by Ben Johnson
This strange tale of long lost folklore starts over a thousand years ago, probably in the years after the Roman exit from Britain. During this time, it is thought that local pagan priests often performed fertility rituals on local couples looking to conceive. To boost their ‘power’, these priests would wear masks representing pagan gods, although the appearance of these masks would often have been rather grotesque and sometimes even made out of the heads of local animals!
Little is known about these strange and ancient rituals, and by the 19th century the Ooser’s original meaning had long been forgotten. In some Dorset towns such as Shillingstone, the Ooser mask had become the ‘Christmas Bull’, representing a terrifying creature that roamed through the streets of Dorset villages at the end of the year demanding food and drink from the local populace. As a further disregard for this once treasured piece of lore, the mask was even used for frightening children or taunting unfaithful husbands!
Above: The last remaining Dorset Ooser mask, taken in the late 19th century. Shortly after this photograph was taken the mask disappeared.
In the 17th century, the mask was being used for a custom known as the ‘Skimmington Riding’. This rather peculiar custom was essentially a rowdy parade of locals, riding through the streets of their local towns demonstrating against immoral acts such as adultery, witchcraft and even for a man’s ‘weakness in his relationship with his wife’. In these cases the perpetrators would be forced to participate in the parade, no doubt causing a rather large amount of humiliation and teaching them a good old lesson!
Above: Hudibras Encounters the Skimmington, by William Hogarth.
To create a somewhat sinister ambience to the parade, the Dorset Ooser mask was often worn by one of the more senior members of the crowd as a gesture of derision.
It is thought that at one time nearly every Dorset town and village would have had their own Ooser, but by the beginning of the 20th century only one was left, at Melbury Osmond. Unfortunately this last Ooser mask disappeared in 1897, with rumours suggesting that it had been stolen and sold to a wealthy American, or perhaps to a Dorset witch coven. There is, however, a replica of the Melbury Osmond mask currently on show in the Dorset County Museum, and every year it is used by Morris dancers as part of the May Day celebrations at the Cerne Abbas Giant.
Please try our Historic UK Travel Guide for help in getting to Dorset.