You may not have noticed him, but the chances are you have already encountered the Green Man. He appears in lots of different forms and can be found in many different places; high up in the rafters of churches and cathedrals, on pub signs, in action movies and books – even on the shelves of your local supermarket. Once you know what to look for you’re sure to start seeing him everywhere you go.
The idea of the Green Man isn’t confined to Britain or even to Northern Europe. It crops up in cultures all over the world. He means different things to different people but most commonly he is seen as a symbol of humanity’s relationship with – and dependence on – nature. Traditionally, the Green Man is seen as a farmer – responsible for protecting our fields and for making things grow again after the bleakness of winter.
In English folklore the Green Man is sometimes known by other names. He might be called Jack o’ the Green, Jack-in-the-Green or the King of the May. Often he appears as a face carved in wood or stone. He’s depicted with flowing hair and a full, bushy beard and these are either made from, or intertwined with, leaves and foliage. Sometimes he has vines actually growing out of his eyes and mouth. It looks as if he is peering out from behind a thick hedge, or perhaps as if he is part of the hedge itself.
You might be forgiven for wondering why so many of these symbols turn up in and around churches and cathedrals. What has the Green Man got to do with Christianity? The truth is, we don’t have a definite answer to that question. One of the earliest examples of the Green Man in church architecture dates back to the fourth or fifth century. It is found on a tomb of Sainte Abre in the church of Hilaire-le-Grand, in Poitiers, France. ‘Sainte Abre’ literally means St Tree, could this be an early Christian adaptation of a woodland spirit?
Christianity has been the dominant religion in Britain and most of Europe for hundreds of years. Christians believe in one God, but for a much longer period before that people didn’t really think of religion as separate from everyday life. They farmed the land. They lived and worked in nature and the success of the year’s harvest was absolutely crucial to survival. Individuals may or may not have believed in one supreme God but they also saw gods, or spirits, in anything that helped to sustain life: in the woods and trees, pools and rivers, hills and mountains – even the Sun and the Moon. These people didn’t necessarily believe in an actual being called the Green Man (we’ll probably never know for sure what they believed) but it’s easier to appreciate and talk about mankind’s relationship with nature when you have a figure to represent it.
You can think of the Green Man as a kind of medieval emoji – he was designed and carved at a time when many people couldn’t read, so they relied on pictures to express all kinds of complex ideas.
To begin with, Christianity may have been tolerated but it was not widely welcomed by the British. For a while it looked as if pagan (nature worshipping) beliefs might remain the norm. So, in building their churches, Christian stone masons might have adopted some of the imagery from the pagans as a way to make them feel welcome. Events from the pagan calendar also found a place in Christianity. Easter, for example, is thought to have been named after Eostre, a pagan goddess worshipped by the Anglo Saxons.
These days you’re more likely to see Green Man figures in churches than in any other place. They are often displayed in prominent positions and over doorways. It is as if the carver is saying, ‘look – worship here and we guarantee a good harvest’. Trees played an important part in worship for hundreds of years. Yew trees (Taxus baccata) were often planted in churchyards. Yew trees live for a long time. They are sometimes said to represent the immortality of the soul.
Sometimes when we are in a wood or forest, or perhaps even in the park or garden, we feel that the trees are more than just wood sticking out of the ground, that the water in the stream or pond is more than just molecules of hydrogen and oxygen combining to form a liquid. It can seem that there is a bit more to it, something else behind it all. Some people would call that ‘something’ a god – while others might hope to catch, out of the corner of their eye, a glimpse of the Green Man winking at them… There may not be real, genuine spirits or beings of nature hiding in the woods, but it is quite a comforting and fun way of looking at the world!
● Dionysus is the Greek god of the grape harvest. Bacchus is the Roman version of the same god. He’s usually surrounded by vine leaves and fruit.
● Peter Pan wears leaves, lives in a forest setting and enjoys a carefree lifestyle. Not a million miles away from Dionysus, you might say.
● Robin Hood is an outlaw, a protector of the poor, wears green and lives in Sherwood Forest.
● In 1935 Leo Burnett came up with The Green Giant to represent a brand of canned vegetables. In 1999 Advertising Age named him third in their list of the 20th century’s top ten advertising icons (behind Ronald McDonald and the Marlborough Man). He has an outfit made of leaves, is associated with the harvest and has a jolly demeanour. Ho ho ho!
● The Incredible Hulk may not have started out green (any fan will tell you he was grey to begin with), but he does battle with wild and unbiddible forces of nature (anger). He’s usually more closely associated with Jekyll and Hyde but there are hints at the Green Man archetype here.
● Kermit (just kidding, he’s a frog).
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Written by the AQUILA Team