The Mari Lwyd, or Grey Mare, is an ancient figure found in Welsh folklore, a spectral messenger between the worlds of the living and the dead. In a centuries–old folk drama still enacted in parts of Wales today, the Mari Lwyd is represented by a horse’s skull mounted on a decorated pole and carried from door to door by a man hidden under a long white sheet. In some areas this took place at night, the Mari Lwyd led through the streets by a group of rowdy wassail singers bearing lanterns to light the way. As described in Crafts, Customs, and Culture in Clwyd (1981): "The first intimation often received was the sight of this prowling monster peeping around into the room…or sometimes shewing his head by pushing it through an upstairs window."The men accompanying the Mari Lwyd then knock loudly upon the door and challenge the inmates of the house to a pwnco, or contest of wits. This contest is conducted through the musical exchange of traditional and improvised verses that are rudely satirical in nature, with each participant insulting the other’s singing, drunkeness, etc. The Mari Lwyd group is required to win the challenge in order to gain entrance to the house, whereupon they partake of cake and ale, sing a farewell song, and then depart. Though the ritual is now generally performed at Christmas, scholars date the Mari Lwyd figure back to the pre–Roman era and believe she originated in the winter rites of the Celtic horse goddess Rhiannon. Similar customs can be found in Switzerland, Austria, Barvaria, Slovenia and other Celtic areas of Europe.
In 2001, at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery in Wales, Clive Hicks–Jenkins exhibited a new series of new works centered on the Mari Lwyd, using the figure symbolically to explore the artist’s journey toward acceptance of his father’s death. This sequence of works, entitled The Mare’s Tale, was displayed alongside a series of poems written for the art by Catriona Urquhart.
"For many years," writes Clive, "I made a daily car journey from Newport to Tretower Court near Crickhowell, and in all that time I don’t think that I once passed through the village of Llanover without slowing to a snail’s pace, drawn by the darkly mysterious painting of a Mari Lwyd above the Post Office door. I’d never seen a Mari Lwyd other than in that painted sign, but my father had, and late in life he recounted his childhood terror of the sheeted horror which had come at him out of the night. The memory had stuck, ambushing him at moments of vulnerability. All his life his family were aghast at the power nightmares had to unseat his usual composure, but by the light of day he was a man who walked in the sunshine, laughed a lot, and was content.
"He was eighty-four before he admitted to what had been bothering him, looked at it in my drawings, called it by its name, faced it down. As he lay dying in hospital, besieged by God knows what unseen monsters, he cried out and battled with his bed-sheets. He never liked to be confined by a sheet. Too much like the Mari, and too much like a shroud. With his passing the Mari Lwyd became central to my work, but quickly slipped the tether of its folk custom origins, metamorphosing into something less corporeal."