Who is the Green Man?
For many people their first experience of the Green Man is a chance sighting of a strange stone or wooden 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.
Whilst many thousands of Green Men can be found on the inside and outside of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe and beyond they can also be found in their thousands in and on secular buildings too.
Green Men seem to have been referred to generally as “foliate faces” up until Lady Raglan coined the term “Green Man” in her article “The Green Man in Church Architecture”, published in the “Folklore” journal of March 1939. She 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 also 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!
Some 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.
And the Green Men in churches and cathedrals, why are they there, are they 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? A representation of Adam, or an image of evil carefully placed to remind churchgoers to steer away from sin?
Images of the green man are found across Great Britain, Europe and parts of Asia and North Africa. A carved foliate face can be seen in the remains of the ruined Mesopotamian desert city of al-Hadr (or Hatra), in modern day Iraq. The carving may date back as far as the third millennium BCE. I have no doubt that the image dates back much further.
The Green Man 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 the magical 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.
In his book “Wildwood A Journey Through Trees” the late Roger Deakin visits the Green Man at King’s Nympton in Devon and writes:
“The leaves flow from him like poems or songs. He himself is a kind of folksong. Everyone knows it, but each singer has a different, personal version, a variation on the theme. ‘I am not elderly,’ says the Green Man in one of Jane Gardam’s enchanting stories about him; ‘I am the Green Man.’ He is the spirit of the rebirth of nature. He is the chucked pebble that ripples out into every tree ring. He is a green outlaw and he is everywhere, like a Che Guevara poster.”
Architectural historian Richard Hayman wrote:
“Is he just another example of the way in which we invent the gods we need?….Where there is a context in which the green man can be interpreted, he can usually be shown to be a figure representing sin. There is no case for arguing that the green man is a figure of ancient or medieval pagan origin representing either fertility or some spiritual union with nature. As archaeologists and historians we need to be wary of self-serving interpretations of the past The green man represents another eternal theme, about death and the vainglorious nature of human existence”
Green Man expert Mike Harding writes in his website:
“His roots may go back to the shadow hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira and may climb through history, in one of his manifestations through Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England to be chiselled in wood and stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask.”
Mark Ryan writes in “The Wildwood Tarot”:
“One of the most ancient images of the connection between mankind and nature, his face has looked out from the stones of temples and churches for centuries. Even in the dim and chilly heights of Christian cathedrals he looks down , often sardonically, on the people far below. Constantly returning in thinly disguised ciphers such as the Green Knight, Jack in the Green and Robin Hood, his face, disgorging leaves, peers out from the rich, dark, fertile heart of the forest and challenges you to respect and revel in the joys of the natural world.”
Canon Albert Radcliffe of Manchester Cathedral wrote in the forward to Clive Hicks “The Green Man A Field Guide”:
“The truth is that no one knows for certain who the green man was. He is a figure surrounded by total and complete silence. He is the best kept secret in Europe.”
Whilst Clive Hicks himself wrote:
“The Green Man is an image and an idea. It is an image of a human face associated with foliage, and it is an idea that makes real the connection between humanity and nature. The image personifies the idea.”
Personally I think that the green men found in churches in Britain may be intrinsically linked with Britain’s ancient woodlands. Continuous human habitation began in Britain in what is now southern England just 12000 years ago. In prehistoric times England was almost entirely covered in trees. By the end of the first millenium much had already been cleared to satisfy the needs of an increasing population, with the Domesday Records showing approximately 15% woodland cover across England. By the end of the 16th Century 90% of our ancient woodlands had gone, changing the face of England forever. This trend continued, and by the end of the 19th century woodland had dropped to below 5%. Since then England’s forest and woodland area has been expanding slightly and by the beginning of the 21st century there were over 1.1 million hectares, equivalent to 8.4% woodland cover. As of 31st March 2019 this had risen to 10%. This, however, remains relatively low in international terms.
I have a tentative theory that images of the green man are more prolific in churches that were built closer to those woodlands that still remained at the time of the Doomsday Records. This was where nature was literally just outside the front door and was both revered and feared by our ancestors. This is a connection that we have almost completely lost in an age where in the last 100 years half of the UK’s remaining woods have been cleared to make way for agriculture and conifer plantations.
But I believe that the real 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 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 will possibly (and hopefully) become your very own quest for answers.
I shall leave the last poignant words to my predecessor the late 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.”