The Dorsetarian

Dorset Ghost Walks

If you are looking for something different this year, then ghost tours can provide some great entertainment, especially if they're ghost tours after dark.
Alistair Chisholm's Dorchester Ghost Walks
Weymouth Ghost Walks
Haunted Harbour Tours
Granny Cousin's Ghost Walks of Old Poole Town
The Bridport Ghost Walk

The Little Green Dragon Hand Painted Gifts

The Dorset Ooser

Location: The Dorset County Museum, Dorchester

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The Winter Bull

The Dorset Ooser - Carved by John Byfleet in 1975

The Dorset Ooser
Carved by John Byfleet in 1975

A creature which was known as The 'Ooser' (H. S. L Dewer, in his 'Dorset Monograph Numer 2 1962 - The Dorset Ooser' say's: "It should be noted the "Ooser" is pronounced with a short "s", as in "boss," not as in "nose.") was fact and fiction rolled into one - fact because it existed, and fiction because it's pure folklore.

It was only a hollow, horned mask, which was, and in memory still is, extraordinary and mysterious, disappearing in 1897 and is since rumoured that it was sold to someone in the USA or use by a Dorset witch coven, but that theories remain as pure conjecture.

Over a hundred years later, this curious object still holds an interest for those enthusiasts of folklore. The mask which did disappear, with its hinged lower jaw and gnashing teeth, has been described as "undoubtedly the last of a long line of renewals" - although a modern replica has, in fact, been made.

A Modern Dorset Ooser A Modern Dorset Ooser made by the master potter Guy Sydenham
A Modern Dorset Ooser
was made by the master potter Guy Sydenham at his Mermaid Studios, Portland. Originally displayed at the New Barn Field Centre, Bradford Peverell. It now resides at the Dorset County Museum, donated by Joan Sydenham.

The jaw was worked by the wearer by a string, the staring eyes conveying "a really agonised spirit of hatred and despair. Between the eyebrows it bore a rounded boss for which it is difficult to find an explanation."

Scholars in such things believe "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 the devil to be made and used in England."

In short, the Ooser was "an unorthodox representation of the King of Evil." Another theory is that Melbury Osmond, a village north of Dorchester appears to be where the mask originated as an image connected with fertility worship and traditionally used in May Day celebrations and Christmas mummer's plays. But it "was eventually relegated to occasions for skimmity riding," itself an old folk custom designed to show the villagers disapproval of "husband-beating, scolding, sexual unfaithfulness or irregularity and cuckoldry."

In 'Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset, Vol. II 1891' , Editor Charles Herbert Mayo, M.A. describes the Osser mask owned by the Cave family.

The Original Ooser

The Original Ooser
Owned by the Cave Family
of Melbury Osmond

"239. The Ooser. — With the present Number, which concludes the Second Volume of S. & D. N, & Q., our readers are presented with an illustration (see Photograph Right) of the Dorset "Ooser," taken from what is possibly the only example now in existence, or at any rate from one of the very few which may still survive in the County.

An Ooser is defined by the late Rev. W. Barnes, in his Glossary of the Dorset Dialect 1886, p. 85, as "Ooser, oose, or wu'se. A Mask as with grim jaws, put on with a cow's skin to frighten folk. Wurse,' in Layamon's Brut, is a name of the arch-fiend."

The object itself is a wooden mask, of large size, with features grotesquely human, long flowing locks of hair on either side of the head, a beard, and a pair of bullock's horns, projecting right and left of the forehead. The mask or ooser is cut from a solid block, excepting the lower jaw, which is movable, and connected with the upper by a pair of leathern hinges. A string attached to this movable jaw, passes through a hole in the upper jaw, and is then allowed to fall within the cavity. The Ooser is so formed that a man's head may be placed within it, and thus carry or support it, while he is in motion. No provision, however, is made for his seeing through the eyes of the mask, which are not pierced. By pulling the string, the lower jaw is drawn up and closed against the upper, and when the string is slackened it
descends.

It may plausibly be conjectured that the Ooser was in use at village revels, and at similar times of rustic entertainment, and it reminds us of the animal heads worn by 14th century mummers, as illustrated at p. 1 60 of Strutt's Sports and Pastimes (1838). The horns, however, are not fixed vertically on the top of the head, as there represented.

The custom of personating animals is very ancient, and is described by Du Cange, {s,v, Cervula) as "Ludi profani, apud Ethnicos et Paganos : solebant quippe ii Kalendis Januarii belluarum, et vetularum assumptis formis hue et illuc discursare, et petulantius sese gerere : quod a Christianis non modo proscriptum, sed et ab iis postmodum inductum constat, ut ea die ad calcandam Gentilium consuetudinem privatae fierent Litaniae et jejunaretur " ; — and he refers to i oth Canon of the 4th Council of Toledo (A.D. 671). Bishop Faustinus {Sermone in Kal, Jan,) thus describes the custom : " Quis enim sapiens credere poterit inveniri aliquos sanae mentis, qui cervulum facientes, in ferarum se velint habitu commutari ? Alii vestiuntur pellibus pecudum, alii assumunt capita bestiarum, gaudentes et exultantes, si taliter se in ferinas species transformaverint, ut homines non esse videantur."

Coming nearer home we find the same custom of personating the brute creation condemned (according to Kemble) in the Poenitentiale of Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury (cap. xxvii):
 
"Si quh in Kalendas Januarii in cervulo ant vetula vadit, id est, in feranim habitus se comnuniicant, et vestiuntur pellibus pecudum, el assumuni capita btsiiarum ; qui vero taliter in ferinas species se transformant, etc." quia hoc daemoniacum est." (Quoted by Kemble, The Saxons in England, 1876, vol.i, p. 525.)

 
The Ooser, figured in the accompanying Illustration, belongs to Mr, Thos. Cave, of Holt Farm, Melbury Osmond, Dorset, in whose family it has been preserved time out of mind. No recollection of its ever being made use of is retained, but the present owner remembers its being kept in an old malt-liouse in the village of Melbury Osmond, where it was an object of terror to children who ventured to intrude upon the premises, Mr. Cave, we understand, is willing to dispose of this mask to a lover of objects of local antiquarian interests.

Editor for Dorset."

Below: May Day Celebrations on the Cerne Abbas Giant and in the village, with dancing by the Wessex Morris Men and The Ooser

   

Nowadays the replica Ooser, which is not such a fearsome figure, though just as unwieldy, remains on display at the Dorchester County Museum, when it is occasionally removed by the Wessex Morris Men to be paraded on high days and holidays during the summer and winter.


Footnote: For information about the Dorset Ooser, visit the archived version of a sadly defunct page on the Dorset Ooser THE DORSET OOSER WEBSITE. Compiled by Daniel Patrick Quinn, this site is very informative and researched about the history of the gruesome face mask.The Wessex Morris Men who use the Ooser in their performances have their very own website including morris dancing tour dates. Click WESSEX MORRIS MEN for more information.The home of the Ooser is displayed at the DORSET COUNTY MUSEUM.  The Museum also has a vast collection of geological and archaeological artefacts, natural history, rural crafts, folklore and a writer's gallery including the world's finest collection on Thomas Hardy.