All Things Green Man & The Traditional Jack-in-the-Green

The Green Man

For many people their first experience of the Green Man is a chance sighting of a strange stone foliate face looking down at them from high above in a church or cathedral. Just what this supposedly pagan representation of fertility and the greenwood is doing in a Christian place of worship, has puzzled people throughout the ages.  A subversive image placed by stone carvers as a link to a pre-Christian religion? A reminder that we all come from the earth and will one day return? Or a representation of evil carefully placed to remind churchgoers to steer away from sin? 

Lady Raglan who coined the term “Green Man” thought that the Green Man of churches and abbeys was one in the same with “the figure known variously as the Green Man, Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the Garland who is the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout northern and central Europe.”  Many people still support these connections, believing that the Green Man has many faces and that each of these do indeed have deep seated and possibly spiritual links via an ancient race memory of a time when the Greenwoods covered most of what is now Britain.  

But many disagree vehemently with these connections arguing that there is no evidence that the Jack-in –the-Green dates back any further than the sweeps processions of the late eighteenth century, (and the Garland only slightly further). That Robin Hood had no connections with The Green Man until Richard Carpenters cult series “Robin of Sherwood” created a link via the shamanic/deific figure of Herne the Hunter and his links with Cernunnos. That if the King of the May had any actual link with the Green Man carvings found in churches and other locations then there would be at least be some evidence that the carvings were in some way made a part of the May celebrations, or at least  mentioned, which it seems they were not! 

And yet others argue that even if these connections never did exist, then they have now been created and therefore will henceforth be forever inseparably entwined in that magical way that myth, legend and folklore seem to take on an unstoppable life force of their own. 

Environmentalists, New Agers, Pagans and neo Pagans all have their own interpretations of who the Green Man is and what he represents to them and their beliefs.  

Even the stone carvings found in churches, cathedrals, castles and varied other locations may not all be as they at first seem. Some Green Man hunters classify them into different types: Leaf masks, simple faces formed from a single leaf. Foliate faces created by more than one leaf. Faces disgorging foliage or vines from mouth, eyes, and/or ears. Other hunters allow inclusion of Cat and other animal faces created from or including leaves or vegetation of some kind. 

Images of the green man are found across England, Great Britain, Europe and parts of Asia and North Africa. He may date back as far as the third millennium BC, and is still being reproduced in stone, wood, art, song, story and poem today.  He may be found in his guise as dusty stone or wood carving looking down from on high in churches cathedrals and abbeys throughout England. He can be seen as a sometimes mischievous, sometimes dark figure found in Morris dances; both traditional and modern. As Jack-in-the-Green leading or included in May Day processions each year, or bought to life in new and vibrant traditions, like the Green Man of Clun who each year battles the Frost Queen on a bridge above the river Clun.  

I believe that the answer to the question of “who is the Green Man” may simply be that there is no single answer, that he is indeed an enigma, not to be solved but to continue to instil curiosity and wonder in past, current and future generations. 

And so, what you at first may have thought a gentle pastime of wandering around quiet parish churches snapping the odd photo of a Green Man on high before retiring to the nearest pub (possibly The Green Man) for a pint of Green Man ale (yes it exists) you may now realise is a pastime fraught with conflict, rivalry and quite possibly intrigue. 

I shall leave the last poignant words to Ronald Millar: 

“Two millennia old or older, the Green Man is the vibrant spirit of the wild wood, of vegetation in leaf or bud, of spring, pool and river, earth and sky, indeed the totality of nature. His voice is the hiss of the high wind in ash and oak. And his profundity those sudden silences of a forest when all Nature seems to hold her breath. When we hear or feel him no more mankind will have run its course.” 

And now over to you: I invite conversation and discourse on your thoughts about the Green Man.
Please feel free to add your comments using the link below or by e-mailing The Company of the Green Man at

2 responses

  1. Who is The Green Man?

    Prior to 1939 and Lady Raglan’s view that the foliate head carvings in churches and cathedrals should be called ‘Green Men’, these carvings had no known name – they were merely sculptured decorations, created by the stone-masons of the time that the churches were being built. If this is true, why would the Christian Church allow Pagan images to adorn the walls and ceilings of their most Holy places?

    It has been suggested that maybe the sculptures were subversive protests by Pagan stone-masons who resented the usurping by Christian priests of their Old Religion and that church leaders were unaware of their real significance.

    In 2004 at the Lakeland Storytelling Festival, Mike O’Connor, storyteller/musician and Cornish Bard, told a story that suggested to me a different answer; one that I have not seen proposed in any of the many books that I have read on the subject. The story comes from ‘The Cornish Ordinalia’.

    The Cornish Ordinalia.

    The Ordinalia is a religious drama-cycle written by an anonymous cleric at Glasney College in the fourteenth century. First written in the Cornish/Celtic language, the Ordinalia consists of three plays that together tell the stories of the bible from Genesis to Revelation.

    Running through the whole and interwoven with the Scriptural narrative comes the beautiful and curious Legend of the Cross. The legend, most of which is in the dramas, is this.

    “When Adam found himself dying, he sent his youngest son Seth to the Gates of Paradise to beg of the angel that guarded them the oil of mercy, that his father might live. The angel let him look into Paradise, where he saw many strange and beautiful fore-shadowings of things that should be upon the earth; and the angel gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life, and he departed. When he came to where his father was, he found that he was already dead, and he laid the three seeds in his mouth, and buried him therewith on Mount Moriah; and in process of time the three seeds grew into three small trees…………
    …….. and Abraham took of the wood thereof for the sacrifice of Isaac his son; and afterwards Moses’ rod, wherewith he smote the rock, was made from one of their branches. And soon the three trees grew together into one tree, whereby was symbolised the mystery of the Trinity; and under its branches sat King David when Nathan the Prophet came to him, and there he bewailed his sin, and made the Miserere Psalm. And Solomon, when he would build the Temple on Mount Sion, cut down the tree, which was then as one of the chiefest of the cedars of Lebanon, and bid men make a beam thereof; but it would in no wise fit into its place, howsoever much they cut it to its shape. Therefore Solomon was wroth, and bid them cast it over the brook Cedron as a bridge, so that all might tread upon it that went that way. But after a while he buried it, and over where it lay there came the Pool Bethesda with its healing powers; and when our Lord came on earth the beam floated up to the surface of the pool, and the Jews found it, and made thereof the Cross whereon Christ died on Calvary”.

    The significant section is the one before the row of dots and cover the significant part of the legend. It is doubtful that the ‘anonymous cleric’ referred to above, actually invented this story. Passion & Mystery plays were popular during medieval times and it is likely that the same tale appeared elsewhere and was fairly well known.

    Is it not therefore possible that this image of an old man with twigs and leaves growing from his mouth, eyes and ears etc. is in fact Adam as depicted in the story?

    There doesn’t need to be any major conflict between this tale and the significance of the Green Man concept of Death and Rebirth.

    In the building of a medieval church however, it does seem to me that the image of Adam in whatever form is a more likely one than that of a Pagan icon.


    …..That’s telling!

    Jan 7, 2009 at 1:58 pm


    Several hundred years ago a group of monks came from France to the Cartmel Valley, in Lancashire. Their task was to build a great church. They were led by a monk whose name was Bernard.

    Bernard climbed a hill, which he thought to be a suitable site, for churches are often found upon hilltops, overlooking the community who worship there.

    He knelt in prayer, asking for guidance. When he looked up he saw the tall, bearded figure of a man dressed all in green. Not only was he dressed in green – he was green! Even his hair and beard seemed to made of tiny green leaves.

    “This is not the place you seek”, said the man. “How do you know what I seek?” asked Bernard.

    “This is a place of worship for those of the Old Religion”, replied the man in green, ignoring Bernard’s question. “You should build your church on land that lies between two rivers flowing in opposite directions – to build here will cause great offence”.

    Bernard climbed to his feet and from his lofty viewpoint, surveyed the valley below. “Two rivers, flowing in opposite directions?” He had never heard such nonsense. He knew, as we all do that all rivers flow to the sea! He turned to say as much but to his surprise, found that the green man was gone, nowhere to be seen! Bernard wondered if he had imagined him. He nevertheless felt that he had to share his strange experience with his colleagues and he descended the hill to find them.

    They were equally as puzzled but felt, as Bernard himself felt that the advice of the green stranger should not lightly be ignored. They knew that their God wanted them to build in this locality and so set out to find these rivers. If they existed, God would lead them to the place.

    Two days later, an excited novice monk came running to Bernard. “Come”, he said, “this is amazing!” Bernard followed the young man who led him to a narrow river. “Watch this”. The young novice picked up a small stick and tossed it into the swiftly flowing stream. The stick was quickly picked up in the current and headed off down stream, towards Morecambe Bay.

    “Now come and see this!” The young man began running towards another river, some half-mile further along the valley. Bernard had difficulty keeping up with the excited novice monk. “Now, watch!” he said when Bernard arrived by his side at the riverbank.

    He picked up another small branch and threw it out into the centre of the river. Bernard was amazed to see the stick actually flowing in the opposite direction, away from Morecambe Bay and heading towards Lake Windermere!

    Bernard fell to his knees in thankful prayer. Through the young novice monk, God had guided him to a place that he had not believed existed.
    The land between the two rivers was flat and ideal for the building of a great church. His team began their work and two years later, Cartmel Priory was complete and stands to this day.

    If you go to the village of Cartmel, you can see for yourself the two rivers that continue to flow in opposite directions. Throw a stick in each and watch them as they are carried along the currents, one heading for Morecambe Bay and the other speeding towards Lake Windermere.

    If you care to visit the beautiful priory, you will be able to see an image of the green man, carved on a misericord in the choir stalls. You may also climb the hill where the green man dispensed his advice; there is a signpost that will direct you to Mount Bernard!

    Leslie Melville

    …..That’s telling!

    Jan 7, 2009 at 7:57 pm

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