the desire to engage.

At the final count at the end of the 2014 Chepstow Mari Lwyd, it was thought that no fewer than eight Mari Lwyd variants were seen to be in attendance: eight distinct decorated deceased horses representing eight different communities. While the eighth may not have amounted to much more than a lone man in a paper Mari mask, the spirit was willing. The other contributors were perhaps more in the traditional mould of the Mari Lwyd, as elaborately decorated skulls converged on Chepstow, with west Wales represented by the likes of Swansea and Pembrokeshire Mari Lwyds, and east Wales in the form of Chepstow, of course, and the Llanfihangel Tor-y-Mynydd Mari. Still further afield, variants from Cornwall and Nottinghamshire arrived, ensuring the cross-border nature of this occasion continues to spread. Around a decade ago, this all began with just one.

Mari Lwyd

Chepstow is certainly not alone. St Fagans’ National History Museum continues to present its ‘authentic’ Mari. One of the oldest ongoing examples of the Mari continues to step out in the Llynfi Valley, focused more on collecting money for charities, while the Mari Lwyd of Llanfihangel Tor-y-Mynydd, cited as partial inspiration for the events that take place in Chepstow, is seen every year on old Christmas Day, on occasion isolated and without a party, yet still venturing forth. There are other Welsh examples, but further afield the Mari Lwyd can now also be seen out and about in Maryland and Los Angeles. This abstract vestige of Welsh identity has certainly travelled. In turn, so has a sense of Welsh culture.

Back in Wales, the potential of the Mari Lwyd as inspiration for creativity in schools has already been tapped. Trac, Wales’ folk development organisation, with the assistance of heritage lottery funding, developed a ‘flat-pack’ Mari Lwyd; essentially a cardboard alternative to acquisition of an actual horse’s skull. Rolled out across schools in Wales from 2012, the flat pack project provided school children with the opportunity to connect with a tradition which might have died out generations earlier or never have been recorded in the locality. Mari Lwyd workshops have allowed communities to engage in crafting and performance-based arts, built around the process of creating a Mari and enacting a Mari Lwyd procession. Through such initiatives, intangible heritage can be developed, its survival sustained through the participation of the next generation. At the same time, access to wider participatory arts is being established and encouraged. The survival of one tradition is of value, but what can be achieved for the wider arts community in doing so is utterly invaluable. For a tradition fundamentally built around images of death, the Mari Lwyd is more than proving its potential for the injection of fresh life into creativity and culture across Wales and beyond.