When considering the so-called ‘Green Man’ carvings in medieval church architecture one needs to enquire what was the origin of his name (Centerwall, 1997). The term was coined by Lady Raglan in 1939 in reference to the carved foliate heads and masks seen in medieval churches. The term Green Man, which remains somewhat indeterminable (Basford, 1978; Anderson, 1990) is also used to refer to the ‘Green One’ and the ‘Verdant One’. Also known as Atho or Arddhu (the dark one). In recent times the image has often been confused or conflated with reference to Jack-in-the-Green. The folkloric figure of Jack-in-the Green “…did not exist until late in the eighteenth century.” (Basford, 1991).
Lady Raglan was the folklorist writer and spouse of Lord Raglan, scholar and military man who was the Fourth Baron Ryland. Lady Raglan was influenced my the publication of The Golden Bough of Sir James Frazer (1922). She developed her interpretation working in the shadow of Sir James and his book written between 1890 and 1915 (Hayman, 2005). Upon discovering a Green Man in the church of St. Jerome in Monmouth she proceeded to develop and then establish that the Green Men were artefacts that had historical and mythological significance. Lady Raglan continued in her research interpretations “…determined to see the ‘Green Man’ as a Frazerian fertility symbol.” (Centerwall, 1997).
Green Man corbel. St Jerome Church, Monmouth.
Moreover, she was also influenced by the contemporary popularity of the Green Man sign designating public houses, inns and taverns. However, inn-keeper signs were not a feature of taverns prior to the 17th century (Lilywhite, 1972). It is accepted now that the inn signs and church foliate carvings are certainly not identical in appearance or origin (Basford, 1991). Thus it was that Lady Raglan who was the first to draw attention (Centerwall, 1992) to the “…ubiquitous renderings of foliate heads in medieval church architecture…” (Raglan, 1939). Certainly nobody referred to foliate heads in medieval churches as Green Men prior to Lady Raglan’s assertion (Basford, 1991). One parallel with the Green Man church carvings was the Sheela-na-gig which a is another carved figure appearing from the 12th century on English churches (Hayman (2008).
The Sheela-na-gig carving at St Michael at the Northgate, Oxford.
2. Foliate Heads.
The Green Man carvings and sculptures in churches are represented in three commonly occurring forms, either naturalistic or as an architectural decoration. The simplest foliate heads are always male and can be an engraving, a wooden or stone carving showing a face peering from a surround of leaves and other vegetation. This is the foliate head that is completely covered in foliage. The type known as the disgorging head is shown with the foliage being
Foliate head, carved in the 14th century in cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral.
spewing spewed from the mouth, the foliage may be vine-like or comprise branches emerging from either the mouth, the ears of nasal orifices. A third form can be described as a ‘bloodsucker head’ which sprouts foliage and vegetation from all of its facial openings. Church Green Men “…do not all have precisely the same meaning.” (Basford, 1996), because some are found to commonly to be ecclesiastical or secular sculptures on buildings.
In addition a survey “…of foliate heads in medieval churches shows that many so-called Green Men do not have human faces at all.” (Negus, 2003), as well as the Green mask often changing into the form or representation of an animal (Basford, 1996). A classification interprets the human face as a (1) Jack-in-the-Green, who is never a grotesque but who benignly peers out from the leaves; (2) a Tete de Fieulles, also faces which are also of foliage and hair of leaves; and (3) the foliate head proper where leaves comprised of oak and vines emerge from mouth, ears and nose (Carter, 1967).
According to one view on medieval churches the Green Man sculptures, disgorging oak leaves and other foliage, are in reality Christian symbols, and are in fact “…as pagan fertility or nature symbols…” which only “…belongs to the twentieth century.” (Hayman, 2008). Indeed the Oak Man as the unofficial symbol of an alternative belief system only appeared from the 14th century. An early example, if not the first known, of a supposed Green Man in a church dates from around 400 AD. It is located in the Church of St Anne, at St Hiliare-le-Grand in France. Another 4th or 5th century carving is part of a tomb design with a Christian meaning at Poitiers. A similar example can be found in the Parish Church in Ludlow (Anderson, 1990).
Misericord carving of a Green Man at Ludlow Parish Church.
The Green man only became common in parish churches during the later middle ages – becoming more frequent during the 13th to 16th centuries in Gothic churches (Hayman, 2008). From the 11th to the 20th century so-called Green Man effigies, or sculptural decorative ornaments, were incorporated into churches in Europe.
Melbourne Church, Derbyshire, a carved Green Man column head with seeming attributes of a Sheela-na-Gig.
Churches therefore contained Green Men as popular architectural designs from the 12th century onwards. They then flourished in many numbers in parish churches during the 15th and 16th centuries. Eventually Green Men effigies were “…far outnumbered by symbols of traditional religious iconography…” (Hayman, 2008). From the 11th to 20th centuries the so-called Green Man sculptures as decorative ornaments were incorporated into churches in Europe. In England Norman churches displayed carved capitals that framed doorways, windows and crossing arches.
A carved Green Man in the Anglo-Norman church at Iffley in Oxford.
The early Romanesque and medieval sculptures and carvings possessed a mysterious, numinous even demonic quality (due to missionaries adopting and then adapting ancient gods as saints (Wilson, 1983).
Green Man boss in Rochester Cathedral, Kent.
Nonetheless the foliated heads of church architecture disappeared with the decline and ending of decorated architecture. The appearance of the foliate head in the first century of Roman art is of a different pattern to its full penetration into the 11th century Christianity which was (Anderson, 1990) devoted to the contemporary Mariolatry as the Virgin Mary. The symbolism and its energies and motivation now reflected a specific period of history.
Door boss at Carlisle Cathedral
3. Antiquity and Green Man Archetypes
In ancient times to some believers the Green Man was an actual entity equated to Osiris, Dionysus, Odin, and the Mesopotamian god Tammuz. His role was a 4000 year old symbol of nature’s eternal cycle of the dying and reborn god. However, despite the portrayal of Osiris with a green face, there is no image of archaic Green Men who have been painted green (Hayman, 2008). In terms of the medieval Green Man’s origin in Europe the disgorging foliate head originated in the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. From the first century AD they “…associated it with the cult of Bacchus.” (Hayman, 2008).
Osiris at the tomb of Nefartari
The Green Man carving in the Abbey of St Denis in France is from the 13th century and inscribed Sylvanus the Roman god woodland deity (Anderson, 1990). This could be a sculptors misinterpretation because Sylvanus was never shown as a Green Man. In any case medieval church foliate heads “…postdate by many centuries the foliate heads which originated in Roman art at the end of the first century…” (Basford, 1991). In antiquity many cultures possessed Green deities in many forms over a number of ages. Some of these have been assumed to share much in common with the Green Man of the middle ages.
Mesopotamian Green Man from the 2nd century BCE at the ruined city of Hatra in Iraq.
There is not only a connection made with the worship of Bacchus, but also with the symbols of rebirth seen with the gods Humbaba, Ekidu (both around 3000 BC), and Attis the nature and vegetation god of Phrygia. Each culture appears to have developed separately, if not independently, a mythological tradition of the Green deity of the forests and woodlands, whether goddess or god. With regard to the composite foliate figures they seem to have been brought to fruition by the artists and sculptors of Rome. Examples are often seen in the ornate leaf marks of Roman architecture that implies a ritual relationship between man and nature explained by the foliate mask.
As has been seen the Green Man has been conceived as, or described as, an ancient archetypal figure in the European tradition. He obviously possesses numerous meanings and many forms which are seen regularly as a human head in the visual and sculptural arts (Anderson, 1990). The legends of the Green Man have been linked to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to the Egyptian god Osiris, and the Greek Dionysus (Matthews, 2000; Negus, 2003). Another pattern describes the Green Man in a primordial relationship with the Great Earth Goddess – an archetype that unifies humankind with the natural world (Anderson, 1990; Negus, 2003). Originally it may be conceded, or conceived, that the Green Man was a vegetative god and a masculine counterpart to the fertility of the Great Goddess.
The Green Man possesses an image that is connected to patterns and processes of life and death, of transformation, of resurrection. n literature the mythos of the Green Man is a mysterious figure (Anderson, 1990) who impinges upon the edges of popular consciousness in many forms and at various, usually seasonal times.
4. The Green Man and his Analogues
It is quite likely that there is a historical and factual element underlying the existence of the ‘Wild Man’, and that it reflects a sub-culture of outlaws and outcasts during the middle ages. The ‘wild man of the woods’ or woodwose is a character embedded in European myth. The Wild Man of the Wood is often portrayed as a hirsute and naked individual with foliage adorned hair and carrying a club. In folklore terms he is perceived as one of the ‘wild folk’ or ‘wild men’ who are also considered part of the dwarfish and mythical ‘Moss Folk’, and thus wilderness figures.
A ‘wild man’ design for a stained glass window (1525-28) by Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1543).
The term ‘Wild Men’ in French is homme sauvage, and whose nature (Husband, 1980; Bartra, 1994) is that of a savage. A denizen of the woods that is outside accepted society and a creature of myth that “…emerged in the medieval period as the iconic representation of Man sans God, and therefore sans civilisation.” (White, 1972). Lady Raglan came to the conclusion that, like the Green Man, the Wild Man could be conflated with Jack-in-the-Green and Robin Goodfellow. In this manner the Green Man was “…shifted from the foliate head to the foliate body, the portrayed entity came to be increasingly conceptualised as similar to the Wild Man.” (Centerwall, 1997). Rooted within the iconography of the middle ages the shaggy haired and naked wild man, with only his hands and face visible, existed for many ages before he emerged as a foliage adorned 15th century Green Man of pageant. The convergence of the Green Man and the Wild Man arose because of the declining influence of the Green Man in folklore traditions.
Myths and legends of the Green woodland women were widespread in the northern latitudes of Scandinavia and Germany. In the south of Germany the wild woman was at times called a ‘wood wife’ or ‘spirit of the forest’ and also depicted in a number of contemporary medieval engravings. The wild woman, portrayed as riding on a stag not only embodied a free spirit of nature but also represented uncontrolled sexuality. The stag was a symbol of animal
Engraving of a stag mounted wild woman (1465) by the Master of Housebook
lust. Sacred to the Celtic god Cernunnos it is an important cult animal (Cooper, 1992). Just as the stag was a symbol of animal lust, just as the unicorn was an emblem of passion and eroticism. The Green Woman, as a Wild Woman in common with the Green Man mounted on a unicorn with his crown of leaves, was thus linked to the primordial Mother Earth. The unicorn had a lunar significance in Sumeria and was shown with the Tree of Lfe (Cooper, 1992).Wild women, as wood spirits and ‘spring maidens’ were the guardians of trees and possessed knowledge of herbal and magical medicine. Some of their attributes were elf-like, their green colouring faery-like.
Engraving of a unicorn mounted Green Man (1465) by the Master of Housebook.
In the realm of goddesses, such as the Egyptian Neith and the Greek Demeter, the Green Women may be associated with the Sheela-na-gig sculptures and be, as female powers of nature, representatives of the cycle of life and death.
Other analogues of the Green Man include the man covered in leaves called Green George – who appears in mummer plays and parades featuring St George in Europe. Similarly, the Holly King and the Oak King are characters within folklore who represent, as the winter Holly King ruling the waning year of winter from the equinox autumn, and the Oak King who rules from the equinox of spring. It follows that both the Oak King and the Holly King were dual aspects of the same entity. The Oak kings fights the Holly King at Yuletide for the right to rule. Contemporary witches or Wiccans now interpret both as spiritual fairy types rather than as divinities. In terms of analogous Jack-in-the-Green of folklore he is a Puck-like individual who as an elf-like character, appears in May Day parades from the mid-18th century but declines after the 19th century. For the Neo-pagans the figure is one associated with the Green Man of church architecture and enshrined also in the primeval green woodland as a deity of fertility.
5. The Green Man in Folklore
The phenomenon of the Green Man in medieval church architecture in folklore, mythology, and eventually pageantry, spanned Europe and passed back to Roman and even pre-Roman times. The name was derived from Lady Raglan’s ‘intuitive leap’ (Basford, 1978; Anderson, 1990). Some are demons, some portray sinners, or even lost souls (Basford, 1996). Christianity incorporated the beliefs of the old pagans which then established a harmonisation between the new Christian order and the pagan past. In this way the transition from the Green Man archetype was made from pagan to Christian iconography. As is known the 12th to 15th centuries comprised the pinnacle of the medieval Green Man effigies. The foliate head that had been popular since the Romans became the church ornamented architectural decoration of the 11th to 12th centuries of the English rural counties.
As the pagan Lord of the Wilderness, the Green Man with his symbols of mythical animals, gods and goddesses, represented the pagan belief in rebirth after death. The foliate heads came to “…suggest a deeply rooted and widely recognised cult.” (Carter, 1967). In this context the prehistoric origins, as shown by Celtic, Greek and Roman cultures, pursued the practice of tree worship. Within this scenario the Green Man was construed as symbolically continuing this belief.
The ancient Celts regarded the head as the seat of the soul and underpinned their cult of the head. As an aspect of tree worship the foliate heads came to “…represent the sacrificial aspect of the Green Man cult, the protruding tongue which is sometimes found representing death by hanging on the sacrificial tree.” (Carter, 1967). The existence of head cults combined with Celtic tree worship is assumed because tongues in several foliate heads have the characteristic grimace found after hanging. Indeed, in sculptural representations demons often have their tongues sticking out (Basford, 1996). A number of legends concerning the mythos of the Celts, including that of Bran the Blessed, were thenceforth oracular heads once they had been ritually decapitated. Such sacrificial head cults suggest the hanged or decapitated man represented or substituted for the god (Frazer, 1933; 1978; 2000).
The sacrifices would have been associated with a specific place, where the ritual was carried out. The sacred tree would have been where the separated head would have been ritually placed. After the requisite magical ceremonies had been carried out there may also have been a separate head burial termed cephalotaphy (Carter, 1967). These cults were most likely localised and totemistic implying that these sacrifices existed since the Palaeolithic era. In terms of descendancy, the Green Man is derived from the ritually hanged Attis and Odin. In this sense the Green Man becomes an image of ruin and death.
6. Pageantry and Neo-paganism
During the 16th and 17th centuries, especially in England, the Green Man was incorporated as a regular feature of local entertainment and pageantry (Centerwall, 1997). One character who appeared and rose in popularity regional pageantry was Jack-in-the-Green. His first appearance, however, was not until 1775, having not existed until the 18th century (Basford, 1991). Prior to this the May Day festivals had been attended by figures and effigies of Wild Men or Green Men decorated in leaves, foliage, garlands, or hairy attire. Other contemporary characters included Green George, the Oak King, Holly King, King of the May, and the Garland King.
Painting of Jack-in-the-Green. London, 18th century. Source: Public domain.
Attendant upon these May Day festivities were the Green Men attired and garlanded in foliage and carrying a club. Contemporary records of the time start to refer however to a declining Green Man image, by comparing the pageantry character “…to a species of whiffler with distinctive garb.” (Centerwall, 1997). These 17th century men were of special note during the Lord Mayor’s Parades that took place annually in the City of London. The ‘whifflers’ resembled in attire now the hairy Wild Man who had replaced the Green Man. Originally the term wiffle meant to go about whistling from the ancient term for fifers or pipers. Lady Raglan did not conjure up the idea of the Green Man out of thin air but drew upon her knowledge of folklore, and thus he became the figure of English pageantry. It follows that the figure “…is neither a figment of the imagination nor a symbol, but is taken from real life.” (Centerwall, 1997).
Morris dancers at Jack-in-the-Green, Hastings 2012. Taken by the author.
In the late 18th century May Day celebrations, developed by chimney sweeps (Judge, 1979; 1991). The Jack-in-the-Green was in fact a custom performed, it is known, by those sweeps from late in the 18th century. It is thus obvious that “…the figure variously known as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May and the Garland…” was a “…central figure in the May Day celebrations…” (Raglan, 1939).
Foliage garlanded singers at Jack-in-the-Green in Hastings, 2012. Taken by the author.
Many Neo-pagans, including Wiccan practitioners and believers, believe the Green Man to be a representative of a ritual transformation. For Wicca the Green Man is often adopted as a variant of Crnunnos, the Horned God. . This ancient Celtic deity, also known as Cernowain, Cernenus, Herne the Hunter, Hu Gardarn (the Druid god), Vitiris, Lord of the Wild Hunt, Balatucadros. The Horned God of nature and the underworld, a syncretic deity who incorporates fertility aspects of Silvanus, Dionysus and Pan, and who is an Earth Father and active aspect of nature. His sacred animals were the stag, bull, goat, and bear.
Depiction of Cernunnos on the Gaudstrup Cauldron
Into the modern beliefs and organisations the contemporary New Age, Wiccan and Neo-pagan groups and practitioners have inculcated the Green Man into the symbolism and ritual. In this sense the Green Man has taken the form of an ancient nature spirit, still recognised and worshipped as a partially remembered symbol. Neo-pagan symbolism celebrates the eternal cycle shown by seasonal nature, as represented by a deity who dies and returns annually. Just as Cernunnos’s stags, rams, bulls, and antlered horned head represented virility, fertility, animals, nature and reincarnation, then so disgorging Green Man foliate head can act as a memento mori. As the Horned God ancient Cernunnos is regarded as he who opens the Gates of Life and Death.
The Green Man as represented in medieval carvings, having his putative origin in 11th century France, arrived in England as an advance guard in a campaign not against pagan practices but against sin as perceived by the hierarchy of the Christian church (Hayman, 2008). For the Neo-pagans and the Wiccans the Green Man is a nature spirit, a life and symbol representing a fusion with the natural world. This common viewpoint ascribes to the Green Man the persona of a seasonal and cyclical vegetative phenomenon.
The archetypal figure is regarded as having evolved from much more ancient nature deities such as the Celtic Cernunnos and the mythos as the male counterpart of the original Earth Mother from the Stone Age. The Wiccan idea of the sacrificial and then resurrected young man as son and lover of the Great Goddess has been an undercurrent of pagan tradition since the middle ages. This interpretation of the Green Man as a pagan survival is for some “…based upon a false premise.” (Hayman, 2008) and therefore not an ancient relic of fertility ritual.
In the ancient pagan religion, as well as the modern, the New Year celebration of November was called Samhain which in current times is known as Halloween (All Hallows Eve) which is followed eventually by All Saints Day. In the month of May there comes the time, called Beltane, of the new beginning reflected in later Christian belief as the resurrected Christ at Easter. If the Green Man was a symbol of fertility for the pagans it suggests he was an “…old forest god of regeneration and renewal accommodated by the Christian church and reinterpreted as a symbol of resurrection…” (Satchell, 1999). In later times this can explain how the Green Man became entwined in the folk tales surrounding John Barleycorn, Robin Hood, and Jack-in-the-Green. An alternative interpretation nonetheless stipulates that there is “…no case for arguing that the Green Man is a figure of ancient or medieval pagan origin.” (Hayman, 2008).
As a nature deity the Green Man would be a component of beliefs and customs that are agricultural and associated with sowing and ploughing not to mention the ensuing harvest and annual killing of animals. Again, the allusion can be made to a May King of natural revival at spring time (Basford, 1996) and of nature’s demise at winter time. In the mind of medieval populations the cycle of life after death would logically symbolise a myth of resurrection. Many aspects of the Green Man, whether pagan in origin or not, appear in both a sinister and beautiful guise (Basford, 1996), even as a demonic foliate head that evokes the image of the silva daemonium.
It was the thesis of Lady Raglan (1939) that foliate heads originated from numerous leaf-covered folk figures (Anderson, 1997), and even though pagan in origin the folklore and motif continued to develop in the medieval Christian church. Again, the sad demeanour of the Green Man effigies was reinforced by the “…sinister and malevolent aspects of the foliate head which…predominate through two thousand years of its history.” (Basford, 1991). Associated as they supposedly are with spring and the celebration of May Day, the foliate heads retain their description as fertility symbols. In another context the foliate heads have been associated with witchcraft. On the basis that such sculptures may suggest they have either a squint or droop of the eyelid, therefore it means the ‘evil eye’ or sign of bewitching (Hughes, 1952).
Seasonally the Green Man is also an autumnal figure in ventral and northern Europe. The inclusion of the hawthorn and acorns (an oak motif) as well as autumn berries into the melange is symbolic of such. The hawthorn in the middle ages was associated with sexuality whereas acorns were a common symbol of fertility. This, furthermore, establishes a link with the both the harvest and fertility. From another viewpoint the placing of acorns in the mouth of a post-sacrificial head prior to burial may have been to initiate the growth of totemic and clan or tribal boundary oaks (Carter, 1967). The dual relationship becomes a feature because the “…foliate head and the Green Man of the folk custom are not the causes of one another but that they derive from a common archetype…” (Anderson, 1997).
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