Sisterhood of the Antlers

Stories of the Ancestral Mothers of Scotland from folk magic and the wise women who honored them. Rooted in the Bean Feasa (Wise Woman) tradition.

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The Night Mare of Winter Solstice

Posted by on in Paths Blogs


Image use by permission of Mari Lwyd Larcher

In this time of short days and long nights, I got sick, really sick. In the two weeks, it took me to recover I was aware that illness at this time of year can take us into a different layer of darkness. A darkness which is present at the edge of every day, the edge of day and night and is there in a thousand other thresholds we experience.

The darkness at this time of the year is blacker, deeper and expansive enough to hold more mystery and depth. Down there I found sorrows and woes, dread and worry discarded like cast snake skins. Yet once you wade through this mire, brushing off any that stick and uncurl those from your ankles you reach a clearing. 

It was there that I met a curious creature: tall, with horse head skull, wearing a white cloak adorned with bells and bones – she exuded both a sadness and a strength. She is the Mari Lwyd (Welsh for grey mare), today she still forms part of many British customs which occur in the darkest days of mid-winter. She attends wassailing events, dances with Morris groups and Mummers. What’s left of her tale is corrupted by Christianity, it's said that she was evicted out of her warm stable where she was about to give birth to her foal in order to make way for an in labor Mary. The story superimposes one set of beliefs over another and evicts the Mari out into the dark and cold night.  


My Mari Lwyd doll

Today folk memory tells us that she roams at night looking for a invite and a warm and safe place to give birth to her foal. Her traditional rite involves her and her party originally arriving at many doors throughout the village which has been swapped for the local pubs. Several verses would have been sung becoming a challenge of riddles and rhymes. Mari then enters with another song, and a pint or two await all.

The Mare-headed Queen, the Mari-Lwyd,

I was mother of all the herds.

Ten thousand years my shining foals,

Bridled with starlight,

Saddled with gold,

Leapt the divide between living and dead,

Quickened the year with each toss of the head

I am always searching for the story behind the story. The story behind the Christian tale and I have a sense that the Mari (in one form or another) is older than Wassill, older than the Mummers and the Morris folk with roots stretching back to ancient pre-Celtic peoples. As in the words of a Mari Lwyd song by Hugh Lupton (posted throughout this article in italics – with a link to the song at the bottom of the article) Mari was once the mother of all the horse herds, taking her joy in the birth of each foal, and the love of the mare for the foal. Horses have run in Britain for thousands of years. When the ancient ice waters melted summer offered a brief interlude of green pastures of the tundra wild horses would journey from the European mainland. - and following the horses would be the people of the horses. These were the earliest peoples of the Horse cults, the ancestors of the people who may have gouged out the Uffington White Horse many years later.

The shaman’s drum in cultures throughout the world has been referred to as a horse, who takes us from this reality into the otherworld. The Mari ushers in such magic ‘with a flick of her head’ bringing us into a modern ‘new year’ which in the old calendar, the calendar of nature – the wheel of the year - mid winter holds the magic of the rebirth of the sun while leading us into a deeper darkness still to come. Mari is an ancient guide, a guardian to help us work in these dark months and offer us the magic of renewal and rebirth.


Image use by permission of Mari Lwyd Larcher

Reclaiming Her Roots

Reclaiming these roots of such ancient rituals is almost an impossible task – but we have our own ways of doing this – to dance between the worlds following the sound of the drum, the fast hoof beats, riding the drum horse. It’s in this other world that we can call on the priestess of the Horse people. She who at this time of midwinter sang over the bones, and led her people in rituals honoring a symbolic death and rebirth – as all around life was struck down and its energy returned to the roots for the promise of rebirth in the spring. Were the three great libation bowls in the womb tomb of Newgrange created to hold that which we wished to be reborn along with the sun?

Mari is the Star Horse, the Horse of Death, the Horse of the Frost, the Horse of the Dark Night, the original Nightmare.  That great spirit horse who looked after the herds, honored by the people who followed the herds. 

And now I am nightmare, I am rattling womb,

The Uffington wraith I've become,

Forced into darkness you've made me a fiend,

Bridled with shadow,

Saddled with scream,

From window to window traversing the night,

My face in your glass in a shudder of light,

Seeking that deep of welcome

Befitting a Queen. 

She wears a skull as she represents the harshness of winter and winter brings death. Throughout history, we have reenacted this death symbolically – enacting the death of things so that they may be reborn again. Snakes and crops and this song is sung over the bones of our departed. Trees and plants play out this symbolic death, returning all energy back to their roots and they will grow again in the spring. The Mari is the ‘Nightmare’ – today we think of this as scary, something unwanted. Our ancestors looked at death in a very different way while our culture fears it.  The Mari’s values are so long rejected that we fear this bone mother and all she stands for. She has her own recurring nightmare – the herds have gone – the people no longer honor the horses, or the land or each other. We are the creators of our own nightmare – no longer honoring the land is creating our imminent destruction.  

Old Bone-face the deathless am I,

Heavy with foal two thousand years,

Bridled with sorrow,

Saddled with fear,

I canter through pastures of tremble and quake,

I gallop the track between sleep and awake

Seeking the deep of welcome



 Image use by permission of Mari Lwyd Larcher

And so in these dark days and long lingering nights bring in the Morris folk, the drummers, the storytellers and the singers - buy them a pint or two. Dance with the Mari this dark winter, celebrate in offerings of food, drink and good company. It is a time of celebration and joy and of hangovers and regrets, of new years resolutions and deep rituals for rebirth. Old bone face takes it all and dishes out what you need - wither that might paracetamol or an offering of and aspect of something you may wish to see reborn in you. Light her a candle, invite her in – but be wary old Bone Face is quite the trickster.



A Mari Film

Inspired by a large supermarket development in Cardigan, this little film ‘Re-Tolled’ draws on the imagery of the Mari Lwyd and other folk rituals in an attempt to manifest the ‘spirit’ of the land. As trees are felled and the landscape altered, the reverberations are felt deep in the earth, awakening creatures that are now only remembered in folk memory who offer a wonderful inspiration. They offer a sustainable spirituality whose roots weave and tangle down to the very bedrock of the planet.



The Mari Lwyd Pwnco Ceremony performed in Welsh and Cornish at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle, Cornwall. Filmed by Laetitia Latham-Jones

Mari Lwyd song - Music & performance by Chris Wood, lyrics by Hugh Lupton

Re-Tolled. A film featuring the Mari Lwyd

 Mari Lwyd Larcher facebook page




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As an artist and Cultural Activist, Jude Lally is rooted in the inspiration of her Ancestral Mothers. All her work comes about through exploring her relationship with the land through art, ritual, imagination, and creativity.

She uses the inspiration of old traditions to meet modern needs. While keening, was traditionally a way to ament the death of someone in the community, Jude uses it today as a way to address modern needs in allowing an expression of grief we hold for all that is happening across the planet. In using keening in this cathartic way she then engages participants with gestures of ritual which help them deal with their grief and then inspires them to work in creative ways in acts of resistance, working towards a restorative culture.

She calls herself a Radical doll maker who views her art as part of a practice that stretches back to the first dolls fashioned from bones and stones – such as the Woman of Willendorf.

She gained her MSc Masters Degree in Human Ecology at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland) in partnership with the Center for Human Ecology, with her thesis entitled ‘Fire in the Head, Heart, and Hand. A Study of the Goddess Brighid as Goddess Archetype and her Relevance to Cultural Activists in Contemporary Scotland’. She currently lives in Asheville, Western North Carolina but is moving back to Scotland this year.



  • Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes Monday, 21 December 2015

    It's always nice to read a new take on this wonderful tradition. However, I must ask you to correct your statement that the poem you quote here was written my me. It is the work of Hugh Lupton, and he should receive the credit for it, preferably with a link to his website.
    I'm sure you mistake was an honest one.

    Also, your link to the performance of that song, toward the end of your post, doesn't take you to the video you are trying to link. The correct link for that is

    All the best for the festive season,

  • Jude Lally
    Jude Lally Tuesday, 22 December 2015

    Hi Kris,

    Many thanks for pointing that out - amendments made!

    Winter Blessings,


  • Jude Lally
    Jude Lally Tuesday, 22 December 2015


    I was so inspired by the lyrics of the song. I'm curious what's your impression of the Mari Lwyd?



  • Kris Hughes
    Kris Hughes Tuesday, 22 December 2015

    Hi Jude - At an intuitive level, I feel that the Mari tradition is one of many differing expressions of some kind of remnant of an early Celto-British horse cult. Various folk traditions involving hobby horses and pole horse, like the Mari or the Padstow horse, to mention two of the most famous examples, coupled with myths surrounding Rhiannon and Macha, artifacts like the Uffington horse and the many shrines to the goddess Epona in former Gaul, and so on.... all these things seem to me to be pointing in one general direction. However, trying to get a handle on what was going on in the past, or how we might make it relevant to the present isn't so easy. As a servant of Epona, it is a question which occupies my mind a great deal, but I am still feeling my way.

    I'm writing this late in the day after a Solstice meal - too many calories and wine to be at my best for the task! You might find this piece which I wrote about the Mari Lwyd a couple of years back more enlightening.

  • Jude Lally
    Jude Lally Tuesday, 22 December 2015

    Cheers Kris,

    I'll check out your article!

    Here's to mid winter celebrations - and many walks of the dog inbetween!

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