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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Construction of an Obby Oss

An article written for the 'Screaming Mandrake' - Spring/Summer 2005

Tania Poole

I have decided to make a hobby horse, and I want to make it in time for the Mt Franklin Beltane Gathering of October 2005. That gives me a goal and time limit.

I recall the days of my youth, when a hobby horse was plastic or stuffed vinyl horse head on a stick, with reins and wheels. Little did I know then, that this was a major festival item for many British and European celebrations, and that often they were large and highly decorated, sometimes appearing during the longest summer days or the shortest winter days and often ‘dying’ at the end of the festival, only to wait to be revived in a years’ time.

Today the most popular hobby horse festival I know, is the May Day festivities of Padstow, on coastal Cornwall, where they have a black hobby horse called the ‘Oss’.

February 2005 – We receive a gift of a wicker horse head from a friend who lives in Daylesford. The head has no ears and has marble eyes, although one eye has been pulled out and the wicker eye socket damaged. It already has a red bridal.

First I will do some research to find out about these hobby horses. I find books on my shelf that tell of fantastic legends and customs of the horse in fertility festivals and its importance in Celtic and other mythologies. Alexei Kondratiev’s book ‘The Apple Branch – A path to Celtic Ritual’ has fine information about the Mari Llwyd and the darker seasons festivals.

June – I go to the National Celtic Festival in Portarlington on long weekend June, with my old super 8 camera to catch footage of the Padstow Obby Oss that is rumoured to be there. I see no sign of it. I often ask organisers, where is the Oss? Most of them have no idea what an 'Oss' is. I am horrified.

Eventually I speak to someone who knows about it and they send me to speak to the Cornish Society in one of the main tents. They show me a picture of this Oss. It is identical to the Padstow one, only a little smaller, and they tell me it might appear on Monday morning. I sink in disappointment. I tell the Society that I am going to make an Oss, not quite the same as the Padstow one though. They get very excited, and gave me a business card and say ‘tell us when it’s done, bring it to our meeting!’

‘The most remarkable surviving May Day celebrations are probably those held in the Cornish harbour town of Padstow. At the end of April a maypole is set up and greenery and flags decorated through town…The main attraction is the Obby Oss, a heavy constructions built around a 6 foot diameter hoop, a man who’s head is covered by a grotesque mask resembling a bishops mitre in shape. The horse performs a swaying, dipping dance, egged on by its teaser who wields a decorated club. The music dies and the oss sinks to the ground. A farewell song is sung to the oss and it is to be revived the next May Day.

- ‘Rites and Riots’

‘The ceremony is believed to be based on a Pre-Christian Spring fertility rite with the dying oss representing the passing of the old year.’

- Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain

July and Aug – Designs of the oss are being drawn up. I decide on a metal ring. Circle or oval? I love the Oss represented in ‘The Wicker man’ film. I ask our blacksmith friend Owen to make a ring. I decide on a size, but think it may be too big. I wanted a circle but am not fussed if its an oval. And maybe a ring for the head to sit on.

Sept – I buy a large marble and find it is a little bigger than the eye already there. I still add it to the head and put air-drying clay over the eyelid. I put an identical layer of clay over the other eye to have matching eyelids. Then I paint it gold. It already seems happier with 2 eyes.

I begin to decorate the head. I add a red diamond to his nose, with a gold-leaf diamond in the middle of that. I tie all the left over ribbons I had to the red bridal, and added small mirror squares to the bridal too. I am used to seeing it without ears. I decided against putting ears on it. I add pink and purple raffia to thicken the hair of the horse. Looks like a carnival horse.

I want a name for it. I decide to call the Oss ‘Dobbin’ because of my Yorkshire background.

A Hobby Horse of Knaresborough, in North Yorkshire, makes his appearance during the Plough Monday Ceremony. Every January, they pull the plough up the High street in a parade. The horses name is Dobbin.

Dobbin is built around the skull of a real horse, placed on a stick with a cloak around it.

‘The wooden horse is found as a traditional animal all over the country. Where the (pantomime) horse consists of a human under the costume, it is without speech. Where it is a hobby horse with a human rider, the human is a kind of fool and can relate verbally to the audience…Dobbin’s behaviour is often independent from his rider, John - he is ‘calculatingly mischievous.’ He can dance a jig and play dead, but a pint of beer or a kiss from a maiden will revive him…I have to be careful what Dobbin does. His activities must always add to the dance and not detract from it. At the same time, he can be used to cover up any of the dancers mistakes.’

- Dalesman Magazine

‘Looking at shape shifting anthropomorphic creatures of Folklore and Mythology, the well known ‘each uisage’ of Scotland ‘The water horse’ or ‘water kelpie’ was well known for guarding stretches of water, like lochs and rivers, by killing a certain traveller who mounted the horse, intended for faster travels. It is believed that a Yorkshire dialect term for these creatures was dobbin or dobbie, which may have used the Celtic dhu (‘black’) as its first element.’

- ‘Twilight of the Celtic Gods’

I am putting flags around the sides, not unlike the oss in ‘The Wicker Man’. But instead designs of paint, embroidery or material are going to be added to each one – and I will give these flags to friends to all contribute something. I am using beautiful brocade colour samples I got for free from a curtain store. I cut and sew all the flags to identical sizes. I began to paint 4 flags, beginning with the Isle of Man flag, the ‘triskelion’, with the 3 legs, then I paint a flying raven, a St Andrews flag, and a ivy vine, just to describe a few. I send some pre-sewn flags to friends to begin their designs.

When the ring eventually showed up, I was amazed at its weight, and began to worry. But decided to keep going with it. There is a ring at the front for its head to sit on, and this makes the front heavier. I will have to add a counter-weight at the back; luckily Owen added hooks at the back to tie things to.

I make a tunic and cover this tunic with leaves for a bogie/fool outfit, an accompaniment for the horse, I want follow it with bells, a mask, and a jesters’ hat.

Oct – To make a skirt, I want green material. Terri brings around a variety of left over green material she has accumulated. We cut up squares and rectangles and sew them together making the width of the skirt 6 metres, a little bit over the circumference of the ring. It became a patchwork skirt that had a length of under a metre. It seemed like it took no time at all.

We also cut out the brocade that I wanted the oss to wear – a red and gold colour. I pin the green skirt to the brocade, gathering it every now and then. It is working! I sew the skirt to the brocade.

Painted flags are arriving in the mail from friends – one with a corn dolly attached, one with a boat scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, and one of the Celtic Cross symbol, representing the six symbols from Susan Coopers books, ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’. I attach bells to the bottom of each flag. One flag was saved for listing the makers of the oss and the names of those who contributed to it, so all could see how much effort was put in.

I have acquired spare braid to attach the flags to. They all fit on the right length of braid and then I pin them into position. Then I sew the flags on, and then it all onto the edge of the skirt.

I sew on the head and make a tail out of scrap material – mostly satin scraps, I added by the tail, my two garden ornament-hanging gargoyles, the Belcher and the Friar, replicas of the outer wall gargoyles of the Brasenose College in Oxford for counterweight.

I buy enough length for straps and when Terri and I attached it, it does not look very strong. We prepare ourselves for possible breakage. However, this Beltane gathering was only one weekend, if we are not happy with anything, we can make it better later on. I find a colour picture of the Mari Llwyd, a midwinter Welsh hobby horse with a real horse skull, and I add it to an oval frame to attach to the skirt. I decide that this picture, looking very feminine, yet very eerie, is named ‘Mary Lloyd’.

It was the skeleton of a giant horse, staring with the blind eye-sockets of a skull running and leaping and prancing of legs on bone…faster than any living horse it galloped and without any sound…the creature was playing with them… the leering skull thrust out, the jaws open wide, it charged at them in terrible silence...Bran was sitting up ‘The Mari Llwyd!’ he whispered ‘The Mari Llwyd!’ he was staring at the thing as if bewitched.’

- ‘The Silver on the Tree’

‘The best known skull and pole type of hobby-horse, with glass bottle bottoms for eyes, and a pair of old gloves for ears is the Mari Lwyd, the famous horse of South Wales. He is beautifully decked out with ribbon and horse-bells and appears at midwinter, rearing and plunging in the dark street, while the party accompanying him holds a singing contest with every house they visit…the Mari Lwyd is accompanied by a Sergeant, a Merryman, and a Punch and Judy.’

- Man, Myth and Magic magazine

Version 1.0 of Dobbin - made in 2005

Beltane weekend – On the Saturday of Beltane, Linda asked if the horse could be in ritual, so I then had to gather people for the jester/teasing job. I had my green tunic with leaves, jester hat and ivy mask, Terri was Maid Marion, Hania, Elvanna, Wendy and Emily were jesters and teaser maidens of their own kind, and Ash was the Man-Woman, complete with purple dress and make-up. Lorena led the procession with her daughter Brielle, and they carried a ribboned wreath with bells on a stick. And most important of all, Ryan was our masked Oss rider.

During the ritual the oss was called in. It all happened so quickly, and I barely remember any of it, my main concern was Ryan and the oss, but he indicated when he was ready to leave. The overall reaction to the oss was positive. Everyone loved him, I thought the colours worked extremely well together and the painted flags added to the community effort.

Some damage was done to the oss after the rite – such a dramatic stage pieces should expect a bit of battering – but I plan to make great changes to the oss in the near future, so it will be ready for other festivals!!

One year later.......

In 2006, one year after the making of version 1.0 of Dobbin, I came back with new ideas. I had just spent our winter in England (their summer) and saw all sorts of pagan festivals while I was there, especially the Pagan Pride March in London (held on my birthday!) which had drummers, bogies, Giants, and a Jack-in-the-Green. Such inspiration!

The Oss was far too heavy with his metal ring so we abandoned it for a cane ring. Terri made a fish shaped cane frame which was much lighter, and I took the skirt off the oss. I cut the red and gold brocade to shape and re-gathered the skirt, sewing it back on. As it was a smaller Oss, I chose the best flags to leave onto the braid and sewed that on. I then attached the head with wire this time, and re-attached the tail. All of it was much the same, not as much work was done to this one. The straps were better and the Oss was overall lighter and bounced around a lot better than before.

At the 2006 Mount Franklin Beltane, we all celebrated the 25th Anniversay of the gathering. There were well over one dozen ritualists this year, as we performed a small play and sang a song during ritual. Before the circle was opened, the Oss rider ran around the circle, and our friend Steve was 'Punch' – who had two halves of coconuts and followed the rider – but the rider, in his nervousness, ran too fast and the punch could not keep up!! Dobbin certainly was better this year, lighter and easier to handle.

Dobbin has been used since 2006 at Beltane, but not every year. He quite often comes to Beltane to enjoy the fun, but not always get used. With luck, he will be around for a very long time!!

Version 2.0 of Dobbin - 2006


Pegg, Bob. Rites and Riots, Blandford Press, 1981

Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, Readers’ Digest Assoc. London. 2nd Ed, 1977

Dalesman Magazine, May 2005

Roberts, Andy. & Clarke, David. Twilight of the Celtic Gods, Blandford Press, 1996

Cooper, Susan. Silver on the Tree, ‘Dark is Rising Sequence’ 1977

Man, Myth and Magic Magazines ‘Hobby-Horse,’ 1971

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