The Dorset Ooser is a mask that appeared in the nineteenth-century folk culture of Melbury Osmond, a village in the southwestern English county of Dorset. Made of wood, the hollow mask was of a horned, humanoid face, with large eyes, a beard, and a hinged jaw which allowed it to move.
The head was first brought to public attention in an 1891 issue of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, at which time it was under the ownership of the Cave family of Melbury Osmond's Holt Farm. After Dr. Edward Cave moved to Somerset, taking the Ooser with him, it went missing around 1897 and has never been recovered. Subsequent accounts collected from villagers indicate that it was used in a local folk custom known as "Skimity Riding" or "Rough Music", in which it was used to humiliate those who were deemed to have behaved in an illicit manner. Other accounts testified to it being used in practical jokes to scare local children, and it has possible connections to the horned costumes sometimes worn by participants in English Mummers plays.
Various folklorists and historians have debated the origins of the head. Folklorist H. S. L. Dewar believed that it was a representation of the Devil and thus was designed to scare people into behaving in a moral manner. Conversely, early commentators such as Margaret Murray suggested that it represented a pre-Christian god of fertility whose worship survived in Dorset into the modern period, although more recent scholarship has been highly sceptical of this.
In 1975 a replica of the original Ooser was produced by John Byfleet, which has since been on display at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. This mask retains a place in local folk culture; every May Day it is taken to Giant Hill near Cerne Abbas, where it is utilised as part of a ceremonial dance by a local Morris troupe. The design of the Ooser has also inspired the production of other copies in both the United Kingdom and United States, which have been used as representations of the Horned God in the modern Pagan religion of Wicca.
Description and etymology
A wooden head, the Dorset Ooser had been cut from a single block of timber, with the exception of the lower jaw, which was movable and connected to the rest of the mask by leather hinges. The lower jaw could be moved by pulling on a string which passed through a hole in the upper jaw to connect to the lower. The mask also contained locks of hair on either side of its head, a beard on its chin, and a pair of bullock's horns. Between the Ooser's eyes was a rounded boss, the meaning of which is unknown. The Ooser was hollow, allowing an individual to place their own head within it, at which it could be carried and worn as a mask; however, there are no holes that allow for the wearer to see while wearing the mask. The historian Ronald Hutton described the Ooser as "a terrifying horned mask with human face, staring eyes, beard, and gnashing teeth". Similarly, H. S. L. Dewar stated that "the expression of the eyes conveys a really agonized spirit of hatred, terror, and despair."
The term "Ooser" was pronounced with a short, quick "s" by villagers, thus being pronounced "Osser". It is unclear if the head itself was known as the Ooser, or whether it instead was designed as a depiction of an entity called the Ooser. Dewar suggested the possibilities that it might have been connected to the term "Wurse", used for the Devil in Layamon's Brut, or to the seventeenth-century Italian term "Oser", again used for the Devil. Alternately, he suggested that it might be a derivative of "Guisard" or "Guiser", an old term for a Mummer.
An editor first made mention of the Dorset Ooser in an 1891 edition of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries. At the time in the possession of Mr Thos Cave of Holt Farm in Melbury Osmond, the editor noted that the head had been owned by Cave's family from "time out of mind". Cave had stated that it had formerly been kept in an "old malt-house" in the village, "where it was an object of terror to children who ventured to intrude upon the premises." The editor noted that it was "possibly the only example now in existence, or at any rate from one of the very few which may still survive in the County", adding that Cave was "willing to dispose of this mask to a lover of objects of antiquarian interest."
At some point prior to 1897, Dr Edward Cave left Holt Farm and moved to Crewkerne in Somerset, talking the Ooser with him. In 1897, he then moved to Bath, leaving the Ooser with his family coachman; when Dr. Cave subsequently tried to recover the head, he was informed that it had been "disposed of", with some suggestion that it had found its way to the United States.
Usage and origins
The editor of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries noted that "no recollection of its ever being made use of is retained", although thought that "it may plausibly be conjectured" that the Ooser was used in "village revels, and at similar times of rustic entertainment." After conducting later researches, Dewar reported that according to K. G. Knight, a member of the Melbury Estate staff, inhabitants of Melbury Osmond associated the head with a folk custom known as Skimity Riding or Rough Music. In this custom, an individual or individuals accused of "husband-beating, scolding, sexual unfaithfulness or irregularity, and cuckoldry" were made to ride on a donkey or horse, facing the direction of the animal's tail, while the assembled crowd made much noise by beating frying pans, kettles, bull's horns, and bones. In Melbury, the Ooser was brought out into the crowd at such an occasion.
Dewar also recorded an account provided by villagers that held that the Ooser would be brought to the door of a tallet to scare the local children, and that it was also used to scare adults on some occasions. Knight came across the claim that it was once used to frighten a stable hand, who jumped through a window to escape it, and in doing so "so injured himself that his life was despaired of." Dewar also drew comparisons with horned masks worn as part of Mummers plays; he noted that in one case of Christmas Wassailers at Kingscote, Gloucestershire, a man was "dressed in a sack, his head in a real bull's face, head and horns complete". Dewar also highlighted an account provided by G. W. Greening of Dorchester, in which a member of the Bradstock Mummers was dressed as Beelzebub, ultimately suggesting that the Ooser was "likely enough an off-shoot from the 14th century and later Mummers' plays."
Dewar believed that the Ooser was a depiction of the Devil, and that its imagery was "intended to inspire terror in the minds of the foolish and the wicked". Conversely, others have suggested that it is a depiction of a pre-Christian god. In her 1931 book The God of the Witches, the Egyptologist Margaret Murray connected the Ooser to her version of the witch-cult hypothesis – the idea that the individuals persecuted in the Early Modern witch trials were adherents of a surviving pre-Christian fertility religion – claiming that the mask was a cult item that reflected continuing worship of the cult's Horned God. However, historian Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander have asserted that "today, scholars are agreed that Murray was more than just wrong – she was completely and embarrassingly wrong on nearly all of her basic premises." The pre-Christian origin theory was echoed in the Reader's Digest encyclopedia of British folklore, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, where it was described as "the idol of a former god of fertility". Although not believing that the Ooser was a specific depiction of a surviving pre-Christian deity, Dewar suggested that the imagery of the Devil, and thus of the Ooser, was originally drawn from the pre-Christian gods of "phallic or fertility worship".
Contemporary usage and influence
In 2005, a journalist from The Guardian reported on a dawn ceremony performed on May Day by the Wessex Morris Men atop Giant Hill near Cerne Abbas. The ceremony involved one member carrying the Dorset Ooser replica atop his head, with other Morris men dancing around him; after the rite they proceeded, still dancing, to a local pub, the Red Lion. In summer 2006, the Wessex Morris Men took the replica to Melbury Osmond for the first time, where they performed a dance in a local street.
Murray's interpretation of the Ooser was however embraced by the early Wiccan Doreen Valiente, who stated that the mask "is certainly connected with the Old Religion [i.e. the witch-cult], and that from a long way back." The Gardnerian Wiccan Melissa Seims suggested that the iconography of the Ooser was an influence on the design of the Head of Atho, a statue of the Wiccan Horned God created by Raymond Howard in mid-20th century England. Wiccans in the Minnesota area of the United States make use of a stag entity that they term the Minnesota Ooser. It is kept on an altar and brought out for use in Sabbat rituals.
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- Dewar 1962, p. 178.
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- Russell, Jeffrey B.; Alexander, Brooks (2007). A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-28634-0.
- Seims, Melissa (2008). "The Coven of Atho". The Wica.
- Valiente, Doreen (1984). An ABC of Witchcraft: Past and Present (corrected ed.). London: Robert Hale.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Dorset Ooser.|
- The Dorset Ooser - Dark Dorset entry