All things Green Man & the traditional Jack-in-the-Green

Who is The Green Man?

Posted by COTGM Member Leslie Melville.

Prior to 1939 and Lady Raglan’s view that the foliate head carvings in churches and cathedrals should be called ‘Green Men’, these carvings had no known name – they were merely sculptured decorations, created by the stone-masons of the time that the churches were being built. If this is true, why would the Christian Church allow Pagan images to adorn the walls and ceilings of their most Holy places?

It has been suggested that maybe the sculptures were subversive protests by Pagan stone-masons who resented the usurping by Christian priests of their Old Religion and that church leaders were unaware of their real significance.

In 2004 at the Lakeland Storytelling Festival, Mike O’Connor, storyteller/musician and Cornish Bard, told a story that suggested to me a different answer; one that I have not seen proposed in any of the many books that I have read on the subject. The story comes from ‘The Cornish Ordinalia’.

The Cornish Ordinalia.

The Ordinalia is a religious drama-cycle written by an anonymous cleric at Glasney College in the fourteenth century. First written in the Cornish/Celtic language, the Ordinalia consists of three plays that together tell the stories of the bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Running through the whole and interwoven with the Scriptural narrative comes the beautiful and curious Legend of the Cross. The legend, most of which is in the dramas, is this.

“When Adam found himself dying, he sent his youngest son Seth to the Gates of Paradise to beg of the angel that guarded them the oil of mercy, that his father might live. The angel let him look into Paradise, where he saw many strange and beautiful fore-shadowings of things that should be upon the earth; and the angel gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life, and he departed. When he came to where his father was, he found that he was already dead, and he laid the three seeds in his mouth, and buried him therewith on Mount Moriah; and in process of time the three seeds grew into three small trees…………
…….. and Abraham took of the wood thereof for the sacrifice of Isaac his son; and afterwards Moses’ rod, wherewith he smote the rock, was made from one of their branches. And soon the three trees grew together into one tree, whereby was symbolised the mystery of the Trinity; and under its branches sat King David when Nathan the Prophet came to him, and there he bewailed his sin, and made the Miserere Psalm. And Solomon, when he would build the Temple on Mount Sion, cut down the tree, which was then as one of the chiefest of the cedars of Lebanon, and bid men make a beam thereof; but it would in no wise fit into its place, howsoever much they cut it to its shape. Therefore Solomon was wroth, and bid them cast it over the brook Cedron as a bridge, so that all might tread upon it that went that way. But after a while he buried it, and over where it lay there came the Pool Bethesda with its healing powers; and when our Lord came on earth the beam floated up to the surface of the pool, and the Jews found it, and made thereof the Cross whereon Christ died on Calvary”.

The significant section is the one before the row of dots and cover the significant part of the legend. It is doubtful that the ‘anonymous cleric’ referred to above, actually invented this story. Passion & Mystery plays were popular during medieval times and it is likely that the same tale appeared elsewhere and was fairly well known.

Is it not therefore possible that this image of an old man with twigs and leaves growing from his mouth, eyes and ears etc. is in fact Adam as depicted in the story?

There doesn’t need to be any major conflict between this tale and the significance of the Green Man concept of Death and Rebirth.

In the building of a medieval church however, it does seem to me that the image of Adam in whatever form is a more likely one than that of a Pagan icon.

Leslie Melville

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