The Green Man




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The tradition of portraying a human face amongst or as part of leaves is a very old one in Northern Europe.  Its precise origins are lost to time, but it seems to have been an established tradition when the Romans invaded the Celtic and Germanic lands.  Native artwork of these peoples is based on complicated ‘knotwork’ and twisting forms representing vegetation.  Some of these were representations of animals or human faces, including designs which could be plants and human heads at the same time.  The Romans seem to have taken to the tradition and carried it to the far corners of their Empire and beyond.  Green Men of one sort or another can be found as far away as modern Turkey and are also found in eighth century Indian art. 





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carving, dated 1493, on the keystone of a window

of the Chapel of the Nine Alters, Fountain’s Abbey, Yorkshire.





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Rosslyn Chapel, Midlothian, Scotland


The Green Man returned to Northern Europe in the late medieval period and first appear as carvings in England in the twelfth century.   Green Men are usually carved in wood or stone and adorn many English Churches and Cathedrals, especially the older ones.  The tradition in its modern form is rooted in the late medieval period, but there have been revivals throughout history including the Victorian era and the present time.  




Some Green Men are easily visible, being found by Church doors or on chancel screens.  Others are tucked away in corners, hidden from obvious view so that you stumble across them unexpectedly.  Some are so high up in buildings that they can hardly be seen at all from ground level and some are hidden behind structures





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Swiss Tapestry from the 15th Century depicting the Wilde Mann



The term Green Man, as applied to carvings, is actually a fairly recent one.  Historically, the term referred to a related but separate Medieval folk tradition.  This Green Man was a giant who lived in the woods, wearing no clothes apart from a suit of leaves and whose hair and beard were long and shaggy.  This character is actually a version of the ‘Wild Man’ (wild man of the woods), a primal figure that haunted the medieval imagination.   He was perhaps better known on the continent than in England.  In Germany and Switzerland, the ‘Wilde Mann’ is still popular today.  For instance, a figure dressed in green and carrying an uprooted tree takes part in parades through the city of Basle every year.  In England, the ‘Garland festival’ is held in Castleton, Derbyshire in which the leading character wears a hollow frame covered with leaves and flowers.  This character is sometimes referred to as a ‘Jack in the Green’.




There seems to be a connection between the Green/Wild Man of the woods and the Green Man carvings.  Both have obvious associations with plant and woodland features and both are likely to trace their origins back to pre-Christian folk traditions and Gods.  However, whereas the Wild Man was always seen as somewhat threatening and not of this world, early carvings of Green Men were of friendly, well dressed young men of the period.        





There is a huge number and variety of Green Men patterns.  It is not possible here to consider every aspect of this phenomenon or to include pictures of more than just a tiny sample.  The interested reader may wish to explore further and will discover much more about the subject.  The aim of this article though is to give a flavour of the tradition and to try to work through the Christo-Heathen associations of it.  Some web based resources are included at the end of the piece for those who wish to follow it up. 




The Green Men carvings appeared in England in the later Medieval times, a period when Christianity was well established.  They were commissioned and carved by good Catholics of the day – a time when heaven and hell were very real to people.  Their precise symbolic meaning in those days is not really known.  However, church art, carvings and sculptures were extensively used to symbolise Christian teaching.  All church goers of the time would have known that a carving of a mermaid depicted lust and that of a pelican, compassion. 




One idea is that Green Men were associated with change and transformation, symbolised by the vegetation and allusions to the seasonal cycles of nature.  Pagan transformational stories from the classics, such as Ovid’s metamorphosis in which Daphne turns into a laurel tree, would have been known by the better educated.  Strangely, their own similar ancestral myths would have been much less familiar to them.  Nevertheless, it is possible that the Green Men carvings were used in some way to give a Christian moral to these pagan transformational stories.   It may be that the foliage and tendrils coming out of the mouth represented the expunging of sin from the soul.  On this font at Lullington church in Somerset, a ring of four cats’ heads sprout foliage above a Latin inscription which says ‘in this holy bowl sins are washed from the soul’ – not sure if the Latin rhymed too!  It is not known what the symbolism of the cat is, though there is an old medieval tradition that equates cats with the Holy Mother, perhaps reflecting their association with Freya.




Priests and clerics of the time wrote about the leaves signifying sins of the flesh and preachers warned against the temptations of the springtime.  This seems a perversion of the original heathen view of spring as a time of renewal and growth and the associations of leaves and flowers with this.  Luckily not everyone listened to the preachers – even back then!  In May people carried home branches of hawthorn and young couples strolled in the woods wearing garlands of ivy on their heads.  Green Men shared in this symbolism.  For instance, carvings at Weston Longville church in Norfolk depict Green Men surrounding a young man carrying branches. 




However, despite this springtime symbolism, Green Men are usually depicted as an emblem of autumn.  The hawthorn trees are accompanied by fruit rather than flowers.  This Green Man at Sutton Benger church in Wiltshire provides hawthorn berries for the birds.




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From the Chapter House at Wells Cathedral, Somerset.

Green Men are especially associated with trees and woodland.  There is a strong underlying association with the ancient traditions which saw woodlands as holy places and the sanctuary of the gods.  In particular, the Green Man can be seen to symbolise Ingeld (Ing Frey) who is often depicted as a nature or woodland god and who is associated with fertility, renewal and the natural world.  In this sense, he can be seen along with other folk traditions with Heathen origins, such as John Barleycorn and the May Day celebrations.  But he also has strong associations with Woden (Odin) and Herne the Hunter too, especially when one considers the related folk belief of the Wild Man of the Woods which may have ancient connections to the Wild Hunt led by Woden.





Medieval churches were richly decorated, including bright greens and gold – the colours of growth.  Rich colours were important to the people of this time because they were so difficult and expensive to make.  The Green Man himself would often be represented in a human colour rather than green – though there are examples of this.  Carvings of two children in a church at Woolpit in Suffolk were said to come from the fairy underworld and stayed green by living on beans – an association with Jack and the Beanstalk?    


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Some Green Men are friendly looking and others are anything but.  Some scowl ferociously whilst others smile with such cold eyes they could be demons.  Indeed, the devil is depicted as a Green Man at Cartmel Priory in Lancashire.  Perhaps this should not be surprising, given the medieval tradition of depicting demons in Churches and the obvious heathen origins of Green Men.  He may have represented the spirit of the forest, but to many medieval folk the forest was a dangerous and frightening place where the traveller was likely to be robbed, mugged and maybe killed.  The Green Man to the left is from Rochester Church in Kent and portrays this frightening image.





Whilst some green men are frightening, others are more afraid.  Medieval people were familiar with sudden and often violent death and terrible epidemics.  After the Black Death Green Men began to be portrayed in horrific forms, such as the one below at Ottery St Mary in Devon.




Tendrils sprout out of his eyes lies worms in a decaying corpse.  In practice, this is probably just the work of artists affected by the horror of the plague rather like modern artists such as Francis Bacon’s work was affected by the horrors of modern warfare.  It is hard to escape though, the heathen significance of decay in autumn leading to the transformation and renewal of spring.  Taken in this context, the Green Man is truly depicting the birth, death, rebirth cycle which lies at the heart of heathen religion.




This carving from South Tawnton Church in Devon depicts a dead man’s head and the tendrils are less like leaves and more like worms. 



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In recent times there has been something of a resurgence of interest in the Green Man, perhaps as part of the revival of folk traditions.  English folk dancing, especially the Morris tradition, has a strong tradition rooted in the Green Man and his ancient predecessors.  




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The Green Man is a common name for pubs in England which by some strange quirk of fate is where you are most likely to see Morris Men!



This picture is of a festive Green Man presiding over May Day celebrations at Clun in Shropshire. 




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And, of course, no discussion of the Green Man can be complete without a reference to dear old Treebeard – the Ent of Lord of the Rings.  Ents (literally meaning giants) were sort of tree herders, woodland beings who looked after the forest.  Our pre-Christian ancestors believed that all matter had spirit and so Ents can be seen as the spirit guardians of the forest.   


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