An enigma spanning thousands of years, the Green Man is a symbol of mysterious origin and history. Permeating various religious faiths and cultures, the Green Man has survived countless transformations and cultural diversities, enduring in the same relative physical form to this day. Although specifics about his beginnings and his worship are not fully known, due in large part to how far back and to what initial cultures he can be traced to, it is a testament to the widespread reach of his character that he is still remembered and worshipped to this day.
The Green Man is most highly believed to have begun as a pre-Christian entity, a spirit of nature personified as a man. His earliest images have been dated long before the coming of the Christian religion, depictions dating back before the days of the Roman Empire. However, it is with the coming of the empire that his images are noted as spanning religions, as he has been found both within the empire and at its borders, and then similar versions in other far reaching cultures such as India. Despite the range in locations of artifacts of the Green Man, he is most often associated with the society of the Celts, sequestered particularly in today's Britain and France, because of the high number of images found in these regions and the stylized way in which he has been portrayed.
The Green Man is almost frequently depicted as a man's face, usually ranging from middle aged to elderly, appearing out of the wild of forest trappings. His face is always encompassed by leaves, vines, and flowers, seeming to be literally born from the natural world. However, the slight variations on his images come from the exact way in which the natural world explodes around him. It is common for the Green Man to merely be surrounded by the greenery, hence the name ‘The Green Man’, but there have been archaeological finds of images in which the leaves and vines emanate from his mouth, ears, and other facial orifices, as well as depictions of his face made up completely of nature—facial lines carefully crafted as vines with his skin the very leaves themselves.
Green Man below crossing at Rochester Cathedral. (Wikimedia Commons)
Because of these depictions, the Green Man is believed to have been intended as a symbol of growth and rebirth, the eternal seasonal cycle of the coming of spring and the life of Man.
This association stems from the pre-Christian notion that Man was born from nature, as evidenced by various mythological accounts of the way in which the world began, and the idea that Man is directly tied to the fate of nature. It is the natural changing of seasons that presents the passage of time that ages Man, thus by depicting the Green Man in such a way that overwhelmingly illustrates Man's relationship with nature highlights the idea to worshipers that one cannot survive without the other. This union with nature and mutual reliance upon one another is evidenced historically and archaeologically through Man's cultivation and development of the natural world, and the fruits nature thereby provided. Man was predominately reliant on nature until recent centuries, so the Green Man as an expression of this close of a relationship also seems likely and a fairly powerful message.
The "Green Man" of the Rosslyn Chapel is depicted with vines coming out of his mouth and surrounded by foliage. Credit: Visit Scotland
Along with rebirth and reliance, there is one more powerful affiliation the images of the Green Man undoubtedly indicate. With the cycles of the year comes the end of the year; with the cycles of life comes the end of life; and with the excessive use of nature comes the eventual, end of nature.
The Green Man's other important, powerful affiliation, then, is that of death and of endings. A fair amount of images of the Green Man have been found on graves, his face an empty skull rather than flourishing man, once again made out of or exploding with greenery. Though there is no physical face, archaeologists and art historians have expressed widespread belief that this is another mask of the Green Man, linked—as stated above—by the logical cycle of Man. What makes the Green Man green, after all, is the signs of nature that espouse from him—whether it is coming out of his face or designing his face. Thereby these skull and cross-bone depictions can logically be linked to this pre-Christian entity.
Elaborately carved grave slab at Shebbear (Devon, England) showing a skull sprouting flowering shoots (public domain)
The symbol of the Green Man can be summarized in the three R's: Rebirth, Reliance, and Ruin.
Archaeological records link the Green Man to these three notions most evidently because of the three most important moments of time they represent, whether it is the life and death of nature, man, or the two affecting one another. It should be understood that much of what is known about the Green Man is speculation, as mythological records are not utilized as hard evidence but rather as examples of the belief system of pre-existing cultures; nevertheless, these speculations are highly likely.
One of the most important quandaries to discuss in relation to the Green Man, a representation of a face surrounded by foliage and greenery, is how he came to grace the interiors and exteriors of churches, parishes, and other Christian buildings.
A deity proven to have stemmed from before the coming of Christianity, the Green Man's appearance at Christian locations was an interesting puzzle for archaeologists and art historians.
Why would the Green Man be depicted on so many Christian locations when his origins were pre-Christian? Wouldn't it thus be considered sacrilegious to present him in a Christian context?
To begin to unravel the nature of these questions, it must first be discussed where images of the spirit appear to originate. The most pertinent to discuss is the impact of the gods of the Roman Empire on the nature of the Green Man.Green man at St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague (Wikimedia Commons)
While the Green Man is an entity all on his own, there are indications that he was inspired by pre-existing deities, again both before and after the coming of the Roman Empire. Influence from within the Empire stems from both Roman and Greek gods, particularly Pan/Faunus and Dionysus/Bacchus. (For the purposes of this article these gods will be referred to by their Greek names, Dionysus and Pan).
Both gods are sexualized nature aficionados, thereby presented as anthropomorphic personifications of the forces of nature and it's cyclical nature— just like the Green Man.
Pan was a satyr, a half man, half goat entity who took great pleasure in having sex with almost anything that moved—a trait of satyrs as a race. Despite this raucous behavior, Pan was more importantly a creature of nature tasked with protecting shepherds, mountains, pastures, and the wild.
Similarly, Dionysus was a young god who encouraged sexual and spiritual freedom, whose cults appealed predominately to the repressed of the Greek and Roman cultures: women. His worships often turned into orgies and most often took place outside in open fields in the middle of the night.Marble statuette of Pan by Jose Manuel Felix Magdalena (Wikimedia Commons)
On the surface, Dionysus and Pan appear to only relate to the Green Man as gods who are joined to the natural world—the sex they both take part in appears a vital aspect only in regards to the Green Man's possible association with rebirth.
However, upon closer look, both Pan and Dionysus have more to offer. Pan is considered a protector of the wilds, looking over both those who cultivate it and nature itself as a vast wilderness.
Dionysus, on the other hand, was often linked with the physical act of death, as a second myth of his birth claimed that he was a born-twice deity: once from a godly mother and then again from the thigh (sometimes heart) of his father Zeus. In this respect, Dionysus takes on a very important role relating to the final cycle of life, just as the Green Man does when depicted as a skull.Pan is considered a protector of the wilds, looking over both those who cultivate it and nature itself as a vast wilderness (Wikimedia Commons)
Outside of the Roman Empire, the most common affiliation is with the god Cernunnos, a nature god of the Celts. He is often called "the horned god", in large part because he is shown wearing a pair of antlers on his head, an intentional (and quite obvious) indication of his association with animals—deer, dogs, rams, etc.
Little is known of Cernunnos because of the Celts' scarce literary records, but modern research surrounding his origins and worship indicate that it was probable that he was a god of nature and fertility, who was not assimilated into the Roman culture as some other Celtic gods were. Nonetheless, Cernunnos was known within the empire—especially at the borders—and thus his reference as a precursor for the Green Man is apt.Cernunnos, a nature god of the Celts. (Wikimedia Commons)
Gods who circulated within and those who passed through the Roman Empire are pertinent to research on the Green Man's Christian nature because of the impact of Rome on Christianity. The religion came to dominate the western world through the influence of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in the fourth century CE. With the new religion flourishing at first next to their original pagan ways, it is not unlikely that there were mutual visual borrowings—whether intentionally or otherwise. It has long been believed, by scholars such as Thomas Mathews and Timothy Freke, that Christianity was aided in its spread throughout ancient Rome and its surroundings areas by adopting iconographic elements from pre-existing Roman deities, such as Dionysus, and melding them with Jesus of Nazareth. If this technique is accurate and was applied to other Christian people and symbols as well, then it is highly likely that the Green Man was assimilated to represent a nature-centric version of the Holy Spirit, breathing life into the world as represented by the leaves and vines exploding from him.
As the Green Man has no myths surrounding his life as other pre-Christian spirits do, the meaning behind his image could have been inferred or stretched for Christian believers. It is likely that the early Christians saw the Green Man as a symbol of the cyclical nature of Christianity, and placed him as stone or wood carvings on and within churches to remind followers of certain fundamental Christian ideals. Scholarship implies that the Green Man was valued in some Christian contexts as a representation of rebirth or of the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Just as rebirth, reliance, and ruin were at the core of the pre-Christian Green Man's beliefs, the post-Christian Green Man appears to be similarly valued and thus placed as a reminder throughout Christian sanctuaries. This appreciation will seemingly continue to be as long as these principles apply to the nature of Man.Pre-Christian symbol of a Green Man sits alongside a Christian statue of Jesus, St John the Baptist, St Michael & All Angels (Wikimedia Commons)
Though the Green Man as a Christian icon presents as an enigma, what can be gleamed from archaeological records and art historians provide an interesting view of both an ancient and modern symbol. Christians and pagans alike found a purpose for the ideals his form espoused, and shared his image in the wilds of the woods and the pillars of churches. Despite that his origins may permanently remain unknown, his importance as an emblem of nature and the cycles of life remains, and continues to be valued today among the followers of the neo-pagan religion.
Featured image: Drawing of a Green Man. Beham, (Hans) Sebald, 1500-1550 (Wikimedia Commons)
- Araneo, Phyllis. "Green Man Resurrected: An Examination of the Underlying Meanings and Messages of the Re-Emergence of the Ancient Image of the Green Man in Contemporary, Western, Visual Culture." Master's thesis: University of the Sunshine Coast, 2006. Queensland, Australia.
- Euripides. The Bacchae (Focus Publishing, Massachusetts, 1998.)
- Freke, Timothy and Peter Gandy. The Jesus Mysteries: Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God? (Harmony Books, New York, 2001.)
- Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. (Routledge: New Jersey, 1992.)
- Mathews, Thomas. The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.)
- Rodgers, Nigel. Life in Ancient Rome People and Places (Hermes House: London, 2006.)
- Webster, Jane. "Creolizing the Roman Provinces," American Journal of Archaeology. 105, 2001. p. 222.
- Zimmerman, John Edward. Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Random House Publishing, New York, 1983.)
By Ryan Stone