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Ooser


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The so-called Dorset Ooser has excited and puzzled folklorists since it was first brought to public attention in 1891. It was a large carved wooden head with staring eyes, flattened nose, hair, beard, and, most notably, sweeping curved bull's horns. Its lower jaw was hinged so that the mouth could be opened and shut by a string, in the same way as many hobby horses and the Salisbury Giant. The Ooser was apparently unique and was in the possession of a Crewkerne family until it disappeared, or fell to pieces, before the 1930s. The devilish nature of the face, and its usual description as a ‘mask’, led many people to presume its use in some diabolic rite, but this is unlikely. Although it was large enough to be worn on the head, the wood was solid and there was no provision for the wearer to see through it. It is much more likely that this was the head of a processional figure, designed to be carried like the Salisbury Giant, or perhaps in a rough music procession such as the Wooset in nearby Wiltshire/Berkshire. The similarity in name supports the latter interpretation. The situation is confused, however, by two earlier references to the word ‘Ooser’. In Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native (1878, book 4, chapter 6), a character says ‘What have made you so down? Have you seen a ooser?’, and in W. Barnes's Glossary of the Dorset Dialect (1886, 85) the word is glossed as ‘A mask with grim jaws, put on with a cow's skin to frighten folk’. If no other information comes to light, the exact nature of the Ooser will remain a mystery. The only reliable description, with photograph, is in Somerset N&Q 2 (1891), frontispiece and 289–90.


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