Sunday, 9 March 2008

The Dorset Ooser and other curiosities

Here is the Dorset Ooser - pronounced Osser I believe. He is a definite link to our pagan past and how our ancestors may have viewed the world. This fierce wooden mask seems to have been linked with rituals at the end of the year. Perhaps celebrating the shortest day, when priests studied the passage of the stars and planets in the night sky to ascertain when this day fell. In Burghead in Scotland, there was a bull cult, and half a dozen slabs decorated with wonderfully-carved bulls were found during excavations there. These are associated with the Picts, and the bull is a Pictish symbol, along with other beasts including the horse, the salmon, the goose, the wolf and the deer - interestingly ALL masculine . . .

His origins are lost in the mists of time. Perhaps he was a pagan fertility symbol. Perhaps in the post-Medieval period, every Dorset village had their own Ooser head that they blew the dust off and paraded once a year, its original meaning long forgotten. By Victorian times, in the village of Shillingstone on the Dorset/Wiltshire borders, he had become a Christmas Bull. This frightening creature wandered the village streets of many a Dorset village at the back end of the year, and upon meeting a village, would demand sustenance. It was a dieing custom, however, and by the beginning of the 1900s, only Melbury Osmond still had its Ooser, and even that has now been lost to us. Interestingly, the Ooser also took part in the Skimmity/Skimmington Rides I wrote about recently.

Here is another strange Wessex being, the giant St Christopher of Salisbury, who along with Hob Nob the hobby horse, pictures below, parade on special occasions. He lives in Salisbury Museum most of the year, and is 12 foot tall, a pageant giant originally belonging to the Guild of Merchant Tailors. Once, many guilds would have had their own giant - he is getting lonely now. The head is carved from a block of wood, and at one time, the mouth could have been moved to simulate speech. He is accompanied in the procession by a Yeoman who carries his staff of office, and two men known as 'whifflers' who carry his regalia - a gigantic wooden sword and a mace. Morris Dancers also accompany him. The giant is first mentioned in 1570, but he predates that as this was a request for repairs to his costume. The actual Guild dates from 1447, so it is quite likely that the giant originated at their inception.

Hob Nob, the little black hobby horse (who was sometimes called a dragon), accompanies the giant, the body of the horse being a framework supported from the wearer's shoulders. From the framework is a long black cloth to hide the operator's legs, and a horse's head and tail attached either end. Like the giant, hob nob had jaws that opened and shut and he is first mentioned around 1572, though probably predates this.

Here in South Wales we have our own species of hobby horse called the Mari Lwyd (the 'Grey Mary' loosely translated), which parades at midwinter/Christmas/New Year. It is a beribboned horse skull, operated by a man beneath it who works a mechanism to open the jaws and make them snap ferociously as it chased the girls around the room, having been invited in! The Mari Lwyd is accompanied by Sergeant, Merryman, Punch and Judy, who will traipse from door to door in the villae, singing as many as fifteen verses in a poetic contest. It is believed to be associated with an early form of wassailing.

For more information on hobby horses, here is a further link:


MammyT said...

this is all very interesting. some of it VERY new to me. As you spoke of the bull and salmon and wolf, etc. it just made me think of the Northern indigenous people on this continent (American) and how they revered some of the same animals. I always wonder about the relationships between these people who lived across oceans from each other. Subconsciously, I think I'm looking for links, don't know why.

LBP said...

What interesting customs! That bull mask is very scary. I guess they are sort of like the dragons and other "monsters" that parade through New Orleans during Mardi Gras.