Green Man. Who is he?

He can be found in churches, chapels and cathedrals all across Europe. He dances in May Day processions in Britain. He appears on temple walls in India and in churches in Borneo. He is the dimly remembered symbol of an ancient spirit of Nature, recognized and revered by many civilizations and adopted by many religions. This elemental pagan image peers at us from the roof bosses and columns of hundreds of our oldest churches and from the T-shirts, a witness to the changes of centuries, yet as unchanging as the very earth from which he springs. The image of a male face not just surrounded by green foliage, often displays the flora flowing out of his mouth. What could this possibly represent?

The “Green Man” forest spirit has travelled the world for centuries and seems to have adapted to local cultures as the centuries have passed. Some of the best evidence of the phenomenon today is interestingly found on medieval churches in France and England. But in ancient times, this pagan God of nature lived not only among Celtic forest tribes in northern Europe, but also among great architectural empires such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. The term “Green Man” is modern in nature, dating back to 1939 when Lady Raglan published an article in the “Folklore” journal. He has appeared as “Jack in the Green” and there has been a revival of these appearances around the date of Beltane or May Day every spring, marking re-birth and the start of the cycle of growth.

The Origins of the Green Man

So how did the Green Man find itself becoming a common church decoration, and what do we now know about its origins? The trail appears to stretch from Eastern Asia across to North America. It was Roman artists and sculptors who first developed composite figures (such as those in Nero’s Golden House in Rome), as well as complex carvings of life-like intertwined vegetation. Roman architecture sometimes features ornate leaf masks, which are usually taken as showing the close interdependence between man and nature, and as describing the deities of Pan, Bacchus, Dionysus or Silvanus, and the mystery religions that grew up around them. A leaf-clad statue of Dionysus in Naples, Italy, dating back to about 420 BCE, is often considered one of the first Green Men images. Dionysus is often considered one of the most likely precursors to the Green Man, especially because he is often pictured as leaf-crowned lord of the wilderness, nature and agriculture; only later he became associated with wine, ecstasy and sexual abandon. Apart of him, there are similar figures represented in ancient cultures. The Mesopotamian Green Man carving at al-Hadr or Hatra, in present-day Iraq, may date from as early as 300 BCE. A temple to Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon, dating from the 2nd Century CE, shows a full leaf-mask distinctly reminiscent of later Green Men. Figures similar to the Green Man also appear in Borneo, Nepal and India, one of the earliest of which is a disgorging head which appears on an 8th Century CE Jain temple in Rajasthan, India.
One theory about the origins of the Green Man in the West is that it is a pagan artefact derived from the ancient Celts’ worship of the head. The Celts regarded the head as the seat of the soul, and also the Celtic veneration of sacred trees. Then, gradually, over a period from roughly the 6th to 11th Century, he imperceptibly became absorbed into Christian iconography. As Christianity later spread across old Celtic territory, pagans who converted to the new religion may have influenced the adoption of the nature symbol by the church. To the medieval Christian mind he became a symbol of rebirth after death. Also many old temples and statues were adopted by churches, for example, in the sixth century, as the Franks took power in North-Eastern Europe, Archbishop Nicetius of Trier maintained several foliate head figures in the cathedral church he rebuilt, despite their origination as a pagan symbol. Although the popular practice of tree worship could not be permitted, and many sacred trees and groves were cut down or torched during this period, the use of the image of the Green Man allowed a relatively safe nod towards the old practices, while at the same time bringing it under the umbrella of the new Church. In an interesting cross-cultural exchange, some sculptures of leaf-masks were plundered from older Byzantine buildings and re-used intact in Christian churches. From the 11th and 12th Century onwards, Green Men are often seen incorporated as a carved decorative ornamentation on British, French, German and other European churches and other buildings. It is perhaps an indication of the Green Man’s power as an archetype that he was able to transfer so seamlessly from one culture and one set of beliefs to another. To some extent, the Green Man became an instrument of harmony between the pagan past and the new Christian order.

Medieval Green Man

Good examples of medieval Green Men can be found in cathedrals, abbeys, minsters and humble parish churches throughout Britain (particularly in rural counties like Norfolk, Devon, Oxfordshire, Somerset, and many others), France and Germany. The first record of such a figure in a Christian setting is on the fourth century tomb of Abre in the Church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand in Poitiers, France. Abre was the daughter of Saint Hilaire, who was a high-ranking pagan that converted to Christianity and became a renowned figure in the church. Chartres Cathedral, widely considered one of the masterpieces of Western art, features up to 70 Green Men, in a whole variety of different forms, including leaf masks, disgorgers of vegetation, and human figures in the midst of plants and fruit. In Roslin Chapel, (famous in Dan Brown’s book – The Da Vinci Code) a Templar church south of Edinburgh, there are reputed to be over a hundred Green Men. The intricate Romanesque and Gothic architecture of the High Middle Ages provided a perfect vehicle for the inclusion of all manner of oddities on church buildings. Green Men were perhaps just one example of the mythical beasts, demons and other pagan symbols which began to be licensed, even encouraged, by church builders of the time. Sheela-na-gigs (figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated open vulva, sometimes considered a Green Woman, the female counterpart of the Green Man) and sirens or mermaids with divided tails were just some of the other recurring motifs to be found along with the Green Man.
Although ecclesiastical Green Man figures peaked in medieval times, they found a new home on secular buildings around the world during the Renaissance. From then onwards, the Green Man began to appear with even greater regularity in manuscripts, metalwork, bookplates and stained glass, as well as in churches and cathedrals, although often for purely decorative effect. It seems that some of the symbolism had been lost by this time, and the Green Man had become more of a decorative motif than a symbolic one. The Green Man continued to appear in English architecture in the 16th and 17th Century, such as at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, King’s College in Cambridge, Tewkesbury Abbey, and in many country churches. The motif gained some renewed popularity with the Gothic Revival and Arts and Crafts movements of 19th Century Britain, as well as in America and the British colonies during this same period. The Victorian version of the Green Man makes an appearance on many important building such as the Palace of Westminster, St. David’s Cathedral and in re-carvings on some Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The Green Man has continued to make appearances in more modern architecture and design, from brick-built terraced houses and suburban villas to pubs, banks, factories and other commercial buildings.

Green Man Today

Unfortunately, much of the significance of the Green Man is no longer widely known, but he was a very importance being to our ancestors. General consensus is that the Green Man is a symbol of fertility and rebirth. Every spring life begins anew as the countryside blooms. Early pagan cultures probably added him to their spiritual pantheon to mirror the human cycle of birth. Thousands of years ago, the countryside was far from civilized and open. The land was in fact heavily forested. These thick, dense woods were often dark, even in the bright, high summer sun. Forests were generally feared and there are many stories that warn people of the dangers of the brooding woodlands. It’s no wonder that tales of a spiritual being became associated with such a fearful place. Today he is a Pagan symbol who heralds Spring after a long winter and the renewal of lush vegetation. Many modern Neo-Pagan, New Age and Wiccan organizations and practitioners have incorporated the Green Man into their artwork and symbology, and he is sometimes used as a representation of the Horned God (which is itself a syncretic deity inclusive of several ancient pagan gods such as the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan). Where other pagan symbols were crushed under the weight of iconoclastic Christianity the sacred tree, the vine and the oak survived along with the Green Man, symbol of rebirth, irrepressible vitality and love of nature.
The mysterious yet omnipresent Green Man is already an icon. He links us with England’s pagan past and reminds us of our deep and sacred relationship with the natural history of these islands. He represents the spirit of the ancient forests, at once terrifying and protective. He is a part of interwoven beliefs and customs associated with ploughing and sowing, with harvest and the autumn slaughter of beasts – the seeming death of Nature in winter, followed by the miracle of rebirth in the Spring.