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The Dorset Ooser, Dorset

The Ooser (pronounced Oosser or Osser) is a strange and apparently unique – at least in Britain – object of folkloric significance. The object itself was first mentioned in print in 1891, but dates back far longer. It is conjectured that the one then noted was the latest in a long line of such things going back into the mists of time. Intriguingly that chronicler of Dorset country life Thomas Hardy mentions an ooser in The Return of the Native, written in 1886.
What is it? A wooden head, complete with bull’s horns and a strange protuberance between the eyebrows; bearded and long-haired; eyes glaring; flattened nose; undoubtedly gruesome and even devilish in appearance; the bottom jaw hinged with a simple string-pull to move it.
Because of the weight of the thing, and there being no eyeholes to help a wearer navigate, it is probably not the mask that some believe, but meant to be carried in processions. It is suggested that these may have been a version of the Rough Music custom in villages where disapproval of immoral or unseemly behaviour was shown with banging of makeshift instruments and suchlike outside the transgressor’s home.
The head described in 1891, when it belonged to a family in Melbury Osmond, disappeared from its subsequent home in Crewkerne , never (yet) to reappear. But a modern version resides now in the Dorchester County Museum , taken out occasionally by the Wessex Morris for May Day events at the Cerne Abbas Giant . It is thought that at one time Mummers used it for Christmas revels – perhaps symbolising the devil; others have claimed it as a representation of a pagan god worshiped by witches.
Such confusion is somehow fitting for English folklore, where sadly we have lost touch with the origins of many customs. But whatever the reality, it is a fascinating and still scary artefact.

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1 Response to The Dorset Ooser

From carrie Buchanan on 5th April 2013
I'm trying to research the Dorset Ooser for my next novel. I would be interested in any further information.

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