The Mari Lwyd is a mid-winter folk tradition, typically celebrated and acted out in the Yuletide. It is a luck-bringing custom which probably dates back to Celtic times. In Gower the Mari Lwyd is interpreted differently to other areas due its different origins.
Mari Lwyd is translated as ‘Grey Mare’ or ‘Grey Mary’ and refers to the horse figure carried door to door by a group singing traditional songs at Christmas or New Year. The Mari Lwyd is a decorated horse’s skull fixed to the end of a pole with a white sheet attached to the back covering the person carrying the skull who enacts the character of the mischievous horse.
Watch a clip here of the local Coppertown Mari performing at the Love Your Countryside Festival.
The Mari Lwyd’s group of singers travels from house to house and pub to pub trying to encourage the inhabitants to let them inside. This is usually by performing a series of verses known as pwnco, which is also a battle and exchange of wits.
In English-speaking Gower, the custom is known as the Horse’s Head, but the tradition has developed a little differently. In Mumbles, the Horses Head has been for around 150 years and is therefore a much younger tradition than the Mari Lwyd elsewhere. The story goes that the young boys of Mumbles had seen the Mari Lwyd in the more northerly valleys and wanted to carry out a similar event. At the same time a horse called Sharper, who delivered vegetables to Gower, took ill and died. The boys decided to dig up Sharper and use his skull as a Mari Lwyd.
Horse’s Heads like Sharper’s were also known to exist in Llangennith, Horton and Rhossili. Although known as Horse’s Heads, the heads themselves were known by different names – for example, it was known as ‘Brandy’ in Rhossili.