The Dorset Ooser (//) is a wooden head that featured in the nineteenth-century folk culture of Melbury Osmond, a village in the southwestern English county of Dorset, where it was publicly displayed during Skimity Riding processions. The head was hollow, thus perhaps serving as a mask, and included a humanoid face with horns, a beard, and a hinged jaw which allowed the mouth to open and close.
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 immoral manner. Other accounts testified to it being used in practical jokes to scare local children and in some cases adults.
Various folklorists and historians have debated the origins of the head, which has possible connections to the horned costumes sometimes worn by participants in English Mummers plays. The etymology of the term "Ooser" is disputed, with different suggestions for its derivation having been proposed. 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 interpretative approach.
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 as "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. Hutton instead suggested that the term might be a derivation of "Wooset", a term used in Wiltshire dialect to refer to a pole upon which a horse's skull with deer's horns was affixed. This Wooset was recorded as having been paraded by youths in the Marlborough district until the 1830s, where it was used to mock neighbour's whose partners were suspected of marital infidelity, the horns being a traditional sign of cuckoldry. Similar traditions have been recorded in Wiltshire and Somerset, where they dated back to the early 17th century.
Charles Herbert May, the journal's 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, taking 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. In 1935, a folklore collector named S. A. Ramsden undertook enquiries into the fate of the head at the prompting of the folklorist Margaret Murray. He found Dr Cave's coachman, Lawrence, who had subsequently served as the coachman for Cave's replacement, Dr. Webber, after Cave left Crewkerne. Lawrence claimed that Dr. Cave left the head in his house in the village, where it was hung up in a loft and began to fall apart; Lawrence recalled wearing it to frighten people during a parade c.1900, at which time the hair was falling out. He claimed that the house was later pulled down, with the head probably still inside it, with the post office being erected in its place.
Usage and origins
In Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, May 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. Similar forms of "mob-punishment" were recorded in parts of neighbouring Devon, where the act was termed "Skimmety Riding", "Skimmington", and "Skivetton". Deeming it too heavy to be carried or worn by an individual, historian of folklore Peter Robson later suggested that the Ooser might originally have been mounted in a carnival procession.
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." Folklorist E. C. Cawte expressed the opinion that although both entailed dressing up in an animalistic costume, the Ooser had no clear connections with the hobby horse tradition of English folk culture.
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 [regarding the existence of the witch-cult] – 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
John Byfleet made a replica of the original Ooser, which is on display at Dorset County Museum. 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.
- May 1891, p. 289.
- Dewar 1962, p. 178.
- Hutton 1996, p. 88.
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