Over my many years of Oss Teazing, firstly with Penglaz in Penzance and latterly with Penkevyll the Lands End Oss, I have often heard references made to the Mari Lwyd from Wales. This is a Welsh counterpart mast or pole Oss, so-called because it consists of a horse’s skull on the end of a pole with a material cover for the rider underneath. Both Osses traditionally emerge over the dark days of winter to bring luck to any household that allowed them entrance. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to bring our Oss to meet the famous Mari Lwyd but in 2012 we (as in our Guise team Boekka) were invited by Chepstow Wassail to do just that and we were booked in to appear for January 2013. To our intense frustration and bitter disappointment we were thwarted by the British weather. There was heavy snow fall with the main Red Alert weather warning slap bang over – yes you guessed it – Chepstow! So this year we were petitioning all the weather gods who would listen to let us travel up and perform and let the Osses meet at last. This post is about the unforgettable experience we had…
Our arrival was not wonderfully auspicious as the sat nav directed us over the Severn bridge, which incurs an expensive toll, round the roundabout and then back over the bridge to our accommodation for the night! Once we’d changed into our kit and piled into the car again it was back over the bridge – another expensive toll, and then on to the car park at Chepstow Castle. We quickly assembled our Oss and Penkevyll came alive – we were ready to meet the Mari Lwyd!
We made our way toward a large crowd of revellers that had gathered together underneath the walls of Chepstow Castle. What an awesome castle it is too! It’s Norman, dating back to 1067 and you could literally feel its history emanating from within it.
Fortunately, although we hadn’t arrived early enough to join in the opening dances from the many Morris sides that had attended, we had arrived just in time for the first Wassail. Then we spotted our first Mari and made our way slowly towards it. We had no preconceptions as to our welcome as we were very aware that the Mari Lwyd ceremonies were a custom that dated back hundreds of years, and we had no idea what reception our Cornish Oss would have. We needn’t have worried as our welcome couldn’t have been warmer! Penkevyll stood out because she is so dark whereas the Maris wear white and she attracted a lot of interest. I was in my element and so was Penkevyll, being surrounded by so many other Osses. The Welsh truly honour and show respect to their Maris often bowing to them. Many Maris were tethered and had handlers that were often women or children and they spoke to them lovingly. I dread to think what would happen if I tried to harness Penkevyll – we’d need one of those extendable leads as she’s forever running off and getting into mischief! One naughty thing that I noticed all the Maris including Penkevyll have in common, is their propensity to steal people’s hats!
This was such a refreshing change as most of the time Penkevyll is often viewed askance by many and has actually had some folks acting very aggressive towards her. Having said that there are many who are very fond of her, especially when she’s being naughty (which happens often!) – nevertheless, she performs alone and has never met other pole Osses before. To see her move among the Mari Lwyds was very touching and I was in awe at the wonder and magic of it all.
It was time to start the Wassail.
A Wassail is a ceremony generally performed in an orchard or amongst apple trees. If you think of the Harvest Festival as a thank you for a good harvest, then the Wassail is a request for a good harvest for the coming year. Cider soaked toast is hung on the trees by women and a lot of noise, sometimes including gunfire is produced to supposedly drive away any bad spirits.
Following lots of singing and general merrymaking whilst circumambulating the cider fed trees we all made our way to the Three Tuns Inn where the first Mari ceremony would be performed.
The Mari Lwyd ceremony is an ancient Welsh custom which originated in South Wales, similar to ‘first footing at New Year’. Traditionally a horse skull or representation of same is carried from house to house by the Mari Lwyd group. At the house a kind of singing competition (pwnco) between the group and the people of the house begins after the group has knocked on the door and requested entry for food and drink. Eventually, the Mari group are given entry and sustenance, there is more singing and capers and then after blessing the household, off to the next house, pub or even museum.
How we squeezed so many Osses and their handlers into an already full pub once we’d gained entry, I’ll never know! There was lots of singing and offering of ale to the Maris and it was at this time that everyone had also started to call Penkevyll a Mari too – we felt so honoured. The air was electric with energy and it all felt timeless and yet age-old at the same time…I felt truly between the worlds.
It was time to move outside where we had the first chance to perform with Penkevyll. Our dances were greeted with loud cheers and applause and many folks approached us afterwards during the rest of the day saying how wonderfully ‘spooky’ our performance was. Huge thanks must go at this point to a certain young man called Martin Ware who was not only responsible for getting us invited but also drummed expertly for us on the day. 🙂
We spent the next couple of hours eating, drinking and talking with some fascinating people, making new friends and creating important networking connections until it was time for the long-awaited Big Event. The Meeting of the Welsh and the English at the Border. This occurs on the old Iron Bridge which spans the River Wye and has been described as “It’s like going to War, and then all Peace breaks out!”. To our delight we were asked to march across the bridge with the Welsh rather than join the English on the other side. This was the time for us to get out our Cornish flag that we had brought with us which we proudly marched with to the sound of skirling pipes and drums. It was another moment when the hair stood up on the back of my neck as I watched all the Maris sway and dance to the rousing music. Our flag was exchanged and we now have a fine Welsh dragon flag. Our Cornish one remains in the Castle Inn until we return again.
Once the English, Welsh and Cornish all had a chance to dance at the Border on the bridge we all then decamped to reassemble for the last Mari ceremony of the night at Chepstow Museum. Once again I witnessed the Welsh exchange of coercions and insults but instead of letting the Maris in to rampage about the Museum the Lord & Lady of the ceremony, Ned Heywood MBE and Anne Rainsbury (Museum Curator) made an appearance and offered up the wonderfully wrought Chepstow Wassail Bowl full of steaming, mulled cider. To our utter astonishment and delight our Cornish team was offered the first sip to drink the Wassail! Things were starting to feel a little surreal as I gazed across the large smiling crowd, past the flags including our Cornish one flapping briskly in the breeze, and toward the floodlit Chepstow Castle. A moment to savour and remember indeed! 🙂
It was time to put Penkevyll back in her stable and pick up our musical instruments and join our newly made friends at the Castle Inn where we shared songs and tunes in an open mic/jam session which continued for the rest of the night.
I learnt from that experience that there are very close connections with our Celtic cousins, the Welsh. I had heard about the similarities with the language before but I must admit that I was still startled to realise that, Penkevyll easily translates from Cornish ‘Horse Head’ to the Welsh Penceffyl, and Cornish Boekka ‘Scarecrow’ to the Welsh Bwbach the pronunciations sounding almost identical.
It’s going to take a while for me to assimilate all that happened at Chepstow – I’m still dreaming of Maris! Many heartfelt congratulations go to all the organisers of the Chepstow Wassail with particular thanks to Mick Lewis who went out of his way to be so helpful. Bless you!
Here’s a Role of Honour of all the Mari Lwyds who attended:
Heb Enw Mari, Pembroke
Llanfihangel Tor Y Mynydd Mari
Y Fari Troellog, Carmarthen
Coppertown Mari, Swansea
Cwmni Gwerin, Pontypwl
Coppin the Hooden Horse, Stroud
Poor Awd Oss, Nottinghamshire
Gloucestershire Broad, Gloucester
All in all, a powerful festival that I would thoroughly recommend to you all, and definitely an experience I would love to repeat.
Here I am adding one of the most powerfully evocative songs I have ever come across concerning the Mari Lwyd. Music and performance by Chris Wood. Lyrics by Hugh Lupton.
I’ve also found some footage from this particular Wassail:
This is Boekka performing ‘As Above, So Below – drumming by Martin Ware.
Boekka performing ‘Dark Triskele’.
The Mari Lwyds meet the English on Chepstow Bridge. Footage on these three videos by Smikestock.