Mari Briga

Mari Briga will be the Mandua Briga Seed Group’s Mari Lwyd. The words ‘Mari’ and ‘Mandua’ both mean ‘mare’ (one is Welsh and one is Gallo-Brittonic) so are essentially interchangeable, but for the sake of clarity in communicating who she is, we have chosen to give her the primary name of ‘Mari Briga’.

The origins of the Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare are shrouded in mystery. Most likely, it is connected to the various traditions of the ‘Obby ‘Oss and Beasts that proliferate in the local folk customs and traditions of many British towns, often around May Day or Beltane.

The Mari, however, is quite specific. She seems to have clear associations with death, and a particularly frightening appearance as a horse’s skull draped in a white, shroud-like cloth, decorated and carried from door to door and from inn to inn in the dark part of the year. As far as can be deduced, the Mari custom is indigenous to Wales, particularly South of Wales, and was originally a Christmas or New Year custom. The Mari is accompanied by a rowdy group of followers, one of whom is the ‘Ostler’, who handles and speaks for her. When they come to a house, or an inn, they know and are traditionally refused entry there follows a battle of poetic wits, called a pwnco. If the inhabitants of the house won, then the revellers would move on. If not, the door was opened and the Mari would enter, causing havoc, snapping at the people within, galloping around and generally making a nuisance of herself. Offerings of beer, food or money are made to the group, and they move on to the next establishment. There is a general belief that their visit will bring blessing to the house for the new year.

While many may like to see the custom of the Mari going back to pre-Christian times, there is, unsurprisingly, little evidence of this – the earliest mentions in the literature being no earlier than 1800. However, there is a very real sense in which this does not matter. The custom of the Mari is enjoying a resurgence in Wales as a conscious attempt to rekindle their native traditions, however, it is also becoming increasingly popular with modern Pagan groups throughout Britain and beyond. This is, perhaps, not surprising, as modern Paganism increasingly engages with the folklore and folk traditions of Britain. While most of these were devised, or at least heavily modified, by the Victorians in their eagerness for authentic ancient traditions, they do, nonetheless, form a coherent and emotionally powerful system of practices and symbols that sits well within the ethos and aesthetic of contemporary Paganism. There is something deeply ‘Pagan’ about a shrouded horse’s skull accompanied by revellers going from house to house during the dark half of the year. A rich mythology has grown up around the Mari within Paganism, which is no less powerful for being recent – all mythology begins somewhere, after all, and that of the Mari certainly fits well into the modern British Pagan zeitgeist!

For some Pagans she is the dark side of the sovereignty goddess associated with the horse – Epona or Rhiannon. She is accompanied by the dead and comes as a reminder of mortality and as a psychopomp, the embodiment of winter. There is, of course, not a scrap of evidence, either that Rhiannon was ever regarded as a goddess, or associated with sovereignty (although her connection to horses is hard to ignore) but once again, this is not important. It is a powerful image and it works ritually, mythologically and emotionally – and that is what makes it so powerful. The Mari may not always have been a winter goddess bringing blessings to those who are poetically gifted enough to earn her approval – but she most certainly is now. It is very much to be hoped that as the custom spreads from Wales and Britain into the wider world, the association with poetry remains.

A further mythology has begun to build around the Mari in recent times. In this case, she is once again associated with the sovereignty of Britain in equine form, and specifically with the White Horse of Uffington. In this account, she is thrown out of her stable whilst heavily pregnant in order to make room for Mary to give birth to the Christ Child. Since then she has wandered from door to door ‘Seeking the warmth of welcome’ – asking to be let in. In this form of the story she becomes symbolic of the Pagan revival and the rise of old gods and ways displaced by Christianity. There is, of course, no evidence of this at all in medieval, or even 19th Century sources. (The revellers who accompanied the Mari in 19th Century Wales would have been scandalised by the suggestion that they were anything other than good Christians!) This is an entirely new myth – but one that meets the needs of the times for British Paganism brilliantly. This story is brilliantly expressed in a song – The Mari Lwyd, written by the story-teller Hugh Lupton and sung by the folk singer Chris Wood.

All of this, hopefully, goes some way to explaining why a Druid Seed Group, in the North of England, many miles from the South of Wales, should be looking to adopt a Mari. There is more to it than that though. The name of our seed group, Mandua Briga, is linked to a far more local association with a mare who carries the dead to the Otherworld. Barely 6 miles from Darlington, where we are based, is Stanwick fort, an Iron Age fort unrivalled in size in most of Europe. It was, in all probability, the seat of Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes. One possible translation of her name is the ‘The Mare Who Sends’ (Xavier Delamarre, Dictionnaire de la langue gauloise, 2003, pages 108 and 215). A bronze horse’s head found in 1843 at Melsonby, just beyond the south east corner of the Stanwick fortifications, and now in the British Museum lends further weight to the association between the site and horses.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

In 2019 an artefact was sold through an online auction house that, although far cruder, was of striking similarity to the Stanwick horse head. Sadly the artefact had no provenance and all we know about it is that it was the property of a West Yorkshire collector and acquired on the UK art market, but having belonged to someone from West Yorkshire suggests that it was found within the territory of the Brigantes – and it may even have been found close to Stanwick.

A higher resolution image can be found here

A further association was discovered by archaeologist Professor Colin Haselgrove and his team who excavated Stanwick in the 1980s. An adult male buried in the rampart behind the central ‘Tofts’ area of the site had an inverted horse’s skull carefully placed above his body in an unusual burial rite. This was radiocarbon dated to approximately 90BC-80AD.

At this point, all is conjecture, but an interpretation of Stanwick as a cultic site associated not only with care of the sick, but also of the dead, with horses playing a significant role as psychopomps fits the evidence as well as any other interpretation. Hence, we feel that there is a strong local, spiritual significance to our Mari.

Darlington and nearby Richmond in North Yorkshire have traditions of ‘Osses, in the case of Richmond dating back into the 19th Century and revived in the 1990s. Both of these are black, possibly reflecting a northern version of the custom, although this quote from Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England by William Henderson, published in 1866, suggests that some may have been white:

Throughout Yorkshire, and formerly indeed all England over, the Christmas visitants are mummers, disguised in finery of different sorts, with blackened faces or masks, and carrying with them an image of a white horse … I believe that the Christmas mummers represent the yule host, or wild hunt, and that the man of the party is Wodin or Odin. The horse is evidently the white steed, Gleipmir, of the ancient god.

Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England by William Henderson, 1866, page 70-71
The Poor ‘Aud ‘Oss in Richmond, 2014
The Poor ‘Aud ‘Oss in Richmond in 1895 with Bill Ward’s maternal grandfather Edward Peirce under the ‘Oss and his aunt on the right. Image taken from the book ‘Around Richmond in Old Photographs’, collected by Leslie P. Wenham, published by Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1989

The song that accompanies T’Owd ‘Oss of Richmond was first published in 1857 by Robert Bell in his book Ancient Poems, Ballads and Songs of the Peasantry of England, so we know that the tradition had been going since the mid-19th Century at least. It may even have been in existence since the early 1800s, as William Wise in his newspaper articles in the Richmond and Ripon Chronicle in the 1880s recalled T’Owd ‘Oss in his boyhood during the 1830s:

The most exciting Christmas custom was that of the ‘Poor Old Horse’ which perambulated the town from one public house to another.

Richmond, Yorkshire in the 1830s: Being the reminiscences of William Wise ‘An Old Richmond Lad’, edited by Leslie P. Wenham, 1977

The Darlington Mummers were formed in 1965 and are the oldest revivalist mummers team in the country. Their ‘Oss, as member Ric Spencer recounts in the Facebook page Darlington Mummers Scrapbook:

was made in around 1965 for a Mummers play we learnt for Whitby Folk Festival. The play had lots of characters, including 2 women, a recruiting sergeant, and a farmer’s man, me, who led a horse. The skull came from a dead racehorse from Richmond and was prepared by Ian Wood who was a butcher who buried it in lime for 6 months. It was then painted black and red, which were traditional colours, and mounted of a stout pole to carry. The jaw was also hinged. The late Jim Smith was the horse, the body was an old blanket, never spoke, just reared when needed. The horse still exists and it used in other plays.

The Darlington Mummers with their ‘Oss at Whitby Folk Week, August 2000
The Darlington Mummers ‘Oss in the logo for their 50th Anniversary in 2015.

This video explores the northern horse traditions of Souling plays and the Richmond ‘Oss:

Give us time and we may look to gaining an ‘Oss as well as a Mari, but in the meantime please join us on our journey to birth MARI BRIGA, the shining, or exalted mare (or, just as accurately, the High Horse!)

February 2022 – Mari Briga Arrives!

We now have the mare’s skull who will become our Mari. Many thanks to Trevor Jones and Liz Williams who run The Witchcraft Shop in Glastonbury for finding her for us. We don’t know too much about her – we know that she is a mare, that she is from Britain and that she either died a natural death or was put to sleep by a vet. She was not killed in a slaughterhouse and we were very specific about this. She is a big girl and judging by her teeth clearly was an old girl who lived a long life. We were so excited to meet her! The video below shows us taking her out of the box and welcoming her.

March 2022 – Our Stanwick Horse Mask Replica has been cast!

We are thrilled that the immensely talented jeweller Mike Shorer is working with us to create a replica of the Stanwick Horse Mask. Mike’s father Peter Shorer worked at the British Museum and created a replica of the Stanwick Horse Mask in 1994 which was exhibited at the Through Celtic Mists: Life and Ritual in the Iron Age exhibition at Northampton Central Museum in 1997. Sadly Mike’s father passed away over 10 years ago but he left Mike his extraordinary collection of moulds of historic pieces held at the British Museum, including the one of the Stanwick Horse Mask.

Although when we contacted Mike he told us that the Stanwick Horse Mask mould was not one of the range of 350 pieces that his Historic Jewellery Reproduction company uses, he let us know that he would check his father’s studio to see if he could find his father’s original mould. Luckily he did find it and he spent some time creating a master pattern from this, which he sent to his bronze casters in Birmingham so it could be cast using the lost wax process. Mike has now contacted us to say that he has had several bronzes cast of the Stanwick Horse Mask, and in his own words they look “Magnificent”! Our plan is for the Stanwick Horse Mask replica to eventually decorate the forehead of Mari Briga.

Here is some more information about Mike and his historic replicas:

July 2022 – Our Stanwick Bronze Replicas from Mike Shorer arrive!

The bronze replicas of the Stanwick Horse Mask and the two smaller men’s heads that accompany it in the British Museum have finally arrived and they are sensational! We are absolutely overwhelmed with the bronzes, they are incredible, totally breathtaking in their closeness to the originals. We literally could not stop looking at them when we finally opened the parcel. We would like to thank Mike Shorer so much for the work he has done, there is literally no one else in the world who could have created such authentic and magnificent bronzes as he has done and we are immensely grateful.

We hope it is OK with Mike to quote from one of his emails:

I have to thank you, on behalf of myself and my late father, for commissioning the bronzes. These are two of many pieces he moulded and electroformed as master patterns for future projects that he sadly ran out of time with, so I am hugely thankful that your request made me finally get them cast.

We are so happy to have been the catalysts of the bronzes being made and we hope that many other people will now be able to own and enjoy an authentic, virtually exact copy of the bronzes found in the Stanwick Hoard!

Mari Briga’s journey moves onwards and now we are now hoping to commission David Pitt – AKA ‘The Crowman’ and ‘The Mari Midwife’ – to help us. Here is one of his videos:

Further Information & Reading about the Mari Lwyd and T’Owd’Oss of Richmond : 

A brilliant piece on the custom of the Mari Lwyd, by the equally brilliant Kristoffer Hughes, is The Winter Mare – Mysteries of the Mari Lwyd.

Vernon Watkins The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd, 1941

HEX have an excellent article about the history of the Mari Lwyd on their website.

The Welsh Wassail Tradition: The Mari Lwyd

Custom revived: Richmond Poor Owd Oss

Julia Smith – Fairs, Feasts and Frolics: Customs and Traditions in Yorkshire, 1989

Julia Smith – ‘Richmond’s Christmas Customs’ in The Dalesman, December 1991

Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan – Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 days of British customs, myths and eccentricities, 1994

Leslie P. Wenham (editor) – Richmond, Yorkshire in the 1830s: Being the reminiscences of William Wise ‘An Old Richmond Lad’, 1977

A visual history of the Mari Lwyd is here:

Another good introduction to the Mari Lwyd is here:

Examples of the practice of pwnco from the mid 20th Century can be seen here:

and a choral version here: