The Dorset Ooser

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 often used in May Day celebrations at Cerne Abbas and in dance performances. DCM © 2015

The replica Dorset Ooser mask that hangs in the Writer’s Gallery of the Dorset County Museum was carved by John Byfleet in 1973 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. Gave of Holt Farm, but has long since disappeared. DCM © 2015

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.”

On the Maze, or Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset

Pimperne Maze

How the Pimperne Maze looked before it was destroyed in 1730 © DCM

Here is an article written by Rev. William Barnes from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 4,  1881 entitled ‘On the Maze, or Mizmaze, at Leigh, Dorset’

Coker, in his History of Dorset, says of the Maze at Leigh, that ” formerly the young men of the village were wont, once a year, to go out and make it good; and the day was a day of merrymaking.” Not, we may believe, a day of merrymaking because they had made the maze good by righting up of the banks, which edged the paths; but that the maze was made good for the day of merry-making, which might have been that of the village wake, or the old May-day.

That the young and not the old men were most interested in the maze, would go to show that it was for their games, and not for any heathenish or other ceremony of their elders.

Phillips, in his “New World of Words,” A.D. 1706, speaks of mazes as in his time made in gardens. He says: — “Maze, in a garden, a place artificially made with many turnings and windings.” The maze seems to have had formerly, all over England, its day of favor among friendly gatherings at great halls, and at some of the village feasts, as had the old game of Pall Mall, and its later form under the name of Croquet, though the pleasure of the maze (a puzzle), was akin to that of other puzzles which are now put forth among friends in the house, or in the open air. The maze was formed of a cunningly drawn maze of winding paths, which any one who would try his skill was to thread so as to find his way out again in the shortest time, and the mirth of it was, I suppose, that of the outsiders who might see a bewildered wayfarer misgoing into passages that led to nothing but others of the same kind, and the glory of a walker who, knowing the clue, came out with a laugh against the others.

There was formerly at Pimperne a cleverly-shapen maze, which is figured in Shipp’s and Hutchins’ History of Dorset. The maze paths were sundered by banks, and overspread nearly an acre of ground; but it was entirely destroyed by the plough about 1780, and it speaks of one at Hilton, Hunts, of which the path is steined with pebbles, and gives Aubray as saying that there were many mazes in England ere the civil wars, which let in the Puritans as lawgivers, who gave little freedom to games and gambols, and whose laws once punished a boy at Dorchester for riding on a gate on a Sabbath.( Borough Records) A fine sample of a maze still kept up, and I believe often threaded by sightseers, is the one at Hampton Court, of which the maze path is edged by a hedge [of shrubs, as, I believe, were the paths of most of the broad mazes of the olden time, with fences of some thick shrubs, whether box. privet, yew, or hornbeam, or other such-like ones. Another maze, of which Londoners seek a merry use, is in the Rosherville Gardens, near Gravesend, and one has, I believe, been made in the grounds of the Crystal Palace. The Athenaeum, July 2, 1881, speaks of ” The St. Anne’s maze,” near Nottingham, as one of the most elaborate examples of which we have any account, though in 1797 it was ploughed up.

The History of Pimperne quotes Stukely, who writes of such mazes in Wales, under the name of “Caertroi.” ” Winding Castle,” the mazes of which are trodden by walking on the banks.

This old British name for a maze, “caertroi,” has, from want of a knowledge of Welsh, led to a mistake that the word “troi” meant Homer’s Troy, and that caertroi, a maze, meant “Troy-town,” whereas ” troi” means simply a turning or winding.

Witches’ Corner, Leigh Common.

Many years ago I was told by a man of this neighbourhood that a corner of Leigh Common was called “Witches’ Corner,” and long again after that a friend gave me some old depositions on witchcraft, taken before Somerset magistrates from about the years 1650 to 1064. The cases were of Somerset, and touched in some points Dorsetshire, and one of the witches’ sisterhood said that they sometimes met in Leigh Common. This proof of the meeting of witches in Leigh Common as the ground of the traditional name of witches corner is interesting as a token of truth in tradition.

Totnell and Chetnole.

I suppose Chetnole is mostly pronounced Chetnel. Totnell is the name of the hill or knoll or knowl, and means Toutknoll, or Spynell, or Outlook-hill, as being in times of trouble a spot taken by outspiers or outlookers. There are in Dorset several touts or spy heights, and the word to tout, to look out for customers is still well-known. That knoll would wear into nell is shown by the name of “Punk-knowl,” which in running talk is called “Punnell.” Tout was formerly tote, and has been shortened in names of other places, as Totton, Totcombe, in the hundred of Totcombe and Modbury. The spelling of names of places is not a trustworthy guide to their meaning or early forms. Nell in Totnell is, I believe, a narrowing of the sound noil, as i in Huntsmin for huntsman. Such a narrowing is common in Latin, as Desilio for Desalio, and so it is in Welsh. Tot is the head of many other place names.

Chetnole

Is, I believe, Chetknoll, but Chet must have been in Saxon of some such form as Cet or Cete. Cete would mean a cabin, cottage, or cell. Was there ever a hermit’s cell there, as at Hermitage ?

Haydon.

Hay is the Saxon Haeg – (1) a hedge, and (2) a hedged ground.    Hay dun would mean the down with a hedged field or fields on it, one not all open.

Winterhay.

The winter inclosure for cattle, but Winterhays, I believe, took its name from a family of Winterhay, and as being Winter-hay’s inclosures, but then they took their name from some Winter-hay.

Calehay, by Leigh.

The Calf or Heifer inclosure, used much as a run for young stock.

Rouch Hay.

Enclosure of rough ground or grass.

Lecture: Thomas Hardy and Dorset Folklore by Dr. Peter Robson

Hardy Players' Mummers

The Mummers in the Hardy Players’ version of ‘The Return of the Native’. Eustacia Vye (extreme left, disguised) was played by Gertrude Bugler. On Christmas Night 1920 the players gave a performance at Hardy’s house, Max Gate.

The novels and stories of Thomas Hardy are filled with examples of folklore – customs, songs, superstitions, witches, mummers and much more.

But were these country traditions actually taken by Hardy from the Dorset of his childhood or were they products of his fertile literary imagination?  On the Thursday 25th July 2013 at 7.30pm at the Dorset County Museum Dr. Peter Robson will explore this question by looking at a variety of examples of Dorset folklore described by Hardy, from the Mellstock Quire to the Egdon Mummers, from Conjuror Trendle to the unfortunate William Privett and beyond. He will illustrate his talk by pictures of the people and places concerned and by sound recordings.

Dr. Peter Robson has been researching Dorset folklore for many years and has written and spoken widely on this subject. Most recently he has become particularly interested in Thomas Hardy’s writings as an almost untapped source for the study of rural folklore.

This is the second in a series of five lectures about Thomas Hardy and is part of a larger project including the National Trust and the University of Exeter. It is hoped that the more academic nature of these lectures will provide the general public and lovers of Hardy’s novels with an increased connection to contemporary ideas about his work.

Entry to the talk is FREE but a donation of £3.00 is encouraged to cover costs. Everyone is welcome and there is no need to book.  Doors open at 7.00pm.

For further information contact the Museum on 01305 262735 or check the website on www.dorsetcountymuseum.org

Related Sources: