This monstrous wooden mask, a bull’s hair and horns mounted on its low brow, was used to scare people at midwinter gatherings. Another was reported at Shillingstone and there may have been many more throughout Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. The Rev. William Barnes defines Ooser, oose or wu’se, as ‘a mask…with grim jaws, put on with a cow’s skin to frighten folk. “Wurse” … is a name of the arch-fiend.’
The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1975 for the Wessex Morris Men and is still used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances. DCM © 2015
From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 84, 1962, an article written by the H. S. L. Dewar. entitled ‘The Dorset Ooser’
This extraordinary object, portrayed in the illustration, has, most unfortunately disappeared from human ken. Some 65 years ago it was in the possession iof the Cave family at Holt Farm, Melbury Osmond. When Dr. Edward Cave left Holt for Crewkerne in Somerset before the year 1897, he took the Ooser with him. Leaving Crewkerne for Bath in 1897, for the time being the mask was left in ‘the care of the family coachman. When Dr. Cave enquired for it subsequently, it appears that he was told it had been disposed of. It is suggested that it may have eventually found its way to America.
Dorset Ooser, Melbury Osmond. This horned mask was formeriy in me possession of Mr. Cave of Holt Farm, but has long since disappeared. DCM © 2015
The hollow mask, for such it was, is said to have been in the care of the Cave family from time out of mind. But although it has now been lost to sight, the memory of it and its associations in the district still provide great interest to students of folklore and others. That the mask was the last of a long line of renewals can hardly be doubted, since it was made of wood as a base, and must have suffered periodically from woodworm and decay.
As can be seen in the illustration, the mark was provided with a lower jaw which was moveable, and gnashing teeth, the jaw being worked by a string. It was adorned with crisped hair, flowing whiskers, a beard, and a fine pair of horns. Between the eyebrows it bears a rounded boss for which it is difficult to find an explanation. The expression of the eyes conveys a really agonized spirit of hatred, terror and despair. That the head in its turn was intended to inspire terror in the minds of the foolish and the wicked is unquestionable. It is perhaps the latest representation of ithe Devil to be made and used in England. The Devil, be it said, whom the Church of England has recently decided to retain in the Catechism, no doubt with good reason. The Ooser was, nevertheless, an unorthodox representation of the King of Evil.
The tradition that inspired both the creation of the Devil at large and the manufacture of his varied images is, of course, nearly as old as man himself. We find his prototypes, probably connected with phallic or fertiility worship, in the Mesolithic period. At Starr Carr in Yorkshire some 9000 years ago, the primitive hunters of the Middle Stone Age were making skull-caps for ‘wear out of the skulls and antlers of deer. Archaeologists believe they were intended to be worn for ritual use in dances connected with their hopes for ‘successful hunting. The fertility of both the hunters and the hunted was something that had to be achieved for the perpetuation of the tribe and for its sustenance.
The rituals that inspired this kind of performance were already thousands of years old. We have only to turn to the painting of a man disguised in the skin and horned head of an animal in the cave of Les Trois Freres in France to see what is perhaps the earliest representation of a priest of this fertility cult, his face turned to the spectators for admiration. Antlers have been recorded as found near the heads of individuals buried in Bowl-barrows of the Early Bronze Age in Dorset.
Today, in the famous, annual horn-dance at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire, the modern equivalents may be seen, though politely modified, perhaps descended from remote antiquity through various -media. Incidentally, the Abbots Bromley horns are said to be hung up in the Church between the ceremonies.
It is not difficult to trace the evolution of a god of an early cult, or a fertility spirit with attendant ritual., to the Devil of a succeeding religion. The new priests still needed to keep some of the images of the older faith, and to trot them out periodically for the edification of the people, or as a warning. The transition from god of pleasure or plenty to god of pain, often in a subordinate and derogatory position as a devil, was assured. For example, the crude fertility symbolism of the Giant of Gerne Abbas was preserved, probably through May Day revels, by the local inhabitants, with the presumed, though perhaps tacit assent of the Church, and of the Abbey of Cerne.
Thus it may well be, as the inhabitants of Melbury Osmond believe, the Ooser, originally an image connected with fertility worship, was eventually relegated to occasions for “Skimity Riding” (Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.), (sometimes rendered as “Skimmerton”) as in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and “Rough Music”. This performance may be explained by pointing out that before the days of the Divorce Courts and the popular press, public opinion had a good way of expressing interest in and disapproval of husband-beating, scolding, sexual unfaithfulness or irregularity, and cuckoldry. Many of these are, after all, often due to the uncontrolled excess of the urge to fertility. And so, when an aberrant pair, or an erring spouse was located, the man, or sometimes the woman, or both, were made to ride on a donkey or a horse, face to tail. Meanwhile the crowd made rude and rough music by beating on frying pans and ketitles, bull’s horns, marrow bones and cleavers. Such was the band with which they had earlier woken and serenaded the sinful. Elsewhere, the donkey was called a “celebrated Jerusalem,” a curiously inverted form of sarcasm. At Melbury it is related that the Ooser was brought out and paraded to complete such a show. Skimmity Riding is portrayed on a panel in one of the rooms in Montacute House in Somerset.
By now the once triumphant horn of plenty, fertility and power had become a symbol of scorn, horror and derision. The latest phase of all seems to have been when the Ooser’s head — or was the head itself the Ooser — on occasion used to be brought to the door of the tallet (hay-loft) of a barn to terrify the children of the village(Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.) should occasion call for it. The word “tallet” is of some interest here, since it seems to be akin to the Welsh : “taflod”, a hay-loft, and its use as a dialect word in Dorset could indicate a Celtic origin.
The tale is still told in (Melbury that it was sometimes used to scare grown up people as well as young ones, chains being attached, while lucifer matches were pushed alight into the head. One is tempted to visualize smoke pouring from the infernal nostrils. The story goes that once it was so used to frighten a stable-hand (Information from Mr. K. G. Knight.), and that in a fright he jumped through a window and so injured himself that his ‘life was despaired of. At one time it is said that the Ooser was kept in the Malt House, which was once a Button Factory, and now a Chapel. If one looks for a parallel elsewhere, Violet A If or d in her book on English Folk-Dances, records that a man used to accompany the ‘Christmas Wassailers at Kingscote in Gloucestershire, “dressed in a sack, his head in a real bull’s face, head and horns complete”.
The name Ooser may be connected with “Wurse,” as William Barnes remarked, the name of the arch-fiend-himself in Layamond’s Brut. Others believe it connected with “Osor,” a name used in Italy in the 17th century for the Devil of the ‘Christians. It seems possible that the Ooser may claim relationship with such figures as the Mayday Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man of our Inn signs. He is likely enough an off-shoot from the 14th century and later Mummers’ plays. Some authorities hold that the older form of Mumming was “(Masking”, while Polydore Vergil relates that the disguising and mumming at Christmas were derived from the feasts of Pallas that were done with vizars and painted -masks. Again, it is known that in early ‘Christian times people ran about wearing masks upon New Year’s Day on the occasion of the Feast of Circumcision, imitating a pagan superstition. In ancient missals the words written in the mass for this day were : “Missa ad prohibendum ab idalis” A clue can very likely be seen also in Isaiah xxxiv. 14.
These masques or mysteries may have evolved eventually into the Morality Plays. In France, men and women (wearing such disguises are said to have been forbidden going to the Churches in 1598 at the instigation of the Bishop of Angres, and by State Legislation in 1668. A suggestion has also been made that “Ooser” is a derivative of “Guisard” or “Guiser”, connected with such words as “vizard,” “vizor,” or “vizard,” the old words for “Mummer” or “Guise.”
Mr. G. W. ‘Greening of Dorchester can recall the figure of a Beelzebub which puffed smoke, had four short legs and a tail like a crocodile, in a play performed by the Bradstock Mummers when he was a boy. It is a great pity that such figures as the Ooser should have faded into the mists of time. It is only due to the great interest taken in folklore by a few enthusiasts, and by Mrs. H. H. (Marshall, a daughter of Dr. Edward Cave, and by Mr. K. G. Knigiht of Evershot, and the very retentive memories of the older men and women of Melbury Osmond that many of the above details have been preserved.
Those who wish to pursue the subject may be referred to F. T. Elworthy’s Horns of Honour, and to Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries, Vol. ii (1891), p.289, or to any of a vast number of books concerning the Devil and his Works that are to be found in most public libraries. Skimmity Riding is discussed in Brand’s Popular Antiquities, and elsewhere.
It may be permissible to ask philologists whether there is any evidence that the ‘well-known Hampshire dialect word “Wooster”, meaning a lover, and “Wooster blister,” a mark allegedly caused by a lover’s kiss, is related to the Ooser?
- The writer’s thanks are most cordially given to Mr. R. N. R. Peers, to Mr. G. W. Greening, and to Mr. K. G. Knight of the Melbury Estate Staff, for their interest in local traditions about the Ooser, and for the trouble they have taken in the matter. Last but not least, also to Mrs. H. H. Marshall, who has come forward with some new facts after this paper had been almost completed. It should be noted that “Ooser” is pronounced with a short, quick “s”, as in “boss,” not as in “nose.”