The Skeleton Mare of Midwinter
A merry column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
It’s the last week of the year in your small Welsh village. A festive cheer battles long nights and frosty air. It’s after dark, and singing and shouting have been carried to you on the wind all evening. Now, when it’s almost midnight and the fire is burning low, you hear a knock on the door.
You approach carefully, then look through the peephole. A group of men crowd the door, but you barely notice them. All your attention is focused on an enormous figure, draped in pale robes and colourful ribbons. Its head is a horse skull, bleached white. Christmas baubles fill its empty eye sockets. It grins at you and begins to sing.
You’ve been visited by the Mari Lwyd.
Hope you’ve been practising your rhymes.
I. The Mari Lwyd
Mari Lwyd is a name that belongs to both a creature and the folk custom surrounding it. A wassailing tradition originating in South Wales and performed around Christmas time, you might already be familiar with it just because of how captivating and evocative the design of the lady herself is. Although it’s a practice dating back over two hundred years, it almost died out in the early 20th century—but luckily, the skeleton horse has been blessed by a cultural revival over the last half-century1.
It all begins with a group of revellers bringing her to you.
One person plays the star of the show, the skeletal horse-lady herself, by putting a horse skull atop a pole and then concealing themselves in a white sheet beneath it. The horse skull is decorated with ribbons and other festive accoutrements, and sometimes even has an articulate jaw that can be moved up and down. The rest of the group—traditionally all men—dress up as stock or folk characters, such as a jester, merrymaker, and Punch and Judy. One well-dressed man also holds the reins (so to speak) as the Leader.
Starting at dusk, the group carries Mari Lwyd through the streets of your Welsh village, singing and dancing. Eventually, they’ll turn up on your doorstep, as they will at almost every other house (or pub) throughout the night. The group will sing a verse requesting entry, which you refuse. Instead, a pwnco begins—a call-and-response rhyming battle where you’ll be trading jokes, witticisms, and insults.
A pwnco only ends when one side gives up, with the Mari Lwyd’s troupe either leaving or gaining entrance. The former is pretty rare, however, since it’s ultimately good luck if the Mari and her gang get in. Once inside, Mari causes havoc, running about and scaring children, while her companions play music and entertain the homeowners. The Mari group are given food and drink for their efforts, then sent on to do it all over again next door.
II. Naming and Origins
You’d think we’d know exactly what Mari Lwyd means, but much of the creature’s true origins are shrouded in mystery, giving us two prime options.
One translation gives us Mari Lwyd as ‘Grey Mare’, which puts the creature in conversation with other mythic, pale horses found throughout the British Isles. The second translation is ‘Grey Mary’ or ‘Holy Mary’, instead linking the custom to Mary and the nativity.
Does the second option imply Mari Lwyd began as a Christian tradition? That’s a very thorny question, despite its modern associations with Christmas. Our earliest published account of the Mari Lwyd custom is only from 1800, even though we know the tradition is far older. This has led to much speculation and debate but few answers.
Some believe Mari Lwyd derives from some pre-Christian, pagan custom that was incorporated into the Welsh people’s new belief system, but there’s no material evidence that’s the case. We do know that Mari Lwyd exists in conversation at least with similar traditions of hooded animals and hobby horses in neighbouring parts of Britain, not to mention ritual animal disguises being found the world over4.
In the end, however, the true origin of this festive horse skeleton has managed to remain a mystery
Using the Mari Lwyd in Your Game
So now you know the story, how can you use it in your game?
I. A Festive Tradition
Sometimes it can be fun to just add some flavour to your story world. The party can come from or visit a town that has its own Mari Lwyd tradition—either literally, if your game is set on Earth, or as a form of inspiration if not. Incorporating local customs and folk traditions makes the world feel real and lived in, and not just an arena for the PC’s adventures.
In a fantasy setting, you don’t need to go with a horse head either. The locals might, for example, parade about with the head of a young dragon slain many years ago. However, in that particular case, you might ask what happens when the dragon’s parent comes to town and sees how their kid’s remains are being treated?
II. Case of the Missing Head
Here’s a story starter for you: In one Welsh town, the skull of the Mari Lwyd is kept buried for most of the year, only being dug up for the duration of the Christmas season5. So what happens when the town goes to dig up the skull and it isn’t there?
In a more grounded game, perhaps in the ‘Kids on Bikes’ genre, the thieves are probably just jerks—can your group of wayward teens get it back before the festive season is ruined? For higher stakes, the skull might be worth a lot of money to the right buyer as a historical artefact. Your party will need to retrieve the skull before it gets lost forever in a private collection—or heist it back, if that’s more their speed.
In a more fantastical setting, the skull’s theft likely has more sinister intentions. Perhaps the villains intend to perform some profane ritual, raising the spirit of Mari Lwyd for their own, dark purposes. Or, maybe the Mari Lwyd ritual is secretly protective. What malevolent force will be turning its attention to the town, if the PCs fail to retrieve their skeletal protector?
III. A Midwinter Breather
Alternatively, does there need to be an underhanded plot or dramatic stakes? Perhaps the best use of Mari Lwyd is to just get in on the Welsh tradition. Have the PCs drinking in an inn common room when Mari Lwyd visits, letting them blow off steam between adventures by having a rap battle with a giant skeletal horse (puppet or undead trickster spirit, you decide).
Not every challenge needs to be life or death, after all.
And that’s it for the Mari Lwyd—and Mythoi in 2023!
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Thank you very much to everyone who read Mythoi in 2023; we’ll be back again in the new year with even more fantastical folklore!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever faced off against a festive monster in a role-playing game?
~ A.C. Luke
Side Note: The Mari Lwyd in the banner picture might have a cow skull for a head, not a horse skull. If so, pretend that’s a free extra plot hook: what’s up with Mari’s secret cow sister?
Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Cawte, E. C. Ritual Animal Disguise: A Historical and Geographical Study of Animal Disguise in the British Isles. D.S. Brewer Ltd. and Rowman and Littlefield for the Folklore Society, 1978.
Owen, Trefor M. Welsh Folk Customs. National Museum of Wales, 1987.