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Who is the Green Man?

Exeter Cathedral © Jennie Miller & Gary Truss

Exeter Cathedral © Jennie Miller & Gary Truss

For many people their first experience of the Green Man is a chance sighting of a strange stone or wooden foliate face looking down at them from high above in a church or cathedral. Just what this supposedly pagan representation of fertility and the greenwood is doing in a Christian place of worship, has puzzled people throughout the ages.  A subversive image placed by stone carvers as a link to a pre-Christian religion? A reminder that we all come from the earth and will one day return? A representation of Adam, or an image of evil carefully placed to remind churchgoers to steer away from sin?

Lady Raglan who coined the term “Green Man” thought that the Green Man of churches and abbeys was one in the same with “the figure known variously as the Green Man, Jack in the Green, Robin Hood, the King of the May, and the Garland who is the central figure in the May Day celebrations throughout northern and central Europe.”  Many people still support these connections, believing that the Green Man has many faces and that each of these do indeed have deep seated and possibly spiritual links via an ancient race memory of a time when the Greenwoods covered most of what is now Britain.

But many also disagree vehemently with these connections arguing that there is no evidence that the Jack-in –the-Green dates back any further than the sweeps processions of the late eighteenth century, (and the Garland only slightly further). That Robin Hood had no connections with The Green Man until Richard Carpenters cult series “Robin of Sherwood” created a link via the shamanic/deific figure of Herne the Hunter and his links with Cernunnos. That if the King of the May had any actual link with the Green Man carvings found in churches and other locations then there would be at least be some evidence that the carvings were in some way made a part of the May celebrations, or at least  mentioned, which it seems they were not!

And yet others argue that even if these connections never did exist, then they have now been created and therefore will henceforth be forever inseparably entwined in that magical way that myth, legend and folklore seem to take on an unstoppable life force of their own.

Environmentalists, New Agers, Pagans and neo Pagans all have their own interpretations of who the Green Man is and what he represents to them and their beliefs.

Even the stone and wood carvings found in churches, cathedrals, castles and varied other locations may not all be as they at first seem. Some Green Man hunters classify them into different types:

  • Leaf masks: Simple faces formed from a single leaf.
  • Foliate faces: Faces created by more than one leaf.
  • Disgorgers: Faces disgorging foliage or vines from mouth, eyes, and/or ears.
  • Peepers or watchers: Faces seeming to peer out of foliage but not actually formed from it

Other hunters allow inclusion of Cat and other animal faces created from or including leaves or vegetation of some kind.

Images of the green man are found across England, Great Britain, Europe and parts of Asia and North Africa. He may date back as far as the third millennium BC, and is still being reproduced in stone, wood, art, song, story and poem today.  He may be found in his guise as dusty stone or wood carving looking down from on high in churches cathedrals and abbeys throughout England. He can be seen as a sometimes mischievous, sometimes dark figure found in Morris dances; both traditional and modern. As the magical Jack-in-the-Green leading or included in May Day processions each year, or bought to life in new and vibrant traditions, like the Green Man of Clun who each year battles the Frost Queen on a bridge above the river Clun.

In his book “Wildwood A Journey Through Trees” the late Roger Deakin visits the Green Man at King’s Nympton in Devon and writes:

“The leaves flow from him like poems or songs. He himself is a kind of folksong. Everyone knows it, but each singer has a different, personal version, a variation on the theme. ‘I am not elderly,’ says the Green Man in one of Jane Gardam’s enchanting stories about him; ‘I am the Green Man.’  He is the spirit of the rebirth of nature. He is the chucked pebble that ripples out into every tree ring. He is a green outlaw and he is everywhere, like a Che Guevara poster.”

Architectural  historian Richard Hayman wrote:

“Is he just another example of the way in which we invent the gods we need?….Where there is a context in which the green man can be interpreted, he can usually be shown to be a figure representing sin. There is no case for arguing that the green man is a figure of ancient or medieval pagan origin representing either fertility or some spiritual union with nature. As archaeologists and historians we need to be wary of self-serving interpretations of the past The green man represents another eternal theme, about death and the vainglorious nature of human existence”

Green Man expert Mike Harding writes in his website:

“His roots may go back to the shadow hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira and may climb through history, in one of his manifestations through Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England to be chiselled in wood and stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask.”

Mark Ryan writes in “The Wildwood Tarot”:

“One of the most ancient images of the connection between mankind and nature, his face has looked out from the stones of temples and churches for centuries. Even in the dim and chilly heights of  Christian cathedrals he looks down , often sardonically, on the people far below. Constantly returning in thinly disguised ciphers such as the Green Knight, Jack in the Green and Robin Hood, his face, disgorging leaves, peers out from the rich, dark, fertile heart of the forest and challenges you to respect and revel in the joys of the natural world.”

Canon Albert Radcliffe of Manchester Cathedral wrote in the forward to Clive Hicks “The Green Man A Field Guide”:

“The truth is that no one knows for certain who the green man was. He is a figure surrounded by total and complete silence. He is the best kept secret in Europe.”

Whilst Clive Hicks himself wrote:

“The Green Man is an image and an idea. It is an image of a human face associated with foliage, and it is an idea that makes real the connection between humanity and nature. The image personifies the idea.”

Personally I think that the green man may be intrinsically linked with Britain’s ancient woodlands. Continuous human habitation began in the UK in what is now southern England just 12000 years ago. In prehistoric times England was almost entirely covered in trees. By the end of the first millenium much had already been cleared to satisfy the needs of an increasing population, with the Domesday Records showing approximately 15% woodland cover across England. By the end of the 16th Century 90% of our ancient woodlands had gone, changing the face of England forever. This trend continued, and by the end of the 19th century woodland had dropped to below 5%. Since then England’s forest and woodland area has been expanding slightly and by the beginning of the 21st century there were over 1.1 million hectares, equivalent to 8.4% woodland cover. This, however, remains relatively low in international terms.

I have a tentative theory that images of the green man are more prolific in churches that were built closer to those woodlands that still remained at the time of the Doomsday Records. This was where nature was literally just outside the front door and was both revered and feared by our ancestors. This is a connection that we have almost completely lost in an age where in the last 100 years half of the UK’s remaining woods have been cleared to make way for agriculture and conifer plantations.

But I believe that the real answer to the question of “who is the Green Man” may simply be that there is no single answer, that he is indeed an enigma, not to be solved but to continue to instil curiosity and wonder in current and future generations.

And so, what you at first may have thought a gentle pastime of wandering around quiet parish churches snapping the odd photo of a Green Man on high before retiring to the nearest pub (possibly The Green Man) for a pint of Green Man ale (yes it exists). You may now realise will possibly (and hopefully) become your very own quest for answers.

I shall leave the last poignant words to my predecessor the late Ronald Millar:

“Two millennia old or older, the Green Man is the vibrant spirit of the wild wood, of vegetation in leaf or bud, of spring, pool and river, earth and sky, indeed the totality of nature. His voice is the hiss of the high wind in ash and oak. And his profundity those sudden silences of a forest when all Nature seems to hold her breath. When we hear or feel him no more mankind will have run its course.”

The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow

‘The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow’. 2016. Pencil and gouache on board. Private Collection. © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

‘The Green Knight Bows to Gawain’s Blow’. 2016. Pencil and gouache on board. Private Collection. © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is devising a series of fourteen prints based on the medieval verse drama, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a classic vividly translated for the 21st century by Simon Armitage.  Clive has very kindly given me permission to reproduce one of the images on our blog each month.

Clive’s work often features some wonderful representations of the foliate Green Man. If you can track down a copy of Marly Youman’s wonderful book “The Foliate Head” I highly recommend it for Marly’s beautiful poetry and Clive’s wonderful illustrations of The Green Man that appear throughout the book.

 You can find more information on Clive’s website: http://www.hicks-jenkins.com

Sightings – Norwich, Norfolk

St Peter Mancroft - Norwich © Ruth Kenyon

St Peter Mancroft – Norwich © Ruth Kenyon

My thanks to Ruth Kenyon for sending in these wonderful tongue poking Green Men bosses from St Peter Mancroft Church in the Market Place in the centre of Norwich. After the two Cathedrals it is the largest church in Norfolk and was built between 1433 and 1455. These bosses were previously unreported probably because the area is so dark. They have now been added to our Gazetteer.

I’m always grateful for any new sightings, photographs or verifications for the Gazetteer and the Flickr photographic archive. Please use the contact tab above to get in touch.

Any new sightings or verifications are added to the gazetteer and the finder/verifiers name is always detailed (unless they prefer to remain anonymous).

Copyright for any pictures added to our Flickr archive always remains with the original photographer as does full control over how the pictures are used. I will never use anybody’s images for any commercial use without full written permission. occasionally I get requests to use pictures for books, magazines etc. and these requests are passed directly on to the original photographer so that they can benefit from their own work.

You can visit our Flickr archive HERE

St Peter Mancroft - Norwich © Ruth Kenyon

St Peter Mancroft – Norwich © Ruth Kenyon

The Green Man Gazetteer

gazetteer

The Company of the Green Man maintains the largest gazetteer of Green Men (and Green Women) in the world. When the founder of The Company of the Green Man Ronald Millar wrote the book “The Green Man Companion and Gazetteer” in 1997 he included our first gazetteer containing 61 entries. Ron told me that he thought there may actually be hundreds of Green Men out there. Little did Ron know how much he had underestimated the spread of the Green Man. Our Gazetteer now lists thousands of Green Men, Women and Beasts. More sightings arrive weekly and I suspect that there are many thousand more as yet undiscovered Green Men out there.

When I had to move our website over to a blog format two years ago the restrictions on space meant that I could no longer keep the entire gazetteer online and so I began the task of converting it to a downloadable .pdf format. I’m hopeful that the downloadable gazetteer will be a real step forward and that it will become a really useful tool for Green Man hunters who can now download a current copy to their phone or tablet prior to heading out so that it is always available offline.

The Gazetteer is now available for anyone to download completely free of charge via the Gazetteer tab above or by using THIS LINK

It is still a work in progress, I have many sightings to add and a lot of formatting to do but rather than keeping it back until this is done I would rather it be available for use.

Whilst the gazetteer is completely free to download it would be really appreciated if those who find it useful would consider making a small donation to The Company of the Green Man via our Donate tab above or via THIS LINK

How you can help

Our gazetteer is growing daily but we need help verifying many of the entries as well as discovering as yet unrecorded green men. Hunting green men is a fascinating pursuit for individuals groups or the whole family and will get you out and about  in some fantastic locations. Entire walks can be planned around green men and there are many green men still waiting to be discovered. In the words of Clive Hicks author of “The Green Man: A Field Guide”:

“There are certainly many, many green men not known to us…..It might be you that identifies a gem of a green man who has been gracing a church for centuries, unnoticed until your visit” 

Those who discover a green man that has never been recorded will be credited in our gazetteer as the original discoverer! Please e-mail me with as much detail as possible and preferably include a photograph for us to add to our online Flickr Archive.

Membership of The Company of the Green Man is free, just click on the Join Us tab at the top of this blog.

 

The Armouring of Gawain (Clive Hicks-Jenkins)

The Armouring of Gawain - Gouache and pencil on paper © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The Armouring of Gawain – Gouache and pencil on paper © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Clive Hicks-Jenkins is devising a series of fourteen prints based on the medieval verse drama, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a classic vividly translated for the 21st century by Simon Armitage.  Clive has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of the images on our blog each month.

Clive’s work often features some wonderful representations of the foliate Green Man. If you can track down a copy of Marly Youman’s wonderful book “The Foliate Head” I highly recommend it for Marly’s beautiful poetry and Clive’s wonderful illustrations of The Green Man that appear throughout the book.

 You can find more information on Clive’s website: http://www.hicks-jenkins.com

Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Crown of Leaves. Gouache and pencil on gessoed board.© Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Crown of Leaves. Gouache and pencil on gessoed board. © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Gawain and the Green Knight: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Penfold Press

The Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff

Thursday 8th Sept – Saturday 1st Oct, 2016

In collaboration with Dan Bugg of Penfold Press, Clive Hicks-Jenkins is devising a series of fourteen prints based on the medieval verse drama, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a classic vividly translated for the 21st century by Simon Armitage. The exhibition will present the first seven prints, marking the half-way stage in this major project, together with paintings and drawings on the theme.

Art commentator James Russell writes of the series:

“The story is the kind you might find in The Mabinogion. Sir Gawain is more human than your average legendary hero. Having taken up the challenge offered at the Camelot Christmas feast by the terrifying Green Knight, he embarks on a quest to find this ogre, only to be tested – and found wanting – in unexpected ways. Sir Gawain is both a glittering knight and a fallible young man, and it is this flawed human character that intrigues Clive. Each print is inspired by the text and rooted stylistically in its world, but beyond that Clive and Dan have allowed their imagination free rein.”

You can find more information on Clive’s website: http://www.hicks-jenkins.com

The Green Knight's Head Lives. Screenprint. Edition of 75 © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The Green Knight’s Head Lives. Screenprint. Edition of 75 © Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Sightings: Eaton Under Heywood, Shropshire

St Edith's Church, Eaton Under Heywood, Shropshire copyright ©  Derek Penrose

St Edith’s Church, Eaton Under Heywood, Shropshire copyright © Derek Penrose

 

My thanks to Derek Penrose for the wonderful photographs he has been sending in recently of Green Men he has spotted on his summer travels. These two wonderful faces are from St Edith’s Church, Eaton Under Heywood deep in the Shropshire Hills.

I’m always grateful for any new sightings, photographs or verifications for the Gazetteer and the Flickr photographic archive. Please use the contact tab above to get in touch.

Any new sightings or verifications are added to the gazetteer and the finder/verifiers name is always detailed (unless they prefer to remain anonymous).

Copyright for any pictures added to our Flickr archive always remains with the original photographer as does full control over how the pictures are used. I will never use anybody’s images for any commercial use without full written permission. occasionally I get requests to use pictures for books, magazines etc. and these requests are passed directly on to the original photographer so that they can benefit from their own work.

You can visit our Flickr archive HERE

 

St Edith's Church, Eaton Under Heywood, Shropshire copyright ©  Derek Penrose

St Edith’s Church, Eaton Under Heywood, Shropshire copyright © Derek Penrose

The Carshalton Straw Jack

Carshalton Straw Jack 2015 © Pixyled Publications

Carshalton Straw Jack 2015 © Pixyled Publications

It’s been a great year for the traditional Jack in the Green with 21 confirmed so far. The Nottingham Pagan Pride Parade is taking place today and I would love to hear from anyone who can confirm if a Jack-in-the-Green is sighted at all. The Carshalton Straw Jack will be parading on Saturday 3rd September this year. A Celebration of Harvest the Carshalton Straw Jack is ritually stripped in the evening so that all present can take a keepsake and then he is burnt in a brazier. It is hoped that he will be burnt as a complete figure one year. For more details about the route the Jack will take their website is: www.strawjack.co.uk

Carshalton Straw Jack 2015 © Pixyled Publications

Carshalton Straw Jack 2015 © Pixyled Publications

The Green Man: A powerful image lives on – Muriel Fraser

We all know how fast and far a good tune can travel. Shortly after the haunting melody of “Lili Marleen” was heard broadcast to among German troops in WWII, it was eagerly adopted by Allied ones. And think, too, of the travels of a song which began as “God preserve Franz the Kaiser”. This lovely tune by Haydn was recycled as “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” and eventually appeared as the hymn, “God who touches earth with beauty”.

Just as a catchy tune travels, so does a powerful image. The ornate leaf masks or foliated heads, now often called the “Green Man”, were developed by Roman artists in connection with nature gods like Dionysus and the satyrs. But this image was too good to end with Roman paganism. In the Middle Ages, as the pageants of chivalry became widespread, Green Men appear with increasing frequency in Christian churches, too.

A clue to this is offered by a ritual from 16th-century Sweden. There we find a May Day jousting contest between Winter and Summer. The idea was to dramatise — and help advance — the coming of spring. The two sides in the tournament were clothed accordingly. Duke Winter was “clad in various pelts and armed with pokers, scattering ice and snowballs to prolong the cold”. His opponent, Count Floral, was “garbed in the green boughs of trees, together with leaves and flowers”. Of course, whatever the weather on the day of the tournament, “and to everyone’s joy, the victory is awarded to Summer”. [1]

This gives us a glimpse into the mediaeval meaning of faces decked with foliage. No longer were they Roman gods, but harbingers of spring. And, of course, spring in the metaphorical sense, was a central theme in Christianity. It applied to both the rebirth of the soul in heaven and the general Resurrection of the Dead. As such, the foliated head had a firm claim to its place in Christian churches.

But the transformations didn’t end there. The Green Man could represent, not only the resurrection of the soul, but also the rebirth of the Christianity during the Reformation. This seems to be why the Reformers adopted it initially. (However, they soon backed off from this transformed satyr. After all, they were the ones who liked to accuse the Catholic Church of being “pagan”.)  But at first, presumably as a symbol of the rebirth of the church, a Green Man appears in a portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach the Elder, also on the title page of Luther’s petition to the Papal Council in 1520, and even in his church in Wittenburg. [2]

Mediaeval people loved symbols precisely because they regarded them as having magic power. This symbol is simple, vivid, and closely connected to people’s hopes and fears: to their longing for the return of the sun — to a “springtime” through resurrection — and, for some, to a new and reformed Christianity. It’s no wonder that the Green Man, in its various guises, survived for two millenia.

1. Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), Volume 2, 15:9.
2. Clive Hicks, http://www.geomantie.net/article/read/6093.html

The Company of the Green Man e-newsletter 14

The Company of the Green Man’s fourteenth e-newsletter has just been published and is available for members to download via the members area tab at the top of this page. If you are a member you should receive an e-mail via MailChimp with details of how to access the  e-newsletter. If not please don’t hesitate to contact me using the “contact us” tab above.

If you would like to join The Company of the Green Man  (it’s free) just use the “join us” tab at the top of this page.

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