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Who Is The Green Man?


Who, or what, is the Green Man? Why does this bizarre face leer out at us from so many church arches and ceilings, and why does this image seem so far removed from Christianity to so many observers?




Let's look first at where the Green Man can be found, and it isn't too difficult to hunt him down. If we take images from the Medieval Period, the beginning of which is when our man first appeared in Britain, then they appear almost exclusively on the interior or exterior of our churches. The earliest examples can be found in Herefordshire and Worcestershire as this was where the Herefordshire School of Masons carried out most of their work. My previous article goes into some depth regarding these pioneering stonemasons but suffice to say here that they took in some of the imagery that they and their clients had seen in France, Spain, Portugal and Rome while on pilgrimages then blended it with the Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and even Celtic iconography that surrounded them in England. This gave rise to some incredible religious sculpture work, steeped in mystical symbolism, the meaning of which is largely lost to us now.


Rock, Worcestershire



Alongside the storks, lions, owls and centaurs that nestle among impenetrable bundles of knotted lines and curves we see a barely human face. It appears to be male, and is vomiting tendrils of vegetation from its mouth. Sometimes these stalks terminate in flowers or fruit that surround his face while others still meander in tangled spaghetti-like puzzles, but some manner of flora is generally the rule. The face is also sometimes rendered as a husk, a visage almost completely bereft of human reference points that resembles little more than an empty mask. These are the faces of the Green Man.


Leominster Priory, Herefordshire




The flowing fronds of vegetation suggest the reason for this fellow's name, and you'd be partially right in thinking this, but the exact answer as to how he was named arguably arose just before the Second World War. Julia Hamilton, wife of George Somerset, the 3rd Baron of Raglan, had used the term “Green Man” to describe the plant/man hybrids she saw in Welsh churches for a couple of years before writing an article for the Folklore Journal in 1939. In it she proposed a theory to explain the preponderance of these figures in Britain, namely that they were a relic of pre-Christian spirituality that had survived to the present day. The Green Man sculptures represented a folkloric figure, the very same character that danced as a folk tradition as “Jack O' the Green”, was personified in the heroic Robin Hood, was depicted on pub signs across the country and regarded as a vital part of the surviving pagan customs of Britain.




She may have been on the right track as far as customs and traditions went but the church-inhabiting Green Man had absolutely nothing to do with it. He had been carved entirely as an element of Christian symbolism, at least initially, then later as a decorative motif but always within a Christian context. Lady Raglan had been fascinated by her “local” Green Man inside the church at Llangwm in Monmouthshire, a bizarre lantern-jawed character chomping on two oak fronds and, with James Frazer's Golden Bough still casting it's influence across folklore research, she speculated that he really was a relic of “the Old Ways”. To be fair to the Baroness she clearly had a passion for the folklore and traditions of the lands around her but with all the time she and her husband – quite the folklorist and historian himself – had on their hands one would have thought that a buildings historian might have been consulted with.


Llangwm, Monmouthshire




So while she was definitely not the inventor of the Green Man as a folkloric name itself, Lady Raglan appears to have been the first person to apply it to these mysterious church carvings. The title has stuck regardless, helped in no small part by figures such as Nikolaus Pevsner using it in their own work to describe the floral fellows as well as the burgeoning occultism and neo-paganism movements of the 1950s and 1960s. So we know his name and where he lives....but who is he really?




Returning to the Herefordshire School of Masons we can assume a Christian meaning behind the Green Man with almost total confidence. As a religion, Anglo-Saxon paganism had been dead for at least three centuries by the time of the Norman invasion so it is unlikely that any sort of heathen intent was behind the Green Man carvings at their point of creation. You might read this and wonder how I might explain all the weird and wonderful festivals and rituals that still flourish across Britain today that are bereft of any Christian elements, but it is important that we distinguish folk traditions from religious rituals when discussing this subject. Those taking part in the Abbots Bromley horn dance are not trying to invoke or please a particular deity, and neither are the Morris men Wassailing the orchards at Much Marcle. These occasions may contain archetypal figures that predate, or rather transcend Christianity and therefore have a collective power beyond it, but the people that took part in them centuries ago still attended church on Sunday. This is a much bigger discussion than I have space for here and will perhaps be revisited in another article, but the point I am trying to get across here is that while the Green Man and his brethren such as the Woodwose may stir feelings in one's subconscious that are anything but Christian – they were not sculpted with that intent.


Worcester Cathedral



Another common argument for a pagan meaning behind the Green Man and other curious characters is that they were intended to woo hesitant heathens to church. As already stated, paganism had been abandoned as far as a unified religion was concerned since the middle of the 600s, a few decades after the death of Penda of Mercia. There was a resurgence across half of England during the Viking occupation then briefly again in Northumbria but this had little effect on Christianity's lasting presence. “Traditional” practices and customs, cunning work, charms and the rest probably had their origins inside the pagan timeframe but as previously mentioned, those doing these things would not have considered themselves worshippers of any pagan deity. During this period people believed in elves, wights and any number of spirits but still called on Jesus, Mary, God and the saints in the first instance. So with little long term Danish presence in Herefordshire other than itinerant war parties there was no need to convince any lingering pagans to change their ways by adding Green Men to church decorations as there simply weren't any there.


Rowlstone, Herefordshire




So what did the Green Man symbolise? What secrets lay behind that smirk? The first Green Men were of the “disgorging” type, in that tendrils of plant life were belched forth from their gaping mouths. It has been conjectured by some – Miller, Hutton and others - that this represented a scene in the apocryphal story of Seth and Adam. This old Jewish tale in the Kabbalistic tradition told how Seth, the surviving “good” son of Adam and Eve, returned to the Garden of Eden where he placed seeds from the Tree of Knowledge in the mouth of Adam as he lay dying. These sprouted forth to become the burning bush that spoke to Moses, later becoming his magic staff, then ultimately ending up as the two pillars of the Temple of Solomon. It's as good an explanation as any as far as a Christian explanation goes, perhaps church-goers were to be reminded that sin could always be redeemed and that good could come from bad if one's faith were true.


Worcester Cathedral




An interesting idea was put to me while chatting with the vicar of St James's Church at Avebury...just outside of the stone circle I might add. She thought that the Green Man represented the word of God expressed as nature, his lessons and love for mankind coming through all of creation. The face itself was meant to be anonymous, although some were undoubtedly modelled on real ecclesiastical figures, but it was to remind workers in the fields and farms that the hedges, trees and crops around them were God himself, always there for them. As I walked back along the avenue of megaliths from the church I gave this idea some thought and, pre-Christian monuments notwithstanding, I had to agree that it had some merit. The only downside was that Avebury's church does not have a resident Green Man!




We could also align the Green Man with that other favourite of syncretic religion theorists, the Tree of Life. The door surround at Kilpeck in Herefordshire not only features a yawning Green Man at head height but a tree of the same type stretching across its tympanum. The Tree of Life in Christianity represents the faith of each human throughout their life, growing and strengthening as the years pass, so it is entirely possible that in this example the Green Man is presenting the beginnings of that tree to each person that passes him.




Tree and bush references abound throughout the Bible though, and any verse might be seized upon as the real message that the stonemasons were being paid to convey. Try this one on for size for starters, from Jeremiah 17:8 - “For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.”. Long before the coming of the Normans the Anglo-Saxons were combining trees with scripture, giving us the Dream of the Rood where the Cross of Christ gave not only an account of the crucifixion but some of its early life as a tree before being cut down to ultimately become one with Christ. Resurrection is also a concept often held up as the message of the Green Man, the shoots of a new tree representing the second life of Christ and of anyone who believes in him. It is plausible enough but an odd choice to remind churchgoers of their promised life in Heaven, it seems too “earthy” and wild to be a metaphor for the purity of Christ and all the souls in paradise in my opinion.




It has also been conjectured that the Green Man may have been sculpted on Norman churches as an act of resistance. Masons with family members who remembered all too well the harsh regime during the first decades of the Norman conquest were sculpting the Green Man as a symbol of the Anglo-Saxon spirit, especially at locations where a new church had been built to replace an existing Anglo-Saxon structure. It's a plausible idea in theory but it would have been difficult to do this with a Norman baron or bishop breathing down one's neck. A new church would have been fully inspected and passed off before final payment was made to the masons so this would have been a difficult thing to pull off and would have all but halted any future contracts. In all honesty I don't think we will ever be able to fully know the truth and that is the Green Man's power, his mystery.


Kilpeck, Herefordshire




As the Middle Ages went on a second variant of the Green Man became popular, the so-called “foliate head”. This was and is a male face that, rather than appearing to cough up tree shoots, sports an arrangement of leaves around his face, almost covering it completely. If there is another meaning still behind this fellow then it is as much a mystery as his predecessor the disgorger, and it is thought by some to be nothing more than a decorative device. The aforementioned theories pointing to the Scriptures and associated apocrypha would not logically apply to this second variety of Green Man and so an ornamental origin is as good as any for this leafy lad. He begins to appear carved in wood, appropriately enough, with a definite smirk on what is visible of his face as he looks out from misericords, rood screens and ceiling bosses. He is an interesting character in that his image seems to have actually originated in the east, specifically in ancient Persia and India, finally arriving in Europe as Medieval monks added him to illuminated manuscripts. I have no idea why the first Green Man sculptors in Herefordshire did not use this early foliate head as an inspiration, moving straight to the disgorger, but in any case he came back with a vengeance as the Medieval centuries wore on.


Worcester Cathedral




There are other types of Green Man out there, outliers that do not conform to our general ideas of what he “should” look like. Because of their unique characteristics these fellows invite yet more speculation and often wild claims as to their meaning, particularly when set against their locations. An excellent example of this is the curious head on the chancel arch at the Church of St Michael in Garway, Herefordshire. Here we have a cat-like face that sports a pair of horns and, rather than the usual flora issuing forth from his mouth, we see cords ending in braids or knots. He is anything but green but there may be more to this one than meets the eye, especially if we take a quick look at the history of the church itself. It was first built by the Knights Templar and served as a central stronghold for all their preceptories in the area, but was later handed over to the Knights Hospitaller after the mass arrests of the Templars in 1307. One of the charges laid against the Templars in France was that they revered a mummified head swathed in cords, said to be the head of John the Baptist. As so often happens we are in danger here of veering off on a tangent away from the main subject but as before, perhaps this might be another subject for a future article. Suffice to say that if any of these charges had merit then this could have been a sculpture of that head, left alone on the arch as a result of the work ceasing due to the Templars' abolishment, with the horns perhaps added later by the Knights of St John to emphasize their condemnation of this heresy. I must stress that this is only conjecture but fuel for the idea was provided on a visit to Tomar in Portugal, where the Templars were granted immunity from the purge and actually strengthened their position after a rebrand. There at the very top of a column in the Templar circular church or charola is an image of John the Baptist, ropes issuing from him in all directions, looking uncannily like our chap at Garway.


Garway, Herefordshire



Returning to the Green Man himself then, it's high time we looked at the wider use of the name in antiquity and its meaning within the cultural milieu. As previously stated, Lady Raglan was far from the first person to coin the phrase, she was merely the first to attach it to church sculptures. The Green Man is still a common pub name today, with the title going back to the late 1500s, so where did the name in this context arise from? We do have mentions of a “greene man” in descriptions of Tudor and Stuart pageants and plays, he is usually dressed with a crown and cloak of ivy, bearded, and armed with a club or flaming torch. He would often clear the crowds of onlookers out of the way for a procession of mummers or players to parade through a town but the origins of his role and appearance lie in the mists of unwritten lore. One can imagine such a figure bellowing and stamping his feet, children screaming and giggling as they flee from him, a bigfoot-like “wild man” covered with ivy tendrils and oak fronds. This fellow puts one in mind of that other mysterious church monster, the Woodwose. Once again this is probably a subject for another article but the Woodwose was a mythological figure who seems to have represented untamed nature, man's base instincts and a soul as yet unredeemed, as far as ecclesiastical art was concerned.




In the wider sense he was a character with multiple meanings and uses, a beast for all seasons. We have accounts of captured “Woodwose” in Medieval England and France with no religious innuendo or metaphor implied but the sylvan humanoid also appears in heraldry, gracing the arms of many noble families and cities. He is not anywhere near as common a motif as the Green Man in our churches and in my opinion does not really inhabit the same space in a spiritual sense, but he is probably the ancestor of our community Green Man. “Green” often meant wild, uncivilised, a person of the forest with little in the way of normal human mannerisms and behaviour. A lone man living in a forest away from other folk might appear wild, but in most cases he would have at least been able to speak some sort of intelligible dialect and wear clothing that was recognisable as such. People might have referred to him as a Woodwose perhaps in jest but the “real thing” would have eschewed everything society accepted as normal and presented as such in his appearance. This is our Green Man. His name was possibly lent to inns and ale houses to suggest that drinkers there might end up as witless and uninhibited as a Woodwose, the drinks on offer there being strong enough to reduce a man to the status of “Green”, and as good as a pagan. The name has continued into the modern day through folklore and efforts to preserve it, and this is not a bad thing at all. Folklore does not always have to hark back to our pre-Christian past but neither does this mean that it has no relevance to modern pagans...it most definitely does.


The Green Man, Worcester, no longer in business




The Green Man, in whatever medium he appears in, still invokes feelings in onlookers of a decidedly heathen nature. To Wiccans and other neo-pagans he is nature, new life, rebirth and renewal. Separate from the horned god, the consort or opposite figure to the mother figure, the Green Man is nature itself, rising to the surface of the pond of the natural world to stare at us with a knowing smirk, satisfied that our presence depends entirely on his. The appearance of this figure at festivals and rituals was often the result of attempts to revive the lore of the land, to create new traditions that reflected what was known of the old ones. As already stated those much older customs may not have been played out for the appeasement of any particular god or spirit but they certainly put those taking part into the spiritual space that pagans from the Anglo-Saxon age and beyond might have inhabited. The meaning of the Green Man carved in stone is lost to us now, his Christian intent anybody's guess, and so why should new pagans not delight in his appearance? He enjoyed a series of revivals within the world of art and buildings decoration, sitting alongside carved images on hearths and furniture of “south sea” islanders and mermaids during the Jacobean Period, then again on grand houses of the Victorian era, even finding his way into universities and parliaments.


Kinnersley, Herefordshire




All we can do now is admire the Green Man sculptures in our Medieval churches for what they are – works of art and a window into the past. The more modern foliate faces can mean anything at all to those looking at them, or absolutely nothing at all. He remains an enigma in that nobody knows exactly what he was carved for in the first place, although we can confirm a Christian intent at least. Having said that, it is also clear that the foliate head variety of Green Man did originate during the pagan periods of various Asian countries, for example at Hatra in modern Iraq we can find such a face in remarkably good condition that has been dated to the 100s. The Green Man in folklore and traditional culture appears to have grown independently of his church-going brother although that does not mean that people during the Medieval and Tudor periods did not see a resemblance between them. He appears on baptismal fonts too, notably at Brecon cathedral in Wales and at Holt in Worcestershire. What the ogre-like face meant in this setting, chomping on cables of stylised undergrowth, is more of a mystery than what he was doing inside a church in the first place!


Holt, Worcestershire




Gloucester cathedral boasts several examples of a “rosette” type face, child and adult faces alike grinning out from the centre of flower-like devices, which probably deserve inclusion in the Green Man bestiary. They might be trying to pass on some sort of spiritual wisdom, or they could just be decorative images. A font at Daglingworth in Gloucestershire sports a similar face hidden away on one panel, unusually for a Green Man this one seems downcast and melancholy.


Gloucester Cathedral




A mystery for the ages, and a quest open to all. There are hundreds of Green Men out there, not just in the English Midlands but across the whole of Britain and the wider Europe. why not set out to find some of them?


Worcester Cathedral




I drew on the books, papers, lectures and videos of Stephen Miller, Mike Harding, Prof Ronald Hutton, Mercia McDermott, Peter Rex, Brandon Centerwall, Paul Kingsnorth, Steve Winick and of course Julia Somerville, Lady Raglan in the writing of this article.

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