The Green Man, found in many forms and guises in lore throughout history, is most commonly thought of as a pagan god or fertility symbol possibly from as early as 400 AD. He is usually depicted as having a beard and hair of leaves and vines.


BACKGROUND, HISTORY AND LORE

The Green Man is most commonly thought of as pagan nature spirit, and as a ‘fertility figure’. He is thought to be similar to the woodwose (the wild man of the woods)’ who ‘heralds Spring after a long winter’ and is believed to be a symbol of ‘life, death and rebirth’, representing ‘the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring’. He is also thought to be an ‘environmental guardian’ who is the ‘keeper of the forests and woods’.

“It is the natural changing of seasons that presents the passage of time that ages Man, thus by depicting the Green Man in such a way that overwhelmingly illustrates Man’s relationship with nature highlights the idea to worshippers that one cannot survive without the other.”

https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/unraveling-nature-and-identity-green-man-002620 (Winters, 2015)

The Green Man is also thought to be related to other folklore figures such as ’Jack In Green’ and ‘Green George’. The earliest record of a ‘Jack in the Green’ reportedly appears in The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser in 1775. The common theme which connects these figures would seem to be ‘death and rebirth, and the Green that means life’. It’s also believed that the Green Man may have ‘evolved’ from ‘older nature deities’ such as the Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Pan and Dionysus.

Depiction of the god Pan
Walter Crane / Public Domain

Depiction of the god Pan

The images and idea of the Green Man are believed to have begun as a ‘pre-Christian entity, a spirit of nature personified as a man’ and the earliest depictions have been dated ‘long before the coming of the Christian religion’. Images of him reportedly date ‘back before the days of the Roman Empire’.

“However, it is with the coming of the empire that his images are noted as spanning religions, as he has been found both within the empire and at its borders, and then similar versions in other far reaching cultures such as India. Despite the range in locations of artifacts of the Green Man, he is most often associated with the society of the Celts, sequestered particularly in today’s Britain and France, because of the high number of images found in these regions and the stylized way in which he has been portrayed.”

https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/unraveling-nature-and-identity-green-man-002620 (Winters, 2015)

The Green Man is therefore thought to be ‘a bridge between the new beliefs of Christianity and the Pagan beliefs it replaced’. He is also believed to be an example of how ‘images from the Old Religion were brought into Christian churches before the Reformation, and is one of the most ancient, pagan symbols to be found in the Christian church’.

“Pre-Christian pagan traditions and superstitions, particularly those related to nature and tree worship, were still influential in the early Middle Ages. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the Green Man seems to appear most often in places where there are stretches of ancient woodland, for example in Devon and Somerset and on the edges of the forest areas of Yorkshire and the Midlands.”

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Green-Man/ (Historic UK, 2020)

COMMON DEPICTIONS

The Green Man is most commonly depicted with his face covered by leaves and other foliage, often with foliage sprouting from his mouth, nostrils and eyes. Sometimes he is also depicted as having leaves for hair or as having a ‘leafy beard’.

Stone carving of a Green Man with foliage extruding from his nose

The face is reportedly ‘almost always male’ and ‘green women are rare’ and the face usually ranges in age from middle-aged to elderly’. He is often depicted in carvings in wood or stone in European medieval architecture, both ‘secular and ecclesiastical buildings’, as ‘foliate heads or foliate masks’. The simplest reference to him usually depicts the face surrounded by greenery or ‘dense foliage’’. Reportedly, ‘in the most abstract examples’, the depictions at first glance appear to be ‘merely stylised foliage, with the facial element only becoming apparent on closer examination’. 

“It is perhaps also understandable that there are concentrations of Green Men in the churches of regions where there were large stretches of relict forests in ancient times, such as in Devon and Somerset, Yorkshire and the Midlands in England. The human-like attributes of trees (trunk-body, branches-arms, twigs-fingers, sap-blood), as well as their strength, beauty and longevity, make them an obvious subject for ancient worship. The Green Man can be seen as a continuing symbol of such beliefs, in much the same way as the later May Day pageants of the Early Modern period, many of which were led by the related figure of Jack-in-the-Green.”

https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html (Mastin, 2011)

The earliest example of a green man ‘disgorging vegetation from his mouth’ is reportedly from 400AD in St. Abre, Hilaire-le-grand. The term ‘Green Man’ however only dates back to 1939 when Lady Raglan published an article in The Folklore Journal titled The Green Man in Church Architecture. Before 1939 the depictions had reportedly been known as ‘foliate heads’. Lady Raglan’s term for the figure was then reportedly ‘adopted by the scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner—best known for his forty-six-volume series “The Buildings of England”—and that was pretty much that, as far as terminology was concerned’.

THE GREEN MAN AROUND THE WORLD

The Green Man, however is also found in ‘many cultures from many ages around the world’ and is ‘often related to natural vegetation deities’. Some sources speculate that ‘the mythology of the Green Man developed independently in the traditions of separate ancient cultures and evolved into the wide variety of examples found throughout history’.

“Permeating various religious faiths and cultures, the Green Man has survived countless transformations and cultural diversities, enduring in the same relative physical form to this day.  Although specifics about his beginnings and his worship are not fully known, due in large part to how far back and to what initial cultures he can be traced to”

https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/unraveling-nature-and-identity-green-man-002620 (Winters, 2015)

Some have reportedly suggested that the Green Man ‘represents a male counterpart – or son or lover or guardian – to Gaia, a figure which has appeared throughout history in almost all cultures’. In a 16th Century Cathedral at St-Bertrand de Comminges in the south of France, there is reportedly an example of a ‘representation of a winged Earth Mother apparently giving birth to a smiling Green Man’.

Tree worship is also thought to’ go back into the prehistory of many of the cultures that directly influenced the people of Western Europe’ including ‘Greco-Romans’ and ‘Celts’.

There have also reportedly been discoveries of ‘ancient images similar to the Green Man’ in India and the Middle East. Researcher Mike Harding has even ‘made the tentative suggestion that the symbol originated somewhere in Asia Minor, and was later brought to Europe by travelling stone-carvers’. Also, some ‘experts on Islamic mysticism and architecture’ have reportedly ‘identified the Green Man with a deity known as Al-Khidr (meaning ‘The Green One’) from esoteric Islamic Sufism’ who is seen as ‘representing freshness of spirit and eternal liveliness’.

“It has been hypothesized by some that it was the Knight Templars, with their experience of Middle Eastern culture and architecture, who re-introduced the foliage and Green Man motifs into early medieval Gothic churches. Some of these figures also exhibit small horns, and it is conjectured that this may be associated with the Middle Eastern figure of the horned ‘Green Prophet’ rather than with the devil or demons.”

https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html (Mastin, 2011)

According to greenmanenigma.com several other ancient cultures also had ‘green deities, often with some features in common with the Green Man’ such as Humbaba, Enkidu, Osiris, Attis, Amoghasiddhi, Kirtimukha Tlaloc, and ‘several others’.

“Some of the features incorporated into ancient representations of these gods reappear centuries later in the Green Man. For example, the ‘Face of Glory’ of the Hindu Kirtimukha is usually shown with a mouth issuing leaves, notably missing a lower jaw, and there are several similar representations of a jawless Green Man in Europe.”

https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html (Mastin, 2011)

A common link in many of these legends and myths which ‘have been suggested as precursors of the Green Man’ is that of ‘metamorphosis and transformation’.

THE GREEN MAN DEMON

While the Green Man is usually interpreted as a ‘positive and benevolent force’, it is reportedly possible that in the past ‘was seen by some as a force of evil, and he has often been portrayed more as a devil than as a god’. He ‘may therefore be present on ecclesiastical buildings as a counterfoil to the Christian imagery in which he is often found’. Depictions of the Green Man are thought, in these cases, the be meant as ‘a reminder of the ever-present dangers of sin and pagan idolatry’.

“The Green Man with vegetation coming out his mouth is almost always interpreted as disgorging or creating vegetation, a positive and creative force. However, as with Ourobouros (the circular snake biting its own tail), there is also an element of ambivalence in the image, and a compelling argument can be made that the Green Man might in fact be swallowing or devouring all of nature, rather than creating it.”

https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html (Mastin, 2011)

THE GREEN MAN AND ROBIN HOOD

There are reportedly ‘strong links’ between the origins of Robin Hood and the Green Man. There are several elements of the Robin Hood myth that ‘relate to other legends’, such as ‘the tree of life’ which is ‘seen as Robin’s Larder Tree supplying all that could be required like the Horn of Plenty or the cauldron of Celtic folklore’. Robin Hood is also reportedly linked to the ‘Horned God’ of modern Wicca. He is also linked to the ‘green’ of the Green Man, which is considered a ‘special healing colour’.

THE GREEN MAN IN MODERN PAGANISM

For modern pagans and Wiccans the Green Man is still a symbol of ‘seasonal renewal’ but now, to many, also represents ‘ecological awareness’.

In Wicca the Green Man has come to be used as a representation of ‘The Horned God’, a ‘syncretic deity that incorporates aspects of, among others, the Celtic Cernunnos and the Greek Pan’.

The wiccan symbol for the ‘Horned God’ showing a crescent moon shape above a circle
Otourly / CC BY-SA

The wiccan symbol for the ‘Horned God’

“Over the last fifty years, the Green Man has become a specifically counter cultural icon. It was adopted by New Agers in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and recast by the changing status of folkloric imagery into a surprisingly durable alt icon. The Green Man Festival in Wales, for instance, which proudly identifies itself as “non-corporate,” was founded in 2003. In 2007, “Green Man” was the theme of Burning Man.”

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-remarkable-persistence-of-the-green-man (Livingstone, 2016)

ALSO KNOWN AS

  • Jack in Green 
  • The Horned God

LINKS/SOURCES

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Man
  2. https://spiritofthegreenman.co.uk/green-man-legend-mythology/
  3. https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Green-Man/ 
  4. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-remarkable-persistence-of-the-green-man
  5. https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/unraveling-nature-and-identity-green-man-002620
  6. https://www.greenmanenigma.com/theories.html

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