I was back in Dorset the other day and had the chance to go to the county museum in Dorchester.  I hadn’t been there for several years, but wanted to go very specifically to see this fellow…

This is an Ooser, of which there were probably more, if not several, kept throughout Dorset.  One by one they’ve been lost, stolen by witches or incinerated by priests.  They’re cauldron-sized masks to be worn accompanying gowns of cowhide.  The eyes and jaw can be operated by the wearer using strings, so that the eyes roll and the teeth gnash.  And what precisely they’re designed for… is hard to say.  They seem to be artefacts that straddle Christian and pagan traditions.  A famous one was safeguarded, for example, in a certain church, and taken out by the priesthood for the community’s Mayday processions.  To those priests it can’t have been blasphemous to do so.  In Cerne Abbas they still use one at the May dances, although it seems to be paraded in a more stately way, when by some accounts earlier Ooser dancers whirled about shaking their mask’s grubby hair as if the devil himself possessed them.  

Nobody seems to know whether the Ooser is specifically intended to represent the bulls or fertility spirits or crop guardians or demons its appearance alludes to, or whether its use was to invoke those creatures, or as a prop in a play to exorcise them.  To me it has echoes of minotaurs and lost monsters in labyrinths, but I expect that to see the Ooser in any of these ways is to be too symbolic and academic.  Likewise if you presented such reasoning to some of the folk who’ve danced with it, they might well give you a knowing smile and tell you something rude.  The one I’ve photograpged is, as far as I could tell from the museum, a replica, but it’s beautifully spooky nevertheless.  I want one to hang on my wall…

Comments 4

  1. Chen wrote:

    Wonderful! But don’t put it on your wall – it’ll scare you if you wake up late at night…

    Posted 05 Aug 2009 at 12:36 pm
  2. Ali Shaw wrote:

    Hi Chen,

    I’d still want one for my wall – I might just have to cover it with a sheet when I go to sleep…

    Thanks for writing,


    Posted 11 Aug 2009 at 11:01 am
  3. gondal girl wrote:

    reminds me of one of the beasties from Sendak’s Where the Wild things are….

    Posted 10 Sep 2009 at 5:26 am
  4. Ali wrote:

    Yeah… it would be fun if Spike Jonze used Oosers in his film. Tattered, elderly wild things with blank eyes and cowhide capes.

    Posted 10 Sep 2009 at 9:53 am

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 1

  1. From Ali Shaw’s Blog - A List for 2009 - The Ooser on 31 Dec 2009 at 4:53 pm

    […] just love this fella.  He’s the Ooser (who I wrote about in the summer).  Knowing that this big, dopey-looking wooden head exists is enough to bring a smile to my […]