An exerpt from a work in progress on the Green Man.
The last few years have seen a boon in the number of books published on the Green Man. It has also seen an increased amount of words printed to dispute the Green Man’s symbolism and perceived history—much of it as presented here. I will discuss the points presented by others to invalidate the Green Man myth in this chapter.
Historian Ronald Hutton argues effectively for the rather late development of the Green Man motif and as a Christian endeavor—not as a Pagan survival. However his argument is somewhat muddied when he states that the culture of the 12th century Renaissance, which he claims produces the images, “was a Christian movement, even though it drew upon ancient ideas and images.”1 His reasoning is technically correct but does not detract from the hypothesis that the Green Man, in fact, is based on ancient Pagan traditions.
Christianity as a whole is based on such Pagan traditions and borrows heavily upon them. Hutton also wrote that the Wild Man was a figure of the Christian Middle Ages—even though, says Hutton, he “was based on ancient models”.2 Hutton is attempting to compare apples with oranges. The actual workmanship used to create most of the Green Man images in Britain was, admittedly, from the Renaissance—but the underlying inspiration was indeed based “upon ancient ideas and images”. The earliest examples were created in Classical Rome and carried around the ancient world by the Christians along pilgrim routes.
The meaning of the Green Man has not been altered. Hutton has missed this important aspect. Regardless if the artisans were employed by a Christian Bishop during the Middle Ages, the fundamental quality and meaning of the Green Men continued to exist, to flourish and to regenerate. Early documents indicate that, while Church officials may have employed the craftsmen responsible for these Green Man images they did not necessarily approve of them or even know what they represented. St. Bernard of Clairvaux complained to the Abbot of St. Thierry in 1125, “What mean those ridiculous (carved) monstrosities in the court of cloisters?”3 Grundy discounts Hutton’s assumption that the carvings were Christian symbols of evil and sin, writing, “taking into account St. Bernard’s unfamiliarity with the carved imagery, it can…be anticipated that the subject-matter had little to do with Christian doctrine but much to do with the carvers themselves.”4
Kathleen Basford also believed that the Green Man image found on so many cathedrals and other ecclesiastical structures represented punishment and not life. Writing in her book The Green Man, she noted “although the Green Man was a much loved motif I think it is very unlikely that he was revered as a symbol of the renewal of life in springtime”5 that Lady Raglan had proposed.
The Green Man, according to Basford, “represents the darkness of unredeemed nature” and “the root of all evil”.6 While the Green Man does have a dual nature, it is certainly not evil but illustrates the very characteristics of nature—both of death and life and mankind’s fate if it chooses to abuse nature rather than live within the bounds of nature’s rules. It is perhaps our concept of “God”, and “good and evil”, which dictates for each of us what the Green Man is. Those who lived, or still live, in a “Pagan” society or values the powers of the natural world rather than view nature as evil and adversarial to humankind’s salvation will see the message of life, fertility, and renewal in the Green Man’s leafy visage. Much more importantly, the Green Man image shows the close relationship to nature that humans have—the leaf and vine growing from or into the Green Man’s face is the very life-blood that humans rely on. To sever those vines or to pluck the leaves from the face only creates a mortal wound.
These ancient symbols become important periodically throughout history at different places, different times and under different circumstances. However, the subconscious forces that act to create them are caused not by a Bishop commissioning them as silent images of sin, but of far earlier traditions that viewed them as part of the celebration of fertility and life and death. The very fact that these images are resurrected every few hundred years gives credence to the belief that some far older purpose exists for them. That humankind is found in need of periodic remembrance, through a gentle nudge by the spirits of life, indicate that forces are at play that are linked directly between Nature and Spirit and human beings.
Other writers seem to believe that cultural change caused by the stresses of our society also results in changes of popular folklore—in effect creating “one more veneer on the ever-changing nature of these ‘traditions’”7 that creates a false history and a pre-conceived meaning that is blindly accepted by those not educated in the sciences.
I agree that our society and related traditions do constantly change. But that is as it should be. If a certain aspect of history, art or religion becomes “paganized”, it is because our society has a need for it to be so. This very “paganization” is a result of the deep seated but unmet needs of humankind reaching out for meaning—a meaning that can only be satisfied by those primal feelings that were so abundant in the dim past.
The Green Man is an ancient symbol of life and renewal. There is little importance given if some of the images were the result of Christian, rather than overt Pagan, reasons. The final result is one and the same. What is significant is that the Green Man and other “Pagan” symbols reappear throughout time arising at a time of need among a variety of cultures and locations. These symbols appear to be ingrained in the human psyche and have not changed since the dawn of humanity’s existence.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a veritable flood of Green Man images to secular buildings around the world. While at one time they figured predominately in ecclesiastical motifs, they soon became widespread on government, financial, educational structures, and even apartment buildings. Due to the destruction of religious iconography during the Reformation, the Green Man image became even more popular, migrating as they did from the church to the secular world. “Deprived of their traditional homes,” wrote Mercia MacDermott, “foliate heads re-appeared in all manner of secular settings from lintels to doorknockers.”8
Researcher Carol Ballard introduces an interesting theory in her booklet, The Green Man: The Shakespeare Connection. She believes that the many Green Man figures that can still be seen today in the area where William Shakespeare was raised and lived into adulthood were instrumental in the creation of some of his plays, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream. According to Ballard, John Shakespeare, William’s father, “was instrumental in defacing and covering wall paintings in the Guild Chapel” the year of William’s birth as his part in the Protestant Reformation’s destruction of religious symbols. “The fact”, Ballard wrote, “that his own father was involved in the destruction of images, could well have made iconography such as those pertaining to the pagan world take on an accentuated significance in Shakespeare’s mind…”.9 Thus, we find the Green Man being moved from the ecclesiastic world and its illuminated manuscripts to the secular world as part of its daily entertainment.
1. Hutton, Ronald. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers LTD.1993, 316
2. Ibid, 310
3. Grundy, Thirlie. Going in Search of the Green Man in Cumbria. Cumbria: Thumbprint 2000, 5
4. Ibid, 6
5. Basford, Kathleen. The Green Man. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer 1978, 20
6. Basford (1978), op. cit. 21
7. Trubshaw, Bob. “Paganism in British Folk Customs”. In At the Edge, No. 3 1996
8. MacDermott, Mercia. Explore Green Men. Loughborough: Explore Books/Heart of Albion Press 2003
9. Ballard, Carol. The Green Man: The Shakespeare Connection. Warwickshire: Self Published 1999, 11