In Our Bones: An ethnographic study of the Obby Oss Festival in Padstow, Cornwall

Obby Oss

Satya director, Sky Neal spent a year at the heart of the Padstow community researching the Obby Oss Festival and its role, power and meaning to the people of Padstow. Sky received Arts and Humanities Research Council funding to produce a paper and an ethnographic film. 


Excerpt from study:

In a small fishing village in North Cornwall, each year on May Day, a fierce looking, swirling, dancing creature, with red eyes and snapping jaws emerges out of its resting place and sweeps through the streets of Padstow as part of a collective, local ritual to celebrate the coming of summer. This creature, the Obby Oss, is part of a tradition that spans back hundreds, some like to think thousands of years. This paper is an attempt to capture some of the mystery and magic of this masquerade ritual through the most interesting and revealing means of all; through the experiences and interpretations of the people of Padstow themselves.

On its simplest level, this May Day ritual is a community event to celebrate the beginning of summer and to draw together local people from near and far on a day that has become more meaningful than any other in Padstow's festive calendar. But the question I am concerned with here is why is it so meaningful, and how can this level of meaning be identified within a persons life time?

Most immediately apparent is the degree to which the presence of the Oss contributes to an overall sense of both individual and collective identity; there is a tangible sense of pride and belonging that emanates from the whole community. They are the proud owners of something unique and special that provides them with a sacred space to play together (Huizinga: 1955), and within this space they are magically bound.

The sense of importance of this ritual, and personal orientation within it, begins at a very early age. It becomes an integral part of a persons being, a symbolic template perhaps, that accompanies them through their entire life journey from birth to death, and contributes to an overall identity of self, and acts as an anchor for moral values.

It is also useful to view the Obby Oss as a symbol within its wider social and cultural context. This brings to light information "that is not evident at the level of immediate experience" (Turner, 19: 178). A necessary approach within such a hidden culture. It is, for example, of great significance that Padstow has become a popular choice for second holiday homes, pushing house prices up dramatically. Young newly weds now struggle to afford to buy houses to raise their families, threatening the integrity of the community. Celebrity chef, Rick Stein has selected Padstow to promote his restaurant trade, further threatening to undermine the authenticity of this town, and placing it firmly on the map as a mecca for holiday makers.

By acknowledging the impact that these shifts and changes have had on the social structure, it can be seen that the Obby Oss has evolved into a symbol of community solidarity in the face of all these very real threats, increasing their sense of pride and identity, and providing a vehicle to defend their boundaries. This has most effectively been achieved through the division of the town into two teams, each with their own Oss- the Blue and the Red Party. The Red Party have strict entrance policies, restricting membership to a few local, long-standing lineages of Padstow. It is clear that the intention behind such policies is to protect ancient traditions, as well as to honour the ancestry of the town- an important theme behind the Obby Oss of today.

The story of the Obby Oss is an ever-unfolding one, as it shifts and adapts to changes that occur in the social structure. It is a social mechanism that is constantly being re-evalued, and I think it is for this reason that it is so full of life and vitality, and such a valuable resource to this Cornish community. In some symbolic way the yearly event of May Day and all the magic it brings, ensures the continuation of life in Padstow and provides a stability amid rapid change.