The Song of the Green Man

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We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood. Daniel C. Noel, Ph.D.

Who is this mysterious leafy face, foliage bursting forth from his open mouth, singing the song of the green and growing earth? He has sung to us for centuries as we deflower and deforest his kingdom. He is the “Green Man,” asking us to hear his verdant song.

He sustains us as the vegetal sacrifice that feeds human and animals, distributing his life-force energy through the fruit, vegetables and grains that we eat, the flowers we enjoy, the trees we grow for fruit, shade and shelter, and the jungles that contribute to our oxygen supply.

The Green Man shares our need for water and sunlight and models the mystery of birth, death and rebirth through the eternal cycle of seed sown, plant grown and harvest reaped. This cycle is the taproot of his mystery and explains his presence throughout the centuries around the world.

Roots and Branches 

The Green Man is most often found where there are, or were, stretches of ancient forest. In architecture predating European civilization, he decorates India’s Hindu and Jain temples. In temples in Malaysia, his name is “Kirtimukha” or “the face of Glory” to frighten away evildoers. As the Hindu god Chhepi, he wards evil away from the Temple. In Borneo, he is a Guardian of the Forest, a protector deity and a bringer of good fortune.

He is best known from images in European and British architecture. There are thousands of diverse images – up to 2,000 in one church alone. He is sometimes in the company of green cats, dogs and dragons who also sprout forth leaves and branches, or whose images are composed of leaves. There are no “Green Lady” companions to dance the dance of life with the Green Man.

He appears on pillars, corners, roofs, friezes and doorways – any surface open to ornamentation or decoration – as he looks down from capitals, corbels, choir stalls, bench ends, fonts, screens and roof-bosses. He is carved in stone or wood, shaped in stained glass (rare) and inscribed in illuminated manuscripts. He is most often found on cold stone interiors, adding life force energy in unexpected places. His face sometimes borders on the grotesque.

Birth, Death and Rebirth

On 2nd century Roman columns in Turkey, he is a leaf mask on memorials to wealthy citizens, granting the promise of regeneration. By the 4th century C.E., the Green Man appeared on Christian tombs, and by the 6th century, in Christian churches. From the 11th century forward, the Green Man profusely decorates cathedrals in Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Hungary, Poland and the British Isles. These faces, created from the living matter of the world, represent the Spirit of Life, Death and Resurrection. In the Church, his story was indeed born again.

But who was he before the Church found him? The Green Man has ancient ties to one of the oldest folk images, the Corn or Barley God, whose honouring stretches back to the Neolithic Age. We find him in the caves of Lascaux (France) and Altamira (Spain), where paintings show shamanic dancers honouring a Green Man image, wearing foliate-appearing masks. 

Many ancient civilizations created religious stories to better understand and explain the natural world, a world they saw as alive, often punitive and sometimes easily propitiated. Nature was a mysterious, a vital and integrated force that was divine and magical. 

Agrarian peoples were innately connected to the seasons and their growing cycles, honouring the Green Man’s mystery through indigenous pagan practices before the ever-increasing influence of the emerging Christian Church and its theology that gave humans dominion over the earth, rather than partnership with it. 

As civilizations evolved, so did our ancestors’ understanding, influenced by new ideas brought by travelers and invaders over subsequent centuries. Migrating to escape famine or plague, wartime invasion, holy crusade, or the pursuit of work in the trades, people began to move further from their homelands. The Green Man journeyed with them. 

The indigenous peoples of early Europe mingled for centuries with migrating peoples, blending religions, philosophies, arts and cultures. Was the Green Man of the East surprised to see himself already present in these new lands, or did He know these dying and rising gods? Jesus, Osiris, Odin, the Green Knight, John Barleycorn, the Holly King and Thamuz of the Mesopotamians all can be related to the primordial Green Man who symbolizes the triumph of Ever-Green Life over Winter and Death.

Over the centuries, the Green Man remained a part of lore and legend, enshrined in the churches and cathedrals that were often built on ancient pagan sites. Ultimately, the Green Man vanished with the remnants of the “Old Faith” after the Reformation.  

He reappeared on 17th century memorials and 18th century Scottish gravestones. Then came the Victorian classical revivalists looking to plant seeds from a pagan age for new growth in the era of industrial revolution. Reborn again, the Green Man played a significant decorative role in church restorations and street architecture.

What’s in a Name? 

We do not know what He was called by his creators. Since 1939, He has been “the Green Man” – a name given to Him by Lady Raglan, a noblewoman, and scholar who wrote an article for a British folklore journal. She compared his leaf-covered face to the lore of ritual figures like Jack o’ the Green, who precedes the May Queen in 19th century May Day pageants. 

The “Jack o’ the Green” was a man caged inside a conical wicker framework, covered with leaves, with a place for his face to peer through. As a living Green Man, “Jack” was the centre of the celebration, accompanied by Morris folk dancers and musicians, the symbol of springtime regeneration, the annual renewal of life. 

The Green Man may also be seen in Sir Gawain’s Green Knight, who is cut down and rises again. Another sacrificial character, Green George, was a vital part of Pagan rites of spring. Represented by a young man dressed head to foot in greenery, he leads the festival procession like Jack o’ the Green, only to be dunked in a river or pond to ensure that there will be enough rain to make the meadows and pastures green. 

In this rainmaking ability, the Green George is also linked to Herne the Hunter, a legendary spirit who roams the forests of Windsor. He is usually depicted as a horned man, peering out of a mask of foliage, most often the leaves of the sacred Oak. Herne is often conflated with Gaul’s Cernunnos and other legends of “horned lords of the wood.”

Lady Raglan made comparisons to the legendary Robin Hood, dressed in Lincoln Green and living among the ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest. In some stories, Robin is linked to the worship of Herne the Hunter, Lord of the Trees. Similar medieval legends of the Wild Men – dressed in leaves, living in the forest and venturing forth to take food – may be related to the Green Man.

Saving the Green Man Today

Today, the Green Man greets us from English pub signs and gardening knick-knacks. He is decorative rather than symbolic, and his potency is in danger of disappearing much like his beloved forest. 

We distance ourselves from the few wild places where he still lives, which we may visit as tourists to the rain forest. We try to capture his magic in backyard gardens and city park green spaces, but his presence is barely felt as the world turns.

Can we save the Green Man from disappearing into the mists of time, as we cover his world with concrete and plow under the last wild places? We often speak of how we have dishonoured Mother Nature, but in truth, we have also tried to kill her consort, the seed energy that gives life to the universe when planted in the body of the Great Earth Mother.   

The Green Man cannot disappear if there is one tree standing somewhere. The surge of energy behind environmental awareness is like bright sunlight to his green leaves, giving Him strength to put down more roots in our hearts, to branch out to touch more people’s awareness with the need for change. 

We are the keepers of his Garden, and we have work to do. We can let His wildness touch us in ways that are creative and vital, for we, as living beings, are also flowers in his garden. We can call upon him when we plant seeds, bulbs, flowers, shrubs, trees – doing this to enlarge his kingdom in ways that enrich our world with green and growing things, providing us with air, fruit, grain, vegetables and materials for shelter. 

For those looking for a new masculine role model in this age of domestic violence and global conflict, there is the Green Man. Indisputably and undeniably male in his attributes, this force of nature rises again and again with no agenda other than abundantly providing much of what is needed to sustain life. There is both force and gentleness here. Balance, rather than domination. 

The more the Green Man dances gracefully with the Earth Mother, the more their dance of life can revitalize the planet and undo the damage caused by those who mistakenly thought that the earth was theirs to do with as they wished. The Green Man is watching us from every forest, houseplant, meadow and hillside. He lives in the manicured parks and in the wild places. He sleeps in our gardens and walks the long acres of farmland. 

Where there is greenery, he is there. He promises to feed you, to shelter you and to return each year in accord with the natural cycle of the earth. All he asks is that you listen to his song, He is singing to you, and waiting for you to sing along with him as you plant a seed today for new growth tomorrow. 

Note: An extended version of this article was originally published in the 2006 Prairie Garden Annual.

Susan bio picSusan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture.  Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.


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