The Folklore Friends Promo: Skulls and Sheets

Welcome to our second feature of The Folklore Friends Promo: spreading the word about lovely projects from other members of the Folklore community from Twitter and elsewhere! This week, we would like to introduce you to Skulls and Sheets: an illustrator who creates artwork inspired by the Welsh Mari Lwyd.

Mari Lwyd by Skulls and Sheets, inspired by Aubrey Beardsley.
Mari Lwyd by Skulls and Sheets, inspired by Aubrey Beardsley.

The idea for this project sparked to life in 2016, after Kelda – the artist behind Skulls and Sheets – travelled to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall to witness its traditional Samhain celebrations. After experiencing a difficult year, the enchanted evening of the Annual All Hallows Gathering turned out to become a pivotal moment in the artist’s life, encouraging her to step onto a new path of discovery towards her number one muse and source of inspiration: the Mari Lwyd.

All Hallows Gathering outside the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle (2016) by Kieran’s Events. Mari Lwyd dance starts at 43:35.

The Mari Lwyd (or rather Y Fari Lwyd, meaning “The Grey Mare” in Welsh) is a seasonal figure from South Wales folklore that typically materializes for Christmas and New Year’s Eve to herald the return of light and Spring, taking on the shape of a lively horse skull decorated with ribbons and bells – which is carried on a pole by an enthusiastic bearer under a large (and usually white) cloak. Clacking its bony jaws to the sound of music and improvised rhymes called pwnco, the Mari Lwyd then goes trotting door-to-door accompanied by a Leader who is just about pretending to restrain it.

Mari Lwyd, from the National Museums Wales archive.

Should home-dwellers fail to adequately respond to the Leader’s pwnco in Welsh, both them and the Mari Lwyd will then storm into the house, causing unbridled mischief and demanding to partake in the residents’ cakes and cider. Some of these back-and-forth bardic competitions have been known to take up to an hour – but thankfully, in the end, the Mari Lwyd’s break-in is seen as good luck, as its visit is said to scare away evil spirits from the house for the upcoming year.

According to the National Museum of Wales – Amgueddfa Cymru – the introduction of this equine folk custom was first recorded in 1798, and “apart from one of two sightings in the north”, its haunting places seemed to have concentrated mostly in Glamorgan, Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire until the early 20th century. After that, the ritual experienced a resurgence in popularity, and today, it can be observed in pagan festivals all throughout the year – even in England and Cornwall – like when the Mari Lwyd made its special appearance for the October festivities of the Museum of Witchcraft.

This juxtaposition of a frightening undead horse with a sweet tooth for snacks and toast – accompanied by the joyful music and atmosphere that surrounded the Mari Lwyd in Boscastle – unlocked a creativity that had slumbered in Kelda for 15 years. And thus, Skulls and Sheets was born.

Mari Lwyd inspired by Alphone Mucha, by Skulls and Sheets. A horse skull in violet drapery floats from the beyond, against a backdrop of crescent moon and stars.
Mari Lwyd inspired by Alphone Mucha, by Skulls and Sheets.

Encouraged by folklore, Skulls and Sheets began to draw inspiration from several other sources and interests, incorporating the works of historical artists in her art such as Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Kay Nielsen and Alphonse Mucha – as well as the natural world of fungi and deep sea animals.

But despite wearing cloaks of many forms, I try my best to keep the key message of the Mari Lwyd
intact in my pieces. That is: the transition between seasons and the cycle of life and death. Things
that we continually face, but may not wish to.

– Kelda, from Skulls and Sheets

Skulls and Sheets publishes regular anthologies of her Mari Lwyd digital artworks in handy monthly booklets available through her Etsy store, which are frequently accompanied by bonus handcrafted creations such as linoprints or coasters. The artist has also designed a colouring book of the Mari Lwyd, alongside items like prints, key chains, badges, and much more – some of which are available to purchase in-person from the Centre For Folklore, Myth And Magic, in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, England (featured in last month’s Folklore Friends Promo).

On top of that, for the past two years, Skulls and Sheets has been organising various fundraisers too, such as the annual Advent Calendars of the Mari Lwyd requested by fans through a donation to domestic violence charities – for instance, Refuge, Women’s Aid and Mankind Initiative – together with appeals to support Ukrainian refugees.

Skulls and Sheets is currently available to undertake watercolour and digital commissions and can be found on Twitter by clicking here, and Etsy, here.

On behalf of Skulls and Sheets, thank you for reading!