Green Man of the month for August has long been one of my favourites and is also the one I adopted for the Company of the Green Man Website. I’m often asked where he comes from. He is one of an identical pair that reside on a wooden lych gate leading to Stanton St Quinton Parish Church (St Giles) in Wiltshire. The Church is on the main road through the village and also boasts a possible Sheela Na Gig hidden high on the church tower (For more info about these fascinating images look no further than John Harding’s Sheela Na Gig Project web site www.sheelanagig.org)
The Church dates back to the 12th C but the lych gate is possibly late 19th early 20th Century. The two carved wood green men are surprisingly small and are very easy to miss. They sit diagonally opposite each other at eye level on a carved border. The leaves sprouting from their mouths appear to be acanthus and the green men themselves are extremely unusual.
For many people their first experience of the Green Man is a chance sighting of a strange stone 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? Or a representation 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 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 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 created by more than one leaf. Faces disgorging foliage or vines from mouth, eyes, and/or ears. 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 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.
I believe that the 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 past, 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 is a pastime fraught with conflict, rivalry and quite possibly intrigue.
I shall leave the last poignant words to 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.”
And now over to you: I invite conversation and discourse on your thoughts about the Green Man.
Please feel free to add your comments using the link below or by e-mailing The Company of the Green Man at firstname.lastname@example.org