Thursday, 1 May 2014
The Obby Oss
Where's the place to be in Cornwall today? Padstow of course!
Its May Day and out comes a rather strange and somewhat frighting creature with a mask and circular black framed cape, gyrating its way through the village. It is of course the Obby Oss.
There are several traditions such as this in Cornwall, but Padstow's is the most famous, beginning at the Golden Lion Inn at midnight with songs, and by dawn the pretty little fishing village is decorated with foliage, flowers and flags. During the morning the Obby Oss arrives, he dances, turning and swirling his cape as he moves through the villages tiny streets. Drums are banged and accordions played and all are led by what are known as Teasers who walk ahead, aiding the Oss as it tries to catch young maidens.
There are two Osses in Padstow whose names are Old and Blue Ribbon, later in the day a number of smaller osses appear. By early evening the two will have met at the Maypole and danced together.
The origins of this Cornish tradition dates back to the Beltane festival which celebrates the coming of summer or the Celtic worship of horse deities. It has been suggested that it may be related to the tradition of the Grey Mare in South Wales. Obby Osses are one of many ritual beasts and monsters found in English folk traditions, in addition to Padstow’s Obby Oss there was a tradition in West Penwith of a similar creature called Pengwyn and another named Penglas, meaning grey/blue head, which was probably a horse’s skull that is usually associated with other festive occasions such as the midsummer fire festival Golowan, celebrated in Penzance, which has quite recently been revived. There is mention of a Oss in the Cornish language play Beunans Meriasek, about the life of a saint from the Cornish town of Camborne and the Oss is a companion or follower.
The origins of Padstows celebrations are, however, not really known. There is plenty of evidence of May Day celebrations dating back to the early sixteenth century but the first reference to the Padstow Obby Oss is 1803. In 1914 it was said of the dance performed by the Oss “The steps are improvised, consisting of various forms of back step, hockleback, swing steps. The Teaser every now and again passing by the side of the horse and facing him repeating the dance on the other side.” and if you click on the link below you can see this.
Of the two Padstow Osses Blue Ribbon is the more recent, it was supposedly supported by members of the Temperance Movement who were trying to discourage the use of alcohol but after the Great War it was renamed the Peace Oss.