The Mythology of the Green Man
By Gary R Varner
An excerpt from "The Mythic Forest, the Green Man and the Spirit of Nature", published by Algora Publishing.
When we hear the word “mythology” we always think of stories, fables, fairy tales. But myth is not make-believe. Myth is based on true events and real people—somewhat exaggerated true—but not fairy tale. Mircea Eliade defined “myth” as “’living’ in the sense that it supplies models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.” (1) It was only with the predominance of Christian thinking that myth came to mean “fiction” and “illusion”, and worse as “falsehood”. Eliade noted that myth came “to denote ‘what cannot really exist’” in our contemporary society. (2) The mythology of the Green Man is a living mythology. The “meaning and value” it gives to our lives continues to unfold and evolve for us.
The story of Gawain and the Green Knight, which is really a poem, was written in the 14th century—a time when many of the foliate heads were being carved on the cathedrals of Europe. Since that time a variety of myths and legends of a contemporary setting have originated. Some of these legends (some that can be defined as “urban legends”) have appeared in the later part of the 20th century—at a time when the foliate head has again become “popular,” occurring in mainstream society via jewelry, wall plaques, statuary and garden decorations. In this chapter we will look at a few of the older as well as more recent legends of the Green Man. Before we enter the realm of myth and legend let us consider the importance of green. Is the color itself important in our study? Does the color alone symbolize the underlying meaning of the Green Man?
The Significance of Green
Green has been known for untold ages as the color of the fairy. Green was so universally recognized, as the color of the fairy that many in Scotland refused to wear it as to do so would be to invite the anger of the fairy folk. “Greenies” and “greencoaties” were common euphemisms used in Britain for the fairy. Green was a color shunned by many as being associated with evil fairies and witches. But why green? Green is also associated with nature, with ripening life, with fertility and that is the reason.
During the formation of Christianity nature was seen to exist for the pleasure and consumption of man. That nature should exist as an entity unto herself, with powers beyond mans, was a thought that put fear into many. Later, nature was viewed as evil and anything associated with nature was seen in a similar way. That green represented the power and fertile life of nature slowly came to be associated with evil, and thus Pagan, forms bent on the torment of mankind. Thus fairies, who were mischievous entities of the underworld, part of the Old Race which inhabited many parts of the world prior to man’s arrival, became, if not outright evil, close relatives of evil. The December 28, 1850 issue of the English periodical Notes and Queries reported, “In a parish adjoining Dartmoor is a green fairy ring of considerable size, within which a black hen and chickens are occasionally seen at nightfall.” Black hens were often considered as embodiments of evil.
But, green as a color has been symbolic as well with the symbolism of new growth and greenness and it is this association which the fairy have their link. But it is also this link that humankind has lost over the centuries which has been reestablished through the Green Man, the Wild Huntsman and the other legends and images of the super-natural. Green is, according to the Doel’s, an “extension to the natural world—and the supernatural in both its ‘Otherworld’ and afterlife elements.” (3)
Brian Stone, a Reader in English Literature at the Open University, most succinctly defines the importance of the color of green in regards to the Green Knight, “it surprises me that no critic has picked up one very important medieval theological reference to green as the colour of truth…evergreen…is the colour assigned to ever-living and eternal truth.” (4)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
One of the best-known stories of the 14th century is that of the nephew of King Arthur, Sir Gawain. Written during the peak of popularity of the Green Man stone and wood carvings, the author of this famous poem remains unknown but is believed to have been a resident of north-western England. The poet is also a sophisticated and talented alliterative stylist, which was a common style during the older Anglo-Saxon period. The poetic story, as summarized by Richard Cavendish (5):
“At Camelot on New Year’s Day there rode into Arthur’s hall a gigantic green warrior on a towering horse, holding a holly branch in one hand and an immense battle-axe in the other. His skin was green, his hair was green, and even his horse was green. He had come to play what he called a game. Any champion who dared could strike him one blow with the axe, on condition that a year later the champion submit to a return blow from the green knight. Gawain took up the challenge and struck the green knight a blow that cut his head clean off his shoulders and sent it rolling to the floor. The green knight calmly picked up his head by the hair and turned the face towards Gawain. The eyelids opened and the mouth spoke, telling Gawain to meet him for the return blow a year later at the Green Chapel.”
Eventually the year passed and Gawain set out on his journey to the Green Chapel to meet the gigantic green knight.
“After a long journey he came to a noble castle, where he was welcomed by the jovial Sir Bercilak and his lovely young wife. He stayed there until New Year’s Day, royally entertained by Bercilak and, though sorely tempted, resisting the persistent attempts of Bercilak’s wife to seduce him.
On New Years Day Gawain went as he said he would to the Green Chapel. There “the green knight appeared and Gawain bravely bared his neck for a stroke of the axe. The green knight raised the axe high, but struck Gawain only a glancing blow, which nicked his skin. He then explained that he was Sir Bercilak, transformed into the green knight by the magic of Morgan le Fay, who had planned the whole adventure in the hope of discrediting the Round Table. Gawain had been spared because he had honorably refrained from making love to Bercilak’s wife and had shown himself to be the most faultless knight in the world.”
An interesting note about the Green Chapel, according to J.D. Wakefield, is that it was not a structure but rather a green mound situated in a valley beside a stream of bubbling water. Wakefield believes that the Green Chapel was, in reality, Silbury Hill—a sacred man-made mound in Wiltshire not far from West Kennett Long Barrow and Avebury—two other ancient sacred sites. (6)
How do we associate the green knight to the Green Man? This was obviously a test for Gawain, and one he passed, but this is also a story of “truth-bringing” through a mixture of pagan ritual and the confused teachings of medieval Christianity. The poem also is an alliterative telling of the turning of the year, taking place at a time between two winters, which signifies a time of death of vibrant vegetation, and then a changing back to life through renewed growth, and then again, returns to death. The green knight is beheaded and through his sacrifice he shows that life still goes on and, as John Matthews notes, “he challenges us to honor the sacrifice he makes every winter.” (7) In addition, according to Matthews, the poem tells us that “one of the gifts of the Green Man is that he instructs us in how to face our deepest fears and conquer them. In this way he becomes a companion as well as a challenger, a dual role that is present in the archetype in virtually all of its manifestations.” (8)
Other associations with the Green Man are found in the green knight’s long hair and beard, both green of course. His beard “is like a bush…his long green hair covers his chest and back…down to his elbows. He carries a holly branch in one hand…” (9)
As the poem reads:
“Men gaped at the hue of him
Ingrained in garb and mien,
A fellow fiercely grim,
And all a glittering green.
“And garments of green girt the fellow about –
And verily his vesture was all vivid green,
So were the bars on his belt and the brilliants set
In ravishing array on the rich accouterments
About himself and his saddle on silken work.
…Yes, garbed all in green was the gallant rider,
And the hair of his head was the same hue as his horse…” (10)
Brian Stone, in his essay on the Green Knight, also discusses this mixture of the Green Knight’s character:
“…the Green Knight’s combination of greenness, hairiness, energy, earthiness and mainly rough, imperative speech incline us irrevocably to think of two common medieval types, one an outcast and the other a rural deity.
The wild man of the woods, the ‘wodwose’, was often an outlaw who…had developed sub-human habits and the fierce unpredictable behavior of a wild beast. The green man, on the other hand, was a personification of spring, a mythological supernatural being who persists to this day in English folk dance and in the name of many pubs.” (11)
The green knight is a mixture of the heroic tales of knights, of Christian value teaching and of the lore of the pre-Christian god of vegetation. The tale of the green knight continues into “modern” times through the festivals of the Mummer Plays, which have been popular folk celebrations for at least 300 years and probably further back in time, and the Sword Dances. These folk festivals occur around Christmas and are known for the green leafed “Wilde Mann” and other green festooned figures such as the Burry Man who are an integral part of the celebrations. I do not believe that we can interpret the green knights actions in this poem as easily as Matthews seems to but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does indicate that the underlying archetype was equally important in the 14th century to the literate and peasant classes in England, through storytelling and carved images, as he is universally important today among mankind as exhibited through carvings, novels and other forms of expression.
The Green Man of Fingest
The Green Man of Fingest was in reality a ghost. According to Daphne Phillips, in 1321 Henry Burghersh, bishop of Lincoln, was granted 300 acres of land for the development of a park as well as a large “extent” of land which surrounded the Manor of Fingest which was designated as “free warren”—or hunting rights—to the bishop. However, this large tract of land had been land in common use by the villagers who had used it to raise beef and mutton to pay taxes to the crown. In 1341 over sixty families had resided in this area and had also used the land for their livelihoods. When the bishop had taken control only a third of the land remained in the villagers use. Phillips notes that “the bishop, not surprisingly, had ‘many a bitter curse in his lifetime and after his death” (12) at the end of 1343.
Legend had it that soon after his death the bishop was seen as a “keeper in a short green coat with…bow, quiver of arrows and horn by his side”. He was, by his offensive actions in life, doomed to be the park keeper until the land was again opened up to the people. Not long after this the “banks and pales (were) thrown down and the ditches…filled up again”, the land was once again open for public use. Is this the end of the ghost stories of the bishop? No. As recent as 1898 it was recorded that the ghost was still to be seen in the churchyard, dressed in the green keepers dress. He is seen in the role of a protector of the land and it is thought that the legends of the ghostly bishop have been reformatted as a more recent version of the Lord of the Wild, or, as Phillips believes, “a god (converted) into a repentant bishop.”
The Islamic Legend of Khidr
According to legend, Alexander the Great happened to obtain a copy of Adam’s will which mentioned that God had created a magical spring behind Mt. Oaf, the mountainous barrier around the world, which was located in the Land of Darkness. The water of this spring “was whiter than milk, colder than ice, sweeter than honey, softer than butter and sweeter smelling than musk.” (13) It also granted eternal life to those who drank from it. Khidr, taking Alexander’s army with him, entered the Land of Darkness and found the spring. He bathed in the water, drank of its sweetness, and became immortal. However, when he attempted to show Alexander his find it had become lost once again. Another version of this legend states that Khidir fell into the Well of Life, gained immortality and became the Green Man. (14) Khidr is regarded among the Sufi followers as the Guide to the Sufi Path and is said to appear before Sufi adepts, in their sleep or in person, to help them on their way.
Khidr was also, in legend, a companion to Moses. Khidr’s name, according to lore, is associated with the color green and it is said that even the rock upon which he prayed turned to green. (15) Like the Green Man, Khidr “is perceived as a representative of nature and as a source of supernatural wisdom who lives both inside and outside time and is therefore immortal.” (16)
The Green Man of Hughenden
The Green Man has reportedly physically manifested himself in England as late as 1986. An article in the South Bucks Star newspaper on September 26, 1986 entitled Phantom of the Forest read:
“A ghostly figure dressed in green startled two motorists as they drove past a crematorium just before midnight.
“The apparition suddenly loomed up at the side of the road sending shivers down the spine of driver Mark Nursey and his girlfriend Allyson Buleptt, who was in the car behind.
“Mark, of Hepplewhite Close, High Wycombe, said: ‘The most uncanny thing was the way it stood. It seemed to be wearing what I can only describe as a big green jumper. I couldn’t make out the head or hands. It seemed to be stooping but was about 5ft 11ins tall and well built.’”
The article goes on to theorize on the origin of the apparition:
“One theory is the figure was the spirit of the forest, a green man, as depicted on a number of pub signs in the Chilterns. He is also related to Herne the Hunter, spirit of the forest as depicted on TV’s Robin of Sherwood.”
The October 17th edition of the South Bucks Star saw an additional account of the “phantom”:
“Another witness of the phantom of the forest has recalled his terrifying ordeal. The seven-foot tall green ghost was seen by warehouseman Phil Mullett just yards from where 21-year-old Mark Nursey saw the figure on Four Ashes Road, Cryers Hill, near High Wycombe.
“Phil said: ‘It gave me quite a shock to read it (the previous report in the Star). The account was so close to my own. It was about 9.30pm when I drove into Four Ashes Road and on turning my car lights on full I saw this green person appear from the right hand side of the road. It drifted out to the centre of the road and turned towards me. It waved its arms, not to frighten but as if to warn me to keep back. It drifted into the hedge on the other side of the road but as I got closer it came out again to the centre, turned and lifted its arms. I knew I was going to hit it. I think I cried out or shouted something.’”
According to the news account Mr. Mullett did hit it but when he got out of the car to check, there was nothing to see. He described the apparition, as “bright green but appeared to have no legs or hands. The body was solid and it stood about seven foot tall. Instead of a face there was just a misty grey round shape.”
One interesting report of Green Children has often been repeated over the years. The earliest account given is that of Thomas Keightley in his 1878 publication The Fairy Mythology.(17) Keightley notes that this story was “as quoted by Picart in his Notes on William of Newbridge. We could not find it in the Collection of Histories, etc., by Martenes and Durand,--the only place where, to our knowledge, this chronicler’s works are printed.”
The story, in its entirety:
"ANOTHER wonderful thing," says Ralph of Coggeshall, "happened in Suffolk, at St. Mary’s of the Wolf-pits. A boy and his sister were found by the inhabitants of that place near the mouth of a pit which is there, who had the form of all their limbs like to those of other men, but they differed in the colour of their skin from all the people of our habitable world; for the whole surface of their skin was tinged of a green colour. No one could understand their speech. When they were brought as curiosities to the house of a certain knight, Sir Richard de Caine, at Wikes, they wept bitterly. Bread and other victuals were set before them, but they would touch none of them, though they were tormented by great hunger, as the girl afterwards acknowledged. At length, when some beans just cut, with their stalks, were brought into the house, they made signs, with great avidity, that they should be given to them. When they were brought, they opened the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew. When those who were present saw this, they opened the pods, and showed them the naked beans. They fed on these with great delight, and for a long time tasted no other food. The boy, however, was always languid and depressed, and he died within a short time. The girl enjoyed continual good health; and becoming accustomed to various kinds of food, lost completely that green colour, and gradually recovered the sanguine habit of her entire body. She was afterwards regenerated by the layer of holy baptism, and lived for many years in the service of that knight (as I have frequently heard from him and his family), and was rather loose and wanton in her conduct. Being frequently asked about the people of her country, she asserted that the inhabitants, and all they had in that country, were of a green colour; and that they saw no sun, but enjoyed a degree of light like what is after sunset. Being asked how she came into this country with the aforesaid boy, she replied, that as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished by whose sweetness, they went for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to its mouth. When they came out of it, they were struck senseless by the excessive light of the sun, and the unusual temperature of the air; and they thus lay for a long time. Being terrified by the noise of those who came on them, they wished to fly, but they could not find the entrance of the cavern before they were caught.
“This story is also told by William of Newbridge, who places it in the reign of King Stephen. He says he long hesitated to believe it, but he was at length overcome by the weight of evidence. According to him, the place where the children appeared was about four or five miles from Bury St. Edmund’s: they came in harvest-time out of the Wolf-pits; they both lost their green hue, and were baptised, and learned English. The boy, who was the younger, died; but the girl married a man at Lenna, and lived many years. They said their country was called St. Martin’s Land, as that saint was chiefly worshiped there; that the people were Christians, and had churches; that the sun did not rise there, but that there was a bright country which could be seen from theirs, being divided from it by a very broad river.”
This story is interesting on several counts. The hidden world through which the children traveled through a huge cavern is reminiscent of those legends of passages to the Underworld through sacred wells and caves. (18) An unknown race of green skinned people whose total diet consisted of vegetable matter is a mixture of fairy lore and lore associated with the Wild Folk. That Keightley’s account claims that the children’s country was Christian and that they worshipped St. Martin is obviously a Christian elaboration of a possibly older tale. One similar group of earth spirits are the Daome-Shi, a subterranean form of fairy that “dwell in burning mountains, or occupy themselves in mining, and the storing of treasure” who also dressed in green. (19)
Green Women of the Woods
Legends of Wild Men and Wild Women are abundant around the world. While the Wild Man may be more directly linked to the Green Man archetype, the Wild Woman is also an important, and ancient, link to the primordial Mother Earth. The Green Woman, the Wild Woman, is seen in numerous carvings in both the Old and the New World. Alexander Porteous wrote that “Wood-Wives”, another name for the Wild Women, “frequented the old sacred forests or groves, and apparently it had been they who had formed the court or escort of the ancient gods when they sat enthroned on the trees. These Wood-Wives were principally found in Southern Germany, but varieties of them are mentioned in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. They were the quarry of the Wild Huntsman but were saved from him if they could reach a tree with a cross on it.” (20)
This story is another Christianized version of an ancient tale. The Wood-Wives are spirits of the forest, free spirits of nature. The Wood-Wives have many of the characteristics given to the fairy (21) and elves. They often give gold for food or kindness and may cause innumerable disruptions of human life through rapid changes in weather or other mischief. Porteous notes, “very often the colour of these spirits was green, and their skin of a mossy texture…”. (22)
Some of these wood-spirits were known to possess the secrets of herbal medicine and protected various species of trees. While Porteous states that these Wood-Wives, these Wild Women, populated the Northern Germanic and Scandinavian countries, in reality they exist in most folklore around the world. Matthews wrote, “they appear frequently as gentle spirits of trees and woodland, dressed in leaves, their flowing hair contrasting with their wizened faces.” (23) These female wood spirits are not depicted as often in architectural motifs as the Green Man but they are there. Chesca Porter, writing in John Matthews’ book Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood (24), believes that the ancient Sheila-na-Gigs carved in many of the old churches of France and England are representatives of the Wild Women and are “possibly a medieval manifestation of the goddess of life and death, a reflection of the feminine power of the land itself.” Many of the Sheila-na-Gigs have been destroyed over the years due to their overt sexual connotation and their direct linkage to Goddess worship.
Feminine faced Green Women carvings are rare, however there are many carvings of women who appear to be sprouting from the stalks of plants, their lower bodies actually part of vegetation. These are as meaningful as the imaginative Green Man foliate-heads, which are more common. These carvings of female human-plant beings are symbolic of our link to nature in its primitive and innocent beauty and Mother Earths life giving force.
A fine example of a Green Woman carving is that of the Spring Maiden created during the 14th century at Exeter Cathedral. Green Women were also goddesses. The Libyan goddess Neith is depicted with a green face as well as the symbols of fertility, the bow and arrow, which also represent lightning and rain. Likewise Green Demeter was the goddess of growing corn—an obvious symbol of fertility and renewed life. Another Green Woman carving can be found at Shepherdswell church in Kent which dates back to 944 CE.
The Wild Man
The Wild Man probably is based in reality. During the Middle Ages a sub-culture existed on the fringes of society made up of outlaws and social outcasts. At times individuals made their way into the towns and cities and the Wild Man, Wild Folk, stories began. At the same time the terms also were applied to the mythical race of dwarves who were also called “Moss-Folk”. One folklorist wrote, “they are considered to be dwarfs, and they live in communities. They are grey and old-looking, and are hideously overgrown with moss, giving them a hairy appearance.” (25)
There is another aspect of the Wild Man as a creature removed from accepted society more closely associated with the Green Man. It was Lady Raglan in 1939 who coined the term “Green Man” and who assigned the term to the Wild Man, Jack in the Green and Robin Goodfellow. The Wild Man subculture came to represent those things rejected by the “civilized” elements—those being natural elements found in animal and vegetable life as well as those more “primitive” aspects of humanity. These very basic characteristics of nature came to be those most feared by the Christian society of the day. The many illustrations of the Wild Man of the Middle Ages show a naked individual completely covered in long, shaggy hair with only the face, hands, elbows (and the breasts of the female) exposed. Other illustrations show this very same individual but covered in leaves instead of hair or fur. Matthews believes that the Wild Man “expresses as aspect of the Green Man that is angry”…angry due to the denial of humankind of the rightness of nature. Angry due to the attempts at dominating nature by Christian civilization which promotes the “divine right” of man to subdue the wild. In North America the Wild Man is seen in the ancient legends of Big Foot and Sasquatch—huge human-like figures covered in long hair and leaves. Nineteenth century American folklore tells of a family of Black Foot who attacked a group of gold miners in their California cabin one evening, totally destroying the building and tearing the men apart. Was this a response to the encroachment of “civilized” man? The characteristics of the two are very similar and the react in the same ways. As Matthews writes of the Wild Man that “he can only dwell in such wild spots and avoids those places tamed by humankind, retreating ever deeper into the wilderness to escape the excesses of civilization—its cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy”. (26) So too do these mythic figures in the North American lore.
Clive Hicks, however, noted that the Wild Men and Wild Woman “are not necessarily malevolent and are depicted as helping humanity in some cases…The wild man represents an asset in each of us, the whole reservoir of qualities with which each of us is endowed…”. (27)
Do these mythical “wild men” exist? I believe so. They are part of the mythos of nature and appear at times of stress in the world. They may not be an everyday event but they exist in two worlds at separate times. They are a part of the Green Man spirit and act and react to protect the small wilderness that is left in this teeming world.
1. Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. New York: Harper Torchbooks 1963, 2
2. Ibid, 1
3. Doel, Fran & Geoff. The Green Man in Britain. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Ltd. 2001, 25
4. Stone, Brian. “The Common Enemy of Man”, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. by Brian Stone. London: Penguin Books 1974, 123
5. Cavendish, Richard. “Lancelot and Gawain”, in Legends of the World. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1994, 243
6. Wakefield, J.D. Legendary Landscapes: Secrets of Ancient Wiltshire Revealed. Marlborough: Nod Press 1999, 95-96
7. Matthews, John. The Quest for the Green Man. Wheaton; Quest Books 2001, 88
8. Ibid 90-91
9. Doel, op cit 79
10. Stone, Brian, editor. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Penguin Books 1974, 26, 27
11. Ibid, 122
12. Phillips, Daphne. “The Green Man of Fingest”, in Strange Buckinghamshire, http://www.cleaverproperty.co.uk/strange’bucks/fingest.html 11/15/2000
13. Elwell-Sutton, L.P. “The Islamic World: The Two Horned One”, in Legends of the World. Edited by Richard Cavendish. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1994, 116
16. Matthews, op cit. 30
17. Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries. London: G. Bell Publishers 1878
18. Varner, Gary R. Sacred Wells: A Study in the History, Mythology and Meaning of Holy Wells and Waters. Baltimore: PublishAmerica Publishers 2002
19. Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. New York: Barnes & Noble Books 1986, 90 (A reprint of the 1894 edition)
20. Porteous, Alexander. The Lore of the Forest: Myths and Legends. London: Senate Publishers 1996, 91 (A reprint of the 1928 publication Forest Folklore published by George Allen & Unwin, London)
21. Fairies were not always the diminutive and mischievous, green-clad folk of legend. Originally they were the People of Danu, the Tuath-de-Danaan who were the legendary, magical and learned inhabitants of Ireland. After the Milesians gained control of the island they became gods and over time became what we now regard as the Fey, or Fairies. Many of the kings and queens of the Tuath-de-Danaan became the Old Ones, the Gods and Goddesses of Ireland. The Dagda, the Good God, was one of their kings and Boann, his wife, one of their great Goddesses. After the Tuath were defeated by the Milesians, the Dagda became the King of the Fairies and the Fey melted back into the earth, living in the many Fairy mounds and other Otherworld locations.
22. Porteous, op cit, 90
23. Matthews, op cit., 110
24. Matthews, John. Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood. Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications 1993, 201
25. Porteous, op cit 93
26. Matthews, John. Quest for the Green Man, op cit 110.
27. Hicks, Clive. The Green Man: A Field Guide. Helhoughton: COMPASSbooks 2000, 7
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