If you have arrived at this page by clicking on a link for The Green Man Forum fear not you are in the right place. Dr Colin Harris is a much valued member and friend of The Company of the Green Man and is having a well earned break. We are currently holding his website for him.
Who is the Green Man?
By Dr Colin Harris
The Green Man lives deep within our folklore, customs, myths and legends. We have all seen these curious faces hiding behind leaves in our churches, cathedrals and civic buildings. Perhaps you wonder what they mean? Our problem is that no-one ever wrote down “A Green Man is …. “. The name was created by Lady Raglan in 1939 who realised that these foliate faces weaved together our past and our future even though the oldest are over 3,000 years old and found in all continents.
We all like to recognise faces even faces that are not really there. Indeed there is a known condition called pareidolia which recognises this phenomenon. We see them in clouds, the shape of rocks, bark, vegetables in leaves on a tree. We also have an instinctive love of green things and nature. Ecotherapy provides a much needed dimension to our holistic health for people of all ages and backgrounds. The Green Man is special because he fulfils these requirements, and so it is always a pleasure to find him under a misericord, or hidden in an arch or high up on a building, as if we had triumphed in our private game of hide and seek.
As early as the 1st Century AD, foliate heads were being treated as ornaments on temple friezes all over the Roman Empire, from Turkey to the Rhine. Similar images also appear in ancient Chinese and Indian cultures. In England, the Green Man appears in the 11th Century – he was rendered by mediaeval masons on many churches and cathedrals. He is the foliate mask made up with the leaves growing from his mouth, around his eyes and from his nose.
He embodies the nature spirit, the living pulse of the forest and the Earth as it is felt by mankind. It may be that the Green Man is a pagan reference incorporated into Christian Architecture and often seen in church engravings.
We call him the Green Man for convenience, although we do not know his original name, if he ever had one. The mediaeval masons and carvers could speak only with their hands and tools – it is astonishing how many human feelings – menace, humour, tranquillity, fear – have been expressed by a few deft strikes of the chisel in this figure. With so many differences, the carvings have a common impression of something or someone alive among the green buds of summer and the brown leaves of autumn.
He became to depict death and rebirth and yet no one ever wrote down exactly what a green man was – we can only surmise and deduce. He was always an acceptable and integral part of our new churches, cathedrals, priories and abbeys.
Evidence for the Green Man goes back to well beyond the last 2000 years and well beyond Europe – further discoveries surely still await us in many new places in the future.
He is present in many folk heroes, myths and legends and in many guises – he is known as the John Barleycorn, Green George, Jack in the Green, the Bogle Man, Robin Hood, the Wild Man, the Wodewose, the Green Knight. He was less common in Elizabethan times but a huge resurgence occurred in Victorian buildings.
Look upwards, use binoculars and at over 1000 church sites these countless mysterious faces stare from their dark silent homes.
We need to keep alive the traditions of the Green Man for he is an endangered species. Unless we pass on folklore to future generations it will fade into distant memories.
Dr Colin N Harris BSc(Hons), MSc, PhD, C.Chem, MRSC.
After an active career in research and science education, Colin “escaped” into early retirement in 1993. Colin was educated at Moseley Grammar School then Birmingham University- he enjoyed active pharmaceutical research and working in schools and teacher education.
He was an “A” Level Chemistry examiner, wrote 18 books and patented many audio-visual aids for science education – he has represented the UK at international science education conferences and specialises in study skills and learning techniques.
Colin is an experienced speaker and trainer and worked as a Tutor for Open Studies at the University of Warwick. He specialises in all aspects of our rich folklore, customs and traditions but has a great fondness and affinity with the Green Man, Grotesques, Gargoyles, Medieval Beasties and Really Ugly Uglies – besides stone circles, lost villages and the history and legends of Warwickshire and the Midlands.
As Founder and Chairman of Solihull Discovery Walks and a Warden for the Heart of England Way, he has enjoyed an active open air life. Titanium knee replacements have reduced this however! He was awarded the Contribution to the Community Award at the House of Commons in 2007 and recently enjoyed with Sheila joining the famous tea party at Buckingham Palace.
He has written many articles and trails about the Green Man for local medieval city centres, Abbeys and Cathedrals. He supports the Young Historian Project which encourages a keener sense of respect for our “Englishness” and our rich history in school children of all ages and backgrounds. He has developed a number of Green Man Trails for groups and families.
Colin has now finished the Solihull Green Man Trail which is a treasure hunt for families, schools, U3A, WI, Rotary Rambling Groups etc to enjoy along a 21 mile footpath across Solihull – local schoolchildren have made the models which hide in the trees ! – more are planned.
He has given BBC Radio and BBC Television “The One Show” interviews on local folklore and other topics- Colin was featured in The Times about Folklore at Dover’s Hill and the BBC1 satirical show “Have I Got News For You “.