Fascinated by the Mari Lwyd, the traditional horse-skull figure which patrols at the edge of the Viriconium stories & as “the Shrander” represents death (among other things) in Light, Jefferson Brassfield decided, “I figured I’d understand her better if I made her myself and got acquainted.” I was struck by the calm practicality of this as much as by his photograph of her, so I asked him to describe the process. Here’s what he wrote–
Making Mari Lwyd
The most difficult part of making Mari was waiting to find the right skull on eBay.
I didn’t want one that was too broken or decayed or cracked or missing too many teeth. Neither did I want a bleached-white museum-quality specimen. A fine skull turned up after several weeks of watching and waiting; worn and greyed, a few teeth gone, those remaining browned and yellowed, evidence of dirt and detritus still in the nooks and crannies of the whole. I think it cost me around $80, but I don’t recall if that included shipping.
Once it was in my possession, I cleaned and scraped out the dirt and grass and dried tissue as best as I could with an awl, long tweezers, and a can of compressed air. Then with some Elmer’s wood glue, I filled in the gaps between the teeth and the bones so that they were all seated securely and wouldn’t rattle or fall out.
I’m not much of an engineer, but I drew up several ideas for how to connect the jaw to the skull, mount them both on a pole, and enable the jaw to hinge but be closed at rest. I wanted to come up with an elegant contraption that would have accomplished everything in a mechanical unity, but I had neither the materials nor the knowledge to see that through. Instead I came up with individual solutions for each problem that would not get in the way of one another.
Without my fantastical contraption, the jaw had to be affixed to the skull, and the skull had to be affixed to the pole.
Skull to pole was simple and easy: Bore a hole through the crown of the skull and out the bottom of the brain cage. Put a thick-gauge threaded bolt of about 18 inches in length (forgive my metric ignorance) through the holes with large rubber and metal washers on both top and bottom. Bore a hole into one end of a 5 foot long, inch-and-a-half diameter wooden dowel, and gently thread the bolt into the pole until it is good and tight. I generally have to tighten it a tad after I’ve mucked about with it, but it stays just fine. Simple to remove for ease of transportation or storage.
The jaw was tricky. I wanted it to be spring-loaded so that it would pull open with some resistance and clamp back shut when released. I drilled some holes into the skull behind the eye sockets and into the jaw near the natural hinge. I put eyelet screws into the holes, and then hooked a tight spring between them that would extend when the jaw opened. It wasn’t enough. The jaw is so long and heavy the springs were insufficient to counter the lever on them. I thought I’d try another pair of eyelets at the top wing of the jaw bone; the farthest point in opposition of the tip of the jaw, that would connect via more springs to more eyelets farther back along the skull. The first attempt to bore through the narrower part of the top of the jaw broke it. I was afraid I would have to get a new skull, but some epoxyish goo seems to be holding it all together well enough. Anyhow, so much for that second screw. A stronger spring between the eyelets already in place was another option, but the tension on the screws proved too great and it was starting to pull them out of the bone. I could have adjusted the eyelet positions to compensate, but at this point I was hesitant to do any more drilling.
Not wanting to further damage her, I submitted to a less aesthetically pleasing, but effective solution: I screwed an eyelet inside the front of the jaw, another in the bottom of the skull in the roof of her mouth, another at the back of the roof of her mouth. Tied twine to the jaw eyelet, ran it through the eyes of the others, tied off the far end to a metal ring for a bit of a pulley. Screwed a hook into the side of the pole she’s mounted on at such a level that when the twine & ring is hooked onto it, the jaw is held mostly shut, with a bit of help from the springs (though only a bit). Unhook the ring, pull tight and release, and her jaw clacks open and shut satisfactorily.
Additionally, I tied twine over the skull between opposing pairs of spring eyelets, both front and back. If the jaw pulley-twine breaks as it eventually must from the constant tension it is under, these other twine bridges will keep the jaw from potentially ripping one of the spring eyelets out and falling off entirely.
Not the elements-be-damned, nigh-invisible, indestructible mechanism I had hoped for, but it’ll do.
bought an old braided leather belt and screwed it into the pole for a shoulder strap since she’s so heavy. I screwed a couple sticks of knotty wood perpendicular together and wedged one end into the spinal hole at the back of the skull to give her shroud some more structure to hang back on and disguise the shape of her custodian underneath.
Her decorations are simple: Ribbon from the local craft store, matching tassels, brassy metal rings of various sizes, belt buckles, old scissors, bells and a bit of chain to festoon her with. As much from my grandfather’s garage and secondhand shops as I could find, the rest from the craft store. An old metal starburst screwed into her brow gives the appearance of clamping down most of the ribbons which are actually affixed to tabs of velcro. As before, easy to take apart if needed. The eyes are a pair of plastic refrigerator magnets that look like halved Christmas bulbs. They’re glued into the sockets with wood glue. Small red gems from the craft store (bedazzle!!!) are glued variously on the eyes for a glinty faceted appearance. The shroud is a sheet velcroed to the crown of the skull behind the metal starburst and tacked to the piece of wood behind the skull. I ran some wire through the seam of the shroud to make a loop beneath the skull that will keep its shape and allow her bearer to see forward. Some white mesh hung inside that to obscure her bearer from those without.
And that’s about it.
I’d be happier with a hardier mechanism and some older, sturdier material for the ribbons and I want to get a skeleton key or two and some more antique scissors to hang from her, but overall I am quite pleased with the result. She’s quite lovely and what I set out to make.
Jefferson O.S. Brassfield
Making Mari Lwyd by Jefferson Brassfield is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License