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The Rhiannon's Celebrations: Epona's Day & The Mari Lwyd

 As I commented on a previous post, Rhiannon is probably a reflex of the Celtic Great Queen goddess Rigantona and may also be associated with the horse goddess Epona. 
Some also associate her to the Irish "Macha" and the Gaulish "Epona", the "Great Mare" derived from the inferred proto-Celtic *ekwos 'horse';  I guess it is because of her horse association as  depicted on the Welsh Mabinogion, which does not present Rhiannon as anything other than human, descibed riding a white horse, and afterwards condemned to carry visitors on her back for being suspected to murder her own son.

Rhiannon thus bears the stamp of two important Gaulish cults: that of the "Horse Goddess" Epona on one hand; and Matrona, the "Great Mother", on the other. Rigantona 'Great Queen', as Rhiannon would have been known in Romano-British times, is best considered a local variant of this composite figure.

According to Phyllis Pray Bober, (reviewing Réne Magnen, Epona, Déesse Gauloise des Chevaux, Protectrice des Cavaliers in American Journal of Archaeology) , unusually for a Celtic deity, most of whom were associated with specific localities, the worship of Epona, "the sole Celtic divinity ultimately worshipped in Rome itself," was widespread in the Roman Empire between the first and third centuries CE. 

 A relief of Epona, flanked by two pairs of horses, from Roman Macedonia

18th December is the day on which the celebration was held by Romans.  It was the day when all the cloven-footed beasts – horses, donkeys, cattle, oxen – were rested and not made to work.

The celebrated questions herself on this subject on her personal blog :

"What is the reason for Epona’s incorporation into the Roman calendar?  And why is it remembered so near the Solstice? Well, the early Romans celebrated midwinter with rites to Ops and Consus, the Sabine deities of the underworldly earth whom they saw as resonant with Rhea and Saturn. Consus was associated with horses and, by extension, by those beasts that ploughed the fields.  The Gaulish goddess Epona became incorporated into Roman religion  because of the Roman army whose cavalry was made up of levies of men from Gaul, the Low Countries and Germany: the influence of riders and grooms who depended upon their horses brought Epona into association with the midwinter rituals."

"Epona ushers us into the deep gifts of midwinter and invites us to rest, to cease from our shapeshifting and realize that we are not super-beings but souls whose bodies need the grace of refreshment and the garlanding of festival.  In midwinter’s rest lies the deep wisdom, the seeds of our renewal whereby the new year can be fruitful."

The Mari Lwyd
A south Welsh folk ritual call Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare) is still undertaken in December - an apparent survival of the veneration of  goddess Rhiannon. The pantomime horse is thought to be a related survival.

The Mari Lwyd (Grey Mare or "Gray Mary" in English), also Y Fari Lwyd,  is a Welsh midwinter tradition, possibly to celebrate New Year , although it formerly took place over a period stretching from Christmas to late January. It is a form of visiting wassail, a luck-bringing ritual in which a the participants accompany a person disguised as a horse from house to house (including pubs) and sing at each door in the hope of gaining admittance and being rewarded with food and drink.

http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/Xmas/calendar/countries/wales/mare.jpgThe Mari Lwyd consists of a mare's skull (sometimes made of wood, or when the custom is followed by children, cardboard) fixed to the end of a wooden pole; a white sheet is fastened to the back of the skull, concealing the pole and the person carrying the Mari. Two black cloth ears may be sewn onto the cloth.
Coloured ribbons are usually fixed to the skull and small bells attached to the reins (if any) by which the Mari is led.

Mr Vernon Rees, a freeman of Llantrisant, remembers that his father, Tom John Rees, was in charge of the Llantrisant Mari. The Llantrisant head was not a real skull but was made of wood, bandaged right down to the snout to make it look like a genuine horse's head. Mr Rees remembers the Mari being kept in the cupboard under the stairs and knows it was still around in 1937, when the family moved house. Tom John Rees was a miner at Ynysmaerdy Colliery, just north of Llantrisant, and died of pneumoconiosis in 1945, when he was only 45 years old. Mr Rees does not know whether his mother gave the Mari Lwyd away or what became of it.

The Mari party (five or six men or boys) often had coloured ribbons and rosettes attached to their clothes, and sometimes wore a broad sash around the waist.
There was usually a "Leader", smartly dressed, who carried a staff or stick, or a whip, and sometimes other stock characters, such as the Merryman, who played music, and Punch and Judy (both played by men) with blackened faces; often brightly dressed, Punch carried a long metal poker and Judy had a besom broom.

The custom used to begin at dusk and often lasted late into the night. Now it may start earlier in the day (as at Llangynwyd, where it begins at 2pm on New Year's Day).

During the ceremony, the skull is carried through the streets of the village by the party; they stand in front of every house to sing traditional songs. The singing sometimes consists of a rhyme contest (pwnco or pwngco) between the Mari party and the inhabitants of the house, who challenge each other with improvised verses (traditionally exchanged through the closed door); the contest could last for some time, until one side gave up.

The tradition started fading through the first half of the twentieth century and had pretty much become extinct during the Second World War. Nowadays, some folk associations in Llantrisant, Llangynwyd, Cowbridge and elsewhere are trying to revive it. Llantrisant's Mari Lwyd custom was revived nearly two and half decades ago by members of the Llantrisant Folk Club, very much in the style in which it was being performed when it originally died out, probably at the start of the Second World War.

Related Sources:

Mabon and Guardians of Celtic Britain (Inner Traditions) By Caitlín Matthews
Wikipedia's Article:Mari Lwyd 

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