Rap Battles With the Mari Lwyd

Written by Luke Greensmith Originally published on December 5, 2021

It’s that most wonderful time of the year again, where an angry goat man will hunt down naughty children and beat them until they won’t be sitting down for the rest of the holidays. This is our third Krampusnacht special, having covered a wide range of midwinter traditions and no small number of monsters. One key thing tying them all together you will definitely see in this year’s special is the question of whether you have been naughty or nice.


The nice shall be rewarded, this darkest time of the year. Band together in your family, in your community, be good and be rewarded.


Be bad, on the other hand?


You’ll be lucky to get away with just a lump of coal.


Be good for goodness sake, because it’s Santa you want a visit from. Not… Something Else.


SECTION BREAK – The mother of Yule Mischief


It feels fitting to start off this Krampusnacht special with a figure of folklore who has been an overarching presence in previous years.


Mother Gryla.


We haven’t looked at her directly yet, but her presence has been felt. She’s the mother of the Yule Lads, and the owner of the Yule Cat. Yet Mother Gryla herself is at least as terrifying as her monstrous cat, certainly more so than her mostly mischievous offspring. Gryla is the ogress of the Icelandic mountains, frequently stomping about her territory of the Dimmuborgir lava fields looking to violently cross paths with trespassers.


That’s more of a year round hobby though. She takes on a special role at Yule.


Mother Gryla can sense naughty children in nearby villages. This is an expressly supernatural ability that cannot be physically fooled, and it’s a convenient superpower given that naughty children make her favourite stew. Gryla is a giant in the literal sense of the word, being a monstrous mix of troll and animal, if she wants to get a child that child is getting got. She’s the Terminator for Christmas, and she’s not content to just scare naughty children, they’re DINNER.


Her power is very specific, though. She cannot, is in fact completely unable to, harm good children.


Once a misbehaving child has caught her attention, it isn’t immediately over. First comes the kidnapping, Gryla will find a way to pull them from their home or grab them up off of the street and stuff them in a giant sack she keeps for stuffing children into. A hungry cackling giant charging through the dark snowy nights. Then they get taken back to Gryla’s kitchen, her favourite food is something to be savoured and turned into a lovely stew! Boiled alive to get them juuuust right. At any point, the naughty child has an opportunity to get away. They need to repent their wicked ways, and Gryla has to let them go. No cheating possible, they’re free and safe as soon as they are sorry.


The trick, the point where Mother Gryla wins, that makes her favourite dish all the more satisfying, is the unrepentant brat. A child who throws a tantrum instead of showing remorse for what they’ve done is exactly what the hungry ogress wants for Christmas dinner.


Original stories of Gryla paint her as a repulsive begger who would go house to house asking parents for their disobedient children. She appears to have grown in power over the years, and as she becomes more associated with the holidays. So… I would say you should take care to be good, and definitely never refuse to apologise for being bad! Gryla knows if you’re naughty, and the only coal she holds truck with is what she heats her naughty child cooking pot with.


SECTION BREAK – Your Christmas drinks are not safe!


Okay, Mother Gryla is a terrifying ogress who comes for naughty kids, but she’s not the only festive entity out and about around the end of the calendar year. Wales has a curious one, and this is one for the adults to enter a battle of wits with.


The Mari Lwyd.


Most people have probably seen pictures or art of the Mari Lwyd, but they may not know what the strange horse skeleton gets up to in its native Welsh valleys. The Mari Lwyd will go from house to house around the holiday season, knocking on doors and demanding to be let in. Should the Mari Lywd appear at your door, to keep it out you need to engage in a singing contest. This can be more poetry than singing, or else can be a pwnco: an exchange of rude rhymes. Stand your ground with strong enough rhymes, and the Mari Lwyd will move on to the next house. Fail to defend your home, though, and the Mari Lywd is coming in. If she does? She’s raiding your pantry for all the alcohol it can find and guzzle down.


I heard a brilliant summary of the Mari Lwyd from Americans trying to wrap their head around this: In Wales at Christmastime, you need to rap battle horse ghosts or they drink all your booze.


The Mari Lwyd is a wassailing tradition from South Wales, Carol singing on hardcore difficulty. It’s speculated to come from pre-Christian traditions, but records don’t seem to back this up and it possibly just popped into existing due to the popularity of hobby horses and singing for drinks. Entire processions would go house to house led by the Mari Lywd, with the followers in all sorts of other costumes. An entourage of jesters and ladies, following the festively decorated horse skeleton. The Mari Lwd herself is a lady, if an unusual one. Dressed up in her finest ribbons and tinsel, with glass baubles for eyes, draped in a white cloth, the Mari Lwyd is a striking sight.


This leads to something of a parade in the streets, usually between Christmas Day and Twelfth night. It’s a fun modern spectacle, although frequently baffling to outsiders. Spectators beware, though, as the Mari Lwyd is notorious for her mischief. Snapping her jaws at people who get too near, always trying to steal things, she is also well known for chasing people she takes a liking to.


You do fortunately get something back for your depleted stock of drinks, should the Mari Lywd and her followers successfully raid your home. While you may be in for a sober time for the rest of the holidays, having the Mari Lwyd and her followers visit your home is said to bring good luck for the year to come.


I was going to provide some traditional poems to counter a Mari Lwyd with, but they are for the most part in Welsh and I’m just going to butcher them. But the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins did a pretty large ballard about the Mari Lwyd. Itself a bit much in its entirety, but I’ll perform the prologue that announces the full ballard itself. If enough people want me to, I’ll come dig up some more Mari Lwyd content for next year, or as a bonus episode somewhere. For now, though, here is the introduction to The Ballad of The Mari Lwyd:


Mari Lwyd, Horse of Frost, Star-horse, and White Horse of the Sea, is carried to us.

The Dead return.

Those Exiles carry her, they who seem holy and have put on corruption, they who seem corrupt and have put on holiness.

They strain against the door.

They strain towards the fire which fosters and warms the Living.

The Living, who have cast them out, from their own fear, from their own fear of themselves, into the outer loneliness of death, rejected them, and cast them out for ever:

The Living cringe and warm themselves at the fire, shrinking from that loneliness, that singleness of heart.

The Living are defended by the rich warmth of the flames which keeps that loneliness out.

Terrified, they hear the Dead tapping at the panes; then they rise up, armed with the warmth of firelight, and the condition of scorn.

It is New Year’s Night.

Midnight is burning like a taper. In an hour, in less than an hour, it will be blown out.

It is the moment of conscience.

The living moment.

The dead moment.

Listen.


SECTION BREAK – Where the Christmas elves came from


For the next two sections we’re heading to Finland for Christmas folklore, starting with the nicer of the two. Ending… Well, let’s say ending strong.


Finland is really big on its Christmas elves. You can find a lot of Tontut decorations in Europe, on Christmas markets and so far this year just generally everywhere. The Tonttu were the traditional farm elves of Finland who helped out in rural areas, watching over the residents and animals. While referred to as “elves” in translations they seem more like the brownies and hobgoblins of Britain, being little folk who will help about the household provided you don’t anger them. So some Christmas stories go that as the rural areas become replaced with more urban cities the Tontut became displaced, and went to Lapland to help Santa with their work, building toys to be given out as gifts. This aspect of Finnish festive folklore appears to have led to the idea of Christmas elves as a whole, although wider mythology moves Santa’s workshop from Lapland to the North Pole at some point.


The Tontut are still expected to be welcomed around Christmastime, with parts of the family feast this time of year left out on the table for the elves to have a share of.


These elves of Finland did have the naughty and nice dichotomy that a lot of festive traditions focus upon, something which lines up pretty well with the duality of nature European fae creatures seem to have. The Tontut of the house is there to help out with chores and bring good fortune, but I mention their similarity to other European little folk before. Specifically, not getting them angry. Tontut are filled with rage by poor behaviour. If a family is being mean, selfish, and spiteful their household guardian is going to get mad, and pass judgement. From spoiling milk, to full on arson, an angry Tontut may burn a house down to punish the people who live there. A bit more extreme than a brownie just trashing the place as they leave, Tontut don’t mess around. If you live the scumbag life in a home with a Tontut, it’s scorched earth time!


The Tontut are ultimately a force for good, if somewhat merciless in their punishment of bad behaviour. Of course, the alternative is just to be good people. Be good? Then elves won’t need to go Punisher on you.


SECTION BREAK – What’s with the goat?


Okay, Finland is a little complex when it comes to mythology. It had a history stretching back millennia that Christianity hit with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball, as it did all of Europe, so it has gone through some changes.


Santa Claus there is Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki), who is currently a jolly fat man who comes from Lapland in Finnish traditions to give gifts to good children. Pretty standard stuff apart from the Lapland vs North Pole division in mythology.


Except Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) roughly translates to Yule Goat.


So… What’s up with the goat?


Older stories of Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) are a little more Krampus than Santa. Something of a fusion of the two really.


Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) would go from house to house at Yule time, an imposing goat figure walking like a man upright on their hooves. Plump and jolly being replaced with goat horns and thick hair all over. They would bang on the door and demand to know if there are good children inside. Any good children the Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) finds on their rounds MUST be given presents. The bad children, though, get their rears beat until they bleed by the enraged festive goat man.


This looks like it could come from pre-Christian shamanic traditions. A community shaman dresings up in a goatskin to do the Yule rounds. And, as is the enduring spirit of the holidays, the good will be rewarded while the bad will be punished.


As we move into the modern era a somewhat standardised Santa has settled into the holiday season, but the goat has had a modern revival. You can buy Yule Goats as decorations, they’re not quite the same thing as the vengeful goat man of the midwinter holidays, coming from further afield than the Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) traditions with ties to older mythology, but Yule Goats made of straw are becoming a more and more common decoration now.


In some regions they seem to tie back to Thor, who had a chariot drawn by goats, but there seems to be a deeper association. The goat isn’t a powerful symbol because of Norse myth, more they were used to draw Thor’s chariot because they already held significance. There are a lot of suggestions of a sacrifice of a goat in the traditional midwinter feasts of pre-Christian Europe, certainly something that could be linked to the shamanic Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki ). There is also a final harvest tradition that bridges Halloween and Yule. The last sheaf of grain in the harvest would be bundled into the shape of a goat, and would then be kept as a part of the Yule celebration. This now being the straw goats you can buy as various decorations, from small goats to hang from Christmas trees to substantial seasonal garden ornaments.


Joulupukki (pronounced yo-lu-pu-ki) lives on as both Santa and Yule Goats. Once again, though, best be good to be on the safe side. I wouldn’t want to answer the door to a looming goat man on the warpath hunting for naughty children, and have to respond “no” to the question “Are there good children in here?” Be good, get presents, don’t get beaten by the angry goat man.


SECTION BREAK


That’s all for this episode! It feels somewhat strange to me that we’re on to our third Krampusnacht special.


I want to quickly remind everyone we still need more votes for the Most Haunted of Britain! So definitely please still do email your vote for either York, Derbyshire, or Edinburgh as the most haunted of the British Isles, and I will be back end of the year with an episode celebrating the winner. Send an email to lukeloregsg@gmail.com with your vote in all capital letters for both the heading and the body of the email. Add a further comment if you would like to have anything read out on the end of the year show.


I’m looking forward to both the final LukeLore of the year with our winner of Britain’s Most Haunted, and also to get to work on next year’s shows! I have a listener request to follow up on I didn’t get to yet, and a part two witches collaboration planned. Plus a pile of other things coming down the folklore pipeline! It’s exciting times for my little spin off show.


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Goodbye for now.