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The Green Man.

Who is this mysterious leafy face peering out of the Green Wood? He opens his mouth and vines, leaves and foliage burst forth with the song of the green and growing earth. For centuries he has whispered to us, even as we deflower and deforest and decimate his green kingdom. He is the "Green Man," the eternal masculine essence of life force energy, and he can become our symbol of hope for the renewal of the earth. The Green Man is telling us that he is alive and well, if we can attune ourselves to hear his verdant song.

What draws us to the Green Man, this human face in the plant kingdom? He sustains our very lives, as he is the sacred sacrifice that feeds human and animals, distributing his life force energy through the fruit, vegetables and grain that we eat, the flowers we enjoy, the trees we grow for fruit, shade and shelter, and the great jungles that provide the air we need to breathe. The Green Man shares our need for water and sunlight, and shares our journey through the eternal cycle of seed sown, plant grown, and harvest reaped. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is the taproot of his mystery and explains his presence throughout the centuries around the world.

The Green Man is found most often in areas where there are or were stretches of ancient forest. In architectural works predating European civilization, he decorates Hindu and Jain temples in India, and temples in Malaysia where his function as "Kirtimukha" or "the face of Glory" was to frighten away evildoers. As the Hindu god Chhepi, he wards evil away from the Temple. In Borneo he is a Guardian of the Forest, a protector deity and a bringer of good fortune.

He is best known from images in European or British architecture. There are thousands of diverse images (up to 2,000 images in one church alone). He is neither trivial nor purely decorative. He is sometimes in the company of green cats, dogs, and dragons, who also sprout forth leaves and branches, or whose images are composed of leaves. There are no "Green Lady" companions to dance the dance of life with the Green Man; he sings alone.

He appeared on pillars, corners, roofs, friezes and doorways. Carved in stone or wood, depicted on stained glass (rare), and in illuminated manuscripts, his face sometimes borders on the grotesque. The Green Man is found looking down from capitals, corbels, choir stalls, bench ends, fonts, screens, roof bosses--any surface open to ornamentation or decoration. He is the presence of vibrant growth as he twists and entwines across the cold stone interiors, adding life force energy in unexpected places.

He appears on 2nd Century Roman columns in Turkey as a leaf mask on memorials to rich citizens, granting the promise of regeneration. By the 4th Century C.E., the Green Man was appearing on Christian tombs. The Green Man found his way into Christian churches in the 6th Century when a Bishop used carvings from the ruin of a nearby Roman temple to build a new pair of pillars for his cathedral. From the 11th Century forward, The Green Man profusely decorates cathedrals in Germany, France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Hungary, Poland and the British Isles. It is thought that these faces, created from the living matter of the world, represent the Spirit of Life, Death and Resurrection--that which lives, dies and is reborn again in the earth.

The Green Man has ancient ties to one of the oldest folk images, that of the Corn or Barley God, whose beginnings stretch back to the Neolithic Age. We find one root in the caves of Lascaux, France and Altimira, Spain, where paintings show shamanic dancers honouring an earlier form of the Green Man image through using foliate-appearing masks. The earth was thought to be sacred by its human inhabitants, and the forces of nature were personified and mythologized in order to be better understood. Nature was seen as alive, sometimes punitive, sometimes easily propitiated, but a vital and integrated force that was divine and magical. Agrarian peoples were innately connected to the seasons and their growing cycles, and honoured this mystery through indigenous pagan practices long before the arrival of the Christian Church and a new alternative theology that gave humans dominion over the earth, rather than partnership with it.

The indigenous peoples of early Europe mingled with the migrating peoples coming from the East, blending their arts and cultures. Was the Green Man of the East surprized to see himself already present in these new lands, or did he know that he is eternal and omnipresent? Myths, legends and rituals of early religion developed to enhance an understanding of harmony with the earth, its cycles and seasons. The Green Man is also the God of the Wood, the Forest Lord, representing the Mystery of the Seasons.

As civilization evolved, those who travelled carried their knowledge of images and ideas in a world that had ever changing borders and ever evolving social constructs. It is known that stonemasons drew on many pagan (from the Latin paganus or "of the rural people") themes for their decorations, and for a time indigenous (pagan) culture and the emerging Christian church co-existed in relative ease. Some Green Men are given pagan names--Silvanus (god of the forest) at the Abbey of Saint Denis, France, and Okeanus (both god of the sea and a satyr) in Mundanya, Istanbul.

Some theologians believe that the Green Man represented the lustful and wicked, doomed to eternal damnation. This is a far cry from the meaning the Green Man held for those who decorated the tombs of their beloved dead six centuries previously. The Green Man continued to be used as tomb carvings long after the church masons stopped using him inside their buildings. This link with death has led some to describe the Green Man as the symbol of the natural cycle of mortal life and birth: life, death, decay. To Christians it is this cycle that the soul can overcome, in Faith through Salvation. To some others, there is an echo of an earlier belief as the cycle continues--from decay back to the soil, to food from the soil, back into life--a symbol of the continuous regeneration of life and the interdependence of all things.

The medieval church may have seen the Green Man as a negative force, an image of a sinful and suffering mankind caught in the "fallenness" of nature. In some carvings, The Green Man's foliage is autumnal, not vernal, suggesting the nearness of death. The Green Man was not only a sinner, heading for hell, but a demon, threatening eternal punishment for transgressors. The Green Man of the Living Earth started to become the symbol of man's separation from the Divine, rather than an illustration of man's participation in the cycle of nature and its abundance.

Cultures blended with travellers going further east, west, north and south. The Green Man travelled with them. Wandering scholars and pilgrims, musicians, and merchants on the Silk Road, entwined the vines of cultures, art and ideas over many centuries and so stories of the dying and rising Gods--Jesus, Osiris, Odin, the Green Knight, John Barleycorn, the Holly King and Thamuz of the Mesopotamians all can be related to the primordial Green Man who symbolizes the triumph of Ever-Green Life over Winter and Death.

These themes of a pagan god, regenerative symbol and demonized warning are entwined throughout European history. Through migration to escape famine or plague, wartime invasion, holy crusade, or the pursuit of work in the trades, people began to move further from their homeland. The Green Man journeyed with them. Remnants of the "old ways" persisted, and the Green Man remained a part of tore and legend, enshrined in the churches and cathedrals that were often built on ancient pagan sites. Ultimately, the Green Man vanished with the remnants of the "Old Faith" after the Reformation. By the time of his reappearance, on 17th Century memorials and 18th Century Scottish gravestones, the emphasis had shifted. The Victorians were revivalists looking to plant seeds from a pagan age for new growth in their own time, thus the Green Man played a major role in their church restorations and as a decorative motif on street architecture.

We do not know what he was called by those who created these ancient images. Since 1939, he has been known as "the Green Man"--a name given to him by Lady Raglan, a noblewoman and scholar who wrote an article for a folklore journal. She drew comparisons between his leaf-covered face to the lore of the May Day ritual figures like Jack o'the Green, who precedes the May Queen in the May Day pageants, in the 19th Century. The "Jack o'the Green" was a man inside a conical wicker framework, covered with leaves, with a place for his face to peer through. The "Jack" was the center of celebration, accompanied by Morris dancers and musicians. He became the symbol of spring-time regeneration, the annual renewal of life. In this evolution, Jack became a living Green Man, honoured by his people for his gift of life.

British folklore is full of "men" who represent the vitality of life force, and who may be associated in some way with the Green Man, either as cousins or brothers, if not aspects of the Green Man himself. The Lord of Misrule, who creates balance by reversing hierarchy and who behaves with wild and playful abandon captures the capriciousness of the natural world, as do Puck, and Robin Goodfellow. The Green Man may also be seen in the Green Knight, from the tale of Sir Gawain, who is cut down, and rises again.

Another sacrificial character, Green George, was a vital part of Pagan rites of spring. He is represented by a young man dressed head to foot in greenery, who leads the festival procession like Jack o'the Green. Green George, or his effigy, is dunked in a river or pond to ensure that there will be enough rain to make the meadows and pastures green. In this rainmaking ability, the Green George is also linked to Herne the Hunter, a legendary pagan deity who roams the forests. He is usually depicted as a horned man, peering out of a mask of foliage, most often the leaves of the sacred Oak. While he is best known as Herne, or Cernunnos in France, he is also known in Britain as Jack in the Green. He represents the spirits of the trees, plants and foliage, and has the power to make rain to provide livestock with lush meadows.

Lady Raglan made comparisons to the legendary Robin Hood, dressed in Lincoln Green and living among the ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest. In some stories, Robin is linked to the worship of Herne the Hunter, Lord of the Trees. Similar medieval legends of the Wild Men--dressed in leaves, living in the forest and venturing forth to take food, have been connected with the Green Man.

The Green Man has survived to the present day, and now greets us from the signs of English pubs and on the seasonal knick-knacks found in gardening gift shops. He is considered decorative rather than symbolic, and his potency is in danger of disappearing much like his beloved rain forest. We have distanced ourselves from the few wild places where he still lives in vibrant greenery, which we visit as tourists, not inhabitants. We try to capture his magic in backyard gardens and city park green spaces, but his presence is thinly felt as the world turns, not paying attention to the message of his wisdom, the glory of his kingdom and the power of the seasons.

What does he offer us, and how can we revive him, revive his planet? Can we save the Green Man from disappearing into the mists of time, as we cover his world with slab after slab of concrete and tear down the last of the wild places for suburbs and recreational areas? We speak often of how we have dishonoured Mother Nature, but in truth, we have also tried to kill her consort, the Green Man, Father Nature, the seed energy that gives life to the universe when planted in the mystery of the Great Mother Earth.

The Green Man whispers to not lose hope because he is eternal. While he may be fading, he is not yet gone, nor can he truly disappear as long as there is one tree standing somewhere. The surge of energy behind environmental awareness is like bright sunlight to his green leaves; giving him strength to put down more roots in our hearts, branch out to touch more people's awareness with the need for change. We are the keepers of his Garden, and we have work to do. We can let his wildness touch us, not in ways that are destructive, but in ways that are creative and vital. We can learn to see the world through his time-weary eyes, and watch for the seasons to shape us, for we, as living beings, are also flowers in his garden. We can call upon him when we plant seeds, bulbs, flowers, shrubs, trees--doing this in his honour, to enlarge his kingdom in ways that enrich our world with green and growing things, providing us with air, fruit, grain, vegetables, and materials for shelter.

For those looking for a new masculine role model in this age of domestic violence and global conflict, there is the Green Man, indisputably and undeniably male in his attributes, a green and growing force of nature that rises again from the earth to nurture his people, with no agenda other than providing in abundance all that is needed to sustain life. There is both force and gentleness here. Balance, rather than domination. The Green Man can heal the broken places where masculine energy has been felt to be unsafe. He is overflowing with vibrant life force to create healthy growth where the ground has been salted by bitter tears, shed by either man or woman.

The Green Man dances gracefully with The Earth Mother and the energy of their dance of life can revitalize the planet, and undo the damage caused by their willful children who mistakenly thought that the planet was ours to do with what we wished. The Green Man is watching you, from every forest, houseplant, meadow, and hillside. He lives in the manicured parks, and in the wild places. He sleeps in your garden and walks the long acres of farmland. Where there is greenery, he is there to be rediscovered. He promises to feed you, to shelter you, and to return each year in accordance to the natural cycle of the earth. All he asks is that you listen to his song, the breeze whispering amongst his branches, rattling his leaves, stirring the grasses. He is watching you, and waiting for you to smile back at him, and plant a seed for new growth.

We have needed a Father Nature for a long time, and never more urgently than now, when all over the planet, armored men, in or out of uniform, terrorize each other, women and children, and what remains of the wildwood. (Daniel C. Noel, PhD.)

Susan Hurrell explores and shares the mystery of her pagan spiritual journey through her work as a writer and public speaker/teacher of Tarot, Wicca, dreamwork, meditation, chant and sacred sound. She is the Prairie Regional Outside Sales Manager for a national book retailer. You can contact her at 204-284-0829 or at Jodie Wentz creates beautiful art as easily as she breathes, transforming ideas into images that have lasting impact. She is a custom tattoo artist at Experience the Beauty Body Design.
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Author:Hurrell, Susan
Publication:Prairie Garden
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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