A Witch’s Yuletide: Making the Mari Lwyd

A Witch’s Yuletide: Making the Mari Lwyd December 13, 2019

This Winter Solstice is our very first Yuletide in a home that’s all our own.  Something apparently happened in the home-buying process that activated a bunch of dormant seasonal decorating genes. Previously at the places that I’ve rented, I would do something small for holidays –  if anything at all. For a bunch of varying factors, it just wasn’t a thing. But now? Something has changed.

First there was the handmade Samhain wreath, front porch gourd-explosion, carefully chosen house flag, and other decor for the Fall/Halloween season. But decorating Witchy is a default setting, so OF COURSE I’m going to do something for Fall. But with 68% of the household being of the feline persuasion – and ones who especially love gnawing on green things they shouldn’t, there isn’t going to be a Yule Tree or Hanukkah Bush. So would the drive carry on into the Winter holidays?

The answer is YES. I picked up a fresh evergreen wreath (with juniper, pine, and more) and ribbon for the front door and found the two sets of solar lights I never put up last year (our house in Seattle had no exterior plugs, so the only way to do strings of lights were via battery (bad idea in wet places) or solar-powered.

Painting of the Mari Lwyd by Laura Tempest Zakroff

And as I considered winter holiday flags, I started investigating getting one of my Solstice paintings made into a flag…maybe the Yule Goat…or the Winter King, or hmm…the Mari Lwyd? Then I got to thinking that we need to replace the flag pole, because the one we have came with the house, and it’s seen some days. Suddenly my brain connected the following: a flag pole is like a hobby horse pole, and the Mari Lwyd is generally a horse skull on a pole with drapery.  I looked at the beautiful horse skull that rests at the base of our hearth and knew I wasn’t about to put her outside during a New England winter.  I looked online for possible plastic skulls or horse heads I could paint – and I didn’t find anything that worked for me.

I was going to have to make a horse skull myself.

“Maiden Morte” 2’x2′ mixed media painting – in a private collection.

Now, that may sound weird, but this is not a new or extra weird thing for me. I was a horse-crazy kid growing up, and worked summer jobs so I could finally afford to pay for riding lessons as a teen. I was hugely into model horses – painting and sculpting them.  During my college years, horse goddesses appeared in my artwork – taking the form of a human woman with a horse head. Ten years ago, while the corporate minions at my jewelry design job largely ignored me, I sculpted animal skulls – a horse being the first one I finished.

About 5-6 years ago, I started having these visions of a woman with a horse skull – so I started to draw and paint her. When I released the finished pieces online, that’s when people started to say to me, “that looks like the Mari Lwyd!” – and despite my fascination for all things equine for so many years, somehow this Welsh practice fell below my radar. After some research I was both amazed and in love. In the Fall of 2015, I created a dance piece that was a merger of my painted visions and Mari Lywd lore – complete with a collapsible horse skull because I needed to travel with it on a plane.  Here’s one of the performances:

I had that foamcore horse skull until this past Spring when it was time to reduce our belongings in order to fit everything into our POD. The sculpture became packing material. Oh well.  But it would have been too large anyway for our flagpole – I needed something more pony-size. So I took a used priority mail cardboard box and some tape – and got to work:

Cardboard and painter’s tape base for the skull. Basically it was a old priority mail box that had been laying around, and the painter’s tape was closeby.

Next I would need to cover the whole thing so it would be waterproof.  To achieve this, I bought some white duct tape and covered it completely inside and out.  I also used the tape to add additional features:

Next, covered in white duct tape. Nearly a whole roll.

I used felt and duct tape to make her ears (which I know seems weird, since it’s a SKULL, but many of the modern Mari Lwyds I see in photos from Wales have ears. I found some plastic Christmas balls for the eyes:

Gracie is the bravest cat in the house – she’s not afraid of the Mari Lwyd.

Then I drew designs with permanent marker on the front and sides:

Close up the cardboard and duct tape skull with drawing

Lastly, I got our old flagpole and with some wire, tape, and ribbon, attached the head, a large piece of white fabric for the body (with a layer of glittery fabric on top), and ribbons for the mane.

Mari Lwyd outside

Then lastly, after parading her around the house and collecting my partner, we installed her outside. (She has great movement! Check out a video of her on my instagram here!) It took a little bit of experimenting to find the right length of pole (we cut it down a bit) and the best angle, but soon we were cackling with glee….
We’re going to get a solar-powered spotlight for her, and I may create a waterproof FAQ to go on the porch for curious NEIGHbors who may be wondering “what the heck is that thing?”!  In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on NextDoor 😉

Also:  several folks have asked if I’ve created a pattern so other people can do it too. I’m working on it.  For this piece, I pretty much just eyeballed it, cutting and taping to get the shape I want, but there’s definitely a more careful way to go about doing it that would make it much more friendly for other less-artsy-crazy folks to use.  There IS a mail order kit you can get from Wales which is pretty darn awesome too.

If you’re interested in prints or holiday cards of my Solstice artwork – head over to my website!

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